Weight training is one of the best ways to get back in shape. Of course, if you’re looking to boost size or strength you’re going to need weights as well.
But what kind of weight training equipment should you use?
This has a pretty big impact on your workout at the gym, or even what gym you sign up for.
If you’re looking to purchase equipment for your ultimate home gym setup you’ll want to keep this in mind as well.
There are plenty of options out there for you to consider, so if you’re not sure what to go with it can be a bit of a head scratcher, but don’t worry. We’ve got you completely covered here.
The Best Weight Training Equipment
Free weights are the most basic form of bodybuilding equipment. They are called “free weights” because there are no attached pulleys, pins, cables, or weight stacks.
Let’s start right out of the gate with the best weight training equipment you should use (and purchase). Free weight training or machine weight training?
Free weights are the best for gaining muscle and can be used for many different types of exercises.
You might wonder why.
After all, 100 pounds is 100 pounds, right? Well, yes and no.
Sure, you can use the shoulder press machine to put up the same amount of weight as you would with a pair of dumbbells. The weight may be the same, but you utilize more muscles with dumbbells than you would be using a machine.
Why? Because there are stabilizer muscles your body must engage whenever you use free weights.
When you hold dumbbells over your shoulders and press up, you’re not just engaging your front and side delt muscles. There are forearm muscles that help keep the weights stable.
You’re working some of your side obliques to prevent you from rocking back and forth. You’ll also hit your lats and traps as you keep your back erect and avoid any tipping over.
You don’t work any of these muscles with the machine, because the machine is doing all of the stabilizing work for you.
Working these stabilizing muscles will not drastically improve your lift, but it does help some.
Add this up across every single lift you do and now there’s a sizable difference. In fact, you’ll probably discover you can’t put up as much weight when you’re using free weights than when you’re using the machines because of this.
However, that’s perfectly fine, because you don’t want to just train one muscle. You want to train all of your body (Coach Nine, 2016).
“Free weights” consist of barbells, dumbbells, and weight plates.
A barbell is an iron bar that is 4-7 feet long and at both ends of this iron bar, you place weight plates. To perform a barbell exercise, you grab the middle of the iron bar with both hands.
A dumbbell is a short barbell that is grabbed with one hand, usually 10 – 15 inches long. Dumbbells can be anywhere between 5 pounds to 100 plus pounds.
Most of the time, you see dumbbells in increments of 5 pounds (i.e. 5 lb. dumbbells, 10 lb. dumbbells, 15 lb. dumbbells, etc.).
The third type of free weight is a weight plate and these range from 2.5 lbs. to 100 lbs. They are usually iron, however, many home gyms have plastic weight plates.
The good thing about free weights is that you can slowly build up your collection of weights. Going out and buying 200 pounds of free weights right out of the gate is expensive.
Most fitness stores are going to sell you free weights at around a dollar per pound.
You could get a membership at a chain gym for a whole full year at that price.
If you’re just starting out, you can purchase some free weights from the store, although the best option is to check websites like Craigslist for people selling weight training equipment. You can also check garage sales or even the app “let go”.
There are a number of locations you can buy free weights for cheap and build up your weight collection quickly.
In other words, don’t buy a set of 20-pound dumbbells.
Instead, buy weight you can adjust and remove. If you buy a set of 20-pound dumbbells you’ll then need to buy a set of 25-pound dumbbells when you want to move up the weight.
You can get an adjustable dumbbell where you can take off or put on various weight plates. You can buy a complete set at an affordable price.
While it may be tempting to have the formed weight at your disposal, you will save a lot of money by going with the adjustable dumbbell.
The weight lifting bench is a piece of weight training equipment you need to have in any gym.
If you’re using a gym, this likely won’t be a problem because every gym should have it. If you’re building a home gym you’ll need to invest in one.
There are two bench options.
First, you can get one with attachments. This combo set usually includes a flat-to-incline bench and a squat rack.
The second type of bench is one with no attachments and just the bench itself. If you have limited space for your home gym then the bench itself will work just fine.
Since you will be using dumbbells instead of a barbell on this bench, you most likely won’t be able to lift as heavy of weight.
You can make up for not lifting big by lifting slowly. Slowing down the impact on your muscles is one of the ways you can force the impact on your muscles.
It is important to use a bench that allows you to adjust the angle though. You want to be able to shift it from a flat bench to an incline and a decline.
