Free Weights, Machines and Cables

The gym floor usually segregates free weights and resistance exercise machines, and sometimes people aren’t sure which to use and why. In the most general sense, machines are used to target very specific muscle groups, whereas free weights engage surrounding muscle and work on balance as well.

Free Weights

Free weights are an excellent way to work on both strength and endurance by varying repetitions and load. They are so effective because they almost perfectly simulate ‘real life’ exercise, such as lifting logs, pulling carts and plowing fields – which is what our bodies have evolved to respond to. They also work on muscle balance and improve the way ligaments and joints function in unison. This is because a dumbbell chest press, for example, engages more than just the chest muscles during the motion. First of all you need to get the weights into position and then use your shoulders and arms to press the weights into position – all the while balancing and readjusting – which engages surrounding support muscle tissue.


Machines serve their own purpose in the gym and shouldn’t be neglected, despite the advantages of free weights, as outlined above. They are very effective at isolating muscle groups and so are often used during recovery after injury and physiotherapy. However, this advantage is also their weak point, as becoming good at a machine will only make you good at that particular machine – it won’t increase your ability at anything else.


Cable workouts are very effective at toning and should be used in conjunction with free weights. They are generally used for high repetition workouts as this is the best way of achieving definition. They should not be used for strength building or mass gain, as you generally can’t lift as much as with free weights.

The great thing about workouts involving free weights, cables and machines is that you continue burning calories even after leaving the gym. This is because of the interval training style of switching between high intensity exercise and rest over an extended period of time. This form of workout increases metabolic rate and so you will continue burning calories for several hours after lifting weights as the body recovers. This is in contrast to endurance (flat heart rate) cardio, in which you only burn calories during the actual activity.

Strength Training

After you’ve been hitting the free weights for 6-8 months you can consider transitioning from endurance resistance training to strength training. You should only consider this an option if you have been consistently going to the gym at least 4 times a week and working different muscle groups in cycles so that you target every group every 6-7 days.

When practicing endurance lifting you should choose your weights so that you fail between 12-15 reps at every set. When you move on to strength training you should choose heavier weights so that you fail around 6-8 reps at every set.

Muscles develop differently with strength training and using higher weights and doing less reps will work on size rather than definition. You will also increase the ratio of muscle to fat tissue in your body – which in turn will boost your metabolism. As a result you will need to consume more protein and calories than before as there is a danger of under nourishing your muscles otherwise. Now more than ever you need to get enough protein and cut down on carbs – strength training will take your fitness to the next level.

When pursuing a strength training routine warming up becomes even more important than before. You should spend 5 minutes doing intense cardio – rowing for upper body, treadmill or cross trainer for lower body – before you begin. This should be followed by a series of stretches and flexibility-increasing motions. Rotate your shoulders and stretch ligaments.

After this you should have at least 2 warm up sets prior to the first strength training set. The first should have (for example) an empty barbell. The next should be about 50% of your maximum – aiming for around 6-8 reps – not aiming for failure. You are then ready to pile on the weights so that you fail between 6-8 reps. There shouldn’t be an iota of strength left in you after this first set.

When doing strength training you should take longer breaks – up to about 3 minutes between sets. Also make sure to stretch between sets. It’s important to keep your joints flexible and your nerve endings loose, as these are every bit as important to your strength as your muscles.

Bulking and Cutting

For the uninitiated, bulking and cutting refer to dietary plans that will ‘bulk’ muscle and ‘cut’ fat, respectively. It’s one of those obviously made-up and illogical myths that have probably been set into motion by dietary supplement companies to sell people things that don’t work.

The idea of bulking and cutting in separate stages is based on the (false) idea that you can’t both gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. The people that fall for this proceed to lift weights like crazy and eat hamburgers and fries for 8 months in hope of bulking. They then begin the cutting phase – which involves effectively starving yourself with little or no exercise. So what does this accomplish? During the bulking phase they get fat and during the cutting phase they lose muscle, i.e. the exact opposite of what they wanted.

