Anyone getting into lifting weights for the first time may feel overwhelmed with it all. What weights do you choose? Where in the gym do you go? For this article, I’d like to simplify the process so you can focus on what matters, and get rid of the excess noise.
Free Weights VS Machines
There is nothing inherently wrong with machines. I think machines are great for isolating specific muscles, and this is great for when you get further in your lifting career and find certain muscles are lagging and need extra attention. They’re also good if that muscle happens to be holding you back from a compound or free weight exercise. They can help create that mind muscle connection to wake up more “dormant” muscles so they aren’t hindering your lifts.
Having said that, free weights are the way to go when starting out. The issue with machines is they are too isolating. Free weights allow you to load more weight, and allow your stabilizing muscles to help you get through the range of motion. Take a deadlift for example. When done correctly you are working your back, hamstrings, glutes, rear delts, and erectors. No machine can accomplish that, and instead you’d have to do an individual machine for each muscle to make sure all are hit. Most people starting out in the gym want to be efficient, and not be in the gym longer than they have to. Free weights will hit the most muscles in the least amount of time. Free weights also allow you to adjust based on your height. Machines are mostly fixed and may not fit all body types thereby making it weird for taller or shorter individuals to use them correctly. Using dumbbells or a barbell allow you to adjust the weight and range in a way that caters to your height.
Focus on Movements, Not Exercises
Instead of “chest, back or leg days”, think about choosing movements. You should have a
Horizontal Pushing Movement - Bench press
Horizontal Pulling Movement - Bent Over Row
Vertical Pushing Movement - Shoulder Press
Vertical Pulling Movement - Pull-Up
Knee Dominant - Squat
Hip Dominant - Deadlift
By choosing movements you’ll hit every muscle and learn to see the body in terms of moving dynamically as opposed to just seeing individual muscles. Individual muscle focus is only important if you are specifically trying to focus on more of a bodybuilding approach.
Great physiques can be built with just those 6 movements. Not only are you stimulating more muscles with less exercises, but these movements allow you to add the most amount of weight, creating that strong muscle building signal needed to grow.
It can be overwhelming when you first start going to the gym. I remember when I first went, I stuck mostly to machines because I was too intimidated by the free weights. The beauty of free weights is, if let's say a barbell squat is too hard, you can regress to something more manageable like a goblet squat. There is always an easier version of any exercise you can choose if you are unable to achieve either the range of motion, or technique aspect of the lift. Finding a good personal trainer at your gym, even for just a couple sessions, will also go a long way towards knowing how to train properly.
Check out my article on Finding the Best Personal Trainer for You.
Mind Muscle Connection
The last point I will touch on here is making sure you are feeling the muscle working. When you do a bench press, you should feel a pump or some weakness forming in the chest as you continue to do each set. If you don’t, there is a good chance you are not making the right mind muscle connection, and other muscles are compensating for the lack of central nervous system activity.
If that is the case, you may be going too heavy, too fast, or performing the movement incorrectly. Make sure every exercise you choose, that you are able to be in control of your body and the weight throughout the ENTIRETY of the movement, not just a brief moment.
If you want more of a breakdown on how specifically a gym session would go check out my article on Lifting Weights - What You Should Know If You Are a Beginner.