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Strength & Conditioning Training tips

What are weights and what do they do?

With so many doodads and exercises, how do I choose and which is the best one?

If you like the idea of lifting weights but you really don’t see the appeal of bench presses, I hear you. I wouldn’t say I dislike them but I wouldn’t say I love them either, and if you know me I love lifting weights. Bench press has become the quintessential “weight lifting” exercise, but it is only one of the many excellent options in the strength building world.

There are a myriad ways of doing weight training (aka resistance training), and many more ways of mixing and matching different options. So let’s explore the different styles of training and explain some of the different terms and equipment available to us.

At the end of this article, you should be able to answer the following (should any of this questions ever come up naturally in conversation):

  • What’s the difference between powerlifting and weightlifting?
  • Why do some people use machines instead of free weights?
  • Which type of weight lifting is the best? (Olympic) (Jokes) (Not jokes)
  • Why are dumbbells called dumb if they are so smart?

To learn “How good a weight lifter was Arnold Schwarzenegger?”, sit tight and I’ll have a an article coming out soon to answer that.

Bench pressing is hard business
Bench press has some side effects.

First of all, why should I care about strength training?

** takes deep breath **

Strength training develops overall strength in joints and muscle (duh), improves balance and coordination which prevents injuries (‘specially in older people), increases bone density (ladies, sorry to say but as you get older you’re more at risk of osteoporosis than men), diminishes the risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and back pain, improves your mood and sleep, reverses cases of insulin resistance, gives a boost on those working on their weight, and lastly but not least-ly, makes everything else in life feel easier and lighter while making you feel like you can achieve anything in life.

** breathes normally again **

One could argue that just about any type of exercise would give you that, and to an extent they would be correct. Exercising in general is great and different modalities will bring different benefits. Strength training has been shown to be particularly good for the list above.

I’m sure you’re probably wondering “You forgot to say how ripped I’ll look” or “But I really don’t want to look muscly”. To which I respond: that’s not necessarily the point, and also, good luck! Looking ripped is a whole other endeavour, which requires razor sharp nutrition and specific training to achieve (more on body building in an article to come). For those of us that can’t seem to ever be able to shoo the chub away and are naturally a bit larger, being skinny and losing all your fat is not required to collect items from the excellent list above.

All of these benefits present themselves without having to be a highly trained athlete that lifts super-human kilos. Just regular training over a consistent period of time will give you all of those for free without any extra effort.

So now that you’re convinced about how strength training is good for you, let’s move on to your options.

People I would like to compete against in a strength feat: None of the above

But, what is weight lifting please?

If you’re gonna get technical about it, is really the act of lifting something that has a mass. Cats, boxes, suitcases, boulder, a bag of compost, eggs from your fridge – all considered weight lifting apparatus, strictly speaking. But if you really want to reap the benefits you’ll needs weights that will stress your muscles and nervous system. Mash that with some good technique, and then you’ll get the best bang for your buck.

And here’s where things get interesting. Because if all you need is something heavy, the options are far and wide. Different options will focus on different things, which in turn will mean slight different reactions, all of them slowly building goodness in your body.

Machines (aka cable machines)

Weights machines are usually plentiful at most commercial gyms. They have some weight plates in a little thingy that you adjust with the other little pin thingy. Some of them will have a seat for you to position yourself and some other levers will be located in a handy configuration for you to position your body and limbs just so. You sit, get your limbs in the correct position, move the thingy, weights go up and down being pushed by a cable, you feel the burn, boom.

Most (but not all) machines are designed to work one muscle group at a time, and that muscle group is usually displayed on a sticker in the machine somewhere. These machines are great for beginners who haven’t exercised in a while and need to build some basic strength. Their design makes them safe as there isn’t much room for error. You can get away with a sloppy technique and most of the time you won’t injure yourself too badly.

Always make sure the right muscle group is being targeted

You can work out with machines your whole life and be fine. But machines have their limitations. As I mentioned, their design means you’re working one muscle group, but most of your life your body is using many muscle groups to complete a task. Although they will build strength, they lack the functional training that will help your brain coordinate all the lumps of meat it needs to exert the full potential of that strength. Some machines do work multiple muscle groups, but still tend to isolate other important areas that need to be involved in real life, such as “use your core as you use your legs”.