Muscle gain is achieved through a combination of high intensity weight lifting and regular protein consumption – about 1g per pound of body weight per day. Consuming more calories than your calorific requirements will NOT help you gain muscle, it will just make you fat, no matter what anyone says.

If you consume your 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day and consume about 500kcal fewer than your equilibrium requirement then you will gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. That’s right – you can do both at the same time – they are not mutually exclusive and can even assist each other.

So if you want to bulk and cut – do it at the same time by lifting weights, eating protein regularly and consuming less than you need to maintain your current weight. This way your body fat percentage will slowly decrease and your muscle mass will increase – at a rate of about 4 kg per year.

What Is Whey Protein

Whey is a concentrated form of protein that arises during manufacture of cheeses. Whey is the powdery substance that remains when all the milk has congealed and soaked up all the available liquid. All of the fat is soaked up into the cheese and none is left in the whey by-product.

Whey protein is available in a myriad of powders, shakes and pills, all promising different results. However, the truth is that there has not yet been any conclusive clinical trial (in humans) that would suggest that consuming whey is beneficial to muscle gain and/or fat loss.

You can buy concentrated, isolated or hydrolysated whey protein powder. The current consensus amongst professional trainers and bodybuilders is that whey isolate is the superior form for aiding weight lifting, as it contains the highest protein to calorie ratio and is the fastest to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Whey concentrates should be avoided as they contain some (albeit low) levels of fat.

Some studies in animals indicate that whey might be useful beyond the diet arena in that it shows signs of alleviating inflammations and slowing carcinogenic growth.

Gym rats will tell you that the timing for taking protein supplements such as whey isolate is of paramount importance. The general idea is to consume the powder immediately after weight training when the body is ‘craving’ protein. However, once again there is little or no evidence for this, and the timing of protein ingestion remains debated.

Some people complain of digestive problems as a result of using protein powder on a regular basis. The reason for this is (once again) poorly understood, but may have something to do with the gym goers being lactose intolerant without being aware of this condition.

As the current wisdom stands, forget protein powder and maintain a normal and balanced diet. Try to have something with a high amount of protein after weight lifting, such as fish or chicken, just in case there is something to the rumors of timing. Or if you’re really interested in the truth, start monitoring your weight (with bathroom scales) and body fat (with skin calipers). Then go one year without protein powder and the next year with protein powder. Plot the results and see if there’s a statistically significant difference – then send us the results.

Senior Weight Lifting

A lot of older people are intimidated by the hoard of sweaty tattoo covered beef busses that litter the weights area of the gym and tend to stick to walking in a half hearted way on the treadmill or stretching in a corner somewhere. This is a mistake as resistance training is extremely useful at preventing bone conditions, maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system and correcting posture in seniors.

Let’s begin by dispelling a myth: there is no age limit when it comes to weight lifting. Just because your hair is grey doesn’t mean you have to retire from dumbbells. You can even gain muscle mass, albeit not as quickly as the younger bucks in the gym, but still at a rate that will show significant results in a year.

Additionally senior people who lift weights frequently increase their metabolic rate by as much as 25% per year, meaning that they won’t be as likely to gain weight and suffer consequent spinal problems.

Certain degenerative processes associated with ageing are unavoidable. Among these is the spine’s tendency to become increasingly curved. There isn’t much you can do about the shape of bones, but with effective back muscle resistance training you can slow or even halt the process. Whereas the spine will want to curve, the muscles around the shoulder blades and mid back area will resist and pull against this change.

Similarly training the leg muscles can minimize wear and tear in the knee joint. These strengthened muscles will then act as dampers to the impact experienced whilst walking and running, rather than each jolt being translated directly to the knee.

A lot of problems associated with ageing arise as a result of fractures experienced during a fall. These types of injuries can be made a lot less severe by building muscle tissue around the joints. In fact, all of the conditions associated with old age, such as increased blood pressure, poor stability and skeletal degeneration can be diminished by hitting the weights area in an intelligent way. The best way is to find a trainer with experience in training seniors and get started on a tailored program.

Bodybuilding 1 Year Plan

1st Month

Begin by training your ligaments to accept resistance by training with empty barbells and small dumbbells. Make sure to warm up for at least 10 minutes before beginning. Do resistance training and cardio on alternate days for 4 days a week. Sustain your cardio at 50-60% of your maximum heart rate for 10-15 minutes.

