Weight Training Equipment

Lifting weights is one of the most important things you can do for your body. You probably know the benefits: Strong bones, muscles, joints, and tendons, as well as building lean muscle tissue, which helps you lose weight. Another great feature of weight training is the sheer variety of the equipment you an use.

Yes, a biceps curl is a biceps curl, but it feels much different if you're doing it with, say, a cable machine than a barbell.

That's one reason that using a variety of equipment is the key to getting your body fit and strong. Every piece of equipment will target your muscles in a different way, giving your workout more depth and more functionality.

Though there's always an argument about free weights versus machines, both give you the resistance you need for whatever your goals are, whether you want to lose weight or build bigger muscles. And you're not just limited to free weights and machines. Below you'll find all the options available to you along with the pros and cons of each one.

Free Weights

Free weights include just about any piece of strength equipment that isn't attached to a stationary object. This includes everything from dumbbells and barbells to kettlebells or even sandbags. You can even use things around the house like a weighted backpack, a milk jug filled with sand or water, or even soup cans.

The Pros and Cons of Using Free Weights

Pros

  • Inexpensive. Compared to weight training machines, dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells aren't as expensive, and they don't take up much space, making them ideal for the home exerciser.
  • Versatile. You can use one set of dumbbells for multiple exercises and muscle groups, while many gym machines target just one muscle group.
  • Functional. Most free weight exercises mimic everyday activities, and because you're having to hold your body in place while doing exercises, you involve more muscle groups than you would when using a fixed weight machine. 
  • Tangible results. When you lift free weights, you can see and feel your progress as you get stronger and use heavier weights—a great motivator that keeps you going.

Cons

  • A higher learning curve. Free weight exercises seem simple, but you don't have the support of the fixed motion of a machine to ensure you're using good form. It takes time to learn the right way to do each exercise, and it's easy to do the exercises wrong without realizing it. That could lead to an injury.
  • Confusion. Dumbbells may be versatile, but they can also be confusing. When you use a machine, you know exactly what you're doing, but staring at a rack full of dumbbells can be intimidating if you're not familiar with them.
  • It's easy to cheat. One big mistake many lifters make is swinging the weights rather than keeping the movements slow and controlled. That momentum means there aren't as many muscle fibers firing up to do the exercise.
  • Variation in muscle effort throughout the movement. Another downside of free weights is that they don't provide the same amount of resistance throughout the full range of motion. Think of a biceps curl. As you curl the weight up, there's a point where the resistance is at its peak and, after that, the resistance changes. By the end of the curl, there's almost no resistance. Not necessarily a big deal for the average exerciser, but it might be for someone wanting to build strength and size.

    Types of Free Weights 

    Barbells

    These include both fixed weight barbells like you see in a gym or plate-loaded barbells where you can control the weight. Barbells are great because they allow you to lift heavier weights, since you have both sides of the body working at the same time.

    The downside? Since both sides of the body are working, the dominant side will often take over. So, if you're right-handed, your right arm might work more during a biceps curl or an overhead press. That's one reason it's good to have a mix with barbells and dumbbells.

    Dumbbells

    Unlike barbells, dumbbells allow you to work each limb individually, which is great for building strength in your non-dominant side. You also have to involve more stabilizer muscles for some exercises because there is no fixed path. You have to control how the weight comes up and down, so you get more out of your workouts.

    This Total Body Dumbbell Workout is a great place to start with dumbbells.

    Kettlebells

    Kettlebells are relatively new but offer a completely different kind of workout. With dumbbells and barbells, our focus is often on strength and building lean muscle tissue. You can get that with kettlebells, but there's much more of an emphasis on power.

    A lot of kettlebell exercises involve swinging the weight, so it's much more dynamic than using dumbbells. The upside is, you can work on multiple aspects of fitness with kettlebells (strength, power, endurance, and even cardio).

    The downside is there's definitely a learning curve, so you want instruction from a video or a pro.

    This Beginner Kettlebell Workout shows you just how you can use a kettlebell in your strength training workouts.

    Medicine Balls

    A medicine ball offers another way to add variety to your workouts. These weighted balls come in almost any weight from one pound to more than 20. They can be used for almost any exercise you can do with dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells, but with an emphasis on building balance and coordination.

    This Medicine Ball Workout shows a variety of moves you can do with a medicine ball.

    Resistance Bands and Tubes

    While these could be categorized under free weights or even cable machines, they stand alone in that they're probably the most versatile of all your choices. They are the lightest and least expensive of all your options.

    Resistance bands and tubes come in a variety of colors to signify the amount of tension they offer. For example, SPRI bands (which you can find at Amazon.com) offer yellow bands for light resistance, green for medium resistance, and red for a higher resistance. They also sometimes come with a door attachment, so you can close them in a door and do things like chest presses or lat pulldowns.

    The Pros and Cons of Resistance Bands

    Pros

    • Inexpensive. The average set of resistance bands may cost just $15 to $30 depending on how many you get and the brand, making this the best choice for the budget-conscious exerciser.
    • Small and lightweight. Bands can be stuffed into a suitcase or even a desk drawer at the office, making them great for travelers or people stuck at the office.
    • Versatile. Like the other types of equipment, you can do a variety of exercises for your upper body, lower body, and core.
    • They increase coordination and enhance functionality. You have to engage multiple muscle groups to do many band exercises, making your workouts more functional.

