The Best Free Weight Exercises

Free weights are any type of weight that can be used without restricting your movements. This usually refers to dumbbells, but barbells are also included in the free weight category. They are some of the most versatile weights you can find. You can do free weight exercises to tone every part of your body.

In this article, we've walk through the best free weight exercises for your upper body, lower body, and core.

​What Makes Up the Best Free Weight Exercises?

Dumbbells make for some of the best free weight exercises because it forces you to work both sides equally. This way your weak side can’t slack off. Meanwhile barbells are great because they allow you to lift heavier weights for more explosive exercises.

Free weights are sometimes confused with body weight exercises. Body weight movements are also highly effective forms of exercise, but don’t involve using any weights.

You rely on the weight of your body working against gravity for resistance. If you really want to bulk up, you need to use weights to help your muscles gain size. When it comes to free weight vs. body weight you can’t beat the extra resistance you get from using free weights in your routine.

People of all ages and fitness levels can work out using dumbbells. They are the best way to really target your muscles, without your exercise choices being limited. Compared to barbells, kettlebell, and machines, the dumbbell has the most range in terms of how you can use it. You can find them at any gym, or even keep some at your home for convenient workouts whenever you want.

Related: Guide to a Complete Dumbbell Workout for Beginners

Here is a guide to some of the best exercises you can do with free weights including both dumbbells and barbells.

​Upper Body Free Weight Exercises

​Alternating Bicep Curl

​The alternating bicep curl is one of the most classic workouts and can be seen frequently in movies and TV shows. There are many variations of this move, but the basic bicep curl is the one of the most popular upper body exercises with free weights.

The main purpose is to strengthen the biceps. The forearms are also worked in this move.  The reason it is so popular is because it is one of the best ways to start to see real muscle growth in your biceps.

To do this move stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Make sure your elbows are tucked in and palms facing your thighs. Start the movement by rotating your palm forward and then bending at the elbow to raise the weight upwards while keeping your upper arm still.

When you have reached your full range of motion bring the weight back down with control. Then repeat the same motion on the other side. Throughout the entire movement only the forearms should be moving. The upper arm should remain completely still so that the biceps get the full effect.

Related: ​Best Dumbbell Workout for Your Upper Body​​​

dumbbell barbell lifting free weight exercise

​Tricep Extension

The triceps are easy to forget about when training arms because some people get too focused on the aesthetics of the biceps. In order to reach your full potential, you need to work every part of your arm.

That is why tricep extensions are one of the best free weight exercises. You can do this move sitting, standing, lying down, or with one arm. But, standing it is best to learn it standing first.

Start by standing and holding one dumbbell with both hands. Bring the dumbbell above and slightly behind your head. Keep your arms pointed straight up.

Begin the move by bending at the elbows and lowering the dumbbell behind your head. When the dumbbell has reached the lowest position, slowly bring it back up so your arms are straight above your head again.

Throughout the entire movement your upper arms should remain stationary. Remember not to let your elbows flair out to the sides or let your back over arch.

​We've put together a comprehensive review, where we found the best ​adjustable kettlebell on the market​.

​Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is another upper body free weight exercise that should be in your repertoire. It is one of the best exercises you can do for your shoulders as well as your back.

You also can do it sitting on a military press bench if you prefer not to recruit your back.

The starting position is standing feet shoulder width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Raise the dumbbells to shoulder height. Your elbows should be flared out so that your chest is open.

Next, press the dumbbells above your head until your reach the top position. Pause for a second then lower them back to your shoulders and repeat the pressing motion.

weight lifting barbell free weight exercise

​Upright Barbell Row

A less popular free weight move for the upper body is the upright barbell row. While it may not be used as frequently as some of the other moves on this list, it is highly effective for training your shoulders and upper back.

It is an excellent use of barbells. It can lead to increased neck girth, so it is popular with football players and body builders.

Start the move by grasping a barbell with an overhand grip. Your hands should be about shoulder width apart or slightly closer. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart and holding the barbell at about waist level.

Take a breath and as your exhale raise the barbell up to your neck allowing your wrists to flex as the bar raises. Then slowly lower the bar back down and repeat.


​Lower Body Free Weight Exercises

​Calf Raises

If you’re looking for more definition in your calves, you should be doing calf raises with dumbbells. This is a simple and easy exercise that you can do anytime, even while you’re watching TV. They help to really define your calf muscles for all to see.

Your calves are engaged throughout the day and when doing most other leg exercises, so they don’t need too much work. But, a little extra attention can help to really tone them up.

Grab two dumbbells and hold them in each hand. Stand up straight with your feet about shoulder width apart. Slowly raise yourself up to your tip toes and then lower yourself back down.

