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Free Weights: A Novice's Guide to Buying A Starter Set by Carol Krucoff

Record numbers of Americans are exercising with free weights, commonly known as dumbbells (the short bars you lift with one hand) and barbells (the long bars that need two hands). Free weights are the nation's most popular kind of home exercise equipment, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. They're relatively inexpensive, easily fit into most homes and can be used in an almost infinite number of ways.

Expect to spend about $200 to $400 for a basic set (less if you can find quality used equipment). If that sounds like a lot of cash, remember you'll be saving the monthly gym fee you'd pay to use the same equipment. Plus, the convenience of a home gym will keep you lifting on a regular basis.

At a minimum, you need:

  • Weight Bench You'll lie, sit or kneel on this bench to do a variety of strengthening exercises. A basic, flat bench runs about $100, while more sophisticated models can go up to $600.
  • Dumbbells You can buy dumbbells that are a fixed weight, such as 5 pounds, or an adjustable set that you make heavier or lighter by adding or subtracting weighted plates to a short metal bar. If you purchase fixed-weight dumbbells, you'll need at least six pairs. Beginner women may need a set of 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12 and 15-pound dumbbells, while men may want sets that are 5, 8, 12, 15, 20, 25 and 30 pounds. Many stores sell them for 50 cents to $1 per pound. Adjustable dumbbells are a versatile, space-saving option. A 40-pound dumbbell set—two bars with collars weighing 5 pounds, four 5-pound weights and four 2 1/2 pound weights—will run about $60.

As you get more advanced, you may want to add:

  • Barbells An Olympic bar weighs 45 pounds and is 7 feet long, although you can buy 5-foot or 6-foot bars that weigh less. Collars and locks (to attach plates) usually come with the barbell, which sells for about $60 to $75. You can also buy bars with fancy twists and bends that are used for specific exercises.
  • Plates These attach to the ends of the barbell for added resistance and come in sizes ranging from 1 1/4 pounds up to 45 pounds. Like dumbbell weights, they typically cost 50 cents to $1 a pound. They also may come in sets, such as 300 pounds of weights—with barbell—for about $150.
  • Rubber tubing Strips of resistant rubber are an effective way to keep up your strength-training program while you're on the road. You can find quality bands and tubing that are small enough to slip into your briefcase, yet versatile enough for a variety of exercises. Some are sold by the foot, starting at around $1 per foot, while others come in varied lengths with handles and instruction books for around $10 to $35.

Shop dressed to workout and try all equipment before you buy. Check for sturdiness and ease of use, making sure adjustable equipment works smoothly and fastens securely. Consider, too, investing in a few sessions of personal training to get expert instruction in using your free weights (see our tips to find a personal trainer). You won't need a trainer to hold your hand forever but three to six sessions will get you started, with optional "updates" down the road.

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Books to get you started:

  • "Getting Stronger," by Bill Pearl and Gary T. Moran, Ph.D., Shelter Publications, 1986
  • "Fitness Weight Training," by Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle, Human Kinetics, 1995
  • "Weight Training for Dummies," by Liz Neporent and Suzanne Schlosberg, IDG Books, 1999
  • "A Woman's Book of Strength," by Karen Andes, Perigee Books, 1995

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