If you take a look around most modern gyms, you will probably see a section with lots of cardio equipment, a vast array of weight machines, and (usually) a small section off in a corner with the free weights (rack of dumbbells, benches, squat racks, etc.)
Now, look around and check out what sorts of people are at these various stations. I'd be willing to bet that you see a lot of fat people and/or old people and/or women on the cardio machines, and possibly several skinny guys on the weight machines. Now, look over at the freeweight section and I'd bet you see a lot of jacked dudes.
Why is this? Well, correlation does not always equal causation. Running (probably) won't make you fat, but fat people usually go straight to the treadmill in an effort to lose weight. Lifting weights on machines (probably) won't make you skinny and/or weak, but many skinny guys and the like usually go to these machines because they are intimidated by free weights. I know, I've been there.
So, either a lot of jacked dudes can be found in the freeweight section because jacked dudes feel the need to lift freeweights, or because jacked dudes know that freeweights make you jacked.
Why is it, then, that in most modern gyms the one section that gets actual results is usually the smallest and cheapest? They probably just have some cheap barbells/squat racks/dumbbells where the rest of the gym has state of the art weight machines and cardio equipment.
The answer is simple: gyms don't actually want you to get results. They want a bunch of people to get 1+ year memberships, work out for a bit, burn out, and never come back. If everyone with a gym membership actually came to the gym regularly, the gym would be overcrowded and people would take their business elsewhere. How do you get people to get memberships? Show them a lot of shiny equipment.
This seems crazy, right? Why would people keep getting memberships if they get little/no results from working out at a gym? It's simple really, because they don't go. Every year (usually around January 4th) they sign up for their yearly "out-of-shape-person tax" where they tell themselves "this year will be different". It probably won't be. They'll go for maybe a month or two, hitting the treadmill and weight machines really hard, and then get burned out and stop going.
Since they were the ones that lost motivation and stopped going, then it was their fault, not the gym's. So, they keep signing up for the same memberships that they keep not using, continuing the cycle of laziness and lost motivation.
Why You Should Lift Free Weights
To put it simply: they get results. There's a reason why professional athletes, Olympic weightlifters, bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongmen, and even crossfitters lift free weights. By forcing you to balance the weight, free weights work not only the core muscles, but also the little stabilizer muscles AND they improve your overall balance. The end result is that you build real muscle that is functional and knows how to work with other muscles. This makes you more athletic and healthier as a person.
"But," you say, "I'm fat and I don't care about getting muscle, I just wanna lose weight!" Well, building muscle will help you lose weight. Let me explain.
Think of your body as like a car in that you both consume and require energy. A car takes in gasoline and uses it to move it's own weight around, plus the weight of occupants and cargo. You eat food and use it to move your own weight around, plus the weight of anything you carry.
For the average American, your life doesn't involve a whole lot of moving and lifting things. Your body, biologically programmed to be efficient in its use of energy (a survival mechanism), responds to the lack of physical stress by lowering your resting metabolism. It's basically saying "if you're not going to need to lift heavy things or run really fast, then I'm not going to spend a lot of energy giving you the ability to do so."
In short, you have basically become a Prius. Hooray! Your body gets great gas mileage! Except that, instead of reducing your fuel intake to compensate for the lack of necessity, you keep on filling up your body with all kinds of caloric fuel. You are a Prius, except you eat as if you were a giant truck. Your body, not wanting this fuel to go to waste (remember, survival mechanism), keeps on growing your gas tank (a.k.a. stomach).
Now, if you want to reduce the size of this gas tank then you have some options. The one most take is to hit the cardio equipment, which is basically like driving your Prius around a bunch until you burn off some of that excess fuel. The problem with this is a) it takes a lot of time, and 2) it puts a lot of wear on your body in large doses. Now, this article talks about how cardio can be good for you if done properly, so if you really want to do lots of cardio then knock yourself out, but I prefer lifting weights and playing tennis as my "cardio", it just works better for me.
To me, the main downside with driving your Prius around a lot is...it'll still be a Prius. You can reduce your gas tank to a normal size, but you still don't have a whole lot of strength or speed.
The better option, in my mind, is to instead throw a big engine in your Prius and maybe give it a bigger frame. The bigger engine consumes more fuel, so you can eat more without the need for a big gas tank, and you have more ability to carry things around with ease.
How do you give your (metaphorical) Prius a bigger, more powerful engine and a larger frame? Lift free weights.
