You walk into the gym and look right; you see a strange, miniature city comprised of odd-looking machines (and people).
You look to the left; you see a seemingly endless line of elliptical machines, treadmills, and other pieces of cardio equipment.
You squint your eyes and can make out a few yuge bald dudes clad in wifebeaters. You can make out a constant clanking sound coming from their direction and are sure you heard a muffled scream.
You’re intrigued, if not slightly intimidated.
Stepping into this wild, wonderful world, you’re greeted by a number of long metal beams, cannonballs with handles, circular metallic objects, and about 25 bench press stations.
Welcome to the world of free weights!
Now that you’ve taken the first step (literally!) into free weight training, it’s time to learn what all of these magical implements are and how you can get really strong and really fit by using them. By the end of our discussion, you may even be in the market for a yuge dude wifebeater!
Table of Contents
There are a lot of Different Types of Weights in the Free Weights Section of the Gym
Before officially starting our discussion, rest assured that if you rock up to the gym and you don’t have these terms, differences, etc. memorized, nobody is really going to give you a second look. Contrary to the plot of every teen movie, gym goers are actually incredibly patient and gracious, especially with new people learning the ropes!
Anyways…it’s important to understand the different types of weights and gym equipment available and how they can be incorporated into your regimen to target different muscle groups or achieve certain primary objectives ex. Strength gains, power, endurance, etc.
What Are Free Weights and How Do They Differ from Gym Weight Machines?
Free weights are fitness equipment that consist of weights not attached to a fixed structure or mechanism. Examples of free weights are weights like dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and weight plates.
Weight machines consist of weights attached to a cable, pulley, lever, or some type of other system. Common examples are the leg press machine, lat pulldown, and cable crossover (oftentimes housed in a “jungle gym”, mega machine). These are just a few examples, though; If you’re a regular at commercial gyms, you’re probably well aware of the many different types of machine equipment in the gym!
There are several key differences between free weights and weight machines that may impact your workout choices:
Balance and Coordination: Free weights require more balance, coordination, and stabilization, as multiple joints and muscles are involved in each movement. This can make free weight exercises initially more difficult to perform than machine exercises. However, the balance and coordination you develop by performing these exercises transfers over into everything in life.
Freedom and Variety of Motion: Free weights offer greater freedom and ROM (range of motion), as they can be moved in different directions and planes. This versatility enables you to add a much larger array of exercises and variations into your strength training regimen.
Functional and Transferable: Free weights are more functional and transferable, as they better mimic the natural movement patterns. This means they can improve your performance in everyday tasks and other sports (this is related to that whole “balance improvement”) thing mentioned earlier.
Isolated and Controlled Movements: Weight machines generally target very specific muscles with a relatively limited range of motion. This focused approach does build strength and does build muscle, but in a more isolated manner. Many gyms arrange their machines in a circuit training pattern, allowing trainees to hit a different muscle group as they move from one to the next.
Safety and Ease of Use: Weight machines provide a safe and easy-to-use option, with a fixed path and preset resistance. This design reduces the risk of improper form and technique breakdown, making them suitable for beginners and for those rehabbing injuries. The risk of injury is low and it is incredibly easy to add weight or to adjust the weight on machines.
That being said, free weights are not intrinsically dangerous and, with proper technique and loading, using them is as safe as using machines.
Sports/Disciplines: You’ll be hard pressed to find a sport where weight machines are the main centerpieces. In contrast, sports like Olympic weightlifting (not to be confused with more general “weight lifting”), powerlifting, and CrossFit almost exclusively utilize Olympic plates, other implements like dumbbells, and barbell exercises like squats. Ultimately, barbells and dumbbells are the name of the game (which is why we garage gym and home gym enthusiasts love these disciplines).
Benefits of Training with Free Weights
Like any type of training, lifting with free weights offers a number of benefits and advantages. Many of these overlap with other training methods/mechanisms (ex. Machines, bodyweight workouts), however, many are unique. Let’s take a quick look at these benefits:
As you might expect, incorporating free weights into your regimen can help improve your strength, power, speed, and endurance.
I’m sure this is a surprise to…noone…
These improvements are the result of free weights demanding the activation of more muscle fibers and increased energy expenditure in every exercise performed. The result? You’ll not only get stronger but also enhance your athletic performance, conditioning your muscles to cooperate and adapt to various stimuli (and to lift heavier weights!)
In addition to strength gains, free weights can also aid weight loss. The increased metabolic rate and oxygen consumption from free weight exercises contribute to burning extra calories and fat during workouts. So…if you’re looking to cut weight…please…please don’t just spend hours on the elliptical!
Another advantage of free weight training is that it helps develop functional and core stability. As you perform exercises with free weights, you indirectly work your balance, posture, and body awareness, which contribute to overall fitness and well-being.
Obviously, free weight training is going to help build a lot of muscle. The increased muscle stimulation and growth triggered by free weight exercises can result in a more ripped physique.