    Cons

    • They can snap. Bands are great, but it's easy to get a hole in your tube or band without realizing it. Anyone who's used bands for any length of time has probably had one snap apart, which can cause serious injury.
    • Hard for beginners. Like cables and pulleys, you control the path of the resistance, so you have to keep perfect form to get the most out of each exercise while avoiding injury.
    • Varied resistance. Like dumbbells, bands offer more resistance during certain parts of each exercise. The further away you get from the anchor point, the harder it is. As you get close, the resistance starts to lessen, which can be seen as a limitation.

    This Total Body Resistance Band Workout shows you just how to use a band to strengthen your entire body.

    Weight Training Machines

    Machines are what we usually see at a gym—rows and rows of machines designed to work individual muscle groups. There are two common types of machines you'll see at most gyms and which you choose is based on your fitness level, what you're comfortable with and, of course, your goals.

    Stack Machines

    These are some of the most common machines you see, machines with rectangular plates that allow you to insert a pin underneath the amount of weight you want to lift.

    These machines are usually easy to use and don't require much adjustment, other than maybe raising or lowering the seat. That makes these appealing for beginners because these machines move in a fixed path. For example, when you're doing a chest press and you push the handles out, they go out and in the same way for every repetition. If you were using dumbbells, you would have to control the path of the weight and ensure you're using good form, something new exercisers may not be ready to do.

    Plate-Loaded Machines

    These work the same as stack machines in that they work on a fixed path. The difference is, you have to load the plates onto the machine.

    This can be an advantage for someone wanting to build strength and size because he or she can control exactly how much weight is lifted. The disadvantage is, of course, you have to load the plates yourself which can be a workout all by itself.

    If you've ever worked out at a gym, you've probably run into the problem of having to unload a machine someone left behind. Not very good gym etiquette.

    The Pros and Cons of Machines

    Pros

    • Easy to use. Most machines are easy to figure out, with many of them including pictures of exactly how to do the exercises.
    • Supportive. Machines offer padded support for your body, so you can work on building strength without having to worry too much about form.
    • You can lift heavier weights without a spotter. Because of that support, you can usually lift heavier weights in a safe way without worrying about injury.
    • More controlled. Machines move you through the correct movement of the exercise, so it's hard to cheat, even when your muscles get tired.
    • Less intimidating. For beginners, machines may be a good choice because you know exactly how to use them. Most gyms group machines according to muscle group, so you can usually go right from one machine to the next without any muss or fuss.
    • Safer. You're less likely to hurt yourself because the machine is supporting the rest of your body.

    Cons

    • Fixed path. The predetermined path in most machines can be nice for beginners, but it also means that you're not involving the stabilizer muscles like you would with free weights. That makes machines a little less functional since our bodies don't move on a fixed path.
    • Limited movement. With dumbbells, you can do a wide variety of exercises, but machines usually offer just one exercise. 
    • One size fits all. The other disadvantage of using machines is that they're made for the average sized person. If you're shorter or taller than average, you may have a harder time finding a comfortable position on some machines.
    • Boring. You can find plenty of things to do with free weights, but machines only do one thing. It's easy to get bored over time.

    Cable and Pulley Machines

    Cable and pulley machines are also common at most gyms and they offer a different kind of strength training. Unlike machines, cables and pulleys don't follow a fixed path. That means you have to involve all of your stabilizer muscles to control the movement of the cables. The more muscles you involve, the stronger you get and the more calories you burn.

    And, unlike free weights, cable machines vary the weight throughout the full range of motion of the exercise. So, unlike the dumbbell biceps curl where there's only one peak moment in the exercise, a cable biceps curl varies the resistance as you curl the weight up and down, so your muscles maintain the same resistance throughout the exercise.

    The Pros and Cons of Cable and Pulley Machines

    Pros

    • More effective. Cable machines vary the weight throughout the full range of motion of the exercise, giving your muscles the most effective resistance for building strength.
    • Versatility. With these machines, you can adjust the cables up or down to accommodate almost any exercise for the upper and lower body. You can also adjust the cables to do one arm or leg at a time, giving you even more options.
    • Variety. Cable machines often have a range of attachments like ropes, bars, and handles so you can do the same exercise in a multitude of ways.

    Cons

    • Higher learning curve. Like free weights, you're in control of moving the weight up and down and keeping good form, something that may be harder for beginners.
    • More intense. Because you get resistance at each phase of the motion, you fire more muscle fibers and that leads to more intensity. Again, this may not be comfortable for the beginner who isn't used to lifting weights.
    • Can be confusing. The versatility of cables and pulley machines may also be intimidating to new exercisers. Seeing all the attachments and trying to figure out how they work can be confusing, so you may need more help from a pro when using these types of machines.

    Examples of Machine Exercises

    There are no favorites when it comes to choosing strength training equipment. All of these options can help you get strong and build lean muscle tissue. Your best bet is to use a variety of equipment so you're always challenging your body in new ways.

    Sources:

    The American Council on Exercise. Free Weights vs. Strength-training Equipment. ACE Fit. https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/fitness-fact-article/2655/free-weights-vs-strength-training/. 

    Bryant CX, Green DJ. ACE Personal Trainer Manual: the Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise; 2003.

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