Training with Free Weights

helpful workout tips

Strength training equipment is generally divided into two categories: free weights and machines. Strength training machines are usually designed to facilitate a limited number of exercises with a fixed range of motion and a limited number of weight choices. On the other hand, free weights are much more versatile, and can facilitate an enormous range of exercises with a relatively small amount of equipment. The two most common types of free weights are barbells with weight plates and dumbbells.

A dumbbell can be operated with either one or two hands and typically have weight plates, or solid cast iron, permanently attached to them, while barbells are designed for two-handed operation and can be outfitted with removable weight plates, allowing you to customize the resistance used for each exercise.

Other examples of free weights include kettlebells and medicine balls. Your own body can also be considered a free weight in the context of body weight exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups.

Free weight equipment typically appeals to experienced strength trainers who have a solid understanding of how to perform various strength training exercises with the proper form, and who have built up a base level of strength that allows them to lift the weights as intended without a significant risk of injury. However, even beginning strength trainers can take advantage of free weights for certain exercises, immediately after starting a weight training program.

Pros and Cons of Training with Free Weights

Beginning strength trainers often ask the same question: free weights or machines, which represents the best equipment for strength training? The answer is that both machines and free weights have their own advantages and disadvantages, and serious strength trainers will likely use both types of equipment over the course of their careers.

Your decision to use one or the other will likely come down to factors such as personal preference, affordability, accessibility (does your local gym offer free weights, machines or both?), experience and your exercise goals. You may even reconsider your decision after trying both types of equipment for yourself. However, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of free weights should assist you in making your decision.

Advantages of Free Weights

    helpful workout tips
  • Incorporation of stabilizing muscles. When you strength train with free weights, your body will be forced to work stabilizing muscles in order to maintain the balance of the free weight. If you somehow managed to not work your stabilizing muscles at all, you'd lose control of the free weight during the lift and it would fall out of alignment, likely to the floor.

    When using a machine, the path along which the weight travels is fixed, meaning that you won't need to work any stabilizing muscles since it will be impossible for the weight to fall out of its predetermined path. As such, you'll get a better workout overall by performing the exact same exercise with free weights as opposed to a machine.

  • Ideal for athletic training. This is related to the aforementioned advantage of regularly working out with free weights. Since you'll be working your stabilizing muscles while exercising with free weights, your body will automatically make gains in balance and coordination, two attributes that are extremely valuable to most athletes.

    The specific motions you'll perform with free weights also more closely match the movements required in various sports, whereas the rigid and predefined motions of working with machines are rarely replicated exactly in the real world.

  • Versatility. Free weights are considered extremely versatile because they allow you to perform a full range of strength training exercises with a small set of dumbbells and a barbell. The free weights can be gripped in various ways (palms facing out, palms facing in, palms facing up, etc.) in order to facilitate many different exercises with the exact same piece of equipment. Alternatively, machines are usually designed for a specific set of exercises (or even just one single exercise). Home gym systems allow for many different exercises, while other machines may only allow for a small number of exercises. This can add up to a lot of expense and space requirements very quickly.

  • Portability. If you're going away for a week and you wish to continue your strength training program, it's easy to take some of your free weight equipment with you. This is obviously much more difficult or even impossible with machine strength training equipment.

  • Inexpensive. Free weights are extremely inexpensive in comparison to machine weight training equipment because you'll need a relatively tiny amount of equipment in order to work all muscle groups. To work all muscle groups exclusively with machines, you'd need to purchase several bulky, expensive pieces of equipment, the total cost of which could easily exceed $10,000.

  • Simplicity. Strength training machines often require maintenance in order to ensure smooth, ongoing operation. They often have several moving parts, such as cables and pulleys. These parts can wear or break, particularly with regular, heavy use. Strength training machines often also require some expertise on the part of the user in terms of adjusting various angles and heights in order to make the exercise comfortable and allow for the correct form. Free weights are virtually impossible to break or wear out with regular, non-abusive use, and you don't have to worry about whether you're too tall, short or otherwise physically incompatible with a strength training machine.

Disadvantages of Free Weights

helpful workout tips
  • Increased risk of injury. The reason why working out with free weights are excellent for working the primary stabilizing muscle groups is the exact same reason why using free weights increases your probability of injury when compared to using weight training machines.

