Good morning! I hope everyone had a great weekend. For those of you who followed along all weekend as I took over the Whole Foods Woburn store’s Instagram account, thank you! I really appreciate it. If you missed the takeover, no worries. You can follow the hashtag #WFWoburnTakeover to see what you missed. Toward the end of the takeover we announced a pretty fun giveaway, and it’s open through the end of tonight. Head over to @WFM_Woburn to check it out and enter!
Today we’re kicking off week two of my January Don’t Fear the Weight Room series.
For those participating, I hope you enjoyed last week’s topic on breaking the bulking myth. There was so much to talk about! I emphasized that the term bulky means something different to everyone and how you and only you get to decide what type of leanness or musculature you are aiming for. I also talked about some of the body changes I went through when I started on my strength training journey and how and why “bulking up” wasn’t one of them. My Don’t Fear the Weight Room newsletter insiders received some extra info about how lifting heavy is relative as well as some self-reflection assignments and two sample workouts. If you are just tuning in to this series this week, please read/do the following before continuing with this week’s topic!
- Read: Beyond group exercise and cardio
- Read: Breaking the bulky myth
- Subscribe: Don’t Fear the Weight Room bonus info
This week, we’re talking about the anatomy of the weight room. How many of you have ever set foot or peeked in the weight room and wondered how the heck to use any of the unfamiliar equipment in there? I know I have!
“I’m standing in the squat rack… now what?”
“What do I do with these plates?”
“What exactly is this machine for?”
Today I want to take you on a little tour of a typical weight room to help you find your bearings and familiarize you with some of the equipment you will find in there. When you know what some of the equipment is for and how to use it, your entire experience will become a whole lot less intimidating!
I think the most intimidating thing about weight machines is that there are simply so many of them! It can definitely be overwhelming to know where to begin, so I’ll give you the breakdown on what I consider the main two types of gym machinery:
For complete beginners looking to get acclimated, it may be helpful to start with some of the weight machines. Many of them have instructions written right on them for set up and use, and this can help reduce the risk of injury. However, the downside to using these types of machines is that they only allow you to work your body in a singular path of motion. Because the machines isolate a single muscle or muscle group at one time, your stabilizing muscle groups aren’t activated and your body doesn’t get to work as a complete unit. Basically, you won’t be getting as much bang for your buck as you could be with other types of exercises that get you out of a seated position and moving in many directions. So, while weight machines are a great place to start, they aren’t my favorite.
The machines I AM a bigger fan of are the cable machines. Many of these will still have the instructions written on them, but they are more versatile than your standard weight machines because they allow you to do a wider variety of exercises and move in more than one motor pathway. Because of this, you are more likely to see improvements in core strength and stability when using cable machines. Some of my current favorite exercises to do on the cable machines include lat pulldowns, pallof presses, and standing single arm rows.
Barbells and dumbbells are the main types of free weight equipment. They are called free weights because they aren’t attached to any pulleys, cables, or other machines. The free weights can often seem intimidating to complete beginners because they don’t come with instructions, but they are all much more effective for building total body strength than the machines can be. Since you aren’t locked into one motor pathway when using free weights, your body recruits more supporting muscles to help you move and lift the weight. You also often work in a standing position when using free weights as opposed to seated on the machines, so your core engages to help stabilize your body. This translates to core strength improvement throughout the entire workout, mitigating the need to do a million crunches or finish your workouts with fifteen minutes of abs. Free weights are my favorite because they help you get stronger in the ways you are more likely to move in real life (ie carrying groceries up the stairs, picking up your grandchild, etc.). They are also just more fun to me because they provide more variety and challenge than sitting in a machine and doing the same motion over and over.
The barbell is basically a long iron bar that can hold weight plates on each end. A true Olympic barbell is around seven feet long, and it weighs 45 pounds. Some gyms also have smaller barbells between 4-6 feet long. For anyone new to barbell work, I recommend getting acclimated to doing some of the basic movement patterns like squats and deadlifts with just the bar before starting to add weight, as lifting a much wider load takes some getting used to!
Many gyms will also have a barbell rack that has an assortment of fixed weight barbells, so if 45 pounds is too much for you to start out with, I recommend trying out some squats, presses, deadlifts, etc. with bars that weigh in the 20s or 30s instead. Remember: the term heavy is relative!
A dumbbell essentially is a short barbell! Most gyms will have a dumbbell rack that has an assortment of fixed weight dumbbells, ranging from 5 pounds to sometimes upward of 100 pounds. Generally the dumbbells increase in weight in five-pound increments, but you may see some half increments in there as well. The half increments are helpful when increasing your load. For example, when I first started strength training and was nervous to lift anything over fifteen, those 17.5s really helped me feel more comfortable than jumping into the twenties right away.
BENCHES AND BOXES
Many of the other pieces of equipment that you will see interspersed among the machines and free weights are benches and boxes.
Typically there will be many benches lined up in a row in front of the free weights. There are three different types of benches: flat, incline, and decline. Some benches have racks on one end for holding a barbell, while other benches do not have any racks at all. The latter are generally used for dumbbell exercises. Some of the benches are adjustable, meaning they can be set up for incline, flat, or decline work. It depends on the brand of equipment, but there is usually a knob or lever that you just need to pull out of its setting to move the bench to a different position before locking it back into place. You guys, I was really scared of trying to change the settings on a bench when I first started lifting for fear of doing it wrong. Honestly, the only way to get over this is to just try! Once you do it once, you will be all set… I promise! My best recommendation is to ask a friend who knows what they are doing or a personal trainer to show you how to adjust it, and you will be good to go!