Start cutting out the obvious bad foods in your diet such as junk food, sweets, chocolate, anything fried and soft drinks. Also be aware of when you consume your meals, i.e. not too late at night.

2nd to 4th Month

Slowly add weight to your resistance training, making sure that you fail between 12-15 reps at each set. You should begin to experiment with the ‘wall’ and your ability to push past it, both with weight training and cardio. Increase your resistance and cardio on alternate days to 5 days a week. Keep up your cardio for 20-30 minutes at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. On one cardio day do flat heart rate training and on the next do interval training, alternate between 80-90% of your maximum and little or no exertion. Break up your muscle training into chest and back on the first day, legs and shoulders on the second, arms on the third.

Be strict with yourself when it comes to your diet. Start planning to eat between 5 and 6 small meals per day, and make sure to get enough protein for your weight (about 1 gram per pound). Cut out the less obvious enemies such as white bread and cereal, and replace them with rye bread and rolled oats.

5th – 9th Month

You are now in the intermediate stage and your muscles should be used to pushing past the pain barrier. Be disciplined about going 5-6 days a week and consistently challenge yourself with resistance training by staying at the frontier of what you are capable of. Break up your weight routine into back muscles on the first day, chest and biceps on the second, legs on the third, triceps and shoulders on the fourth. You are now doing muscle training so often that you need to do both cardio and resistance training together on some days. Push your cardio to 45 mins to 1 hour for flat heart rate training.

10th month – 12th month

Break up your muscle training into back on the first day, chest on the second, legs on the third, bicep and shoulders on the fourth, triceps on the fifth. Start throwing drop sets into your routine, especially with the muscles that aren’t gaining as quickly as the others. Make sure to switch your routine every 1-2 weeks by targeting muscle groups with different exercises, different rest times and different weights and reps.

Alternative Leg Workout

A lot of people will naturally vary their workout from week to week, either deliberately, or naturally due to alterations in waiting times between equipment and resting periods. However, sometimes you can accelerate muscle growth by varying an exercise from one set to the next in quick succession.

For instance, when doing leg curls, begin by doing only 30 degree reps on a weight that allows you to fail somewhere between 15-20 reps. After a minute’s rest, follow this with another set of leg curls at 60 degrees inclination, once again allowing yourself just enough leeway to finish between 15-20 repetitions. Then perform the final set at the full 90 degrees.

This gives your muscles a very different workout from the traditional 3 sets at the same weight and range, and also from the more advanced drop set routine. You will most probably find that your muscles are much more sore after a workout like this the first few times, as your legs aren’t used to taking so much punishment.

You can follow these leg curls by moving on to the incline leg press machine. However, instead of the traditional leg position with your feet shoulder width apart and facing outwards, have your feet and knees together. When you start the leg presses, don’t complete the entire motion, but stop short of your thighs touching your chest. Finish 15-20 of these and drop the weights for another 2 sets.

If you really want to workout your legs, you can follow the above routine with one leg squats, with the other leg resting on a bench. This will squeeze every last bit of strength out of your quads. Additionally, you will find that your heart rate is raised considerably with this sort of weight workout. Cardio isn’t the only effective way of burning fat. Leg workouts are extremely tiring and burn a lot of calories, as you are working very large muscles compared to biceps and shoulders etc.

When doing a leg routine such as the one above, remember to warm up for 3-5 minutes on an intense level of the cross trainer or treadmill (if your knees can take it). Follow this up by using a roller on your quads, hamstrings and the sides of your legs. Make sure you roll slowly and don’t glance over the sore areas. Find the parts of the legs that hurt the most and concentrate your efforts on it with the roller until the pain fades. If you repeat this again after your leg workout you will limit the amount of soreness you will experience in the next 48 hours.

Optimizing Your Workout

In order to find your optimum diet and workout, you need only follow one
simple rule: only change one parameter at a time. If you change more than one,
you won’t be sure which was responsible for a change in your fitness or body
fat percentage. This means that it’s not even a good idea to increase cardio and
decrease your food consumption at the same time. Try doing one first, waiting
a few weeks and seeing what the results are. If you feel you need to improve
further then you can introduce the other change.

