Machines, dumbbells, and barbells oh my!

[This post is one in a series about my fitness journey. Consider starting at the beginning.]

When I started working out at a gym in 2000 I knew literally nothing about lifting weights. I remember spending most mornings at the gym on the elliptical or treadmills because at least I knew how those worked. The gym’s cardio equipment was in the same large open area as the free weights and the machines so while on the treadmill I could see other people using the machines. Eventually I got up the courage to go check out some of the machines and even later the free weights.

Weight machines

Turns out that starting strength training using the machines was a pretty decent idea for me. In general machines have diagrams that outline what muscles they exercise and how to make the movements. Most of them are isolation exercises – they focus on a specific set of muscles by restricting the range of motion. It doesn’t mean you can’t hurt yourself on a machine (the worst I’ve ever hurt myself at the gym was over a decade later using a squat machine) but there are fewer things that can go wrong compared to using free weights.

At that time in my life I was obsessed with improving my chest. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on the bench press and butterfly press machines. Eventually I probably tried every machine in the gym that exercised the upper-body. That was long enough ago that I don’t remember my actual exercise routine, but I distinctly remember starting with machines because I felt they were easier.

At some point I also incorporated cable machines into my workouts. These seemed like a nice middle-ground between machines and free weights because they had a greater range of motion than machines but less than free weights.

Free weights

Dumbbell incline butterfly press – June 2017

Eventually I eased my way into free weights thanks to diagrams in Men’s Fitness. I was a regular subscriber to Men’s Fitness (for the articles, not the super hot men, I swear) desperately searching for the secret to putting some muscle mass on my skinny frame. I found it useful to watch people (usually men) do some exercise with free weights and then find that exercise in a magazine to explain it. That way I had a real-life example of someone doing the exercise and a reference for what muscles it was exercising.

Early on when using free weights I tried using the barbell bench for bench presses. Without a spotter. After almost hurting myself and yet being embarrassed to ask anyone to spot me I’ve very seldom used the barbell bench since. Almost all of my upper-body workouts involve some combination of dumbbells and cable machines, not barbells. I’ve slowly started to introduce barbells on the squat rack into my lower-body workouts, but that’s the extent of it.

Gym etiquette

Moving from machines to free weights is more than just knowing what exercises to do, it also involves learning some unwritten gym etiquette and picking up on social clues. With machines, if no one is on it you can go use it until you are done. The machine is in one place and doesn’t move, so you don’t have to worry about being in someone else’s way.

With free weights you are now mobile. You could pick up a pair of dumbbells from the rack and use them right there to do dumbbell curls. And you would be an asshole because you are now likely blocking access to the other dumbbells on the rack. Instead, you want to move out of people’s way and use an available bench or other floor space.

It’s also more common for people using free weights to do supersets. That’s where you do two different exercises back to back, usually on opposing muscle groups. This often involves needing two different sets of free weights or possibly two different pieces of equipment. But the hitch is that you don’t have the gym to yourself, you have to share it with other people. So hogging 4 different pairs of dumbbells so you can do 4 supersets just makes you rude, not efficient.

No one tells you this stuff like this, it’s something you either pick up from watching others or you are That Person that everyone hates and secretly wishes would stop showing up.

Personal trainers

Most of what I’ve learned about working out I learned from watching other people at the gym or reading about it. However, I’ve had two personal trainers over the years that were really useful. The first personal trainer I ever used was my brother Kelly. He has a kinesiology degree and was doing personal training full-time and he helped me get more comfortable with various free weights.

Last year after reaching a plateau and getting bored with my workouts I began using a personal training at my gym. I spent three months with Steve as he showed me some different exercises that freshened up my workout and focused on weak points of my routine.

Getting started with a buddy

Looking back now I recall how scary it was for me getting started at the gym. Something that I think would have made it easier for me was to go with a knowledgeable friend at the beginning. I’m not someone who enjoys working out with other people — the gym time is some rare alone time in my day — but having someone who could introduce me to various exercises and proper form when using free weights would have given me a leg up on my journey.

Next post: My workout routine

Published by


I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s