Finally, injury prevention and improved recovery are crucial aspects of any fitness routine. Free weights serve to strengthen your joints, ligaments, and tendons while reducing the impact and stress on your spine. Even if you can’t quite appreciate the significance of this now, I promise that you will when you hit 30 or so!
Compilation of The Different Types of Weights
Although this list is not totally exhaustive, it does hit on the majority of the most common types of free weights you’re likely to encounter.
These are short “bars” with weights on both ends that can be held in one or both hands. Dumbbells come in different shapes and sizes, like hex dumbbells and adjustable dumbbells. You can use dumbbells for a lot of different exercises with dumbbell bicep curls, chest presses, shoulder raises, lunges being some of the most popular. Dumbbells are ideal for exercises where you want/need to use lighter weights than you would when using a barbell.
Long bars with weights on both ends, barbells are to be held with both hands. They come in standard, Olympic, and powerlifting varieties. Popular barbell exercises include the “Big 3” in powerlifting (bench press, squat, deadlift) and the Olympic weightlifting competition lifts (snatch, clean and jerk).
Flat discs with a hole in the center, weight plates can be attached to barbells or (adjustable!) dumbbells to provide the majority of resistance. Common types include cast iron plates, rubber plates, bumper plates, and urethane plates. Weight plates not attached to barbells can be used for plate curl, plate twist, plate squat, and plate swing exercsies. Olympic weight plates are generally “taller” than similarly-weighted plates and are appropriate for certain exercises like power cleans and snatches.
A cannonball with a handle! Kettlebells can be held in one or both hands (be aware, though, that if you try to squeeze two hands onto a one-handed kettlebell, you’ll get some gnarly pinky blisters!) Their unique shape allows for a variety of exercises, such as kettlebell swings, snatches, halos, and side presses.
These rare, soft, flexible weights filled with sand can be held, thrown, or slammed. They work well for sandbell slams, tosses, lunges, and burpees.
Been to a boxing gym in your life? If so, you’ve probably come across these round, heavy, balls that can be held, thrown, or caught. Common medicine ball exercises include slams, tosses, cleans, and sit-ups.
This is a variation of the standard barbell with curves to allow for a more comfortable grip during certain, select exercises. The EZ bar is clutch for exercises targeting the biceps, such as curls and reverse curls.
Other free weights you might find at the gym include sandbags, steel clubs, weighted vests, chains, atlas stones, sleds, resistance bands, and water weight bags. Some are these are more obscure than others and serve more niche goals/priorities.
Frequently Asked Questions
Admittedly, we are not the encyclopedia of free weight exercises and implements. As such, we’ll give you the opportunity to ask a few more questions!
There are several types of weight plates that you might come across in a gym or fitness center. The most basic type is the iron weight plate, made from solid cast iron and known for its durability. These plates come in various weights and are compatible with different barbells, depending on their size. Additionally, iron weight plates are often the most affordable option.
Another popular type of weight plate is the bumper plate. These plates are designed with a rubber coating, which helps to protect both the plates themselves and the floor when dropped during exercises like Olympic lifts.
You want to read our deep dive into weight plates? You got it right here!
When it comes to free weight options, dumbbells and kettlebells are popular choices in gyms and home fitness setups.
Dumbbells are versatile pieces of equipment that come in various sizes and weights. With just a pair of dumbbells, the sky is truly the limit as you can perform many exercises and full-body workouts by solely using dumbbells.
Kettlebells, another great free weight option, offer a unique shape and handle design, allowing for a wide range of dynamic and functional exercises. Kettlebell workouts often incorporate full-body movements, targeting multiple muscle groups and improving overall strength and conditioning.
Weight bars come in several variations to accommodate different exercises and weight training programs. Some of the common types of weight bars include:
- Standard barbells - These are the most common type of weight bars, suitable for use with iron weight plates and bumper plates. They typically weigh around 20 kg (44 lbs) for men and 15 kg (33 lbs) for women.
- EZ bars - Designed with a curved shape, curl bars are intended for exercises targeting the biceps and triceps, helping to reduce strain on the wrists and elbows.
- Hex bars - Also known as trap bars, hex bars have a hexagonal shape that allows you to stand inside the bar. This design is ideal for exercises like deadlifts and shrugs, as it places less stress on the lower back and enables a more neutral grip. You want to deadlift the heaviest weight possible? Use a hex bar!
No More Analysis Paralysis; Grab a Weight and Get Lifting
There are a lot of benefits to working with weight machines at the gym. If you’re a bit intimidated by free weights, barbells, dumbbells, plates, the Incredible Hulk in the free weight section of the gym…I understand.
That being said, free weights are awesome and you’re definitely leaving money on the table by not making them the main implements in your fitness regimen. They’re simply…better at just about everything.
I’m not trying to crap on machines too much, but reading the “history” of weight machines and how they came into being so popular in gyms across the world is pretty…eye-opening. Start on page 3 (of 6) for the real “value” of machines.
Convinced of the merits of free weight training? Take it a step further and look at the merits of two of the best barbell training disciplines in existence…powerlifting vs. weightlifting!