What are free weights anyway? I feel sometimes they are confused with machines and it's for this reason, people think they can quickly learn how to use free weights.
Let me explain what is meant by the term “free weights”. Free weights are a form of resistance training in which the weights used are free objects, not attached to anything. To elaborate, the weights themselves are not attached to anything, but I am attaching myself to them when I grip them and pick them up. A few examples of these are barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and our own body.
The free weight exercises I’ll use as examples in this post are the “big three”, otherwise known as the squat, deadlift, and bench press. The reason free weights can’t just be taught is because they are not machines. When using free weights, my body is the machine and therefore, I have to be taught how to mechanically move my body. This takes time!
The foundation of free weight training is actually movement. Let’s consider the 7 movement patterns of the body. For the lower body, we have both hip dominant movements and knee dominant movements. With our trunk, we have core movements. For the upper body, there is horizontal pressing and pulling and vertical pressing and pulling. When I teach a client how to use free weights, my primary focus is on their movement.
Our first example, the deadlift, which is a hip dominant exercise, activates the hamstrings and glutes. The way to learn how to perform this exercise is by first learning the movement itself without any weight at all! With my clients, I will start by explaining the movement verbally, then I will demonstrate the movement so my client has a visual understanding, and lastly they will try it themselves. Being their first time doing it, or the first time performing the movement in a long time, they are in the cognitive phase with the movement. It is not yet autonomous for them and therefore, there is a lot of thinking involved on their part. If I was to try and have them hold weight while in the cognitive phase, it would be too much. They would be thinking about the movement as they are performing it while also struggling to hold the weight. It is for this reason, free weights all start with our own body and learning how to properly move!
The deadlift is a hip hinge movement, meaning the movement is initiated by pushing the hips back. At the bottom of the movement, my chest will be facing the ground and my butt will be back as if I was about to jump straight up. A lot of times, the movement gets confused with our next movement, the squat, and people sit down instead of hinging. From one movement to the next, the mechanics change, so to reiterate, the focus is not “free weights” but human movement!
Next, we have the squat pattern, which is a knee dominant/quad dominant movement. As mentioned, this movement will usually get confused with the deadlift but with this, we want to think more about sitting down and standing up out of a chair. Our upper body is tall and we want to sit the hips down to the ground which creates more flexion (bending) at the knees than at the hips. This subtle change also changes the muscles being activated and shifts more of the tension to our anterior chain or the front of our body and specifically, the quads! So, if my goal is to increase the size of my hamstrings and glutes but all I ever do is squat, you could see how long term that may not fully support my goal.
Also, it's been my experience when observing people squat, they tend to load up a barbell with weight and they haven’t actually learned the movement or they are not strong enough to squat the weight they loaded. A big thing to remember with the squat and really any free weight exercise is, my range of motion is a constant. If I can’t squat all the way down with my own body, I shouldn’t be loading a squat. Again, the foundation is the movement itself. Once my range of motion is where it needs to be and I am able to perform the movement under control with my own body, then I can begin to load the movement with external weight.
Lastly, we have the bench press! This is an upper body exercise and a horizontal pressing pattern! Mechanically, before I can unrack the bar, I want to focus on three things. First, I want an appropriate grip on the bar. This looks like wrapping my thumb around the bar with a strong grip. When I perform the exercise and lower the bar to my chest, I want the width of my grip set so that my wrists are stacked over my elbows. Second, I want to pack my shoulders which is when I pinch the shoulder blades together and down into the bench! Third, I want to press my feet firmly into the ground and squeeze my legs tight. At this point, I will unrack the bar and begin the exercise. I want to lower the bar and touch my mid chest and then press back up. Most bars you will see used on a bench press are about 7ft long and about 45lbs. If I am unable to lower the bar to my chest with just the bar, I want to use a lighter barbell or potentially even start with a dumbbell chest press instead. Remember, the movement is the foundation and if my movement is negatively impacted by weight, I want to lower my weight. Another great horizontal pressing exercise you could also try before trying a barbell bench press is the push up. This will start me with my own body weight. If a regular push-up is too challenging, I can start with elevated pushups.
There are always modifications to specific exercises or alternative exercises altogether. Either way, my focus should be on the movement pattern itself. Focusing on my range of motion and how controlled I’m able to perform the movement. Once my movement is solid, then I can focus on loading weight and using “free weights”.
I hope you found this to be beneficial and maybe it helped you to think about “free weights'' in a different way. Remember, whether it's the “big three” that I talked about above, or any other “free weight” exercise, the foundation is the movement. Learning how to move my own body is the first step to free weight training.
I would love to hear your thoughts on anything I wrote or your own experience with free weight training!