    Since you'll need to rely on your own strength and coordination in order to prevent the free weights from falling out of balance, beginning strength trainers who often lack these two attributes will be more likely to lose control of the weights and drop them. This danger presents itself most obviously when the free weights are lifted over the body.

  • Increased difficulty in isolating specific muscle groups. When lifting free weights, your stabilizing muscles (or the secondary muscle groups supporting the primary muscle group you're targeting) will be forced to perform work in order to keep the weight balanced. While this assists in providing a better total body workout, it also makes it more difficult to exclusively target a specific major muscle group. As such, if you're a bodybuilder (for example) and you only want to increase muscular mass in a certain muscle group while leaving other muscle groups alone (such as if your goal is to maximize muscular symmetry), doing so with free weights may be difficult.

  • Free weights have momentum. Strength training experts agree that most weight lifting exercises should be performed with a steady, slow and deliberate motion in order to maximize their effectiveness. In other words, spending more time performing a single rep will result in larger muscular gains than if you performed that same rep very quickly, both in the positive and negative portions of the exercise. While this type of slow and steady motion is certainly possible with free weights, it's also possible to allow the momentum of the free weights to do some of the work for you. When using machine strength training equipment instead, the momentum is greatly reduced because the various working parts of the machine result in friction.

  • Free weight exercises often call for a spotter. In order to make the largest possible gains in muscular mass, density and strength, it's important to regularly work your muscles to the point of failure. In fact, many strength trainers work their muscles past the point of failure with the help of a spotter, who will provide a measured level of assistance in performing the exercises and save you from injury if you lose your grip on or balance of the weight, or if you reach the point of failure sooner than expected. Unfortunately, not all strength trainers are logistically capable of working out with the assistance of a spotter during every workout. From a safety perspective, training with machines never requires a spotter because the weight travels a set path, and the consequences of losing control of the weight aren't nearly as severe as they are with free weights.

If you're completely new to strength training, you may be more comfortable with machines as opposed to free weights at first. However, as your strength training program continues and you build up a certain level of core structural strength, you'll probably find yourself becoming increasingly comfortable with free weights. This will be even more true once you start to learn the proper form for each exercise. Machines often dictate the form of the exercise for you, while free weights require you to bring your own knowledge of the exercise in order to ensure the proper form.

Most experienced strength trainers ultimately prefer free weights over machines, though it would be difficult to find a strength trainer who never uses machine training as part of his or her routine. In the end, it's important to remember that the decision ultimately comes down to preference. Whichever training method makes the most sense for your current situation is the one you should choose, at least for now.

Required Free Weight Equipment for Exercising All Major Muscle Groups

In order to exercise all muscle groups with free weights, you'll need to outfit your home gym with a few pieces of essential equipment. This equipment is listed below.

Essential Equipment

    helpful workout tips
  • Dumbbells - Dumbbells are among the most versatile and useful pieces of strength training equipment you can have in your home gym. Unlike barbells, dumbbells can be lifted with a single hand, however, it should be noted that there are several strength training exercises that require you to lift a single dumbbell with both hands.

    In other exercises, such as the incline bench dumbbell press, you'll lift dumbbells in each hand simultaneously. You will want to purchase approximately three to five sets (pairs) of dumbbells initially, in a range of weights that suit your current level of physical strength across the variety of exercises that you intend to perofrm.

    A few features to look for in a set of dumbbells include hexagonal weights (which prevent the dumbbells from rolling when placed on the floor) and rubberized coating (which will improve your grip and minimize the amount of damage that the weights can cause when placed or dropped on your floor).

  • Barbell - A barbell is simply a straight bar onto which you can load weight plates in order to adjust the level of resistance involved in the exercise. Unlike dumbbells, barbells can only be used with two hands. Classic examples of exercises that utilize a barbell include barbell squats (a quadriceps exercise) and the flat barbell bench press (a pectorals exercise). The barbell you purchase should be sturdy and solid, with a diameter appropriate to the size of your hands.

  • Weight Plates - Your barbell won't be of much use unless you also purchase some weight plates to hang on it. Weight plates come in a variety of weight values, including 2.5 pounds, 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 25 pounds and 45 pounds. By purchasing a wide variety of different weight plates, you can customize the exact amount of weight you wish to lift with different barbell exercises.

  • Collars - Collars are used to secure the weight plates to the barbell and prevent them from sliding off. Be sure to purchase collars that match the diameter of your barbell. Collars are absolutely necessary for strength training, since you'll greatly increase your chance of injury if you choose to train without them.

