Fitness

How To Use Free Weights (With GIFs!)

Get a full body workout with just a pair of dumbbells.

Beverley Cheng

Whether your posture’s struggling from a not-so-ergonomic WFH setup (read: kitchen table) or you’re just missing the gym, strength training, which focusses on boosting muscle, can help keep you feeling your best while staying home. For maximum benefits—and minimal storage space required—turn to free weights instead of more elaborate machines or equipment. Not sure how to get started? We asked Toronto-based fitness coach and Born to Sweat founder Beverley Cheng for a full rundown on free weights.

So, what *exactly* is a free weight?

“Simply put, it’s a weight that you can pick up and use in any plane or direction,” says Cheng, underscoring the word “free” in the name. “It’s not attached to a machine or wall.” A dumbbell is perhaps the most common type, but other options include kettlebells, barbells, weight plates, medicine balls and sandbags. Whatever the shape, free weights—like other kinds of strength-training equipment—are all designed to help build muscle: as you push, pull or swing something heavy, your muscles learn to adapt and, consequently, get stronger.

What are the benefits of training with free weights?

“It’s a very functional way of training,” says Cheng. “You can make your exercise match a very typical day-to-day movement because you’re not subjected to moving in just one plane of motion like you would be with a machine.” That means you can do moves that will help strengthen you for everyday life, from carrying heavy grocery bags to lifting your kids to moving furniture around your living room.

Another advantage free weights have over their fixed counterparts is that they get more muscles fired up with each move. “When you’re using a free weight, because it’s not attached to anything, you’re recruiting all these stabilizer muscles, whether it’s in that body part you’re using or even your core,” says Cheng. “Your body has to stand and move in a way that’s balanced, so you’re going to incorporate different muscles to help perform the movement.” To top it all off, they don’t take up much room in your home and offer tons of variety in terms of exercises (more on that in a minute!).

Are there any downsides to free weights?

There’s a reason trainers at gyms will often start new members on machines: they don’t require a baseline of stability and balance in the same way free weights do. But that doesn’t mean newbies need to avoid dumbbells completely. Keep your movements slow and controlled to help avoid injury, and don’t get overzealous. “Start light and build your way up once you develop that confidence,” says Cheng.

What kind of free weight should I buy?

“I can do a year of training with just two dumbbells,” says Cheng. While she loves using a barbell with weighted plates to lift even heavier weights, it’s hard to beat the flexibility of a pair of dumbbells. “There’s not one part of your body that you can’t train with a dumbbell,” she says. Traditional dumbbells are all metal, while some have rubber or neoprene coatings for a softer grip—but they all offer the same function. You can use them together or solo, and grip the bar or flip one vertically to cup just the end. That said, if you can’t get your hands on dumbbells, you still have options. “The next best thing is a kettlebell or a couple of weighted plates—you just hold them differently,” says Cheng, who has successfully hosted her week-long Ultimate Sweataway fitness retreats using only the latter.

How heavy should my weights be?

“I always suggest going up maybe 2.5 pounds from what you would normally be comfortable with because you’re going to build muscle that way,” says Cheng. She recommends doing fewer repetitions of an exercise (also known as “reps”) with a heavier weight rather than more reps with a lighter weight. “If you’re doing 20-plus reps and you’re still not tired, you’re not really building muscle strength anymore; you’re building muscle endurance.” Instead, aim for eight to 12 reps with a weight that leaves you feeling fatigued by the last two or three reps. Still not sure where to start? “In my experience as a fitness instructor, most women will start with anywhere between 10 to 15 pounds,” says Cheng.

What should a free-weight routine look like?

Cheng recommends picking six to eight different exercises per workout, and doing three to four sets of eight to 12 reps for each. You can opt to do one set of each move back-to-back in a circuit, alternate back and forth between two moves, or complete all sets of one exercise before moving onto the next (give yourself a break for a minute or two between sets). “Single sets are better for people who are just starting out because they can focus all of their energy on just one exercise at a time,” says Cheng.

When choosing your exercises, you can designate different days of the week to focus on different parts of the body. For example, Cheng typically sticks to two lower-body days per week, two full-body days and one day for her upper body and core. But the one thing that needs to stay constant? A proper warmup and cool down. Before you pick up your weights, Cheng suggests spending at least five to 10 minutes getting your blood pumping and joints moving, going through the different movements that will be in your workout (say, walking lunges before you tackle weighted ones). When it comes to cool down, that’s when you want to hold static stretches for 30 seconds, says Cheng. “Your warmup will help you build strength and reduce the risk of injuries, and the cool down is what’s going to help minimize your muscle pain in the next few days.”

What exercise can I do for my glutes?

Even if you’re not all about that #belfie life (yes, that’s a butt selfie), your glute muscles play a major role in, well, just about everything you do. Whether you’re sitting, standing or running, the glutes—which include the biggest muscle in your body!—are involved. “I love unilateral (which means one-sided) exercises, because they build strength without causing any imbalances by letting the stronger leg perform the brunt of the work,” says Cheng. Here, your extended leg lends support without taking over.

A gif of a Single-Leg Staggered Dumbbell Hip Thrust

Single-Leg Staggered Dumbbell Hip Thrust:

  1. To get into position, prop the bottom of your shoulder blades against a low bench, bend one knee and keep the other leg extended with your heel lightly planted on the ground. With both hands, hold one dumbbell horizontally across your pelvic bone.
  2. Squeeze your glutes and push through your bent leg’s heel to thrust your hips upwards, using the other foot only for light balance. Keep your chin tucked and stop when your body is parallel to the group to avoid overextending your back.
  3. Lower back down to your starting position, stopping just before your bottom touches the ground.

