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!