You may also see a few extra types of benches around that may look like a cross between a bench and a machine. I love the adjustable ab bench (mostly for dead bugs!) and the hyperextension machine for back extensions.
The boxes that you see with the bench in the picture below are utilized for moves like box jumps, step ups, and other exercises utilizing an elevated surface. My gym has a few different heights besides the two I took pictures of. I tend to use some of the smaller ones for moves like reverse lunges from a deficit, and I use the bigger ones for step ups or to get myself set up for chin ups since I can’t reach the bar very well and still don’t like jumping up to reach it. If your gym doesn’t have any boxes, a flat bench or aerobics step with rises can often be substituted.
Most gyms have several different types of racks. I already mentioned the racks used for storing the barbells and dumbbells, but there are also racks used for storing the weight plates that you put on the barbell to add load. Usually you can find clips located close to the weight plates. I recommend using these to lock in your plates so they don’t slide off the barbell! Basically you just have to squeeze the two ends together to slide the clip onto the bar and secure in place.
There are also racks for performing exercises:
Your gym might also have a rack called the Smith machine. This rack basically is a combination between a machine and a free weight barbell. I honestly think it’s pretty useless when it comes to exercises like squats (this article can explain it way better than I can!), but I think it can be an effective way to help people progress their pushups and inverted rows from a higher incline to a flatter version.
The most common is the power rack or squat rack. I honestly think that hands down this is the “scariest” piece of equipment in the entire weight room. I know it was for me when I first started my journey! I remember being SO nervous to do something wrong and for other people in the weight room to judge me. However, just like the only way to master adjusting a bench is to try, the same applies for the squat rack. The only way to feel comfortable moving the adjustment handles and safety bars around is to just get in there and give it a whirl.
Today’s insider email will go into more specifics of what each part of the squat rack is for, how to adjust the different components, and how to set up for a squat with proper stance and alignment. I’ll also show you a more beginner squat exercise that you can try in the squat rack to get more comfortable! Again, you must sign up here to receive this bonus info and your week two action items. Just please be sure to check your spam folders or the promotions tab in Google mail if you don’t receive the week two info by noon today.
This will differ from gym to gym, but some other stuff you might find in the weight room include:
Aside from the barbells, there are a couple of other types of bars you might stumble upon. Chinup bars are either bolted to the wall or included as part of a squat rack or universal multi station). Your gym may have dip bars for tricep, shoulder, and chest work too. Finally, the trap bar pictured below can be used as an alternative to the regular barbell for trap bar deadlifts, as it puts less pressure on the lumbar spine. I remember when I saw a trap bar for the first time… I think I said out loud, “what the heck is that?” Tip: you step INSIDE of it and lift with a neutral grip. It’s actually a great way to progress from a dumbbell or kettlebell deadlift before moving to a true barbell one.
Medicine balls are great for moves like ball slams and core work. I love the Dynamax balls pictured below. You might find stability balls in your gym as well, and exercises that you would normally do on a bench can be done on a stability ball as well. Just keep in mind that you won’t have a steady surface underneath you for increasing load. I prefer to use the stability ball for moves like hamstring pull ins, single leg bridges, or ab roll outs or pikes rather than as a sub for the bench.
I love, love, love kettlebells. They are so functional, and they help build strength, power, balance and more. A kettlebell is basically a cast iron ball with a handle attached to it, and some of my favorite exercises to do with kettlebells are kettlebell swings, Turkish get ups, and more advanced movement like cleans and snatches. Many dumbbell exercises can be done with a kettlebell instead, but the difference between a dumbbell and a kettlebell is that the weight of a kettlebell is not distributed evenly like the weight of a dumbbell is. I recommend that beginners start with dumbbells to master form first before moving on to kettlebell training.
TRX or Suspension Ropes
If your gym has a suspension trainer, you will likely find them hanging in the middle of the gym somewhere. They are used to develop strength, balance, and flexibility all at the same time, and you use your bodyweight while leveraging gravity to complete the exercises on there. My favorite TRX exercises are pistol squats and inverted rows.
Resistance bands can be used if you do not have access to a cable machine. They also can be used for many corrective exercises, including mobility, warmup, and recovery work.
Battle ropes, jump ropes, and agility ladders are great options for non-traditional cardio conditioning work to support your strength training program if you are bored with cardio machines.
I hope that this post helped familiarize you with some of the equipment that you can find in a traditional weight room! Remember, you don’t have to master every single piece of equipment overnight – it’s simply not possible! Just pick a couple of things that you feel the most comfortable with and work on those before moving on to something else that is more intimidating to you. When in doubt, just ask someone for help. People are much nicer than you might think, and don’t forget that the person you ask to help you likely had to ask someone for help when they first started out too.
Let’s chat! Beginner lifters, what equipment in the weight room intimidates you the most? Current lifters, what weight and cable machines do you like the best? The least? What about other equipment?
Feel free to reach out with any questions, you guys! Good luck!