Add serious muscle size and strength with the New Body Plan complete guide to weight training
This guide is your complete overview of the most important weight-training equipment that are the foundations of all good fat-loss and muscle-building training programmes, such as New Body Plan.
We break down each bit of kit, explain why you should use it, the main lifts you can do with it, and the other key need-to-know factors that will help you lift weights better.
Why’s that so important? Because they greater your weight-training knowledge and the better you can lift weights effectively and safely, the faster you’ll build a bigger, stronger and leaner body!
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Bodyweight moves – and this should come as no surprise – use your own weight as resistance to work your muscles, and because no kit is needed their big advantage is that they can be done anywhere and at anytime.
How much you weigh determines how much you lift, and bodyweight moves can range from the relatively easy, such as crunches and bicycles for your abs, where you only lift a limited percentage of your total weight, to pull-ups, triceps dips or burpees, in which you move all of your bodyweight.
Despite a perception problem they’re “too easy” to be effective for advanced trainees, bodyweight moves should feature in all training plans because they work multiple muscle groups, strengthen joints and connective tissue, improve movement patterns, mobility and flexibility, and can be done in a heart-rate-raising circuit for added fat-loss benefits.
Press-ups are the classic bodyweight move for your chest, triceps and front shoulders, and you can adjust the difficulty of the move by elevating your hands (to reduce the amount of bodyweight lifted, making the exercise easier) or elevating your feet (to increase the amount of bodyweight lifted, making it harder).
Pull-ups and triceps dips are two of the hardest bodyweight moves, because they require you to lift and lower your entire bodyweight, but the difficulty can also be adjusted. For example, you can use a machine to offset some of your weight to make them easier, or do them with a belt attached to a weight plate or dumbbell to make them harder.
The best bodyweight moves
• Can be done anywhere and anytime
• Works minor as well as major muscles
• Great for beginners to master movements
• Great for more advanced trainees to fully fatigue muscles safely
• Can only lift as heavy as your own weight
• Can be hard to target back and biceps muscles
• Need to increase resistance to make progress
All good gyms have barbells, and they come in two main varieties: Olympic bars, and regular or fixed barbells. An Olympic barbell is 7ft long (2.13m) long and weighs 20kg. Fixed bars are nearly always shorter and “pre-loaded” with a set weight that can’t be adjusted.
Olympic barbells are therefore the best option for when doing barbell exercise, and the middle section of these bars (the part you grip) has a “knurled” surface, which permits a very secure grip. Each end also revolves, which allows the weight plates to rotate as you lift and lower the bar, reducing the stress on your wrist and elbow joints, which isn’t the case with fixed barbells.
The biggest problem with Olympic barbells is that most gyms only have a limited number of them, which can cause delays to your workout.
Barbells are most suited to compound, or multi-joint, exercises that work at least two different muscle groups – such as the bench press, overhead press, squat, deadlift and bent-over row. Using a barbell allows you to lift heavier for a given exercise than when using an alternative bit of kit. For instance, you can bench press more total weight with a barbell than you can with two dumbbells because you’re not as limited by the weaker of your two arms.
Compound lifts are an essential component of any good training programmes designed to improve muscle size, power or strength, as well as in fat-loss exercise plans, because the more muscle groups involved in a lift, the more weight you can lift, so the faster your results.
The best barbell exercises
• Allow the maximum weight to be lifted
• Will build muscle size, strength and power
• Many barbell moves also work your abs hard
• Your gym might not have many Olympic bars
• Can be intimidating or too heavy for beginners
• Fixed barbells can’t be manually adjusted and don’t rotate, which can stress the joints
• Not ideal in supersets if weight needs changing
Dumbbells are arguably the most instantly-recognisable, and one of the most versatile, examples of resistance-training equipment. Every single gym will have them, and many people have at least one pair of them in their own homes or garages.
Dumbbells can target every single one of your muscle groups, as well as multiple groups at the same time. Dumbbells in gyms are usually found in racks along a wall and come in fixed weights that typically increase in small increments of about 2kg, although higher-end gyms may have dumbbells that increase in single kilograms. Home dumbbell sets typically come as bars on which weight plates can be added, then secured in place with collars.
