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Free Weights v. Machines: Which is Best for My Tennis Game?

Reprinted from Mid-Atlantic Sports Digest July 27, 2004

by LaRue E. Cook, BS, MHA, JD, CPT

If you’ve made the decision to add some weight-lifting to your exercise outine — a decision that I enthusiastically endorse — then one question that may come to mind is, which is best — free weights or machines? The answer is, it depends. In my opinion, both have a place in your workout.

Each of these forms of resistance or weight training has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, a few of the advantages associated with free weights:

  • They’re more portable, and less expensive if you’re planning to work from home
  • They provide a more “real-world” training environment, since few of our day-to-day weight-lifting tasks are performed with the aid of machines, particularly as they relate to sports performance
  • You can generally enjoy a greater range of motion with your exercises — this will serve to help increase your strength throughout the entire exercise
  • Using free weights can help you involve several muscle groups into one exercise - thereby more closely simulating “real world” activity

But, free weights also come with a few disadvantages. For example, there can be an increased risk of injury from incorrectly lifting, losing your balance, or dropping the weight. Increasing range of motion (listed above as an advantage) can also be a disadvantage if proper care is not taken to use good lifting technique.

Also, as you increase the weight you can lift, you many need a spotter, or assistant — meaning you can’t perform the exercise alone.

Weight machines, on the other hand, provide a certain element of safety — in that they can give protection from such things as accidentally dropping the weight, or otherwise mishandling a weight that’s too heavy. So long as you properly adjust the machine to fit your body, it can also offer protection from some injuries that can occur from misaligning your body during the actual lift.

They offer a great way for you to lift and handle progressively-heavier loads. But, tennis players and other athletes don’t perform their sports within the confines or protections of a machine. So, including some work with free weights — even if it’s just some of the time — will help prepare you for the physical requirements of your sport. Since free weights can be used to help simulate some of the physical demands of your tennis game (for example, using a medicine ball, which is “free weight,” to simulate your grounds strokes while you toss it to a partner), they’re a great way to increase your strength for tennis. Increasing this “functional strength” will go a long way to helping you improve your tennis game.

So, the next time you’re in the gym, remember to include some work with free weights — not only to increase your “functional strength,” but also to add some variety to your workout routine.

LaRue E. Cook is a certified personal trainer, and tournament tennis player with over 11 years training experience. He competes in sanctioned tournaments throughout the country, and has used this unique blend of training and tennis experience to develop his “Tennis Fitness” program. He has trained a variety of tennis players, including “elite” junior players, many who are nationally, and regionally ranked, adult players, people new to tennis, and a variety of general fitness clients, including the elderly, and those looking to lose weight or firm-up. He can be reached at:, or