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Weight Training Basics: Part 1: Choosing the Best Options

Bryant Stamford, PhD


This is the first of two Exercise Advisers on weight training. The second, on establishing a program, appears in March.

No longer solely the realm of glistening bodybuilders, lifting weights has become one of the most popular fitness activities for people of all ages. The benefits of pumping iron—also called weight training, strength training, or resistance training—can include stronger muscles, better heart health, a leaner physique, and a body more fit for daily tasks.

The number of benefits, in fact, is surpassed only by the variety of ways you can work your muscles. Commercial gym or home set-up? Barbells and dumbbells (called "free weights"), or weight-training machines? The optimal program may vary not only by individual, but also by circumstance. This page and the next give you some things to consider before deciding

Homebody or Gym Rat?

The Case for Home Exercise

Convenience. For convenience, there's no place like home. You don't have to conform to the gym's hours, travel time is tallied in seconds, the weather is no worry, and parking's a snap. Also, you don't have to fret over your looks unless you care what the dog thinks.

Pumped-up privacy. At home, you can avoid people you don't know or like. Beginners, who often feel weak and awkward, may especially crave the privacy of home. Working out with folks of the opposite sex can also be intimidating.

No noise, no waiting. The home gym has few distractions, such as someone else's loud music or chatter. Also, there's no waiting in line.

Clean interior. At home, the sweat on the bench and the germs on the bar are your own.

Low money down. Equipping a home gym can cost relatively little if you are satisfied with the basics.

No monthly payments. Most commercial gyms require payment for a year or more whether you attend or not.

The Case for the Gym

Adult stimulation. Gyms and health clubs often teem with motivated exercisers who can inspire you when you would rather loaf. Home exercise, on the other hand, can be tedious unless you work out with a buddy or can afford to hire a personal trainer.

Social services. The social climate of the gym lets you meet new friends and enjoy camaraderie.

Club pros. Good gyms offer professional supervision. (Some gyms, though, are staffed by salespeople with little exercise background, so ask before you join.) Many gyms offer professional trainers for a fee.

Loaded with options. Gyms have many exercise stations, including aerobic options.

Open spaces. A home gym, however modest, may demand more space than you have available.

Convenient locations. Membership in a gym that is part of a chain allows the use of all branches, which means you can exercise for free when you are out of town or across town.

The Bottom Line

If you can afford it, both options are best: Use free weights and a bench at home when you can't get to the gym. Most people, though, must choose between home and gym. If so, decide which advantages are most important to you. If you lack motivation, for example, the gym might be better.

Dumbbells or 'Smart' Machines?

The Case for Free Weights

Versatility. Free weights, especially dumbbells, offer great versatility for strength training. A dumbbell exercise can be altered by holding the dumbbells with your palms facing forward, facing the thighs, or facing the rear. Voilà—you have three separate exercises that work your muscles in different ways. Machines, in contrast, are much more limited, with most devices allowing only one exercise apiece.

Pocketbook payoff. Barbells and dumbbells are relatively inexpensive. The expense climbs when adding benches, racks, and other accessories, but even then, the cost is far less than the thousands of dollars that some high-tech machines cost. Multiple-station machines designed for home use are an option. Some cheaper machines, though, may be poor in quality, a bit clunky, and in need of considerable upkeep.

Motivational lift. Resistance training requires a lot of desire and motivation. Lifting a loaded barbell may offer a greater sense of accomplishment than working against a given resistance on a machine.

Explosive action. A good many strength coaches believe that the gains derived from free weights transfer better to sports like football that require strength. What helps, they say, is that lifting heavy barbells promotes explosive bursts of power. Strength-training machines tend to control movements and to discourage explosiveness.

Muscle grouping. Some barbell exercises involve several major muscle groups at the same time—lifting a barbell from the floor to the chest, for example, then pressing it overhead. Like explosiveness, this also helps in transferring strength from the gym to athletics.

The Case for Machines

Safety. Machines have built-in safety features. When you can no longer push a weight, you can slide out from under it. Free weights can pin you when your muscles tire. Also, weights can fall off the end of the bar and cause injury.

Hope for the clumsy. Machines remove balance as a factor. With free weights, the novice must learn to balance the weight while exerting force. This can be difficult and dangerous when, for example, you lift a weight overhead or do squats.

Directed lifting. Machines ensure correct movements for a lift, which helps prevent cheating when fatigue sets in. Barbells, in contrast, can be swung for momentum rather than lifted slowly and steadily, which works the muscles better. Another way to "cheat" the muscles is to tilt forward or backward to shift stress from the targeted muscles to larger and stronger muscles.

Focused training. Machines isolate the specific muscles that are exercising. This is good for rehabilitating an injury or strengthening a specific body part.

High-tech resistance. Machines can offer high-tech options like varying resistance during the lifting motion. This can tax muscles in ways that a traditional barbell cannot.

Quick change. Changing the resistance on a machine simply means inserting a pin or entering a code. With free weights, plates must be hoisted on and off the bar.

Less clutter. Machines are self-contained and neat. There are no weights scattered about creating a hazard and an eyesore.

The Bottom Line

In general, machines may be preferable for the novice because of their convenience, safety, and ease of operation. But cost is a factor for home exercisers. Strength athletes prefer free weights to machines, because they yield more sports-specific gains. Beginners may want to eventually add some free weight exercises to their routine to cover all the bases.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.




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