Featured in: Fitness & Weight Management  |  October 30, 2020

Choosing Free Weights

By Lisa James

Looking to furnish your home gym? A set of free weights may be your best bet.

Weight machines tend to be bulky and expensive; free weights allow you to perform a number of different exercises in less space and for less money. What’s more, because your movement is not restricted by a machine, weight work activates the smaller stabilizing muscles of your body. This allows your primary movement muscles to work more efficiently while also reducing the risk of injury.

Types of Free Weights

Despite the variety of forms and finishes you’ll see in your local sporting goods store, free weights come in three basic types.

  • Barbells: Bars between four and six feet long onto which weight plates are loaded at each end.
  • Dumbbells: Smaller weights made for single-handed use; can be either fixed or adjustable.
  • Kettlebells: Rounded weights with a single handle on the top.

Questions You Should Ask Yourself

What types and how many weights you buy will depend on a number of different factors, including:

  • How much space do I have available? A barbell and a full set of plates may not be feasible, depending on your home-gym layout. If you go with dumbbells, the extra expense of a weight rack may be worth it in terms of reducing the amount of storage space you’ll need. A rack will also help keep the space neat.
  • Am I new to weight training? Dumbbells may be the better choice. They provide more exercise options and allow you to focus your attention fully on one side of your body at a time, which helps you maintain good form.
  • What am I trying to accomplish? Do you want to build straight-on strength and/or mass? (Barbells are definitely in play here.) Do you want functional strength for a specific purpose (such as a sport or occupation)? Are you using free weights as part of an interval training program?

Things to Consider When Buying (and Using) Free Weights

Once you’ve decided what kinds of weights you want, it’s important to keep a few factors in mind.

It’s all about the grip. Worry less about how dumbbells look—chrome, foam, whatever—and more about how they feel in your hand. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the handle “should not cause undue muscle fatigue during lifting.” The ACSM recommends practicing lifts before making a purchase.

Get the correct weight for your strength. The potential hazards of buying weights that are too heavy are obvious, but you should also make sure that what you buy will challenge your muscles enough to provide a reasonable workout. You’ll also need a range of weights to accommodate increased capacity as your training program progresses.

Invest in quality up front. You don’t necessarily need to get the fanciest weights in the store. However, the ACSM suggests getting “a high-quality, durable product” if you plan to lift regularly.

Invest in training, too. You won’t get everything you should out of a resistance workout program—and will increase your injury risk to boot—if you don’t lift with proper form. Schedule at least one or two sessions with a personal trainer (either virtually or in person) with two goals in mind. The first is to design a workout program that best suits your needs and covers all the major muscle groups: upper body, lower body, core. The second is learning how to do each exercise correctly so that you don’t put undue stress on muscles, joints, tendons (which attach muscles to bones) or ligaments (which attach bones to each other).

Mind your posture. For safety’s sake, keep your spine straight and always lift with your legs instead of your back.

Don’t rush through your program. Yes, your life is busy. However, rushing through a workout not only makes it difficult to maintain form but also detracts from what you’re trying to accomplish, since slower movements force the muscle(s) to work just a little harder—which is what you want. On the other hand, super-slow lifts will unnecessarily lengthen your sessions and may cause you to lose focus. Maintain a reasonable, smooth pace.

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