Barbells, Dumbbells, Weights and Plates
Anybody new to the gym knows how difficult it can be to make sense of all of the machines and equipment that fill the workout room. Instead of trying to analyze each of the different machines in the gym, get to know the free weights first. The free weights will give you the greatest returns for the effort you put in.
Barbells are probably the most basic instrument for lifting free weights. They can come in many sizes, but the most standard is called the Olympic barbell (the top bar in the picture above).
The Olympic barbell weighs either 45 pounds or 20 kilograms (44.5 lbs) depending on which part of the world you live in. It’s usually used for the heavier exercises such as squats, bench presses, deadlifts, shoulder presses, etc.
The smaller straight bar shown just below the Olympic bar is great for many upper body exercises where having the weight closer to your body is beneficial. For example, if you were doing standing bicep curls, you may find that having the weights closer to their center of gravity (and closer to you) makes them easier to control.
If the 45 pound Olympic bar is too heavy for you, use this shorter version. I wish I could tell you exactly how much this bar weighs, but this varies from one bar to another. The typical bar is anywhere between 25-35 pounds.
Just be sure to keep track of how much weight you put on each side. Knowing exactly how much you are lifting isn’t as important as knowing how much you are improving between workouts. You can simply weigh the bar if you want to know the exact weight.
Using Weight Plates
To add some resistance of the bar you are using, place an equal amount of weight on either side. I probably don’t have to say this, but just in case – never put weight on a barbell unequally. This is very dangerous for reasons that should be obvious.
The weight plates range from 2.5 lbs all the way up to 45 pounds. This means that the minimum amount of weight that you can add to a barbell is 2.5 pounds in each side, or 5 pounds total.
So, if you were to add 10 pounds on either side of an Olympic barbell, you would have a total of 65 pounds.
45 lb barbell + 10 +10 = 65
Easy enough? Great!
Each of the weight plates is flat on one side, but has a groove around the outer edge of the other side. This groove helps you to grip the weight plates.
Take a look at the picture of the EZ curl bar above (I’ll explain this bar in a moment). Notice that the grooves on the weight plates are both facing the inside.
Always face the groove to the inside so that the weights are easier to place and remove, and do the same when you rack the weights. This is for safety and also because having the grooves facing outward is bad luck… or so I’ve heard.
Anyways, also notice the clamp on the end of the bar. These clamps are called “collars” and help to hold the weight in place as you lift. Using these is good practice and especially important for certain lifts.
The bent bar shown in the picture above is called the EZ curl bar. It has both inner and outer grips. If you were using the EZ curl bar to do bicep curls, each grip would angle your hands slightly so that your thumb is higher than your pinky (switching from inner to outer grips requires you to flip the bar over).
Again, I wish I could tell you exactly how much the EZ curl bar weighs, but each bar could weight anywhere between 15-25 pounds. Feel free to weigh it if you so desire.
Many gyms will have a rack of barbells with fixed weights (you can’t adjust the amount of weight on the bar). Some gyms will have both straight bars and EZ-curl style bars on the racks. These barbells are useful because they come in weights as low as 20 pounds. This is important if you are unable to curl the heavier straight bars.
The problem with these bars is availability. Ideally, these will be available in 5 pound increments, but this often isn’t the case in many gyms. So if you just finished a set of curls with 30 pounds and want to go heavier, 35 might not be an option.
In addition, the fixed-weight bars are often unorganized on the racks and sometimes they’re not even placed back on the racks at all. Again, this can cause problems when you need to change weights.
The fixed-weight bars can be useful if you have the weights you need, but if not, I’d recommend sticking with an adjustable bar.
Finally we come to dumbbells. These are similar to having a miniature barbell in each hand. Dumbbells are usually used for upper body exercises and allow each hand to move independently of the other. Most dumbbells in commercial gyms will have a fixed weight, but adjustable-weight dumbbells are common in home gyms.