Using Free Weights for Resistance Training

Resistance training is a type of strength-training exercise that gets you to use your muscles against some form of resistance. The most common forms of resistance are free weights and strength-training equipment.

Strength training is an important part of a total physical fitness plan for both men and women. It improves muscle strength and endurance. Regular exercise also decreases the loss of muscle that comes with aging, and it can improve your heart health, bone strength, balance, and coordination.

Woman training with free weights

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you need both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise every week. The college recommends including muscle strengthening in your routine at least two days a week.

The benefits of free weights

Free weights, often called dumbbells, come in different weight sizes or can be adjusted to hold different weights. Using free weights for resistance strength training has many advantages:

  • Because you use many different muscles to maintain your balance while using free weights, you get better overall improvement in muscle strength.

  • Free-weight exercises may provide more benefits in strength and endurance for everyday activities.

  • Free weights are versatile and can be used for many different exercises.

  • Free weights are inexpensive, enabling you to do resistance training at home, if you prefer that to going to a gym.

Putting together a training routine

A good starting plan is to do about 20 minutes of exercise two to three times a week, but not on consecutive days. Your muscles need time to recover. Pick about six exercises to start, and repeat each exercise eight to 12 times. This is called a set. Start with one or two sets for each exercise.

The amount of weight you choose will depend on your strength and overall condition. It should be enough weight to challenge you, but not so much that you can’t complete the minimum of eight repetitions. Do not try to lift too much weight, and lift with a partner or spotter if you are new to lifting weights, or if you are using heavy weights. Perform each set slowly, and in a controlled manner. Rest at least one minute between sets.

Technique, safety, and balance are important to avoid injury. You must take precautions. If you have not trained with weights before, you should get instruction from a personal trainer before you begin.

Here are examples of six upper body exercises you can start with. You may do them sitting or standing, with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent. Always exhale as you lift and inhale as you return; never hold your breath.

  • Lateral shoulder raise. Let you arms hang down, with a dumbbell in each hand. Raise both weights out to the sides, arms straight, with elbows slightly bent. Stop lifting at shoulder height and then slowly lower your arms.

  • Front shoulder raise. Let you arms hang down, with a dumbbell in each hand. Raise both weights out in front of you, arms straight, with elbows slightly bent. Stop lifting at shoulder height and then slowly lower your arms.

  • Upright row. Let both arms hang down, with a dumbbell in each hand. Lift the weights straight up, keeping your hands close together so that your elbows extend outward as you lift your wrists toward your shoulders. Stop when the weights reach chin level.

  • Arm curls. With a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing outward, lift both weights by curling your arms until your hands are up to shoulder level. Keep your elbows in close to your sides.

  • Backward arm curls. Let you arms hang down, with a dumbbell in each hand. Start this exercise by lifting one arm straight over your head. Lower the weight behind your head, bending at the elbow, until it touches your back. Then lift back up to the starting position. Keep your upper arm close to your head. Alternate sides for each set. 

  • Alternate dumbbell presses. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and curl both arms so that your wrists are at shoulder level. From this position, press one dumbbell straight up until your arm is extended above your head, with the upper arm close to your head. Lower the weight to shoulder level and then repeat on the other side, alternating arms during each set. Try not to lean from side to side as you lift.

Over time you can add different types of free weight exercises, including lower body exercises, and you can add more weight to each set. Always include some gentle stretching before and after your strength training.

Strength training with free weights is easy to learn and can be a great addition to your fitness routine. Just remember to get some instruction and, if you're new to exercise or have any health issues, check with your doctor before starting this or any workout routine. If you experience pain, discomfort, chest pain, shortness of breath, or dizziness during exercise, stop the activity immediately and consult your doctor.