Lifting at both inclines and declines target your muscles different, which helps with building everything from your pecs to your biceps.
Barbells vs Dumbbells
Dumbbells are great because you can work each side of your body. Since dumbbells are not connected they allow for a much deeper stretch and contraction for most exercises.
Sometimes with a barbell, one side of your body can overcompensate for the other side.
Now, with that said, you can lift heavier weights with a barbell because the body helps stabilize itself. This is because you’re dealing with only one heavy object and not two.
The barbell is perfect for your main lifts, like squats and bench press.
Of course, if you’ve spent any time at the local gym, you know there are all kinds of different bars and handles.
A curl bar is nice based on how it curls to emphasize your biceps and to make it easier to use (it’s also a great bar to use for the skull crusher tricep lift). However, when building a home gym it’s not necessary just yet to invest in such a bar. You can do so later on down the line.
At the gym using this kind of a bar is good for building both sides of your arm. Again, anything with free weights gives you a major advantage, and it’s one you should take advantage of (Medium, 2017).
When Machines Are Better
Probably 95 percent of the time using free weights is better. But that other five percent?
It’s because a machine can do something free weights can’t physically do.
Take the lat pulldown, for example. This is one of the better ways to work your lats and traps.
However, you can’t really perform a lat pulldown with free weights (if you lift slowly on the bench press you target the area, but you’re not pulling the weight to your chest, so there is a difference).
Realistically, it’s not an actual machine you want to turn to but a cable system.
The cable equipment at your local gym is a great addition to take advantage of. There are a handful of lifts this machine lets you do that you won’t be able to do with your dumbbells or barbells.
Beyond the lat pulldown, there is the row, which is excellent for working your entire back.
There are always exercises you can do with free weights that will hit your back and the rear of your shoulders, but the cable equipment makes this easier.
Of course, if you’re building your own home gym it’s expensive to go out and purchase a full cable setup.
This will cost upwards of $500 for the most basic setup, all the way to over several thousand dollars. Some Bow-Flex devices can do this, but a Bow-Flex takes up considerable space, and many of the lifts you’ll end up doing with free weights anyway.
If you’re creating a home gym, you can invest in resistant bands, but you’re not lifting the actual weight. With the cable equipment, you are lifting the physical weight, and physical weight is always better for gaining muscle.
Visit The Gym In Question
Perhaps you’re not trying to build up your own home gym but instead, you want to find the right gym that will give you the best workout.
If it all comes down to the kind of equipment you have access to, you’ll want to visit the gyms in the area that you are considering.
Most gyms will give you a week pass for free to try out the equipment and to see if you like the facilities or not. You need to look for a few specific things.
First, if it has the kind of equipment you like, and second if you feel comfortable at that particular gym.
Some cross-fit gyms don’t have weightlifting equipment because most of the gym is dedicated to tires and pull-up bars.
On the flip side, a chain gym like Planet Fitness is almost all machines, with a very small section dedicated to free weights.
Sometimes the right gym for you comes down to price and feel over the equipment.
You might like the equipment available at one gym but feel more at home at another. While equipment is important, you need to consider where you’ll be able to put forward your best self and put in your best workout.
If you feel intimidated at a weightlifting gym, don’t go to that one.
It’s important to be honest with yourself. You’re going not to show off but to get in better shape, and if you feel out of sorts at one particular gym than avoid it. It’s as simple as that.
No need to sign up for a membership if you’ll use it a few times and then never go back.
Beyond the equipment and what feels right, always consider the cost and how long a gym is open for. While a chain gym often has more machines than free weights, you’ll also find these chains are often open later or are even open 24 hours.
If you work late, or can only hit the gym at extremely odd times then you need a gym that is going to be open. It doesn’t matter what kind of great equipment one location has if it is closed when you want to work out.
So go with a gym that fits your schedule. This way, you’ll be able to get the most out of your workout, no matter where you go.
Any kind of weight training equipment is better than no weight training equipment.
With that said, not all weight training equipment is created equal.
You need to consider your budget and even where you’re going to work out, but in general, you should always go with free weights whenever possible.
Machines are not able to replicate the kind of workout you get with free weights, although there are a handful of lifts machines can give you that is physically impossible to perform with weights.
Whatever you go with, as long as you use the weights or machines properly, you’ll begin to see size and strength improvements with the right workout routine.