Working out with free weights may be intimidating, but the numerous benefits are too good to pass up. Writer Miranda Larbi makes a strong case for making sure you never pass on dumbbells again.
It’s easy to feel intimidated on the gym floor when you see experienced fitness buffs using heavy weights like it’s no big deal – but everyone starts somewhere. Remember, those same fitness buffs once picked up a free weight for the very first time.
So, how do you get over that gym fear in order to start doing free weights? Can you just stick to the resistance machines? Is it enough to simply rely on body weight?
This might not be the answer you want to hear, but free weights are truly the holy grail when it comes to changing body composition and strengthening bones and muscles. So, don’t let your fear restrict you from doing something that’s incredibly good for your body.
1. Free weights are more effective than resistance machines
Starting with resistance machines is a great way to build up strength and confidence in the gym. It’s a lot less daunting to jump on the shoulder press machine – the weight of which you can subtly change.
However, using dumbbells is going to be more effective in the long run. With free weights, you’re fully in control of the speed and direction of movement. In addition, dumbbells activate more muscle mass than machines do. While machines definitely have a roll to play in workouts, you eventually want to get to a point where you’re doing the majority of your work with free weights and saving machines for the end of a workout when you’re tired.
2. Free weights can be used anywhere
Want to squeeze in a quick 20-minute session without having to face the world? Or struggling to get yourself to the gym once you’ve made it home from work? Try purchasing free weights to create your very own gym space at home. Buying a set (or two) is fairly affordable and doesn’t take up much room.
Aim to get a range of weights (think a light, medium and heavy set) so you can target different muscle groups – starting at 3kg or 4kg for upper body exercises (such as lateral arm raises), 15kg or 20kg for lower body workouts (such as goblet squats and deadlifts) and a weight in between. Most importantly, try to work out in front of a mirror so you can keep an eye on your form.
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3. Weights target forgotten muscles
Free weights give you the freedom to target smaller muscles that typically don’t get much of a workout. Bicep and tricep curls are arguably easier to do with free weights than on a machine, as is working laterally (side-to-side). You can use them across all planes of motion – rotation, single arm movements or combining with exercises using different body parts (e.g. stepping forward, doing a row/squat/swing, stepping backward) which will increase your coordination.
4. Weights protect us from heart disease
Did you know that simply gripping onto a dumbbell gives your wrist muscles a workout? In 2018, a study found that grip strength is a more important indicator of heart health than blood pressure. As we age, our grip strength tends to decline rapidly, with every drop in strength increasing our risk of cardiovascular disease. So, it’s safe to say that lifting heavy can actually help to keep us alive.
5. Weights improve your balance
Our bodies tend to have one side that is more dominant and stronger than the other. Free weights are a great way of adjusting that imbalance.
For example, doing isometric (single side) exercises with free weights gives your body the opportunity to strengthen weaker muscles without the stronger side taking over. Free weights also trigger your stabiliser muscles (like your core, spine, ankles, etc.), as well as the muscles you’re actively trying to strengthen - so you’re getting stronger in ways you didn’t even intend to. Whereas when you’re using a machine to exercise, it’s doing the stabilising for you.
6. Weights make you functionally fit
Fundamentally, we’re all trying to get stronger so that we’re able to function better in everyday life. You want to be able to lift your own boxes, push your own trolley, carry your own backpack. Resistance machines will help you get stronger, but free weights allow you to mimic the kinds of movements you do outside of the gym. That means you’ll be more adept at carrying, lifting, pushing and pulling. You’ll also be less likely to injure yourself in the process, because your muscles will be strong enough to execute the moves properly.
7. Weights improve athletic performance
There’s a reason why professional athletes are required to log hours at the gym. If you play sports, lifting free weights will improve your game too. Runners, for example, can do single leg deadlifts to ensure each specific lower-body muscle is strong enough to perform and to prevent injury. Tennis players often do dumbbell flies and lat pull downs to strengthen the same upper body muscles that they use when serving. Hockey enthusiasts train by doing lateral ice skater moves while holding weights in their hands or do a series of barbell squats to mimic all the squatting they do on the pitch.
8. Weights offer more variety
Free weights isn’t reserved solely for dumbbells – kettlebells are equally effective. Try incorporating a kettlebell into reps of several exercise circuits. This could look like a series of five squats, five shoulder presses, five swings, five burpees with upright row (with the idea being that you don’t take your hands off the bell until you’ve finished the entire circuit). Give yourself 60 seconds to recover (or as much time as you need), then repeat the circuit while keeping intensity high.
9. Free weights help with mindfulness
You can switch off during a lot of activities, but you really can’t afford to lose concentration when you’re lifting heavy free weights. If you want to practice mindful movement, weight lifting can help shut off those busy thoughts as it forces you to focus on the moves you’re doing. However, if you feel yourself getting tired during a session, move on to a resistance machine or remove the weights altogether.
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Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.