Fitness / Strength Training

The Beginner’s Guide to Free Weights

There’s a reason why free weights are considered the “holy grail” of strength training.

Whether you’re a newbie to fitness in general or merely a novice to the concept of weight lifting, free weights are an excellent category of equipment to add to your regimen. If you’ve been using an exercise machine that utilizes resistance of any kind, you might already be familiar with the concept. However, free weights are distinctly different than machine weights.

“Free’ implies range of motion, allowing you to move in almost any direction, whereas machines limit you to the range or direction the machine is designed to move,” explains Roger Adams, Ph.D., personal trainer, doctor of nutrition, and owner of eatrightfitness. “When weights are not connected to some sort of external apparatus, you can consider them free weights. Typically [you] have a much greater range of motion during the movements.”

The most commonly used free weights are dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells. However, any weight that’s not machine-based can be considered a free weight.

Who are free weights best for?

Luckily, pretty much anyone can benefit from using free weights. However, with an increased range of motion, comes an increased risk of injury if exercises with free weights are not performed correctly. “When using a machine, for the most part, you experience more balance and support. You just move the handle or weight. But with free weights, you must control the weight, the movement, and also your balance,” says Dr. Adams. “This, in turn, uses more muscle—particularly stabilizers in your spine—to do the movement, which translates into more effort required and a bit more room for injury.”

If you’re hoping to adopt a free-weight workout routine, you most certainly can—and should. However, proper training and technique is a definite prerequisite. Here is an expert-approved guide to adding free weights to your workout routine.

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First, check in with your doctors.

This is especially important if you have any pre-existing health condition that might make it risky for you to start free-weight training. If you’re pregnant, for example, your doctor may recommend that you don’t lift more than a certain amount of weight. Or, perhaps, that you don’t free-weight train at all. For this reason, your first step in beginning with free weights should be to talk to your doctor. They can help you assess your current condition, and identify your goals, your schedule, and any specific injuries or conditions that might affect your program, suggests Cary Raffle, CPT, an orthopedic exercise specialist in New York City. Once you begin, he suggests recording your program so that you know exactly what to do in each exercise session and can track your progress over time.

Get in the right mindset.

It’s easy to transition from using machines to free weights, despite the myth that free weights are more difficult, notes Raffle. “You’ve already been pre-trained to make those movements with proper form. So, just think of the movements you make doing machine exercises. Imagine that you’re making the same movement holding free weights instead of machine handles,” he says. “Concentrate on carefully controlling the path and speed of your movements as free weights require more.”

Hire a trainer or use an app.

To prevent injury and educate yourself on what you’re doing so that you reap the most benefits, it’s smart to hire a trainer or download a fitness app like Aaptiv that can instruct you on how to lift free weights.

“This way, you will learn how to lift the weight [and] what muscles to work, [plus you will] typically have a good, balanced workout,” says Melis Edwards, MS, running and triathlon coach, and author of Deep End of the Pool Workouts.

She suggests meeting with a personal trainer for a few weeks to learn some routines and then seeing them once a month, once you’ve gotten the grasp of things. “This allows you to learn new ways to lift weights for your desired goals,” she adds.

Stick with large movements early on.

Once you have some comfort with technique, Dr. Adams advises sticking with large movements that are considered compound lifts, or movements that involve more than one joint and typically larger muscle groups. “This is important, as the more joints you involve, typically the more muscle you use,” he says. “Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows, etc. are all considered compound movements.”

Watch the weight of the weight.

Many free weight newbies will either lift too much (possibly injuring themselves) or too little (not gaining from the movement). For this reason, Edwards recommend working two to three sets of eight to 12 reps of an exercise the first few times lifting weights. “If you can easily perform all 12 reps two to three times, then you can go up in weight; if you can barely get to six, go down,” she says.

Mix it up.

“Lifting weights should be about working your entire body, not just the parts you see when you face the mirror,” says Edwards. “The posterior chain (your entire backside) needs equal attention as your front (typically). Learn lifting techniques to keep your muscles balanced (i.e. don’t only work your biceps and chest; your triceps and back need attention, as well).”

Leave abs and core for last.

Because of the stabilization and balance required when doing free weights, Dr. Adams always put abs or core work last in a program, or even on their own day. “If you fatigue your core and abs before doing a squat, for example, you run the risk of not having enough stabilizer strength to support the weight properly through the movement,” he says. “This can lead to injury quickly.”

Free weights are an easy way to enhance your workout routine.  Be careful and aware when you first incorporate them into your work.

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