what are free weights
Picture this, it's your first day at a gym. For some of us, this may have been last week (New Year's resolution, am I right?!), and for others maybe decades ago. It really doesn't matter when that day was, almost everyone remembers that feeling.

You walk in, look around, and have absolutely no idea where to start. You hear some people talking about supersets and free weights, you see people running on treadmills, and of course, all the bench press stations are packed. Don't worry we've all been there.

Maybe this has been you recently or maybe you are reading this trying to figure out what equipment to put in your new home gym, either way, let's dive into it.


What are Free Weights?

what are free weights

Free weights are weights that are not a part of a machine, think dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, and barbells.

Free weights are the heart and soul of a lifting program. Where would Ronnie Coleman be without the squat or Michael Jordan without his dumbbells? Free weights are commonly found at almost any commercial gym; however, some gyms skip the free weight barbell (Planet, cough, cough, Fitness).

You may be wondering why the distinction is made for free weight. Is there another type of weight? The answer - sort of. Machines have become increasingly popular as the fitness revolution has grown in the last few decades in America. The weight on machines is not "free." It is typically attached by a cable or free weights (such as plates) are added to the machine. Machines are designed to allow the user to move weight in a controlled motion as there is little room for variability in movement.

In most commercial gyms, the free weight section is separate from the machines. If you see dumbbells and mirrors you are definitely in the free weight section.


Why Use Free Weights?

free weights set with rack

Free weights offer an incredibly versatile and efficient way to work out and build muscle. The possibilities for kettlebell, barbell, and dumbbell exercises are almost limitless. Free weights can fill an entire gym or fit into a corner of your bedroom or closet.

Whether you are just beginning to work out at the gym or building your own home gym, you need to consider incorporating free weights.

Don't get me wrong, machines are great. They can provide an excellent workout, help you build strength, and isolate specific muscle groups. However, free weights require your body to support the load in ways machines simply do not.

Take for instance the barbell back squat and a machine squat (or hack squat machine). With a barbell back squat, you are required to hold up the weight of the bar and the plates with your legs, core, and back.

You must be able to stabilize the weight and control it throughout the entire motion of your squat.

This will not only make you stronger but also prepare you for moving objects and living life outside of the gym. With a hack squat machine, the weight moves in one plane of motion and the machine controls some of the weight for you. This removes a lot of the need for important stabilizing muscles to act like they would in a back squat.

This is just one example. The same could be said for upper body exercises like machine bench versus dumbbell bench, barbell rows versus a row machine, or even dumbbell curls versus machine curls.


Reasons Not to Use Free Weights

free weights vs machines

There are none. Just kidding.

Machines certainly have their benefits as well. Machines can be a great way to still get stronger without worrying as much about technique.

Because free weights are just that - free - nothing is controlling them but the user. While there are some safety measures in place, this means if you fail a rep in say a back squat, you are on your own - so it is important you know how to do that safely. For this reason, machines can be a good option for those new to weight training, but in the long run, you will be better off starting light and building up your ability to use free weights safely.

It is also worth noting, that this is not a situation where it has to be one or the other.

Many successful workout programs use both machines and free weights as they complement each other nicely.

Generally, free weights are going to give you more exercise options for the space than machines. For this reason, if you are building a home gym, it can be especially important to consider free weights.


How to Use Free Weights?

This is a loaded question - almost like asking how to play a sport. Without diving into how to squat, how to curl, how to press, etc., let's look at a few tips for using free weights.

1) Start Light

dumbbell 5kg

This is important as you begin lifting with free weights. There is a learning curve for both learning the movements and for your body to adjust to lifting weights.

Your goal should be to look at lifting free weights as a marathon and not a sprint - you don't need to max out on day one. Heavier weights will come.

2) Technique, Technique, Technique

free weight lifting

This is critical. When people get hurt lifting weights it is usually for two reasons - bad technique or they didn't read point number one. Before performing any exercise, make sure you listen to someone who knows the proper technique - whether it is a coach, trainer, or even a YouTube video. This will not only ensure you stay safe, but you will also get stronger faster and build muscle mass.

3) Track Your Progress

In order to get stronger, gain muscle, and improve your movement, it is a good idea to track your progress. Whether in a journal or app, record the exercise and weight you performed and over time add weight or reps. This progressive overload will be important in helping you achieve your goals and lift heavier weights.

4) Safety Tips

weightlifting standards

There are certain free weight training precautions to be aware of.

There are clips that are made to go on the end of the barbell after you put your weight plates on. Be sure to use these so your weights don't fall off.

Don't lift heavy alone.

If you are new to free weights (or even if you aren't), be sure to have a spotter to make sure you don't get stuck with a weight that is too heavy for you. This can be very dangerous.

When squatting use safety bars. Safety bars are metal bars designed to stop the barbell from falling on you if you fail a squat rep.

Be sure to treat free weights with respect.

Don't drop dumbbells or kettlebells - it can not only damage the weights but potentially your floor as well - check out our article here to make sure you have the right home gym flooring. The only time it is okay to drop a barbell with weight plates is if the plates you are using are bumper plates - which are designed to be dropped.


Wrap Up

lifting weights

Hopefully, at this point, you now know what free weights are. The fun part is learning how to use them. Doing this well can take a lifetime. Remember, start light, use great technique and you will see progress. Feel free to check out all of our free weights at Freedom Fitness.

We can't wait to see what you accomplish this year. Please reach out with any questions or leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you!


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