Taming the Weight Room 2: The Equipment

This is the second in a series of blog posts, you can find the first here.

Today I’m going to give you a ‘tour’ of a typical weight room, familiarize you with the equipment you will find there, and give you some tips for finding your bearings in this unfamiliar place. When you know what the equipment is for and how to use it, it’s a whole lot less intimidating!

There are two main categories of weightlifting equipments: free weights and weight machines. Many people feel more comfortable starting out on machines, so we’ll start there.

Weight Machines

Weight machines are large pieces of equipment that are used to work one muscle or muscle group in one motor pathway. Their appeal is that they are easy to use (you can usually find instructions for their use right on the machine) and reduce the risk of injury to the user. Both of these factors make them appealing to beginners, and machines can be a good starting point for someone just getting acclimated to the gym. They have drawbacks, however. Because they force the body into one motor pathway over and over, there is a risk of overuse injuries. And, because they isolate a single muscle or muscle group, they don’t allow the body to work as a unit and strengthen stabilizing muscles. If you do decide to start on machines, move to free weights as soon as possible.

Cable machines are very large pieces of equipment that utilize weight stacks connected to handles via a system of pulleys and cables. Cable machines are much more versatile than standard weight machines, and allow the body to work more as a unit, thereby allowing for improvements in core strength and stability. Most cable machines allow the user to do a wide variety of exercises.

Expert Village has a great collection of tutorial videos for using weight machines properly, find them here.

Free Weights

Dumbbells and barbells can be more intimidating to beginners, which is unfortunate because they’re far more effective for building full-body strength than machines. There are two main benefits to free weights:

They recruit more muscles. With free weights, you aren’t locked into one motor pathway, so your body is able to recruit more stabilizing and supportive muscles to accomplish the task of moving the weight. This allows your body to get stronger in more natural chains of motion, which translates to better real-world functionality. When you’re working in a standing position, free weights force your core to engage to do the job it is intended for: stabilization. The end result is that your core strength improves without needing to devote time to core isolating exercises. I do very little dedicated core work but have well developed abs nonetheless, because I do lots of free weight exercises that keep my core engaged to stabilize.

They’re more fun. Lets face it, for most of us, sitting in a machine and doing the exact same repetitive motion multiple times can be a little dull. Free weights provide more variety and challenge, and as you get stronger and more skilled you can advance to increasingly intricate moves, like snatches and clean and jerks.

Hiring a Personal Trainer to get you started with some basic coaching in form and proper use of weight equipment is a very good idea, but if it’s not an option there are lots of great resources to draw from. Exrx.net has wonderful exercise tutorial descriptions and videos.

Some basic free weight tips:
-the long barbell that you load weight plates onto is called an Olympic bar and its standard weight is 45 pounds
-when you calculate how much weight you’re lifting, include the weight of the bar
-the ‘Power Rack’ is the tall metal cage looking contraption used for squats. Some people call it the squat rack or squat cage. I found a great basic tutorial for it’s use here.
-use ‘clips‘ or ‘collars‘ to secure weight plates onto the bar
-most weight plates are made of metal and come in standard weights of 1, 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 35 and 45 pounds. Bumper plates are made of rubber and are designed for use in Olympic lifting and any lifting where dropping the bar during a lift may become necessary. They generally come in 10, 15, 25, 35, 45 and sometimes 55 or more pounds.

Other Equipment

Other equipment you may find in your weight room:

Kettlebells are fun and a great way to add variety to your workouts. Exrx.net has great kettlebell tutorials.
-steps and boxes for box jumps, step ups and other exercises utilizing elevated surface
-sandbags – I love my sandbag. You can use it in place of a barbell or dumbbell for almost any exercise, and do other things like shouldering that you can’t do with standard weight training equipment.
-battleropes, agility ladders, medicine balls and more. If you find a piece of equipment you want to add to your routine, youtube is a great place to look for tutorials and ideas.

Hopefully this gives you a better sense of familiarity with the equipment you’ll find in a typical weight room. In the next installment of this series I’ll discuss the exercises themselves, and go over how to put a basic workout together. Stay tuned!


19 thoughts on “Taming the Weight Room 2: The Equipment

  1. This is great – really looking forward to putting a weights workout together.

  2. Amber, I have been fumbling around in the dark looking for the light switch. Thank you so much for touching me on the shoulder and pointing me in the right direction. Sometimes trying to figure out what you need to do is more overwhelming than actually doing it. I want you to know that you have made me cry so many times over the few months I have been following you.. I don’t feel so alone, or stupid, or hopeless… so never ever doubt that what you are doing is making a huge difference in someones life. I know what you do is tireless and thankless. I know that you get a lot of flack.. but know that as I sit here crying and typing that I am so grateful for you..

  3. Hooray!!!! Thanks for putting this long-awaited post together. Now I’ll go read it, heh '? Keep ’em coming!

  4. Using machines doesn’t recruit the central nervous system in the same “good-stress way” that free weights do. Also, the skeletal loading is good for bone density. Free weights always outrank machines, unless there’s a specific injury one’s recovering from. (Amber, your thoughts/expertise on this would be great to hear!)

    For those interested, Lou Schuler/Alwyn Cosgrove’s book “New Rules of Lifting for Women” (or any of their books really) and especially Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength” are great resources, for those who like to balance their youtube surfing with good old-fashioned brain-building reading '?

  5. I think some women may not like to go into the free weight area because it is mostly guys there. Actually men like it when women work out in the free weight area, otherwise it’s a sausage fest. Nobody gets annoyed if a woman uses the equipment, what annoys us is being in a room with 30 other guys. A little diversity makes it a much more pleasant workout.

  6. I confess I am a little uneasy and intimidated when going to the gym’s weight machines section. I’m currently using dumbbells at my house, following a video exercise. I join the gym’s exercise classes for cardio training. I have to do more strength training.

  7. Thank you so much for thinking of us newbies! I’ve been lifting for a few months and I have only recently found out that people include the weight of the bar in their lifts numbers, haha.

  8. @Maya: “I confess I am a little uneasy and intimidated when going to the gym's weight machines section. I'm currently using dumbbells at my house”

    No reason you should feel compelled to use the machines over free weights.

    With free weights there are far fewer exercises to learn, in a typical gym session I will do at most four different exercises, often only two. You are already used to using dumbbells, the only catch to using the barbell at the gym is that the barbell weighs 45 pounds. It’s best to use just the barbell without any weights on it until you get used to the exercise. Imo it is wise to spend a few weeks just getting used to the motion and developing a full range of motion before adding significant weight to the barbell.

    Weight machines can be risky compared to free weights, some brands of machines are safer than others. Personally, I like the plate-loaded Hammer Strength machines but fewer gyms are carrying that line of machines these days.

  9. Amber, I can’t find anywhere what the weight of MY barbell is. It’s a York and I don’t think it weighs nearly as much as an Olympic barbell. Any knowledge of it?

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