The Beginners Guide To Free Weights: Part One

Have you ever looked over at those lifting weights from the comfort of the cardio area and thought to yourself… “I wish I could do that”? 

Or perhaps, you get put off lifting weights by the group of big imposing men that tend to flock around the dumbbell rack? (Totally understandable by the way!) 

Or maybe, you’ve never even considered lifting weights because you think it’s just not for you or that it’s just not going to help?

Well, in this first of a two-part guide, you’re going to learn all about the benefits of lifting and getting strong, you’ll understand what is actually meant by the term “free weights”, and by the end of the guide, you’ll begin to see why free weight training is simply one of the best forms of strength training that you can do.

Why Should I Strength Train?

Regardless of age, size, shape, gender or training experience, strength training is likely to be incredibly beneficial for you, your health and wellbeing. Strength training is for everyone. 

This is why the government’s physical activity guidelines recommend that all engage in some form of resistance training a minimum of twice per week.

So, if you’re not strength training yet, you’re potentially missing out on the following benefits (to name just a few)…

  • Better Mobility (Movement)
  • Decreased Injury Risk
  • Enhanced Mental Wellbeing
  • Improved Heart Health
  • Improved Brain Health
  • Increased Muscle Strength (duh!)
  • Positive Body Composition Changes
  • Stronger Bones and Joints
  • Reduced Disease Risk

So, it’s pretty evident that strength training is beneficial and that engaging in it regularly can positively affect your physical and mental health.

As a beginner, it’s all fine and well knowing this but actually feeling confident enough to step foot in the gym is another. If you’re able to overcome that initial challenge and attend, you’ll soon be faced with another challenge… Knowing what to do.

Why Use Free Weights?

Most gyms are packed out with equipment so it’s little wonder that it’s difficult to know where to start. It will not come as a surprise (based on the name of this guide), that I recommend you primarily focus on free weights. Shocking I know!

Free weights exercises involve using “free” objects that aren’t attached to anything – so, for example, things like barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, and resistance bands.

Now, if you’ve ever experienced a gym induction at a leisure facility, it’s likely that the instructor has taken you around a few machines and stayed well clear of free weights.

This is often the case as weight machines certainly can provide a strong starting point for beginners to allow them to get to grips with basic movements. So why not just stick with machines long term? 

Well, weight machines do tend to be very one-dimensional. They have been designed to move in one way and one way alone. Therefore, it can be argued the movement that machines allow doesn’t really reflect day-to-day movement or lead to well-rounded strength development.

Free weights, on the other hand, provide the body with a different type of challenge to that of the machine and also allow the body to move more freely and naturally.

Additionally, with weight machines, there is less need for balance and stability whereas with free weights there is a greater need. Now, you might assume that this is a positive thing; surely you want to be more stable when lifting weight? 

Not necessarily. 

The less stable you are, the more demand is placed on stabilising muscles to help with controlling the movement and maintain stability. To demonstrate this let’s consider the barbell squat and leg press machine.

In the squat the muscles in the legs work to cause the movement; however, a great number of muscles in the trunk and upper body must also contract to help you to stay stable and controlled throughout the reps.

With the leg press (an exercise which is similar to the squat), you are seated with the upper body pressed into the backrest which increases the overall stability. This means that the core and upper body muscles have much less involvement and therefore may not develop as efficiently in comparison.

In simple terms, free weight exercises tend to work a greater number of muscles simultaneously than weight machines. Focusing on free weights instead of machines gives you more “bang for your buck” and will cause you to develop full-body strength, balance, stability, and mobility, most effectively.

Barbells vs Dumbbells

Now that we’ve understood the many benefits of free weights in comparison to machines, which “free objects” should we focus on?

When it comes to free weight training, the main pieces of equipment that are most commonly used are barbells and dumbbells. And once again, the difference between these two comes down to stability.

Barbells are more stable which means that you’ll be able to lift heavier weights with barbells than you can with dumbbells. They are also likely to place a greater demand on the full body and, therefore, have the potential to cause greater, more rapid improvements in strength.

However, dumbbells can be incredibly useful too. While they are less stable, both sides of the body have to work independently of each other. If a strength difference exists between your right and left sides, dumbbells can help to even them out. With a barbell, if a strength difference exists, it’s much easier for it to be masked as the stronger side can compensate for the weaker side.

To get the best of both worlds, the best free weight training programs and workouts will include both barbell and dumbbell exercises.

That said, dumbbells are potentially a little more beginner-friendly, therefore, if you don’t initially feel comfortable using barbells it may be an idea to begin with dumbbell training only initially.

And this is another huge plus for free weight training… practically all free weight exercises and variations can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbells.

This means that if you’re not confident with a particular barbell exercise, you have the option to regress it and use dumbbells for a while instead. Once you feel a little more confident and ready, you can move back to the barbell should you wish. 

And that’s all for part one! Part two, coming soon…

In the second part, to help you get the most out of your free weight workout, we’ll look at six exercises to focus on and cover the techniques of each! Stay tuned.