Weight-training workout: Dumbbells or machines?

Expert tips on how to choose the right equipment to get your muscles strong and toned

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Question
I know it’s important to add a weight-training routine to my cardio workout, but what do you recommend as being the most effective equipment for strength training: dumbbells, weight machines, resistance bands or my own body weight? It’s hard to know which ones to choose.

Answer
Don’t let the huge variety of equipment out there confuse you. Your muscles react basically the same way to any kind of resistance you apply to them, so choose the type of equipment you enjoy using most. Here are some suggestions on choosing the right strength workout:

1. When you have no time
Keep an exercise band handy — in your bag, desk drawer or suitcase — and use it to do some quick biceps curls or lateral raises when you’re not busy. Choose a band thickness that fatigues your muscles in about 10 to 14 repetitions, and don’t let the band go slack at any point in the exercise. Use exercise tubes with handles for the big-muscle exercises (like lat pulldowns and standing rows) since they’re more comfortable for your hands.

2. When you’re just starting out

Machines are ideal for new exercisers. Once you get into a comfortable sitting or lying position, they guide you through the exercise from start to finish. They’re also very safe; if you overdo it and lose control, the weights will land safely (but with a crash!) back in their starting place and not on your toes. Before you begin, read the instruction placard on the machine to adjust the machine to fit your height and body size.

3. When you love pumping iron and have great technique

Go for free weights — either dumbbells or bars — when you have excellent balance and coordination and strong core muscles. With free weights you control where the weights travel, so you need to understand exactly how to move and position each body part throughout the exercise. Free weights (unlike machines) often require you to use additional muscles (like your legs and core, if you’re doing a standing upper body exercise) to stabilize your body, so you get some bonus conditioning with every exercise.

4. When you’re on a budget
One big perk of the body weight workout is that it can happen anywhere and anytime: slip your fingers over the edge of your desk chair or a park bench for a set of triceps dips; drop to the floor and do 10-20 tough push-ups; or do 20-30 stair-step calf raises every time you take a flight of stairs. It’s also free – no equipment purchase necessary.

5. When it’s time to shake things up

Once you’re comfortable with bands, tubes, machines, free weights, and body weight exercises, toss some or all of them into one workout. The constant changing from one to another will keep your body challenged, your mind focussed and make the time fly by.

Barb Gormley is a certified personal trainer and a freelance health and fitness writer.