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When it comes to sports equipment, there are more choices than ever before. Walk into a medium-sized gym and you're likely to find rows of weight lifting equipment and lots of equipment -- everything from barbells and kettlebells to leg presses and pull-downs. But when it comes to free weights and machines, is one option really better than the other?"It depends on your goals," says Jennifer Gottlieb, a certified personal trainer in New York. While free weights and machines can both help you get stronger, they do it in slightly different ways.

To find out which goal-based strength training strategies are right for you, read the guide below.

Goal: Overall health.
Purpose: Free weightlifting
Reason: "When you use free weights, you have to stabilize your body yourself and not rely on a machine to do it," Gottlieb says. "It isolates more muscle groups." Using free weights also allows you to do functional training or train in a way that is similar to a daily workout. "Bend over and take the stairs -- work on your overall health and fitness," Gottlieb says. You want to strengthen your body in a way that will help you live a normal life." "You can't do that sitting on a fixed machine."

Goal: lose weight.
Purpose: Free weightlifting
Why: "You want to exercise more muscle at one time, and you want to exercise at a higher intensity," Gottlieb says. "So you don't want to sit at all, even on a machine. You need to get more bang for your buck." To do that, Gottlieb started doing comp, or exercises like dumbbell lunges and shoulder presses that combine the two. "You'll work harder and burn more calories," Gottlieb says.

Goal: to recover from injury or adapt to an existing situation.
Purpose: machine
Why: "I recommend you use the machine only when you're trying to isolate specific muscles," Gottlieb says. "Think of someone with a bad knee or an injury. They want to strengthen the muscles around their knees, but they may not be able to do squats yet. The use of equipment helps them slowly build up the knee muscles so they can eventually do squats, lunges and push-ups."

Goal: Focus on one part of the body
Purpose: Free weightlifting and apparatus
Why: Alternating weights and machines can help you target specific areas, such as your shoulders, Gottlieb says. "Doing a free weight shoulder press stimulates stable muscles, activates your core, burns more calories and reaches a higher range of motion, which helps the muscles do some endurance training," Gottlieb says. "Then you use a fixed mechanical shoulder to make it heavier. Because you don't need to use so many stable muscles, the machine allows you to lift heavier weights and break down a little more muscle to get more growth."

Bottom line: Depending on your fitness level and goals, both free weights and machines can have a place in your workout routine. There is only one golden rule: whichever you choose, the right form is key. You can start without lifting weights, but there are real benefits. "You don't need a gym or equipment," Gottlieb says. It's very easy to change your workout." Plus, she adds, "Most weight exercises build core strength, which is the foundation of every progressive exercise you do!"

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