What To Know About Free Weights

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 27, 2021
4 min read

When you work out at the gym, you usually have the choice between free weights or machines for strength training. Machines use cables and stacks of weight to provide resistance. These provide some level of control to your strength training exercises.

Free weights may be dumbbells or plates you place on bars for exercises like squats, bicep curls, and shoulder presses. They don’t limit your range of motion like machines do and instead offer you real-life movement patterns.

The CDC recommends that you incorporate two days per week of strength training into your workout routine. You can use weights to provide resistance and build stronger muscles. When you strength train, you use free weights to work harder against gravity to lift dumbbells or plates. As you maneuver the weight to certain positions, you work different muscles in your body.

Free weights vary in shape and size. You can use dumbbells, which are small bars with equal weight on both sides that you hold in your hands. Full-size bars are longer and typically allow you to hold more weight since you lift using your shoulders and back or both hands at the same time. Bar weights come in the form of plates that slide onto the ends of each bar.

As you build up your strength, you also increase your heart rate, burning fat at the same time. In the first 4 weeks of strength training with free weights, your body builds strength by controlling the contraction of each muscle.

Once your body adjusts to this resistance practice, the structure of your muscles changes to build larger, stronger muscles. So, while you may not see much muscle growth at first, be patient with your body. Progress takes time.

Make sure to:

Warm up first. When your muscles go from resting to doing hard work, there’s a risk of injury. Warm up your muscles before lifting heavy weights by spending at least 10 minutes of walking or other aerobic activity.

Perfect your technique. Working out with free weights isn’t as easy as lifting weight for a certain number of repetitions, putting it down, and starting again. If you’re new to free weights, consider working with a certified personal trainer who can help educate you on techniques as well as:

  • Proper form when lifting weights
  • How to recognize your body’s limits and not push yourself too far‌
  • Choosing exercises that use all your muscle groups
  • Understanding the number of repetitions per set

Choose a challenging weight. You want your strength training to challenge your body without risking injury. Choose free weights that are heavy enough to make 12-15 repetitions challenging. If you can’t reach 12-15 repetitions, your weight may be too difficult. If you can easily go past 12-15 repetitions, your weight may be too light. By choosing a challenging weight, there’s no need to repeat sets. However, if you want to do multiple sets of the same exercise, you can.

Plan rest days.Rest in between your strength training days. Giving your muscles a break helps make your weight lifting more effective. If you have a challenging workout and feel sore, take a break for a few days. Aim to focus on one or two muscle groups during each strength training session.

Free weights force you to use your muscles in a way that stabilizes movement. This helps you build strength, power, and coordination in one motion. They are also versatile because you can use them in a variety of settings and ways. You’re able to tweak your positioning in ways that may help accommodate any specific needs you have during your workout.

When you use free weights:

  • Your blood pumps stronger, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients through your body.
  • You reduce your risk of health conditions like heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular disease.
  • Lean muscle helps burn additional body fat throughout your day.
  • A stronger cardiovascular system helps you sleep better, and better sleep improves the quality of your workouts. It’s a healthy cycle for your overall health.
  • Strength training aids in weight loss and may help you overcome plateaus you reach by doing cardio only.

Free weights require balance, which is difficult for some people. If you struggle with balance, you may need to lower your weights during strength training or opt for strength training with machines instead. If you lose your balance and drop weights during a workout, you can hurt yourself or someone else.

It can also be difficult to isolate a single muscle. This requires you to spend a lot of time concentrating on individual movements to target the muscles you want and ensure proper form and technique. You also want to make sure each motion is controlled. Your tendency may be to use a swinging motion, which uses momentum rather than your muscles.

Because it takes concentration, you may catch yourself holding your breath while using free weights. When you don’t sustain breathing, you increase your blood pressure and increase your risk of developing a hernia. Instead, take deep, controlled breaths to make your strength training more effective.