You could also, you know, eat less than you normally do...that would accomplish about the same thing as running around a lot, but I understand that many of you just don't have that kind of willpower.
An added plus of barbell exercises is that they are easier to quantify. You can add 5 lbs to the bar every week and see improvement. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it will add up quite quickly in the long run, and the little bits of improvement will keep you going back.
How to Stop Being Afraid of the Free Weight Section
Hopefully I've sold you on why you should give free weights a chance, now to the "how" part.
Maybe you've had a hankering to try some free weight exercises, but you've been too afraid. All those jacked dudes and their grunting and lifting weights that you can't even fathom can be intimidating, but let me tell you that I was once in your shoes, and I've learned some things on how to get the most out of your workouts.
- Have a Plan: many a time I wandered into the free weight section looking like a tourist in a big city...wide-eyed and clueless. What usually happens during these visits is you go to the exercises you know and/or aren't intimidated by, which for most people is bench press and dumbbell curls. While there's nothing inherently wrong with either of these exercises, they do not constitute a complete workout plan, so before you go to the gym you should research some beginner barbell workouts. I did Stronglifts 5x5 when I started. Something most people don't want to hear is that every (good) workout plan will include the two exercises that people love to hate: squats and deadlifts. Most people don't like them because they are hard/have potential for injury/don't work out very visible muscles. Well, learn to love them, because they give you the most bang for your workout buck.
- Don't Compromise: You have your plan, so stick to it. If you see someone in the squat rack or the bench or you just feel uncomfortable, don't stop of go back to the rest of the gym. If the equipment you want to use is taken, kindly ask the person how many sets they have left. Usually I'll just wait for them if it is 2 or less, but if it is more then I'll ask if I can work in. Most people are pretty willing to let you do so, since they probably spend most of their time resting between sets anyway. Just help them put the weight on the bar.
- Have a Buddy: While workout partners can have their pros and cons (the cons being that collective laziness can set in after a few trips to the gym), having someone there for moral support can really help when you are starting out. You are more likely to stick with your plan if you have someone there who is keeping you honest, just make sure you are both on the same page about what you are doing.
- Accept Advice, but with Skepticism: While personalities of people who work out in the free weight
section can vary considerably, if you are lifting like a noob then you'll probably get approached by a gym bro who will give you some pointers on how you could lift better. Now, I want to believe that most people do this because they care about your well being and don't want you to get hurt/ want you to get gainz, but it could also be that they just like to think that they know everything. So, welcome their advice, but always double check it. There is a lot of contradictory information that gets spread around the gym, don't believe everything you hear.
- Start Small: If you're a novice, then you'll probably be surrounded by people lifting much more weight than you. Don't let this get to you. Start with a low weight and concentrate on form, then gradually work your way up. Everyone has to start somewhere, but if you kill yourself trying to lift more weight than you can, then you won't go anywhere.
- Be Safe: This hopefully goes without saying, but be sure to practice general safety. Don't bench without a spotter, don't squat outside of the squat rack (and make sure the limbs of the rack are set to the proper height in case you can't come back up with the bar), don't make giant leaps in the weight you are lifting as a novice (i.e. don't bench 105 lbs easily and say "hmm, what happens if I try to bench 205?"), and lastly, research and practice good form on all your exercises. It is far better to do less weight with good form, even though you'll want to keep throwing those plates on the bar. Ask a personal trainer or training partner (if you trust their judgement) to critique your form, or better yet, video yourself and critique your own form.
- Practice Gym Etiquette: You want to be a welcomed member of the free weight section, not a gym bro that everyone despises. There are many unspoken rules of the gym, such as toweling off your sweat from anything you use, not hogging multiple stations, taking the weights off the bar when you are done, not making excessive noise, not doing curls in the squat rack, etc. They are all very simple practices, but breaking them will get you on everyone's bad list, so don't be "that guy."
- Enjoy Yourself: If you're a man (or a strong independent woman), then welcome the freeweight section as an oasis of primal vigor. Unlike other places in the modern world, the freeweight section is a strange and magical land where you are free to grunt, yell, bang your chest, and just feel alive. Now, try not to do those first things in excess, it gets annoying for your fellow patrons, but a little bit here and there is pretty acceptable (and if it isn't, find a new gym). If you go to the gym regularly, then you'll also probably notice the same people there, and you can even strike up casual friendships with them, which will make you look forward to going to the gym instead of dreading it. Consider it your respite away from the struggles of everyday life.