Free weights are a useful, versatile addition to any home gym and a staple of most paid gyms.
That said, we know that free weights can seem daunting, especially if you haven’t really used them before. How much weight should you use? How should you use them? Everyone has to start somewhere and once you’ve experienced the difference in strength and power free weights can bring, you won’t look back.
Free weights are an efficient and effective strength training option that can be used virtually anywhere. We love them and encourage everyone to pick up some weights and give them a go! Here’s why:
The benefits of training with free weights
First of all, a great reason to choose free weights is that they’re versatile and portable. You don’t need a lot of space; if you enjoy workouts at the park, it’s even easy enough to take your weights with you.
Free weights are also affordable compared to resistance machines. Machines are more costly and tend to require a lot more space, so if you have budget and/or space restrictions, free weights are a great choice.
Another benefit of free weights is that you can target more range of motion and different types of exercise from one type of free weight. Your dumbbells can take you anywhere from rows, to shoulder presses, to weighted lunges. You can incorporate them into cardio or bootcamp-style workouts, or stick with lower-intensity weight training sessions. When you compare that to a resistance machine, most are restricted to within a certain range of movement and level of intensity.
Free weights require you to have good balance when you use them, less so than when you use a resistance machine which will naturally help you to balance the weight. When you have to balance, it promotes more activity in your joint stabilizer muscles, which is great for functional fitness and reducing injury risk. This can also help you to build muscle faster and burn some serious calories!
Using free weights can also help you to improve your overall athletic performance as you can target any muscle group that is required for your sport or other pursuits. For example, if you play tennis, dumbbell flyes help to strengthen those muscles you use when smashing a serve.
Are there any drawbacks of free weights? When you compare them to resistance machines, one thing the machine will do is take the place of a spotter. It’s possible you might need a spotter for some types of exercises, especially with heavier free weights.
What free weights are there?
Here’s a quick rundown of the types of free weights available:
Dumbbells are made up of two equal weights that are attached to a handle. They are designed for use one-handed, so you can use either one or two dumbbells at the same time. Some come as fixed-weight, while others are removable and adjustable.
Dumbbells are versatile in that you can use them for joint isolation exercises such as chest flyes and bicep curls, or, they’re compact enough that you can perform compound movements, such as squats, bench presses and anything else you might otherwise do with a barbell.
In fact, if you can only choose one type of free weight to use at home, we’d usually lean toward dumbbells. They’ll allow you a lot of freedom in terms of exercise choice.
Barbells feature a longer bar with weights on each end. They can also be either fixed, or adjustable weight, but unlike dumbbells, are designed to be held with both hands.
Barbells are great for developing raw strength. They’re used for bodybuilding, weight lifting, and powerlifting sports. Some classic moves include deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, and the power clean.
When you workout with barbells, they train your body to use all of your muscles in tandem, so they’re recommended for people who want to train for maximum strength, and for athletes who want good, all over conditioning.
Another thing to know is that you can choose to load up the bar with weight plates, or you can get a good workout by using the bar on its own. Standard, Olympic barbells weigh 45lbs without any added weight, so for many people, that will be enough as a starting point.
Kettlebells are cast iron, bell-shaped weights that can weigh anywhere from 5lbs to well over 100lbs. You use them in either one or both hands (larger kettlebells have bigger handles that can accommodate both of your hands). They’re a fixed weight, so if you start with one weight and find you need to go higher, you need a new kettlebell.
With that said, kettlebells can offer you a versatile range of workouts. They’re especially popular for legs, shoulders, and lower-back movements. Some typical moves include kettle swings, goblet squats, one-arm, rows and around-the-leg passes.
Medicine balls are weighted balls that come in various weights. They can be used in strength training and are often used for rehabilitation exercises. Sports medicine practitioners use them for building coordination and improving strength.
Outside of rehabilitation, there are plenty of other strength-building exercises you can do with a medicine ball. There’s something quite satisfying about floor or wall slams, for example. In some ball sports (such as netball and handball), training with a medicine ball is typical so that players put more strength behind their passes on-court.
If you don’t play ball sports, medicine balls can still be a fun exercise with a partner. One example is the ball toss - when each person catches the ball, they touch the floor with it on their left and right, before passing it back.
How should you store your free weights?
For safe storage of free weights, proper racks or shelves tend to be your best choice. Free weights left lying around are trip hazards (especially if you have all sorts of people wandering around your home gym) and can lead to a decent stubbed toe!
Proper racks can also encourage you to lift weights correctly when you’re picking up or putting away. A raised rack saves the temptation of bending your back unsafely to put a weight on the floor.
You can buy racks that are particular to the type of free weight (e.g. for barbells only), or there are versatile racks that allow you to store more than one type of weight. As an added bonus, it looks much tidier too.
It’s worth noting that you do need to think about floor strength when you consider where you’re going to store a rack full of weights. For example, the average second floor in a modern home is rated for 30lb to 40lb per square foot, which means a rack of heavy weights could easily exceed that.
How to maintain your free weights
All types of free weights need cleaning to maintain them in good condition. In most cases, the best way to do this is with a cloth and some hot, soapy water. Rubbing alcohol, acetone, ammonia, or other harsh cleaners can damage the surface of the weight.
Be sure to dry weights off with a clean cloth after you have washed them. Your iron weights especially can be prone to rust and need proper drying.
Free weights are an excellent, versatile part of any good exercise routine. If you have a home gym, you’ll find them invaluable for allowing you to do a range of exercises, while not taking up a whole lot of storage space.
As a final piece of advice, always focus on form and technique first when using free weights. It’s not a race to the most reps - form is important for working your muscles correctly and for preventing injury. When you have the technique down, then you might work on increasing your number of reps.