The main advantage of dumbbells is that they come in very light to very heavy options, making them suitable for every ability and experience level.
Dumbbells are fantastic for upper-body exercises, such as the bench press, shoulder press and biceps curls because they require each arm to work independently. This ensures that your stronger, more dominant limb can’t overcompensate and manage a greater proportion of the load, which is what happens when lifting with a barbell.
Working each arm independently minimises the risk of any major muscular size and strength imbalances, and it increases the workload on the small and stabilising muscles of your wrists, elbows and shoulders. It’s for these reasons why you can’t lift as much total weight with dumbbells as you can with a barbell, or certain resistance machines.
The best dumbbell exercises
• Work each arm independently for balanced gains
• Also great for squats, lunges and leg moves
• Work the small, stabilising muscles effectively
• Dumbbell workouts can be done at home
• Easy to use in supersets
• Might be a wait for them in busy gyms
• Weight options may be limited in smaller gyms
• A quality and versatile home dumbbell set can be expensive
Try our build a big back dumbbell workout, either at home or at the gym!
Resistance machine training
Resistance machines are a fantastic bit of kit to really target a specific muscle or muscle group, making them great for trainees of all abilities.
The movement pattern of the exercise is fixed, so doesn’t require as much recruitment and activation of supporting and stabilising muscles, as is the case with barbell and dumbbell moves. This makes them useful for people coming back from injury, right up to big bodybuilders who want to complete blitz one specific muscle or muscle group.
Another advantage is that it’s quicker and easier to adjust the amount of weight you’re lifting: for most machines you simply move the weight-stack pin up or down to increase or decrease the resistance, or alternatively add and remove weight plates as needed.
Resistance machine exercises
You can use machines to work every single muscle group, and some of the most popular machine moves include the seated chest press, lat pulldown, leg extension and hamstring curl.
Big gyms are likely to have a huge array of resistance machines, ranging from the leg press, which allows you to work your legs with a far heavier load than with either barbells or dumbbells, to machines that work a single muscle group, such as a calf raise machine.
Machines are great at the end of a session when you can fully fatigue a muscle group safely, but it’s always worth doing some free weight (bodyweight, barbell or dumbbell) exercises during a session to work your stabilising muscles.
The best resistance machine moves
• Leg press
• Seated chest press
• Lying hamstring curl
• Safe and less-intimidating option for beginners to build strength and confidence
• Fixed movement pattern allow for
the heaviest weight to be lifted
• Easy to adjust the resistance quickly for drop sets or allow others to “work in”
• Great for all ability levels up to bodybuilders
• Might be a wait for them in busy gyms, especially if people don’t let you “work in”
• Don’t work the small, stabilising muscles
• Shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of other kit
Cable machine training
Cable machines are a halfway house between resistance machines and free weight (barbell and dumbbell) exercises because while the movement patterns are restricted, they are not completely fixed thanks to a rotatable joint attached to the pulley system.
This allows you to isolate specific muscles – typically those of the upper body – safely, whilst also engaging and activating secondary muscles and stabilising muscles.
Because so many cable machine moves involve movement at the shoulder joint, the most delicate and complex joint in the body, it always pays to start with a light weight and focus on perfect form and a good range of motion to work the muscles effectively without stressing your joints.
Cable machine exercises
Cable machines come in a variety of styles, however almost all of them are double-cable systems with stacks of weights at each side to allow both single-stack exercises, such as cable biceps curls and cable triceps pressdowns, as well as double-stack exercises, such as cable flyes and cable crossovers.
Some gyms have a pulley that’s permanently fixed to the top or bottom pulley of the machine, while others will have a machine where the pulley can be moved and fixed at certain points up and down the length of the bar for an even greater level of adjustment to hit specific parts of the target muscle group.
The best cable machine exercises
• Cable biceps curl
• Cable triceps pressdown
• Cable crossover
• Semi-fixed movement pattern allows for good range of motion without excess risk of injury
• Great kit for supersets
• Easy to adjust the resistance quickly for supersets, drop sets or allow others to “work in”
• Great for all ability levels, from beginner right up to bodybuilders
• Most gyms only have one cable machine, so there may be a wait for it in busy gyms
• Limited number of options for leg exercises
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