Free weights allow unrestricted movement so you can do dozens of different strength exercises targeting every muscle. Use an Olympic barbell or a preloaded barbell to do many of the same exercises, such as squats, presses, deadlifts and curls. Which barbell you choose depends on several factors, including the chosen exercise, your fitness level and weight needed.
Olympic barbells are 7 feet long and weigh 45 pounds without any added weight plates. The center of the barbell is 1 to 1.25 inches thick. Add weight plates to an Olympic bar to achieve the desired resistance level. You cannot change the weight of a preloaded barbell, also called a fixed weight barbell. Between 4 and 6 feet long, with a center thickness of 1 inch, preloaded bars are shorter and smaller than Olympic barbells.
Most Olympic barbells can handle loads up to 800 pounds, with some bars capable of holding up to 1,500 pounds. The ends of the barbell are 2 inches thick, so you have to use Olympic weight plates, which have 2-inch center holes. Olympic weights are available in 2.5-pound, 5-pound, 10-pound, 25-pound, 35-pound and 45-pound plates. Add any combination of plates to the ends of the bars to create an almost unlimited amount of weight options. Always add the weight evenly on each end of the bar. Preloaded barbells do not have as many weight options as an Olympic barbell, although you can start at a smaller weight. They are available from 20 to 120 pounds in 5-pound increments.
Fixed barbells are more convenient and save you time in the gym -- just grab the barbell and start the exercise. It takes time to load the weight plates on an Olympic barbell. Olympic barbells have revolving ends. When performing an exercise where the bar rotates, such as bicep curls, the revolving ends allow the plates to naturally spin. This reduces torque on your wrists and grip. Fixed weight barbells do not have revolving ends, but they are available in a straight-bar format or an EZ bar format. EZ bars have angled grips, which are more comfortable for some users.
To keep the weights from sliding around or off the bar, secure the weight plates on an Olympic bar with a collar. Free weights do not limit your movements like machines do. Working with free weights requires more coordination and increases your risk of injury. Learn proper form and only use weights that you can fully control. Have a workout partner spot you when using heavy weights.
Based in Austin, Texas, Jolie Johnson has been in the fitness industry for over 12 years and has been writing fitness-related articles since 2008 for various websites. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English and philosophy from the University of Illinois.