Free weights vs machines buakaw training

Free Weights vs Machines

We’ve established that muay Thai requires high (relative) strength levels for optimal performance, and to achieve that we need to train with weights – but what’s the best type of equipment to train with? Free weights or machines?

There are arguments for using both types of equipment and each has its pros and cons, depending on what training adaptations you’re after, but as muay Thai athletes it’s important to know when it is suitable to use each type of equipment and why.

In this article I’ll give you my view on what I think we should be doing to improve performance.


When performing a strength training exercise, the way we position ourselves during the movement will inevitably alter muscle fiber recruitment and the region of force production. For example, if I squat with my feet pointing at 10 and 2 on a clock-face rather than at 5 and 1 then I’ll be forced to push my knees out to a greater degree in order to ensure good tracking over my feet and increase hip abductor activation.

This difference in positioning is just one of the reasons it is important to think about what type of equipment to use when training for strength that transfers favourably to muay Thai.

Free weights include things like barbells, dumbells, plates etc. Machines are pieces of apparatus that provide resistance in a pre-determined range of motion and use cables or fixed levers.

Free Weights vs Machines

Free weights allow us to determine our own path of movement and represent more natural movement patterns – we are not restricted by mechanical means. Machines don’t allow us to have control over this, and so the pathway of our movement is already set out for us.

For example, squatting in a smith machine takes the bar down and back up in one straight line – there is no deviation from this. But when squatting with a barbell in a rack, the bar travels through its natural motion and does not follow a straight line from top to bottom.

Machines provide greater stability which allow us to focus force production in the prime mover musculature without worrying about having to use our secondary muscles to stabilise. Free weight movements are naturally less stable which means we must activate our stabilising muscles throughout the movement.

An example of this scenario would be during a wide-grip bench press which primarily targets the pectorals; when using a machine, to push the handles to the top of the range of motion all we have to focus on is horizontal adduction of the shoulder joint and extension of the elbow – there is no requirement to keep the handles from moving in any other direction because there is only one pathway. When pressing with a barbell, we are not only required to horizontally adduct the shoulder and extend the elbow, we also have to balance that resistance and prevent the bar from moving in all other directions by using muscles in the back, shoulders, chest, arms and core.

Application to Muay Thai (And Real Life)

Muay Thai movements require the activation of the aforementioned secondary, stabilising muscles to enable to us to produce force using the prime movers, just like when lifting with free weights. Any resistance we move requires us to balance that resistance in real life – there is no pre-determined route in our muay Thai strikes – each strike takes a slightly different path and it is our job to generate as much force as possible and apply that force into the target.

Sure, a machine can isolate muscles to a greater extent so, in theory, there is a greater potential for strength development in a single muscle group when training with machines, but can you apply that newly acquired strength when you step onto the training mat or boxing ring? Will you have the machine to stabilise you as you extend your hip, knee and ankle of the supporting leg when you explode for a roundhouse kick? No.

Oh, and several studies actually show higher prime-mover muscle activation EMG readings when performing a free weights bench press as opposed to machine weights such as standing cable press (1), machine bench press (3), and smith machine bench press (2). Other papers conclude that a free weight squat produces higher prime-mover muscle activation and force production than machine weights (4), smith machine (6), fixed form (7), or is equally effective as variable machine weights (5).

It’s also important to remember that our nerves adapt to resistance training, and so our strength levels are not only determined by the size of our muscles, but by our nervous system’s ability to function and re-structure to enable us to lift more weight (8).

Greater stimulus to the nervous system can be achieved when training with free weights than with machines (9), and the strength gained with free weights training is more applicable to athletic endeavours and real-life tasks (10).


I’m not saying we should stay away from machine weights altogether – I think they have their place. For example, A rehabilitation program may use single joint exercises such as knee extension or hamstring curl to isolate muscle groups after injury.

When athletes have a particular joint or muscle group that is prone to injury it can be advantageous to isolate the weak link to increase strength or local muscular endurance.

But aside from that, strength and conditioning for muay Thai requires us to get strong in total-body movements and improve coordination between a large number of muscle groups and joint movements.

Free weights give you more bang for your buck and transfer better to real life (and real fights).

About Aaron Jahn

Aaron is an active muay Thai fighter and coach from the UK. He holds a BSc (hons) degree in Strength & Conditioning and is currently studying a Sports Therapy Master's degree in Leeds, UK. Aaron has fought over 20 times in Thailand and has spent years training at different muay Thai camps all over the country.
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