Machines have their place if you want to really develop one particular set of muscles to get them bigger or to recover from injury. But if you want to keep building strength in more complex and wholesome ways, we need to talk about free weights.

Free weights

Here is where things get simpler: dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells and plates. Fancy weird other weights exist, but those 3 pieces of equipment are where most of the weight training outside the machine-space live. Although you can still do exercises that will isolate certain muscle groups, free weights will often require you to engage much more than only your target or it will show – if nothing else, your core and butt coordination need to be on point to support other areas being worked.

The discussion below can be a bit reductionist and give the impression each of these guys fits in a neat box – the reality is more complicated than that, and having someone nearby to show to make sure you’re safe and doing your exercises correctly would be a nice bonus.

Dumbbells

Dumbbells are the little sticks with weights on each end that we all love. Their versatility is enormous and they have the benefit of coming in a variety of weights. They can be used to work one side of the body at a time or both, and are mostly used for upper body work. Dumbbells allow you to start with very light weights and bring things up when the strength is there. Dumbbells are also used in isolation exercises where you can, like machines, work one specific muscle group without taxing other areas.

I have a fever.

Dumbbells are excellent all around. They have a knack for making you feel like a beginner in movements that you usually do with a barbell. And they really don’t get as much air time as they should.

Kettlebells

Kettlebells are usually applied with more dynamic power-based movements such as swings and atlas swings, but can used to replace a dumbbell to make things spicier. Because of their design it means that their centre of gravity is usually a bit off the point where you’re holding them, which requires coordination work and concentration to make sure those puppies are under control. They’re also the star of Turkish Get-Ups, which I must confess is one of my faves.

This is how it’s done, but without teleporting to the next position so much.

Barbells

Barbells and plates are the lower legs’ best friend. Kettle and dumbbells can still be used for beginners training their leg strength and also balance work, but nothing will match a barbell for squats and deadlifts, which will make everything under your hips and your core ship shape.

Having said that, barbell work is excellent to build upper body strength too. Although they have the benefit of supporting a lot more load (not a lot of 40kg kettlebells or dumbbells out there), kettlebells and dumbbells do add the benefit of instability overhead as both arms are having to do work independently. Here, smart programming to keep the body guessing and building strength will go a long way.

This is not an exercise I would recommend.

Why so dumb?

Dumbbells are called dumbbells not because they’re less mentally sharp than other weights, but because they don’t make any sound. The best explanation I heard so far is that pumping out church bells were the absolute coolest way to impress the ladies on the 1700s. Then someone figured out that they could skip the whole part of shaping a bell and to get around how awkward and big they were, they decided to reshape it during the casting process. With that they got the same weight without all that size, which meant they were still technically bells but their sound was dumb. You’re welcome.

Odd objects

Nothing like a spot of holding bombs over your head in the morning.

As I said before, anything that has mass can be used as a weight lifting apparatus. So large rocks, logs, oil drums, furniture and truck parts have all been part of successful programmes in the wild. However, beginners beware – these are mostly used by advanced athletes with some strength built already. Also, many people with no access to commercial equipment have come up with an array of doodads too.

Some gyms do have some of these available and they are fun to play with every now and then, but don’t you go trying this stuff without a responsible adult around, mkay?

Yours truly, lifting a tree just to put it down again

So which one is the best?

Staying on brand, here’s a very anti-climatic ending:

The one you enjoy the most.

First of all, the comments about are somewhat of a generalisation, and you can change exercises and styles to use each piece of equipment’s strength to address what you’re after.

Go try stuff out. Stick with something for a bit, or don’t. Find a class or a coach that will expose you to different styles, techniques and equipment. You might love to mix them, you might hate all of them but one. With weights, as much as with any other training, consistency and enjoyment is what matters.

Whatever works for you, that is the best weight to be lifted.

If you would like some help figuring out which weights are the best for you, how to best lift them and why they have the name they do, I’m your guy.

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