Strength Training: Free Weights or Body Weight?

Aug 7, 2016 | Fitness

A woman and man exercises using dumbbells

Day after day, you get to the club, jump on the treadmill or cardio machine of preference, and leave drenched in sweat. You worked your butt off, but the results aren’t there anymore. You’ve crossed over into “The Plateau Zone.” Cue creepy music

Ah, the dreaded Plateau Zone. It really is a discouraging stage that everyone hits at one point or another during their fitness endeavor. For those who focus primarily on cardio at the gym, adding strength training to your regimen could very well be the ticket to breaking through that plateau and taking your fitness up a notch.

But now the question becomes what kind of strength training to do? Should you rely on your body weight, which can be a very effective method, or should you hit the weight room, which can be somewhat intimidating if you don’t spend much time there?

Should I strength train with free weights?

First and foremost, you should know that free weight strength training is a safe and very effective method for people who can move their bodies well through proper ranges of motion. (Individuals should see a fitness professional for assistance in gauging the range of movement and how to improve it if need be.)

“All individuals and athletes alike will benefit from proper free weight training,” says Dan Benton, wellness director at ClubSport San Jose. “Athletes who want to stay lean but strong can improve strength and power through low rep explosive-type lifts. Individuals looking to build muscle should combine low-rep and high-rep exercises. Finally, those hoping to maintain their muscle mass but lose body fat will benefit from a moderate rep range.”

If you’re a total newbie to the free weight section, Benton suggests breaking it up into lower and upper body exercises, starting off with little to no weight to perfect the movement.

“It’s always recommended to master lower body exercises with just body weight before loading the exercise with free weights,” he advises. “Upper body exercises are more challenging to perform with just body weight, so they should be modified or assisted by free weights to work on proper form and build up.”

Try This: Dumbbell Reverse Lunges

“This move is safe for most people to do and requires your body to stabilize in a single-leg stance,” says Benton. “This challenges the prime mover muscles of the glutes, hamstrings, and quads while firing the stabilizing muscles of the hips, legs, and core. It’s very applicable to sports, as most athletes are usually on one leg at a time, such as in running, soccer, football, basketball, etc. Everyday activities such as walking upstairs and carrying groceries also require us to work on one leg at a time.”

Should I strength train with body weight?

The beautiful thing about using your own body’s weight to make it stronger is that it’s super convenient since you don’t necessarily need any equipment or lots of space. Additionally, almost anyone can do it and it’s great for building that rock-hard core.

“Body weight exercises are safe and effective,” says Benton. “The main benefit of using bodyweight exercises is that your core must be engaged while performing the exercises. Take it a step further: When using the TRX Suspension Trainer, you see this principle applied in many different upper body movements where if your core doesn’t stay tight, then the resistance of the exercise is varied and not reliable.”

The cherry on top of all this is that transitions from exercise to exercise are quick, allowing you to combine cardio with strength training for a high-intensity and highly effective workout that will always be challenging no matter your fitness level.

Try This: Pushup

“The push-up combines the core benefits of the plank with the upper body benefits of the bench press,” explains Benton. “There are also many variations that can progress this exercise, such as lifting off a foot or changing hand positions, and you can also regress it by elevating the hands to a counter or bench.”

I really want to push myself. How can I combine both free weights and body weight for the best of both worlds?

For those strong enough to combine both, adding free weights to body weight exercises (in the form of dumbbells, for example) is a great way to progress resistance. Benton suggests using a weighted vest in this endeavor.

“It’s one of the easiest ways to add more resistance to bodyweight exercises while still getting the benefits of the core engagement,” he explains, “as it can be scaled to how much weight you put into it.

Try This: Add Dumbbells to a Burpee

“Incorporating dumbbells into a burpee adds a different element to the exercise,” says Benton, “especially if you do a push-up at the bottom and a squat jump at the top while holding the dumbbells at your sides. It becomes a full-body strength and cardio exercise that will get your heart rate up rapidly! Now imagine if you add a weight vest to it…”

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