Even if you've never picked up a set of dumbbells or swung a kettlebell, there's an easy way to get started with these free weights. Resistance training like this isn't just another item to check off your to-do list, it's an incredibly beneficial use of you time.
Strength training helps you build stronger muscle and stronger bones and improves your insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular health. So it's no wonder why 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 at least two full-body resistance training sessions a week.
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So grab your dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, sandbags or kettlebells and fire up those muscles with these free weight exercises for beginners.
Plan Your Free-Weight Workout
Before you get started pumping iron, there are a couple of things you should know:
- How often should you do free weight workouts? Aim for 2 to 3 weight-training sessions a week.
- How long should they be? It depends on your goal and schedule, but anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes is a good place to start.
- What kind of workouts are best? Stick to full-body workouts that target every major muscle group: chest, back, arms, shoulders, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and abs.
- What kind of exercises are best? You'll work the most muscles in the least amount of time by focusing on compound exercises — ones that work multiple muscles at once.
- What kind of free weights should I use? Whatever you feel comfortable with — dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, sandbags or kettlebells. For most beginners, that means dumbbells.
Keep in mind, 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.
How Much Should You Lift?
Every beginner faces this question, and unfortunately, there's 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 10-pound range depending on the exercise. Pay attention to how many times you you can do the exercise with good technique (aka reps). As a beginner, your goal should be to do 8 to 12 reps and 1 to 2 sets (rounds of reps).
If you skate through the entire set with no problem, the weight is too light — try a heavier weight. If you're struggling to get 8 reps done with good form, the weight is too heavy — try something lighter.
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.
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 help keep you injury-free.
Best Free-Weight Exercises for Beginners
OK, it's time to hit the weight room. Whether you're working out in a gym or at home, here are a few beginner-friendly free-weight exercises that, performed together, create a full-body workout. Most of these moves can be performed with any variety of free weight — dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, sandbags or kettlebells.
Your body thrives on new challenges, though, so don't be afraid to switch up your workouts every four to six weeks, choosing different exercises for one or more muscle groups.
Do: 8 to 12 reps of each exercise and repeat for 3 sets
1. 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 (or a barbell).
- 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.
Dumbbell rows work your back, shoulders and biceps (the big muscle in the front of your upper arm).
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand (or a barbell).
- Hinge forward at your hips, keeping your back flat. Think "chest up and out" to keep your back from rounding.
- Pull the dumbbells straight up beside your body with a controlled motion. Both the weights and your elbows should stay close to your body.
- Lower the weights back to the starting position.
3. Shoulder Press
Shoulder presses (also called overhead presses) work, well, your shoulders. They build functional strength for when you're reaching for things on a high shelf, for example.
- Hold a barbell (or a pair of dumbbells) at shoulder height, elbows pointed down and out.
- Brace your core as you press the weight overhead without locking out your elbow.
- Lower the weight back down.
4. Weighted Lunges
Lunges work the muscles in your lower body, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. When you first start out, practice doing lunges with only your body weight as resistance.
Once you're ready for extra resistance, hold a 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 a 90-degree 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.
Make sure 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
Squats are also a great lower-body exercise that target your quads, glutes and hamstrings.
- Begin with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
- Keeping your back flat, shoulders back and chest out, push your hips back and begin to sit down towards the ground.
- Lower until your thighs are parallel with the ground, pausing for a moment.
- Reverse the motion, pushing the hips forward and return to standing.