  • Weight Bench - A weight bench is a must for strength training exercises that require you to sit with your feet flat on the floor, as well as exercises that require you to lie on either your stomach or your back. Look for a padded weight bench with an adjustable incline/decline section. This will allow you to perform exercises such as the aforementioned incline bench dumbbell press. Although it may be considered a machine, a leg attachment is an inexpensive piece of equipment that you can add to your weight bench in order to facilitate a wide range of leg exercises.

Recommended Equipment

The following pieces of equipment are strongly recommended for strength trainers looking to expand the number of exercises they're capable of performing with their free weight equipment:

  • Medicine Ball - A medicine ball is a heavy, padded ball that's typically used for core exercises and explosive exercises known as plyometrics. Medicine balls can be tossed back and forth to build explosive power, making them ideal for use with an exercise partner. Look for a ball with a soft exterior to minimize the impact it creates when it falls into your hands (or your feet, in the case of an accident).

  • Kettlebell - A kettlebell is a round iron weight with a single handle at the top. Kettlebells come in a wide variety of sizes, and range in weight from roughly 5 to 200 pounds. Although many kettlebell exercises can be performed with a simple dumbbell instead, certain exercises actually require kettlebells. When choosing kettlebells for your home gym, look for ones with an unpainted surface and smooth handles that are ergonomic to grip.

  • Pull-up Bar - A pull-up bar is obviously not a free weight in and of itself. Rather, it's a tool you can use to turn your actual body into a free weight of its own. Pull-up bars are easily installed in doorways or archways, and facilitate a number of different gymnastic exercises in addition to traditional pull-ups. Performing pull-ups regularly is an excellent way to increase your overall strength, particularly the muscles in your back.

Space Requirements for Free Weight Equipment

One major advantage of free weights over machines is that free weights require relatively little space. For evidence of this, walk into any strength training-oriented gym in the country and look at how much space is taken up by machines in comparison to how much space is taken up by free weight equipment. In most cases, you'll notice racks of dumbbells positioned around the perimeter of the room, with the majority of the floor occupied solely by strength training machines.

This very same concept applies to your home gym as well. If you were to train with machines exclusively, you'd need to at least invest in a complicated multi-purpose strength training system, potentially costing thousands of dollars. Even machines such as these, which can be reconfigured to accomodate several different exercises, still only offer a limited range of strength training exercises overall.

As such, it's possible to fit a sufficient amount of free weight strength training equipment into a rather small space, such as a spare room of your house or a section of your basement or garage. One of the primary limiting factors will be the length of your barbell. If the room is too narrow, a single mishap with the barbell could result in damage to an adjacent wall. For this reason, it's important to leave at least a few feet of space on either side of the barbell in the area you intend to lift it.

Another limiting factor will be the range of motion required for each exercise. If you're constantly worried about bumping into something as you strength train, you'll create extra stress for yourself and minimize the effectiveness of your workout. For this reason, it's important to allocate not only enough width to accomodate the barbell, but enough overall space to give you a place to stand next to your weight bench without bumping into it.

You'll also need enough space to store the equipment itself. Determine how many barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and other free weights you intend to include in your home gym, and ensure that you have enough space to accomodate them.

Finally, keep in mind that many individuals like to keep cardiovascular equipment in the same area as their strength training equipment. If you plan to add equipment such as stationary bikes, stairclimbers and elliptical machines to your home gym, you'll obviously need far more space than you would for free weight equipment alone.

As your strength training program continues, you may develop a preference for either free weights or machines. Of course, this may depend on the environment in which you strength train, and the types of strength training equipment to which you have access. If you plan to train primarily from a home gym, you may find yourself gravitating toward free weights simply because they take up less space and are more affordable than machines.

However, even if you train at a well-equipped gym, you may prefer free weights because of the way they work your stabilizing muscles, as well as their other advantages.

helpful workout tips

Ultimately, you can expect to use some mix of free weights and machines during your strength training career. Becoming comfortable with both is a great way to enhance the variety of your workout, and to ensure that a solid total-body workout is no farther away than the nearest gym, no matter its equipment.

Most advanced bodybuilders who train with free weights will utilize machines to target certain angles across the various muscle groups. Keeping an open mind and trying the different types of resistance equipment is the best course of action for all strength trainers.