How To Switch From Machines To Free Weights

Photo: VisualHunt

Free weights and machines each have their benefits, but what often keeps us out of the weight room is simple fear of the unknown. So here’s a simple guide on how to pick up weights and put them down again, while looking like you know what you’re doing.

Scope Out the Weight Room

Gyms often keep the free weights in a separate area from the cardio machines and the weight machines. When you get more used to lifting, you’ll find that convenient. But if you’re an outsider, it can be intimidating. My current gym had the weights and the machines in two separate rooms; another gym I tried had them on separate floors.

Either way, check out what’s available. If weights are in their own area but there’s no wall separating them from the rest of the equipment, design a workout around the machines at the perimeter of the weight room, and just watch.

But maybe there’s a wall in the way. Even if you can’t get a surreptitious look at the weight room, you’ll still be fine. All of the following are valid options, and for best results, you can do all three:

  • Walk in and look. If there’s a desk you have to walk past, no need to make up a story. Just say “I just want to check out what equipment is here.”

  • Look at your gym’s website, where you may find lists of equipment or photos of the weight room. (Check social media too!)

  • Ask for a tour. It is totally normal to be a regular in the cardio room and know nothing about the weight room. Staff will be happy to find someone to show you around and answer questions.

What to Look For

Chances are your brain’s first reaction is, “There’s a bunch of scary dudes doing things I don’t understand.” Get past that by mentally listing what equipment you see, and what actions you see people performing. Questions to answer:

  • How many benches are there?

  • How small are the smallest dumbbells?

  • Is there empty space on the floor to do exercises like deadlifts?

  • How many squat cages/power racks are there?

  • Do some of the cages have a bar attached? (These are Smith machines, and you cannot do free weight exercises in them.)

  • Where in the room are the extra barbells, clips to hold the plates on, and other equipment that might not be where you need it when you need it?

  • How busy is the area, and which equipment is in high demand?

You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but you’ll want to walk away with information that will help you plan your workout. For example: “The dumbbells start at 5kg, and it shouldn’t be too hard to snag one of the two squat cages for some barbell work.”

Walk in Like You Own the Place

Everybody who’s in the weight room probably felt a little weird on their first day. It’s fine. You’ll get over it.

You probably worry that everybody is looking at you. Guess what: they’re all looking at themselves. (That’s why there are so many mirrors.)

Nobody has a valid reason to judge you for using light weights, or for any other signs of cluelessness; we were all new, once. You’ll see experienced lifters using light weights for their warmup sets, or if they’re rehabbing an injury, or if their program calls for a light day (“deloading”), or for dozens of other reason.

If you’re worried about people actively leering: chances are surprisingly low, actually. (Casey Johnston, swole woman, confirms: “I’ve been far more creeped on walking the two blocks to my subway stop than at my gym.”) People pretty much ignore each other, and headphones are an effective deterrent for the few folks who might want to make conversation. Just don’t snag a weight on your headphone cord.

Do Some Dumbbell Curls

On your first day, plan to do a few beginner-proof exercises. You don’t have to plan an entire workout in the weight room; consider doing 15 minutes in here at the beginning or end of your regular workout.

Consider starting with dumbbell curls (although, going forward, curls are great as an end-of-workout move.) That’s because you probably already know how to do them: just lift the weight. Also, you won’t look out of place. Everybody does dumbbell curls sometimes. And these don’t have to be your first ever dumbbell curls; you can practice the move with the pink rubber-coated weights that are probably sitting next to the yoga mats in the other part of the gym. Just come into the weight room and do the same exercise.

Other exercises that are beginner-friendly, as long as you use a light weight and watch a few videos first:

  • Kettlebell swings. Stand over the kettlebell, then pick it up with both hands. As you stand up straight, moving your hips forward will power the weight as you swing it up to shoulder height or overhead.

  • Shoulder presses. You can do these with a pair of dumbbells or with a barbell.

  • Squats. If you’re familiar with the squat movement, grab a kettlebell or a pair of dumbbells and do it with weight. If you’re ready for barbells, go ahead and try out that squat cage! Put the bar on the rack around shoulder height, and start by squatting just the bar.

What To Focus On As You Learn To Squat

Squatting seems so complicated when somebody is telling you all the things that can go wrong — knees behind toes! Butt farther down! Head up! But not too up! If you’re following our challenge, you’re probably doing a lot more squats than you ever have before, so let’s talk about how we’re doing them.

Read more

Stay Safe

Whatever you do, pick up light weights to start with. There are two reasons for this. First, if you’re used to doing a certain exercise with machines, the same exercise with free weights will feel harder. Second, without the machine, there are more ways to screw up.

On machines, you may have been used to doing reps “to failure,” meaning you quit the set when you absolutely cannot do one more rep. With free weights, that can be dangerous. At least while you’re in your beginner stages, your last rep should be the last (or second-to-last!) that you can still do with perfect form.

It’s safest to do a barbell bench press with a spotter: a buddy standing behind you, who can help you if you have trouble lifting the weight. In this move, the bar is above your chest, and would squash you if you couldn’t complete the rep. If you don’t have a spotter, either keep your weights very light, or do the exercise with dumbbells instead.

Power cages have bars that you can position at the bottom of your movement, so that if you squat down but can’t get up, these catches can hold the barbell for you. You can also drag a bench into the cage and use it to bench press without a spotter.


Once you’ve scoped out the weight room and done your first workout, it will seem a lot less intimidating. From there, you can pick a workout plan for beginners. Even if you’re experienced with machines or other types of workouts, you’ll still benefit from a beginner-focused program like Starting Strength. Best of all, for more hands-on help, book a session with a trainer to be sure you know the right form to do each exercise effectively and safely. After all, wandering aimlessly into the weight room is the first step in your journey—not the only one.


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