Dumbbells are a good introduction to free weights.
Free weights offer many advantages over resistance machines. You recruit more stabilizing muscles when training with free weights, because your body has to work harder to balance the weight. Free weights are also more functional for athletes, lead to faster strength and power gains and are more versatile, according to the American Council on Exercise.
Do it with Dumbbells
Dumbbells are the form of free weights with which you're probably most familiar. In terms of overall effectiveness and versatility, you can't do better than dumbbells, according to trainer Chris Logan of "Muscle & Performance" magazine. One main benefit of dumbbells over barbells is that you work each limb individually. Take a chest press, for example. When pressing a barbell, if your right side is stronger, you'll subconsciously push harder with it, which can lead to muscle imbalances. With dumbbells you don't have that choice, as each arm works independently, creating a more balanced physique.
Break Out the Barbell
Although dumbbells may be better for building balance and coordination, you can lift more weight with a barbell. You don't use as many stabilizing muscles, but this does allow you to build strength and power more quickly. Barbells are the best choice if you compete in a strength sport, such as Olympic lifting or powerlifting, as all the competition lifts are performed with barbells. Some barbell exercises, such as bench presses and back squats, carry a higher risk than their dumbbell counterparts, so lifting with a training partner or spotter is always recommended.
Add Some Variety
If you're looking for something a little different, there are many types of unconventional free weights. Sandbags allow you to train with an unstable load and increase your nervous system and muscle activation, according to strength coach Chad Waterbury. Kettlebells are the perfect tool for blending strength training, explosive power and cardio, claims kettlebell coach Mike Mahler, and medicine balls are another type of free weight you might be more accustomed to seeing.
Plan Your Programming
Whatever form of free weights you choose to use, perform at least two to three tough sessions per week. The American College of Sports Medicine advises using a variety of exercises and equipment, which means you don't have to choose just one way of training with free weights. If your goals are more strength and muscle mass-based, perform mainly barbell and dumbbell exercises, with unconventional free weights as a secondary focus. But if you're looking to get fitter, plan a kettlebell and sandbag routine and add sets with dumbbells and barbells to maintain your strength levels. Always consult your doctor and a qualified trainer before starting a routine with free weights.