What exercise can I do for my hamstrings?

Whether you want to run faster, improve your posture or get a perkier butt, these muscles at the back of your thighs can play a major role. This hinge movement (an easier take on a Romanian deadlift, which involves balancing on one leg completely) is one of Cheng’s favourites: “It’s a great exercise because it strengthens the hamstring while the hip is in extension, which mimics daily activities like walking or running. It also forces you to keep your lats [large muscles in your back] and core engaged, making it a full body exercise with a focus on the hamstrings and glutes.”

Single-Leg Dumbbell Hinge gif

Single-Leg Dumbbell Hinge:

  1. With your feet about shoulder-width apart, stagger them slightly for a split stance. Put most of your weight in the forward leg and allow a slight bend in both knees.
  2. With a weight in one hand, slowly hinge your upper body forward, keeping your back straight and sliding the weight straight downwards.
  3. Once the weight is about mid-way down your shin, drive your forward leg’s heel into the ground to help you push yourself back into the starting position.

What exercise can I do for my core?

Almost every movement in your day-to-day life involves your core in one way or another—consider these central muscles as the support system for your entire body. To help strengthen the mid-section, Cheng loves this combo move, which targets both your abdominal muscles and hip flexors: “The boat pose on its own is a challenging exercise, but add a free weight and some flutter kicks and you will be feeling this in no time.”

Weighted Boat Pose with Flutter Kicks, a core free weights move

Weighted Boat Pose with Flutter Kicks:

  1. Lying on a mat (or a blanket will do in a pinch), get into a boat pose: keep your low back pressed to the ground as you raise your head and shoulders up, hold a dumbbell straight up above your chest and raise your legs about six inches from the ground. (If you feel your lower back arching as you lift your legs, bring them a little higher so that you can maintain contact between your back and the mat.)
  2. With your feet flexed and legs straight, mimic a small scissor motion with your legs. Aim to kick from your hips instead of your knees.
  3. Maintain the position and keep fluttering your legs without dropping them. For a continuous movement such as this, aim for a higher rep count of about 20 to 30 kicks.

What exercise can I do for my back?

Strengthening the muscles in your back can help you ditch your slouch while also helping you avoid injury when lifting or pulling things in everyday life. This rowing motion is great because it uses both your latissimus dorsi (the sides of your back) and rhomboids (upper back), plus it also calls on your core as you stabilize. Another win: “Because of the support from the bench, you’re not putting your spine at risk with excessive rounding of the low back,” adds Cheng.

a gif of a Single-Arm Dumbbell Row free weights exercise

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row:

  1. Place one knee and one hand on a bench (or your couch will work!) with your other leg touching the ground and your other hand holding your dumbbell extended straight below your shoulder.
  2. Holding your core tight, slide your shoulder blade back as you pull the dumbbell up towards the side of your ribcage, with your elbow pointed up towards the ceiling.
  3. Slowly lower the dumbbell back towards the starting position, keeping your spine stable throughout the movement.

What exercise can I do for my chest?

Working on your computer day in, day out can cause your pectoral muscles to get tight and shortened (hello shoulder tension and even shortness of breath), so it’s important to consider your chest when you’re putting together your workout plan. And why not multitask? “This exercise is great because it focuses on building strength in your chest, while forcing your core and glutes to work in tandem so you get more bang for your buck,” says Cheng. “It might seem challenging at first, but after doing it a few times, you’ll realize you can press more than you thought.”

a gif of a bridge with chest press exercise with free weights

Bridge with Chest Press:

  1. Lie in a bridge position: place your shoulders and head on the ground, your feet directly below your knees and your body in a straight diagonal line between the two. Hold your weights by your chest with your elbows flared out away from your body.
  2. Draw your shoulder blades back, then press the weights up towards the ceiling.
  3. While using your core and glutes to keep the rest of your body stable, return the weights to your starting position.

What exercise can I do for my arms?

When it comes to strong, toned arms, biceps tend to take the spotlight, but it’s important to tackle your triceps too. These muscles behind your arms come into play for pushing movements (your biceps are pullers) and to help you reach full extension when lifting heavy things above your head, like sliding a box onto the top shelf in your closet. This dumbbell exercise mimics that motion from a lying-down position. “Make sure you’re going nice and slow, and keep your hands on either side of your head so you don’t hit yourself in the face with the weight!” warns Cheng.

A gif of a laying skull crusher, a free weights exercise that uses your arms

Laying Skull Crusher:

  1. Lie down on the floor with your knees bent comfortably. With a dumbbell in each hand, hold your arms straight up above your shoulders.
  2. Keeping your elbows as still as possible, slowly lower the dumbbells towards the sides of your head.
  3. Return to your start position, while continuing to keep your elbows from moving around.

Shop Free Weights:

a 15-pound dumbbell for a piece on free weight exercises

Northern Lights Rubber Hex Dumbbell 15 lbs, $30, Fitness Depot

a kettlebell for an faq on free weights

Bionic Body Soft Kettle Bell with Handle 10 lbs, $32.36, amazon.ca
A red medicine ball for a piece on how to use free weights

Century Strive Medicine Ball 12 lbs, $49.99, sportchek.ca

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