How to Get Started in the Weight Room

Fitness Tips

How to Get Started in the Weight Room

When you first step into a gym, the staff will probably give you a quick orientation on how to use the cardio and strength equipment, but they might not have much to say about the weight room.

That's because you should be familiar with basic strength training exercises on strength equipment before you start lifting free weights. Once you understand the difference between a chest press and a seated row, you're ready to venture into the land of dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells.

Recognizing the Equipment

You'll see three types of free weights in the weight room. Barbells are straight bars that you load with disc-shaped weight plates on each end for extra resistance. Dumbbells look like tiny, handheld barbells, while kettlebells look like cannonballs with handles attached.

Rules of Engagement

If the bar you're lifting is about seven feet long and its ends are two inches in diameter, it's called an Olympic bar and weighs about 45 pounds before you add weight plates. If the bar has one-inch ends, it's called a standard bar and usually weighs 35 pounds or less, depending on its length.

Always check your immediate area to make sure it's clear of people or equipment, and always use collars. These are specialized rings that clamp or screw onto the ends of the bar to secure the weight plates so they won't fall off.

If you use dumbbells or kettlebells, you don't have to worry about switching weight plates back and forth or balancing a long bar. Just grab the appropriate weight, usually one weight for each hand, and go for it.

Whatever sort of weight you use, make sure you keep it under control at all times. Dropping a weight on someone can cause a major injury, as can trying to hoist weights that are too heavy for you.

Starter Exercises

Now that you understand the equipment, here are some basic exercises to get you started. Taken together, they'll work every major muscle group in your body. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise, maintaining good form on every repetition.

  • Chest Press: Lie face-up on a weight bench and press your weight of choice straight up over your chest. (If you're using kettlebells, hold them so the ball part of each bell rests against the outside of your hands.) Bend your elbows, lowering the weight toward your chest; if you're using dumbbells or kettlebells, lower them down and slightly outward. Press the weights back up to complete the repetition.
  • Bent-Over Row: Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. Hinge forward from the hips, keeping your back straight, chest up and out. Keep your elbows close to your body as you pull the barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells up toward your lower ribs, then lower the weight straight back down.
  • Squats: This one works a little differently depending on what sort of free weight you use. Start by mastering the basic movement without weights. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and squat down as if you were sitting in a chair, and watch yourself in a mirror if you can. Most of the motion happens in your hips, so your back should stay flat and tipped slightly forward from the hips. Your shoulders should move directly up and down over your heels.

Once you're comfortable with that motion you can add the weights. Hold one kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging straight at your sides. If you want to use a barbell, rest the bar on the muscular part of your shoulders (not your neck) and hold it steady with a hand on each side.

Making Peace with the Weight Room

Once you've had your first successful venture into the weight room, it's hard to resist coming back. Free weights are an incredibly efficient way to work out -- guaranteed to keep you challenged and entertained when you add them to your exercise routine.