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New to Free Weights? There’s Power in Lifting With Proper Form

By Martha Michael

Free Weights for Beginners

If returning to your barbells is how you typically ring in the new year, you may think weightlifting is no sweat. Whether you’re a beginner or it’s been a while since you lifted weights, reviewing proper technique is a good idea -- you get better results and reduce the chance of injuries.

Free Weights vs. Machine Weights

Most gyms have separate sections for various types of workout equipment. The cardio area typically includes a cluster of treadmills, elliptical machines, Stairmasters, and stationary bikes.

Weightlifting machines often include such equipment as:

  • Leg press
  • Chest press
  • Lat pull-down
  • Leg extension

Another option for building strength is to use free weights which are barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and sandbags, or other workout tools that aren’t connected to fitness equipment.

One of the advantages of working out with free weights is the flexibility you have to vary your movements, according to an article on the Self website.

“It’s ‘free,’ meaning you can pick it up, move it, and do whatever you want with it really,” the article says. “The only thing you’re fighting is the force of gravity on that object.”

Without the fixed structure of a weight machine, using free weights expands the possibilities for training different muscle groups. It’s a great pathway to customize your workout and meet your unique fitness goals.

Proper Use of Free Weights

If you’re new to the gym, the free weights may be more familiar than the machines, but they can still be intimidating. Don’t rely on distant memories of Arnold Schwarzenegger running the rack or Sly Stallone’s core-crushing Rambo moves for tips on technique. You’re safer if you get acquainted with dumbbells, barbells, and other free weights before using them.

The Mayo Clinic has an article with tips for the proper use of weights when you’re just starting a fitness program.

Warm up first - You’re more likely to incur injuries if your muscles are cold when you begin lifting weights. Take a 10-minute walk or choose another aerobic activity before your weightlifting work.

Use the right form - Get the results you want when you complete the exercises by using the proper stance and continue through the full range of motion. If it’s too difficult to use the right form, choose lighter weights or execute fewer repetitions.

Breathe - While it’s natural to hold your breath when you work out, try to keep breathing through each repetition. The best method is to breathe out when you lift and breathe in when you lower your weights.

Take rest days - Whether you work multiple muscle groups in the same day or stagger your workouts, each muscle group needs a day of rest in-between.

Listen to your body - If your new weightlifting program causes pain, stop the routine for a few days. If pain recurs when you return to your workout, check in with a chiropractor to prevent further injury.

Exercises for Beginners

If you’re new to the gym or adding free weights to your established fitness program, you want to start with a relatively light load. There are basic exercises that provide a good foundation to introduce weights for the first time. Healthline has an article with a suggested routine for beginners using free weights:

Lunge - Stand upright and take a big step forward with one foot. Slowly bend your knees to lower your body straight down, then rise slowly. Complete the steps with each leg, first with just your body weight, then repeat the exercise holding dumbbells at your sides. The muscle groups affected by lunges are:

  • Calves
  • Gluteus muscles
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps

Floor press - Working much like the chest press machine, you lie on your back keeping your shoulders flat on the floor. Grasp dumbbells in each hand with your arms at a 45-degree angle holding the weights in the air. Extend your arms upward pushing the dumbbells high above you. Pause briefly in the upward position, then slowly bring your arms back down to your sides.The muscle groups affected by the floor press are:

  • Triceps
  • Pectoralis muscles
  • Anterior deltoids

Single-arm dumbbell row - Place a moderately weighted dumbbell in one hand and grasp a chair or other stable object in front of you with the other hand. Split your stance by stepping one foot forward and the other behind you, then bend forward slightly at the waist. The arm with the dumbbell should begin straight down at your side, then pull your elbow up and back, squeezing your shoulder blade. At the top of the movement pause, then lower your arm slowly. The muscle groups affected by single-arm dumbbell rows are:

  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Quadriceps
  • Gluteus muscles

Once you get your weightlifting program underway, you can put the exercises on autopilot. Eventually your commitment to proper form using free weights, such as barbells and dumbbells, means building strength and meeting your fitness goals will have some muscle behind it.

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