In order to make your program even more efficient, consider recording your
progress, along with your daily routine. Write down how many calories and
how much protein you consume, along with how much cardio you do and which
muscle groups you train with what exercises. Sometimes making a very slight
alteration can make all the difference. It’s even possible that you don’t need
to eat any less in order to lose weight, you may just have to change the times
at which you eat. For instance, a lot of people find that cutting out desert after
dinner has a significant effect on their progress. Similarly, splitting your meals
into more portions throughout the day has been known to speed up metabolism
and encourage fat loss.

You can also try making more subtle changes one at a time. For instance, if you
have been working your chest and back on one day, followed by your legs on the
next, and your arms and abs on the third day, you could consider switching this
up. You could dedicate an entire day to your back, followed by chest and arms,
and finally legs. This often has a positive effect as people underestimate how
much work their back needs. Furthermore, people have a tendency to over train
their chest, as chest workouts are easier and more fun than back workouts. This
can cause a detrimental effect to your posture, as the chest muscles will begin to
pull the shoulders forward.

Squats vs Leg Press

There are some popular myths that float around the gym floor when it comes to squats. One of them is that doing squats boosts your testosterone levels higher than other weight training regiments. While it is true that doing squats will raise your testosterone levels for a short period of time after the workout, this is not exclusive to squats and lower body exercises. All types of muscle training will have this effect on your testosterone, as long as the intensity of training is sufficiently high.

Squats are a great way to reach multiple muscles in your body in one simple movement. They target the calves, quads, core and gluts and this is why they are particularly exhausting. It is also why not many gym goers like doing them and why they find excuses to exclude them from their workout.

Another myth is that there is no exercise that acts as an adequate substitute for working out at the squat cage. This is not true as doing your sets at the leg press machine will work the exact same muscles at the exact same intensity. Furthermore, unlike doing squats with an olympic bar, doing the leg press machine will not compress your spine and does not have nearly the same associated injury potential. If you imagine where all the pressure is situated during squats, the entire weight of the bar and your upper body is pushing down on your spine during the squat movement. On the other hand, during a leg press, the entire pressure is in your leg muscles where it belongs, and your spine remains unaffected.

The one aspect of the leg press that is inferior to squats is that it does not work your balance and stabilizing muscles to the same extent. However, you can compensate for this by combining the leg press with the leg curl, leg extension and various sporting activities that involve short bursts of activity and balance training.

Pull Up Technique

Let’s begin by differentiating between pull ups, pull downs and chin ups. Pull ups are performed with your palms facing away from you and can target the triceps, lats and back muscles, depending on the width of your grip.

Pull downs are performed at a pull down machine, and are just assisted pull ups, in that you are able to select how much weight to work with.

Chin ups are performed with your palms facing towards you and target predominantly the biceps. Chin ups are much easier than pull ups, which is why a lot of beginning bodybuilders follow the path of least resistance and never move on to pull ups. The reason chin ups are easier is because they engage both the biceps and the lats, whereas the pull ups engage only the lats, meaning you are using an extra muscle to help you with the same workout.

The most common mistake people make with pull ups is to keep their elbows forward during the motion. Once again, we do this because we are naturally inclined to minimize effort, and keeping your elbows in this position engages your bicep in addition to your lats – just as with the chin up.

To do a proper pull up, you need to isolate the lats and leave your biceps out of the equation entirely. This means that you need to keep your elbows pinned backward during the entire motion. If you feel your elbows drifting forward, force them backward until your body learns how the exercise should be performed. If you have been doing pull ups with your elbows forward, you will notice that you are unable to do as many now that you are keeping your elbows backward. As with all other movements in the gym it is the correct technique that is paramount, so don’t compromise. Do as many correct pull ups as you can with perfect form and if you fail too quickly, do a drop set by switching to 70% of your weight at the pull down machine. Over time you will build up your strength and perform three full sets of 15 correct pull ups.

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