Using Different Weight Training Equipment

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Lifting weights is one of the most important things you can do for your body. You probably know the benefits: Strong bones, muscles, joints, and tendons, as well as building lean muscle tissue, which supports a healthy metabolism. Another great feature of weight training is the sheer variety of equipment you can use.

Yes, a biceps curl is a biceps curl, but it feels much different if you're doing it with a cable machine than a barbell. That's one reason that using various equipment is the key to getting your body fit and strong. Every piece of equipment will target your muscles differently, giving your workout more depth and functionality.

Below you'll find all the options available to you, along with the pros and cons of each one.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends two or more resistance training sessions per week that work every major muscle group.

Free Weights

Free weights include just about any piece of strength equipment that isn't attached to a stationary object. This includes everything from dumbbells and barbells to kettlebells or even sandbags. You can even use things around the house like a weighted backpack, a milk jug filled with sand or water, or even soup cans.

Pros of Free Weights
  • Inexpensive

  • Versatile

  • Functional

  • Tangible results

Cons of Free Weights
  • High learning curve

  • Confusing

  • Easy to use poor form

  • Variation in muscle effort throughout the movement

Compared to weight training machines, dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells aren't as expensive, and they don't take up much space, making them ideal for the home exerciser. They also offer variety. You can use one set of dumbbells for multiple exercises and muscle groups, while many gym machines target just one muscle group.

Most free weight exercises mimic everyday activities. Because you have to hold your body in place while doing exercises, you involve more muscle groups than when using a fixed weight machine. When you lift free weights, you can see and feel your progress as you get stronger and use heavier weights—a great motivator that keeps you going.

Here's a look at the most common types of free weights.

Barbells

These include both fixed weight barbells like you see in a gym or plate-loaded barbells where you can control the weight. Barbells are great because they allow you to lift heavier weights since you have both sides of the body working at the same time.

The downside? Since both sides of the body are working, the dominant side will often take over. So, if you're right-handed, your right arm might work more during a biceps curl or an overhead press. That's one reason it's good to have a mix of barbells and dumbbells.

Dumbbells

Unlike barbells, dumbbells allow you to work each limb individually, which is excellent for building strength in your non-dominant side. You also have to involve more stabilizer muscles for some exercises because there is no fixed path. You have to control how the weight comes up and down so you get more out of your workouts.

Kettlebells

Kettlebells are relatively new but offer a completely different kind of workout. With dumbbells and barbells, our focus is often on strength and building lean muscle tissue. You can get that with kettlebells, but there's much more emphasis on power.

Many kettlebell exercises involve swinging the weight, so it's much more dynamic than using dumbbells. The upside is you can work on multiple aspects of fitness with kettlebells (strength, power, endurance, and even cardio).

The downside is there's a learning curve, so you want instruction from a video or a pro.

Medicine Balls

A medicine ball offers another way to add variety to your workouts. These weighted balls come in almost any weight from one pound to more than 20. You can use them for nearly every exercise you can do with dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells, but with an emphasis on building balance and coordination.

Resistance Bands and Tubes

While these could be categorized under free weights or even cable machines, they stand alone in that they're probably the most versatile of all your choices. They are the lightest and least expensive of all your options.

Resistance bands and tubes come in various colors to signify the amount of tension they offer. For example, SPRI bands offer yellow bands for light resistance, green for medium resistance, and red for higher resistance. They also sometimes come with a door attachment, so you can close them in a door and do things like chest presses or lat pulldowns.

Pros of Resistance Bands
  • Inexpensive

  • Small and lightweight

  • Versatile

  • Increased coordination and enhanced functionality

Cons of Resistance Bands
  • Easy to snap

  • Hard for beginners

  • Varied resistance

Weight Training Machines

Machines are what we usually see at a gym—rows and rows of machines designed to work for individual muscle groups. There are two common types of machines you'll see at most gyms, and which you choose is based on your fitness level, what you're comfortable with, and, of course, your goals.

Stack Machines

These are some of the most common machines you see, machines with rectangular plates that allow you to insert a pin underneath the amount of weight you want to lift.

These machines are usually easy to use and don't require much adjustment, such as raising or lowering the seat. That makes these appealing for beginners because these machines move in a fixed path.

For example, when you're doing a chest press, and you push the handles out, they go out in the same way for every repetition. If you were using dumbbells, you would have to control the path of the weight and ensure you're using good form, something new exercisers may not be ready to do.

Plate-Loaded Machines

These work the same as stack machines in that they work on a fixed path. The difference is you have to load the plates onto the machine.

This can be an advantage for someone wanting to build strength and size because they can control precisely how much weight is lifted. The disadvantage is, of course, you have to load the plates yourself, which can be a workout all by itself.

If you've ever worked out at a gym, you've probably run into the problem of having to unload a machine someone left behind. Not very good gym etiquette.

Pros of machines
  • Easy to use

  • Supportive

  • Less need for spotter

  • More controlled

  • Less imitating

  • Safer

Cons of machines
  • Fixed path

  • Limited movement

  • Made for average-sized person

  • Boring

Cable and Pulley Systems

Cable and pulley machines are also standard at most gyms, and they offer different kinds of strength training. Unlike machines, cables and pulleys don't follow a fixed path. That means you have to involve all of your stabilizer muscles to control the movement of the cables. The more muscles you involve, the stronger you get and the more calories you burn.

And, unlike free weights, cable machines vary the weight throughout the full range of motion of the exercise. So, unlike the dumbbell biceps curl, where there's only one peak moment in the movement, a cable biceps curl varies the resistance as you curl the weight up and down, so your muscles maintain the same resistance throughout the exercise.

Pros of Cable Machines
  • Effective resistance for building strength

  • Versatility

  • Range of attachments for variety

Cons of Cable Machines
  • Higher learning curve

  • More intense

  • Confusing

A Word From Verywell

There are no favorites when it comes to choosing strength training equipment. All of these options can help you get strong and build lean muscle tissue. Your best bet is to use various equipment, so you're constantly challenging your body in new ways.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • The American Council on Exercise. Free Weights vs. Strength-training Equipment. ACE Fit.

  • Bryant CX, Green DJ. ACE Personal Trainer Manual: the Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise; 2003.