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Weight debate: When to use body weight, machines, and free weights

Bodyweight exercises are the foundation upon which all strength training movements are built. Before you can incorporate free weights or practice advanced exercises, you must start by working with your own bodyweight.

Phase 2 unassisted bodyweight squat.
Phase 2 unassisted bodyweight squat.Read moreCourtesy of Ashley Greenblatt

Are you weighed down by too many strength training options? When creating a workout routine, it’s difficult to decipher the differences among body weight routines, weight machines, and free weight exercises. While all help increase muscle definition, scorch fat, and improve overall health, the methods by which they mold muscles vary considerably.

To safely and effectively perform these muscle pumping moves, here’s what you need to know.

Body weight basics. Body weight exercises are the foundation upon which all strength training movements are built. Before you can incorporate free weights or practice advanced exercises, you must work with your own body weight. When you practice popular body weight exercises such as push-ups, planks, squats or lunges, your main concentration should be on your form. After you perfect your form, you can graduate to more challenging strength training skills, like free weights.

Body weight exercises are not only foundational, they’re functional. The body goes through a range of movement patterns throughout the day. Each time we push, pull, rotate, sit, and stand, we are working muscle groups that power push-ups, Russian twists, and squats. When you engage in these exercises regularly, you are sharpening daily skills and reducing your risk of injury.

Another major perk that separates body weight training from its competitors is its convenience. Since no equipment is necessary, you can quickly convert your home, office, or even hotel room into your personal gym.

Once you conquer the fundamentals of body weight exercises, you can begin to modify and increase the challenge. Here is a progression of lunges:

Phase 1. Place your hand on the wall for support as you lower into a lunge.

Phase 2. Standard, unassisted lunge.

Phase 3. Reach your arm overhead to challenge your balance.

Weight room wisdom. When you step onto the fitness floor, you are presented with yet another difficult decision: Do you hop on a weight machine or pull pounds off the weight rack?

Weight machines can be a good choice for beginners, as they are designed to isolate specific muscles, and modifying resistance is as simple as placing a pin in a marked plate. You also have a seat for added support.

But simple is not always safer when it comes to weight machines. Most exercisers don’t properly adjust their seat position prior to pushing heavy weights around. If your seat is too high, your feet are not firmly planted on the floor for balance and stability. There’s also a strong chance you are pushing through your lower back, since your feet are not grounded. If your seat is too low, your joints are misaligned with each repetition, placing stress on the affected areas. And though that seat may be comfortable, it does nothing to improve your balance and core strength.

Working with free weights recruits more muscle groups by strengthening not only the targeted muscles but also your core muscles, by helping you maintain your balance while you move the weights around. A unique advantage that free weights offer is that there is no limit to your muscular gains. With body weight, you will always be working within the confines of your own weight. Which is why over time, it’s important to implement toning tools like free weights to push your muscles to the max.

The key to safely engaging in free weight exercises is to start with body weight movements, then when you master your form, graduate to your free weight skills. Here is an example of a safe progression from a body weight beginner to free weight fitness enthusiast.

Phase 1: Place your back against a wall for support as you lower into a squat.

Phase 2: Standard, unassisted squat.

Phase 3: Use free weights for an added challenge.

Ashley Blake Greenblatt is a certified personal trainer and wellness coach. To learn more about her virtual training program, visit