It's no secret that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — along with pretty much every health-oriented organization on the face of the planet — recommends doing resistance training for all your major muscle groups, such as free weight workouts, at least twice a week. But what does that mean?
Grab a set of dumbbells, because you're about to dial in which free weight exercises you can use to meet those requirements. And it's not just about ticking items off a checklist: Along the way you're going to reap the benefits of strength training, which include building sleek muscle and stronger bones, burning fat, bettering your insulin sensitivity and improving cardiovascular health.
Your Workout Plan
Before you get started pumping iron, there are a couple of things you should know. First, your muscles don't get stronger during your free weight workouts — they get stronger as they rebuild during the rest period afterward. So you need at least one rest day between workout days for a given muscle group. When you first start out, that simply means taking a rest day between strength-training workouts.
But if you find that you really enjoy lifting weights, you can work up to splitting your strength-training workouts up by muscle group, so that one group can have its rest day while you work another muscle group. For example, you might alternate between upper-body and lower-body workouts each day, so that while you're working your upper body muscles, your legs get to rest on that day; or vice versa.
For now, though, stick to a full-body workout that targets every major muscle group: chest, back, arms, shoulders, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and abs. You'll work the most muscles in the least amount of time by focusing on compound exercises that work several muscle groups at once. These have the added bonus of simulating real-world activities, so you'll get strong at motions you're called on to perform often.
How Much Should You Lift?
Every beginner faces this question when she first heads for the free weight rack, and unfortunately, there is no cookie-cutter answer. But take heart: A little detective work is all it takes to find the right amount of weight for you.
Start with a weight you know you can handle, perhaps in the 5- to 15-pound range depending on the exercise. Pay attention to how many repetitions you can perform with good technique.
As a beginner, your initial goal should be doing one to two sets of each exercise, with eight to 12 repetitions in each set; then rest a couple of days before doing the workout again that week.
If you skate through the entire set with no problem, the weight is too light — try a heavier weight next time. If you're struggling to get eight reps done with good form, the weight is too heavy — try something lighter next time.
It might be tempting to think that the workouts you spend playing detective are wasted effort, but they're not. Aside from helping you find the right amount of weight to give yourself a healthy challenge, they also give you valuable practice time for developing the proper technique that will keep you from getting injured.
You'll no doubt also notice that larger muscle groups can lift more weight than the small muscle groups and that doing compound exercises sometimes means lifting even larger weights because you have multiple muscle groups working at once. So you won't always be lifting the same size dumbbell for every exercise.
Does every one of your free weight workouts have to involve dumbbells? No. You can also do strength training with barbells, elastic resistance bands, your own body weight or even kettlebells as resistance — but dumbbells offer the best combination of versatility and easy availability for most beginners.
Your Free Weight Exercises
OK, it's time to hit the weight room. Whether you're working out in a gym or at home, here is a set of beginner-friendly free weight exercises that, taken together, create a full-body workout.
Your body thrives on new challenges, though, so don't be afraid to switch up your workouts every six to eight weeks, choosing different exercises for one or more muscle groups.
Dumbbell Chest Press
Chest presses work your chest, shoulders and your triceps (the big muscle in the back of your upper arm).
- Lie face-up on a flat weight bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Extend your arms straight up over your chest (not your head), palms facing down toward your feet.
- Bend your arms out to the side as you lower the weights down toward your chest. Keep your hands (and thus the weights) over your elbows, and stop your elbows either right after they break the plane of your shoulders or, if you choose to go lower, before you feel any discomfort.
- Press the weights back up over your chest. This completes one repetition.
Want a different chest exercise, or are you ready to add another chest workout to your routine? Try doing barbell bench presses, incline or decline presses (you'll need an incline or decline bench for these) or even push-ups.
Try Dumbbell Rows
Dumbbell rows work your back, shoulders and biceps (the big muscle in the front of your upper arm).
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand. Place the knee of the opposite leg up on a weight bench.
- Bend forward, keeping your back flat, and support your torso with your free hand. Think "chest up and out" to keep your back from rounding.
- Pull the dumbbell straight up beside your body with a controlled motion. Both the weight and the elbow of that arm should stay close to your body.
- Lower the weight back to the starting position, taking care not to let the shoulder on that side sag below your other shoulder. This completes one repetition.
With single-sided exercises like this, make sure you remember to switch and work out the other side as well.
Other back exercises you can do with free weights include pullovers, bent-over rows and deadlifts, which work the stabilizing muscles in your back.
Add Lunges to the Mix
Lunges work the muscles in your lower body, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves and core. When you first start out, practice doing lunges with only your body weight as resistance.
Once you're ready to carry weights for extra resistance, hold one dumbbell in each hand and let them hang down beside your body. Make sure they don't swing forward and back (away from your hips) as you move.
- Stand with both feet underneath you, hip-width apart.
- Take a big step forward with your right foot, balancing your body weight between both feet.
- Bend both knees to about a right angle, lowering your torso straight down.
- Check your leg position: Your back (left) knee should be underneath your hips, and your front (right) knee should be over the toes of that foot, not jutting out beyond them. If that's not the case, you need to adjust the length of your step.
- Press off with your legs to stand back up and return to your feet-together starting position. This completes one repetition.
Again, make sure you remember to switch sides and do lunges with your left foot leading forward, too. As you practice and gain confidence, you'll be able to blend the step forward-and-down, then up-and-back, portions of this exercise into their own smooth, continuous motions.
Read more: How to Get Started Training With Kettlebells
You can do near-endless variations on the lunge, from walking lunges to rear lunges, side lunges and curtsey lunges. Or if you want to switch things up even more, try doing squats or deadlifts paired with calf raises.