This guide to weightlifting equipment will help you recognize equipment in the free weights section, know how to properly use them, and gives a few exercise suggestions that can be done with each piece of equipment.
The gym can be a daunting place for many, but the free weights section seems to invoke a certain type of fear for beginners. If you have been curiously staring at the weightlifting room from afar in the cardio section, now is the time to take the leap! Below is a guide to the most common free weight equipment found in gyms, and their uses.
A Guide to the Weightlifting Room
You are probably familiar with this weightlifting room staple, but dumbbells are very versatile and great for isolation exercises. If you are looking to build strength in specific muscles or muscle groups, dumbbells are your best choice.
These were originally designed to be put on the ends of barbells (covered below). However, weight plates are also great for making bodyweight exercises more difficult. For example: placing a plate on your back while holding a plank position, or holding a plate overhead during lunges.
There are a few variations of barbells, and you should choose wisely depending on your goals.
An Olympic barbell is 7 feet long and 45 pounds. It can hold up to 800 pounds of weight. This barbell is the choice for Olympic Lifts. Check out this Olympic Lifting Starter Plan for how-to video tutorials on barbell lifts.
These are barbells shorter in length, and of a fixed weight. Theoretically, you can use them exactly the same as non-fixed weight barbells. However, it is less common to use fixed weight barbells for Olympic lifts.
This is the funny, wiggly-shaped bar at the gym. Like the name implies, it is designed specifically for curling exercises (mostly biceps). The funny shape actually allows for a more “natural” hand grip when curling, and some say they can curl more weight with an EZ-Curl bar than with a straight barbell. Ez-Curls come as bar-only, and as fixed-weight.
If you are going to add plates to your barbell, you must use barbell clips to hold them in place, otherwise they will fall of the ends once you start moving the barbell around.
These will probably be scattered throughout the free weights section and have a plethora of uses. There are flat benches, incline benches, and decline benches. “Olympic style” benches mean that there is a barbell rack attached to the bench.
Olympic benches are for barbell exercises, while benches with no racks are generally for dumbbell & bodyweight exercises.
These benches are the most versatile, and can be used to support you in a huge variety of exercises.
These benches are for performing exercises while you sit, the advantage being back support.
These are benches for performing exercises during which your head is below your feet.
These are most commonly used for bench presses. However, some Olympic benches are adjustable to be incline and decline, as well as flat. On those Olympic benches you have more choices for exercises, such as incline military presses or decline bench presses.
This confusing looking bench is for strengthening your core & back muscles. Use this bench by hooking your feet around the rollers, and resting your thighs on the padding, so that your torso hangs off the bench (here is a picture of how to sit on the roman chair).
This is a bench with an angled pad for you to rest your upper arms on for stability during bicep exercises. You can use either dumbbells or a barbell for bicep curls on the preacher bench.
This section covers exercise racks, which are different from weight storage racks (not covered in this post).
The squat rack is for squatting, obviously. The basic squat rack will have pegs on the side for holding plates, hooks for storing the barbell, and two spotter “arms”. The spotter arms are there the catch the weight in case you fail on a squat.
However, along with back, front, and overhead squats, it is also socially acceptable at the gym to use the squat rack as a station for deadlifts, cleans, thrusters, and other Olympic lifts. To do lifts other than squats, simply back out of the range of the spotter arms. Keep in mind that if you do so, you must be much more careful because there is no spotter if you drop the barbell.
The power rack is probably the single most versatile piece of equipment at the gym. A good power rack will include a pull up bar, dip bars, and spotter arms/hooks that are adjustable. This is a big deal because unlike the fixed spotters of the squat rack, spotters that are adjustable to any height for any exercise means you can safely do almost every heavy lift alone.
Any barbell exercise can be done in the power rack, but it is considered “rude” to do isometric exercises (such as bicep curls) in the rack. The power rack should be used for heavy, multi-joint lifts that require a spotter.
The Smith machine is a cross between a machine and a free weight barbell. It is a barbell that slides on a fixed rail, and can lock into certain places on the track. there is a simple J-hook locking mechanism that acts as a spotter. The Smith machine is good for exercises in which the barbell moves only along the vertical plane. For instance, this would be a horrible choice for practicing snatches, but a good choice for bench presses.
These are great for working on dips, pull ups, or any hanging exercise such as L-hangs or toes-to-bar. They come in a variety of arrangements, but if you see a big, tall piece of equipment with zero gears, pulleys, cords, or weights- it’s probably a power tower.
Any good gym should have at least two of these. A captains chair will have a pull up bar, dip bars, and back & arm padding (the “chair” part) for leg raises. Here is a picture of how to use the captains chair for leg raises.
These are less common in gyms, as there are usually multiple other pieces of equipment with pull up and dip bars attached. However, if you see an object like this, it is for pull ups and dips.
Structured Strength Training Plans for Beginners:
- Rise Strength by Diane Fu and Andrea Ager
- Gymnastics Strength Virtuosity by Dave Durante
- Beginner Strength by Krissy Cagney