Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels

J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jul;34(7):1851-1859. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003349.


Schwanbeck, SR, Cornish, SM, Barss, T, and Chilibeck, PD. Effects of training with free weights versus machines on muscle mass, strength, free testosterone, and free cortisol levels. J Strength Cond Res 34(7): 1851-1859, 2020-Free weights offer a more unstable training environment, which enhances muscle recruitment, whereas some machines have the advantage of using a "cam" pulley system that better matches strength curves. We compared the effect of training with free weights vs. machines on muscle mass, strength, free testosterone, and free cortisol concentrations. Forty-six subjects (26 women; 22 ± 3 years) were randomized to train using free weights or machines for 8 weeks (with each muscle group trained 2-3/weeks, 3-4 sets of 4-10 repetitions). Muscle thickness and strength were measured at 0 and 8 weeks. Salivary hormone concentrations were assessed before and at the end of workouts at the beginning, midway (4 weeks), and end (8 weeks) of the training intervention. Biceps and quadriceps muscle thickness increased (p < 0.01) with no difference between groups. There was a group × time interaction for machine bench press strength (p = 0.05) with the machine group increasing more than the free-weight group (13.9 vs. 8.6%). Free-weight bench press and squat, and Smith machine squat strength increased in both groups (11-19%; p < 0.01) with no difference between groups. Men in the free-weight group had a greater increase in free testosterone from before to after acute training sessions than men in the machine group and all women (p < 0.01); however, there was no differences between groups in free cortisol response to acute resistance exercise. Training sessions with free weights induced greater increases in free testosterone in men; however, training with free weights or machines resulted in similar increases in muscle mass and strength.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arm
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Muscle Strength
  • Quadriceps Muscle / anatomy & histology*
  • Quadriceps Muscle / physiology*
  • Random Allocation
  • Resistance Training / instrumentation
  • Resistance Training / methods*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Testosterone / metabolism
  • Young Adult


  • Testosterone
  • Hydrocortisone