Free Weights: The Complete Beginners Guide
If you’re new to the gym, training with free weights can be off-putting for a number of completely understandable reasons. Firstly, there’s a general perception free weights have an increased risk of injury compared to machine weights, which help control certain plains of motion and allow greater stability.
Secondly, the free weights area can be slightly intimidating. With more experienced gym members and trainers lifting heavy weights, you might feel self conscious about how much you’re lifting and if you’re lifting correctly.
Finally, planning a free weights routine that will help you reach your fitness goals can be pretty daunting due to the vast amount of conflicting information about the best ways to train. What exercises should I include? How many reps should I do? Which order should I do them in? Etc.
This article addresses these main points from a complete beginner’s perspective, with five important tips on how to overcome these barriers and insure you are on the right track to reaching your fitness goals with free weights.
1. ASK FOR HELP
If you’re worried about doing things wrong then my advice is simple – speak to one of our trainers and get them to show you the ropes. This won’t only make your training safer, it’ll also give you confidence in knowing you’re performing exercises correctly.
2. FOCUS ON CREATING PROPER MOVEMENT PATTERNS
Whether you want to build muscle, get stronger or improve your sports performance – as a beginner, the load you have on the bar is largely irrelevant because your main goal should be to ‘program’ your nervous system and muscles to perform the correct movement patterns.
Focus on performing exercises with a full range of motion, under control, with accurate execution and you’ll rapidly become more efficient at these movements. Movement efficiency means rapid and consistent progress in the long run. This is especially true for lifts like presses, squats and deadlifts, which not only come down to muscle strength but also the ability to stabilise a load and produce force in the right muscles at the right time.
If you want instant ‘kudos’ in the free weights section, excellent execution is more impressive than heavy loads with terrible form. Trust me! This leads nicely onto the next tip – being worried about being judged.
3. EMPLOY PROPER GYM TECHNIQUE
Every person in the gym started somewhere, even those big, strong, scary looking folk in the free weights area. Nobody is going to be judging you on the weight you are lifting or your physique. What they are likely to stare and ‘judge’ you on is whether you’re performing exercises unsafely, unaware of your surroundings, taking up too much space or and using too much equipment. Especially at busy times. Let’s not forget the big one – not putting your weights away!
Follow points one and two, have some gym manners and I guarantee any worry you have about being stared and judged will rapidly disappear.
Having trained in all manner of gyms I can 100% tell you the biggest ‘scariest’ guys and gals in the gym to are often the most supportive for those who need help. As long as you follow these few basic rules you’ll be golden!
4. KEEP IT SIMPLE, AT LEAST INITIALLY
Whatever your goal the foundation should be the same. We’ve already discussed the importance of proper and safe movement patterns and I’m sure you’ve already heard the term ‘practice makes perfect’. So with that in mind, before we start to employ specific, potentially complex programs towards your desired goals, it’s probably prudent to structure your workouts to perform movements fairly frequently but still allow enough time for proper recovery.
When you first start lifting free weights the best plan of attack is to stick to full body workouts – hit two exercises per body part three times a week and allow a couple of days rest in between. This will give you plenty of practice without stressing your muscles too much, which would inhibit your recovery. Be careful if you are using compound lifts such as squats and deadlifts in the same session (especially as you get stronger and train harder), it might be wise to cycle these ‘bigger’ movements between your sessions to allow proper recovery.
5. STICK TO THE ‘BIG THREE’
The ‘Big Three’ are squats, presses and deadlifts. Isolation movements have their place and machines are great for hitting different angles. But focusing on free weight movements that include as many muscles as possible – like squats, presses and deadlifts – will see you rapidly progress while also improving mobility, stability and strength. This means using free weights will have serious ‘carry over’. Whatever your goals.
You can mix it up and include variations of the Big Three. Goblet squats, front squats and smith machine squats are all great, but you can also include things like lunges and split squats to target different areas of your leg. To compliment deadlifts, you can employ partial deadlifts or rack pulls alongside ‘rowing’ movements such as barbell and dumbbell bent-over rows to hit all the muscles in your back. Finally, for pressing you can work with dumbbells or barbells with flat, decline, incline and seated bench positions to hit all the muscles in your chest and shoulders.
Following these simple rules and being consistent with your approach will help you progress quickly and safely from a beginner to a more advanced lifter. Use the first few months of free weight training to create your movement foundations and this will pay huge dividends in the long run. I promise.