Machines vs. Free Weights (Dips and Pull Ups)

Yesterday my brother asked me what he should be doing in the gym. He apparently was walking in, had no plan, and needed some guidance. His trainer had been advising him to do full body workouts (which I’m fine with once in a while) but he recalled my advice that I gave him about focusing on pull ups and dips.

To make a long story short, I told him to do free weight dips and pull ups, because he’d been doing the assisted versions (this thing) for a long time and to no avail. After he did the workout I gave him, he said he couldn’t believe how hard it was and then proceeded to ask why the assisted machines don’t carry over to the “real thing.”

Here’s the low down….*let me give a disclaimer, I’m a fan of certain machines and use them often, but right now I’m focusing on the assisted dip and pull up machine, so let’s begin.

As you know, pull ups and dips are compound exercises. Meaning they recruit more than just one muscle group. A pull up activates your lats, scapula, traps, bi ceps, deltoids, etc. The list goes on. The same goes with dips, they activate the chest, tri ceps, deltoids, external rotators, etc.

Machines are primarily isolation exercises because they remove the element of gravity out of the equation. To get specific for example, when performing a pull up, it is often weakness in the scapula retractors that hold people back from performing correctly. And unbeknownst to many, when performing the assistance version of a pull-up, the scapula’s are NOT activated due to the absence of gravity your body does not have to over come.

So in my brothers example, he was shocked as to how weak he was doing pull/chin ups when he could knock out reps of 10 assisted.

In terms of muscle growth, pump, and activation, is it worth it? I personally would say no, because the assisted version does not activate anywhere near the same amount of muscles that the free weight version does. If it’s your goal to get a bigger back, ripped up arms, or whatever, why waste your time using something that’s barely activating the muscles? I know you might get pumped up, but a pump does not mean progress. My for arm gets pumped up from playing guitar, that doesn’t mean it’s growing.

What about injury or shoulder problems? Does it make sense to use the assistance if you’ve got pain? Believe it or not, it does NOT make sense. Because if you have an injury or a nagging pain, to force the pain upon a repeated pattern of motion (machines lock you into place, they do not activate stabilizer muscles) you make it worse. You’re essentially smacking the injury with a hammer over and over without giving the surrounding muscles and joints a chance to repair. Doing a free weight version will build up what’s missing or lagging and help over come the potential weakness.

Give this a shot…if all you’ve been doing is assisted version of these exercises, see if you get do 5 PERFECT reps of a pull up or a dip. If you can, try and knock out 5 sets of 5. Why not try something new? In my opinion, the assisted versions are just not worth it.



  • Welp… I’m done with the machines! Great advice, thanks!