The sight of most weight training equipment inside large commercial gyms can be an intimidating experience for many. There are often rows and rows of machines, each one designed to do something different. And just beyond the rows there are dumbbell racks, barbells, plate weights, an assortment of oddly-shaped racks, and maybe even some cardio equipment. Basically, a bunch of “things” that do different things.
So where do you begin?
We're going to give you the low-down on weight training equipment, which will hopefully get you on the right path to success and allow you to spend your time in the gym more wisely.
Cable & Weight Machines
Cable machines seem to be among the most intimidating for beginners because this type weight training equipment can not only target individual muscles, but entire muscle groups. Some cable machines are so versatile, they can even allow you to perform entire-body exercises.
Cable machines are the large pieces of weight training equipment often lined up in the middle of the gym. They all have a cable that runs along a series of pulleys and attaches to an adjustable stack of weights. On the business side of things, cables will sometimes allow you to interchange various attachments, which can help you further target individual muscles.
Included in the cable machine mix is the leg extension and leg curl machine, bicep curl machine, lat pulldown machine, chest fly machine, and so on. Again, the cable machine is easily identifiable by the long cable connecting a set of weights at one end with a handle or pad at the other. Depending on your gym, you could easily see 15 to 20 different pieces of weight training equipment like this, so it can be overwhelming for the first-timer.
The good thing about cable machines is that they’re relatively self-explanatory. Sit on the machine, or stand in front of it, and execute the movement as intended. In most cases, modern weight training equipment will have some sort of mini instruction guide attached to the front or side of the machine, which shows you the exercises you can perform with that particular device. For beginners, these instructions can be useful.
However, the major drawback to cable machines is that they sometimes lock you into a fixed pattern of movement, which may not feel completely natural for the way your body is built. This forced movement and range of motion can sometimes lead to reduced results and increase the risk of injury.
The second major drawback of cable machines is that they’re primarily going to focus on isolated exercises, which often don’t give you the best return on your time investment. If you want to maximize the time you’re spending in the gym you’ll probably want to focus on compound exercises. Compound exercises simultaneously target multiple muscles.
Dumbbells and Barbells
Dumbbells and barbells, also known as free weights, are one of the most useful pieces of weight training equipment available. They’ve been around for a long time. They’re old school. Not only do dumbbells and barbells allow you to determine your own range of motion, ensuring it’s right for your body type, but they can give you the freedom to perform a wide variety of exercises, including compound and isolated.
Dumbbell- and barbell-based training is also great for increasing core strength because there usually isn’t a machine to support your full body weight. As a result, you’ll be activating your core muscles to sustain balance and hold yourself in the proper position.
Finally, dumbbells and barbells are great for preventing strength imbalances between the opposing sides of your body. Since each arm or leg is responsible for its own weight, you can ensure that one side isn’t overcompensating for a weaker side. I personally spend 80-90% of my gym time with dumbbells and barbells. They’re my go-to when it comes to weight training equipment.
The bench is another common piece of weight training equipment that’s a must for success. Standalone benches can often be adjusted to function as a flat bench, incline bench, or decline bench. And depending on the versatility of the bench, you may also have the ability to fully incline, which will allow you to perform exercises like the seated shoulder press.
If your goal is to build a stronger upper body, incorporating a bench with dumbbells and barbells is one of the most effective decisions you can make. These few pieces of weight training equipment are always found in legit gyms. They’re the foundation of strength training.
If you opt for a straight-up barbell press over a dumbbell press, you may also find you have a bit more power behind each rep, making this an excellent workout for all around strength gains.
The squat rack is a phenomenal piece of weight training equipment for anyone looking to make significant progress in the gym, particularly in their legs.
A squat rack, as the name suggests, is ideal for performing squats. Squats in general are extraordinarily effective for increasing leg strength. Squat racks can serve double duty by providing you with the ability to load weight onto the bar from high above the floor, then allow you to position yourself underneath the bar before disengaging and performing the full range of motion. Furthermore, squat racks act as a safety net by giving you a safe place to set the bar at the bottom of the lift in the event you are unable to complete a full rep. Additionally, squat racks can be used to perform barbell deadlifts, bent over rows and shoulder presses.
Smith machines are yet another piece of weight training equipment you’ll sometimes come across in the average gym, although not all gyms have them.
Smith machines can be beneficial by helping you lift without a spotter, as all you need to do is rotate the bar slightly to lock/unlock it from the frame. However, similar to cable machines, smith machines will keep you in a fixed pattern of movement – straight up and down in this case – which may not feel natural to you. It’s almost always better to default to a squat rack when given the choice between the two. If you opt for a squat rack over a smith machine, make sure you’re being mindful of your form.
Cages, also known as power racks, are similar to a squat rack. The major difference between the two are that cages have adjustable safety bars you can position to better suit your needs. Like the squat rack, these safety bars are designed to catch the bar in the event you begin to fail. Safety bars can help give you additional confidence to get to the next level in terms of the amount of weight you’re lifting, since you’ll less likely be focused on how you’re going to get out from under the weight if you are unable to complete a full rep.
In addition to this safety feature, you’ll also find cages to be a little more sturdy than most squat racks because of their boxed construction. Cages occasionally come equipped with a pull-up bar, so you can work your back, lats and biceps as well.
By incorporating an adjustable bench, cages can provide additional versatility by giving you the freedom to perform a flat bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press or seated shoulder press, without the need for a spotter in some cases.
Now that you have a better idea of the type of weight training equipment commonly found in the average gym, hopefully you’ll be able to determine which equipment will work best for your particular needs. Personally speaking, you can get an incredible full-body workout with just basic weight training equipment, including a set of dumbbells, a barbell, a bench, and a squat rack or cage. Although really convenient, there is usually no need for many of the sophisticated machines you often see crowding the weight room. If you find yourself feeling intimidated by these machines, don’t let them get to you. Learn how to use free weights properly and you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.