You can do this move without weights, but adding the dumbbells gives you some more resistance. For an extra challenge do the same move one foot at a time. This forces you to engage your core for balance as well as your calves. 

walking lunges free weight exercise

​Walking Lunge

Lunges are one of the best lower body exercises you can do to work your hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. They tone almost the entire leg and get your heart pumping as well.

The walking lunge works the same muscles but with just a little more involvement. You’ll even get those stubborn inner thighs. Adding dumbbells for resistance leads to a killer move that will definitely leave you sore. Walking lunges with dumbbells are some of the best free weight exercises you can do for your muscles.

Start by holding two dumbbells by your side and standing with your feet shoulder width apart. Step forward with your right leg and drop your hips down, stopping before your left knee hits the ground. Your front knee should be at about a 90-degree angle and should not go past your foot.

You should also maintain a straight back and engaged torso. Next, drive through your right heel to raise yourself back up. As you get back to standing bring your left foot to meet your right foot. Then repeat starting with your left foot.

Related: Complete Lower Body Kettlebell Workout

​Barbell Squat

When you think of the barbell most people immediately think of the barbell squat. That is because it is an awesome way to work your glutes and quads. You can really feel the work happening when you do a barbell squat.

Start by supporting a barbell on the top of your trapezius muscles (the meaty part of your shoulder). Take an athletic stance with your feet shoulder width apart, keep your chest lifted, and eyes looking straight ahead.

Begin to squat down by flexing your knees. You want to do your best to keep your torso in an upright position, so try to avoid descending by shifting your hips backwards.

Go down as low as you can until your thighs touch your calves. Then return to standing by driving through the heels.

lifting dumbbell barbell weightlifting

​Barbell Deadlift

Another great lower body free weight exercise is the barbell deadlift. This is the go to free weight move to tone the hamstrings. Improper form with this move can lead to lifting with your back so it is important to make sure you have the form down before you try to do it with your heaviest weight.

To start, place a barbell on the ground in front of you. Bend at the hips and knees and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip. Your hands should be shoulder width apart or slightly wider.

Keeping your chest lifted and back arched, drive through your heels and thrust your hips forward to lift the barbell. As you lift engage your core and squeeze your glutes. Pause for a second and then slowly lower the bar back down to the ground.

Make sure your back doesn’t round at any time throughout the movement. Your focus should be on keeping a flat back. Additionally, since you don’t over extend your neck, keep your head in line with the rest of your body.


​Core Free Weight Exercises

​Weighted Crunch

It may seem like there’s not much that dumbbells can do for your abs, but you can use dumbbells to add weight to ab move liked crunches. Weighted crunches are excellent for toning the upper abs.

dumbbell barbell lifting free weight exercise

To do a weighted dumbbell crunch start by lying on the ground with your knees bent. Pick up the dumbbell with two hands and hold it over your chest with your arms completely extended.

Start to do a crunch straight up and then lower yourself back down. Be careful not to push the dumbbell forward. Doing so will actually make the exercise easier since the dumbbell is creating momentum that allows you to move forward.

If you want the full effect think about pushing the dumbbell straight into the ceiling so that you are directly pushing against gravity.

​Barbell Ab Rollout

One of the best free weight exercises for your abs is the barbell ab rollout. It really carves out your core, but it also works the hips and shoulders as a nice bonus.

Using a barbell instead of an ab wheel makes for an extra challenge because it adds resistance as you come back up. It also forces you to pay more attention to controlling the barbell.

Start by getting on your knees with your hands gripping the barbell in front of you. Keeping your arms straight, push your hips forward so that the barbell will start to move.

Push the weight as far forward as you can, and then pull it back in to return to starting. Make sure you are keeping your body in line and squeezing your glutes throughout.

To make it more difficult, use heavier weights.

​Dumbbell Side Bend

The dumbbell side bend is meant for working your obliques and your deep spinal muscles. Doing this move can help reduce the risk of back pain, making it a move that will help you improve your functional fitness.

To do a dumbbell side bend stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart. Hold a dumbbell in one hand. Slowly bend your upper body towards the side where you are holding the dumbbell, lowering it to about your knee height.

Then slowly return to starting position so that you feel it in your obliques on the side opposite the dumbbell. Keep your chest open and abs contracted throughout this move.


​Conclusion

Free weights provide options for some highly versatile workouts. The best free weight exercises are those that can help you both burn calories and tone your muscles. Free weight exercises include both dumbbells and barbells, so you don’t need to worry about all the machines in the gym. Using free weights gives you almost infinite options for working all the muscles in your body.

You can target any muscle group in your body with free weights. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking free weights are just for the upper body and use them only on your arms. To get the best free weights workout you can, use dumbbells and barbells to target every part of your body. You will start to see real results in no time.