The machine area of the gym is like a kiddie pool. It’s where beginners can get their feet wet and wade around in shallow waters where it’s safe and comfortable. But if it’s significant body change you’re after, you’re going to have take a dip in the deep end. That means getting off the machines and learning how to use free weights.
It can be intimidating at first, but once you know which exercises to do you’ll settle right in. And the more you practice them, the more confident you’ll be taking up space in the weight room.
Remember, you have every right to be there as a more seasoned gym-goer.
You want to be using free weights because they challenge your body more so than machines. On a machine, the weight is moving on a fixed track and your body doesn’t have to work stabilize the weight. When you use free weights, your body has to learn to balance and stabilize itself along with the weight. So with dumbells, kettlebells, and a barbell you’re working harder, recruiting more muscles, and doing movements that are more functional.
The exercises listed below are also compound movements, which means they use more than one muscle group and more than one joint. You get more bang for your buck with compound movements because they burn more calories, get stronger, and build more muscle. And all you need for these exercises is a kettlebell and a set of dumbbells, which makes them good options for home workouts.
Popularized by Crossfit, this squat-press hybrid challenges both your cardio and strength.
Directions: With the dumbbells resting above your shoulders, squat as deep as you can. As you come up, use the momentum to press the dumbbells straight overhead. In a controlled motion, bring them back down to your shoulders and repeat.
The kettlebell swing is another Crossfit staple. It builds the strength and power of your posterior chain (i.e., your lower back, butt, and hamstrings), which is important for maintaining proper posture and avoiding injury. And it will also make your backside look great.
Directions: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and use both hands to grip the kettlebell handle. Pick up the kettlebell without bending your arms. The kettlebell should be in a dead hang. Hinge back at the hips, letting the weight of the kettlebell fall back between your knees. Using only your hips, thrust up aggressively, bringing the kettlebell and your arms parallel to the floor. Your back should stay straight through the entire exercise, and you should NOT be pulling at all with your arms. Your hips are doing all the work.
The inverted row is the first step in making your way towards a pull-up. It gets you used to pulling your own weight and is very effective for strengthening your core and back.
Directions: Find a bar that is anywhere between shoulder to hip height. The lower the bar, the more difficult it will be. You can also use the bar on a smith machine. Use an overhand grip on the bar and walk your feet under the bar until your forearms are perpendicular to the bar. Extend your arms so that you’re in a full hang, then pull your chest to the bar making sure to stay tight in your core. No sagging butts!
The squat is the cornerstone of any well-balanced fitness program. It builds muscle and strength, burns calories, and improves mobility. There are many different variations to the squat, but we are going to focus on the goblet squat. A common issue beginners have with the squat is their chest folding over excessively as they go down or come back up. Holding a weight in front of your chest helps to force your upper body to stay upright.
Directions: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and use both hands to grip the kettlebell handle. Pick up the kettlebell and hold it in front of your chest. Perform a squat while keeping your chest as upright as possible.
The kettlebell deadlift is a good introduction to the deadlift movement for beginners, as a kettlebell is easier to manage than a barbell. And you’ll still be working your core, back, glutes, and hamstrings. The deadlift recruits more muscle than other single-lift exercise, so it’s a movement you’ll definitely want to master.
Directions: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. The kettlebell should be placed between your feet or slightly behind your ankles. Hinge at the hips, reach for the kettlebell, and engage your lats. Keep your back straight and eyes on the horizon. While holding the kettlebell, press the floor and stand up tall.