How to Use Free Weights - Muscle & Performance

Free Weights, Big Payoff

Not sure what free-weight equipment to use and when? Here’s what you need to know.
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Novice resistance trainers might be overwhelmed by the abundance of free-weight equipment available in every gym, CrossFit box and Amazon.com search. Don’t get poleaxed: Here’s the short and skinny on free weights — the usual suspects, what they’re used for and a move to master for each.

DUMBBELS

Dumbbells have been around forever — and for good reason: They are effective and versatile, and if you had to choose just one kind of equipment with which to outfit your home gym, we would recommend a few sets of these. Dumbbells can be used in pairs or on their own for just about any exercise you can come up with — squats, shoulder presses, rows, lunges and everything in between. And unlike barbells or machines, dumbbells work your limbs individually, training not only the primary mover in an exercise but also the
stabilizing and assisting muscles surrounding it. Use dumbbells to build size, strength and endurance, and — depending on your programming — burn fat.

Move to Master: Biceps Curl

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a set of dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forward. Keep your upper arms pinned to your sides as you bend your elbows and curl the weights up to your shoulders, then lower slowly to the start.

BARBELLS

Also a staple in the weight room, the barbell is an excellent tool for strength training. A standard Olympic bar weighs 45 pounds, and you can add weight plates of varying increments on its ends with clips to make it heavier. Like dumbbells, barbells are very versatile and can be used to hit every major muscle group in your body. They allow you to lift heavier weight than you could with dumbbells and are great for building power, muscle size and strength with moves like squats, snatches, deadlifts, push presses and cleans.

Barbell Back Squat

Barbell Back Squat

Move to Master: Barbell Back Squat

Balance a barbell across your upper back and traps and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned out slightly. Hold the bar outside your shoulders with your elbows pointing down and lift your chest. Kick your hips back, then bend your knees, going as low as you can without rounding forward or lifting your heels off the floor (anywhere from thighs parallel to the floor to ass to grass, depending on your flexibility). From the bottom, drive through your heels and extend your legs and hips explosively to return to standing.

KETTLEBELLS

Invented in the 1700s by Russian strongmen, a kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a handle, and like dumbbells, they come in varying weights. They are excellent tools for functional training and engage multiple muscle groups at once with moves such as swings, snatches and carries. They also challenge your grip strength and offer a different kind of resistance than a dumbbell, since the weight is hanging below your hand as opposed to being balanced evenly on either side of it. And when it comes to your core — nothing is better: Research conducted by the American Council on Exercise found that core strength was increased up to 70 percent in already-fit test subjects when using kettlebells as resistance. Also enhanced: balance, body fat, aerobic capacity and overall power.

Move to Master: Farmer’s Carry

Hold a set of kettlebells at your sides with your palms facing inward. Draw your shoulder blades down and back and brace your core, then take short, smooth strides forward, trying to prevent the kettlebells from swinging around. Walk for a given distance or time increment.

MEDICINE BALLS

A modern-day medicine ball can either be large and soft or small and bouncy, and both are functional tools worth trying. Not only do they build muscle, stamina and endurance, but they also teach coordination, reactivity and explosiveness. Medicine balls come in varying weights, sizes and reactivity, and moves like throws, slams and rebounds work multiple muscle groups at once, making them highly metabolic.

Medicine-Ball Slam

Medicine-Ball Slam

Move to Master: Medicine-Ball Slam

Hold a nonreactive (soft) medicine ball with both hands and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Quickly reach the ball overhead, coming all the way up onto your toes, then use your whole body to slam it straight down onto the floor, following through with your arms. Pick it back up and repeat right away.

YOUR BODYWEIGHT

Your body is the ultimate free weight: It literally costs nothing to use and offers plenty of resistance. In fact, some people would argue that you don’t need anything else. Squats, pull-ups, push-ups, dips, rope climbs, box jumps and any number of plyometrics are incredible exercises that use your body as resistance, using multiple muscle groups and burning plenty of calories. Moving your own bodyweight can be surprisingly difficult, however, especially for beginners, so use move modifications to build strength, or use a TRX or resistance-band loop to help offset part of your bodyweight to allow you to perform the move.

Move to Master: TRX Inverted Row

Grasp the TRX handles with your arms extended, palms facing inward. Walk your feet underneath the TRX anchor until your body is at an angle with the floor: The closer your body is to parallel, the more challenging the move becomes. Lift your hips so your body makes a straight line from head to heels, then keep that posture as you drive your elbows down and back to pull your chest up in between your hands and the TRX handles. Slowly lower to the start.