Let me start by saying...
STRENGTH TRAINING IS FOR EVERYONE!
There aren’t many blanket statements like that in the fitness industry.
Well...not true ones, anyway.
But this one's true: strength training is for everyone.
Want to perform better? Lift some weights.
Want to build muscle? Lift some weights.
Want to lose fat? Lift some weights.
Want to live a happy, healthy, strong life? LIFT SOME WEIGHTS!
This is not to say that strength training is the only training modality everyone needs to reach all of their goals, or even that everyone should strength train in the same way.
But I can’t envision a population whose performance or quality of life would be hindered by some added strength.
And to be clear, this includes women!
Put aside the fear of getting “bulky” (because you won’t) and go pick up some heavy stuff!
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's take a look at one of the most common categories of strength training equipment: Free Weights.
WHAT ARE THEY?
So called because they are not attached to a machine, free weights use gravity to provide resistance. As such, that resistance is always in the direction of gravity (unless you do something to change that).
The free weight area of the gym, though the most daunting, is where you should spend the majority of your time.
These weights provide a lot of advantages over machines:
- They do not force you into a fixed range of motion (ROM) the way machines do.
- They recruit more muscles due to the need to create stability
- They better simulate real-life situations and obstacles
TYPES OF FREE WEIGHTS
In most gyms, you’ll find two main types of free weights: barbells and dumbbells.
Barbells vary in length from about 4-7 feet and have many different designs and functions.
Despite their variation, barbells are typically used for what we call bilateral movements, which is to say working both sides of the body at the same time (back squat, deadlift, overhead press, etc.).
The longer ones are your stereotypical “barbells.”
They are straight, can be loaded with weight plates, and are the ones you’ll see atop benches and squat racks. Your standard, find-it-in-every-gym barbell weighs 45lbs.
The shorter barbells tend to have a little more variation. They can be straight or crooked (called EZ-curl bars, as they tend to feel easier on the wrists), and can either be loaded with weight plates or come in a set of fixed weights:
Dumbbells are much shorter (12-16”) and are better suited for unilateral movements (such as a single-arm bicep curl or single-arm overhead press).
Though some dumbbells can be loaded with weights, most that you’ll find in big gyms are the fixed-weight variety:
Essentially a cannonball with a flat bottom and a handle on top, kettlebells come in a variety of shapes, sizes, weights, and colors:
They can be used in myriad ways, but are typically relegated to “power” moves that involve swinging. As such, it’s a real crapshoot as to whether your gym will carry them (for liability reasons).
Trap (or Hex) Bars, Triceps Bars, Safety Barbells, and Cambered Barbells (pictured in order below) are much less common in big gyms and are typically relegated to smaller studios or less-corporate, more grassroots locations.
Up next: Weight Machines