The Fitness Zone

The 2023 Top Fitness Trends Review: #2 Strength Training with Free Weights

Nov 01, 2023 | by Steve Irwin

In this series of articles we are going to take a look at the top ten fitness trends for 2023 as created for the annual ACSM’s (American College of Sports Medicine) Health & Fitness Journal worldwide survey [1]

The survey list actually covers 20 fitness trends as collated as part of the survey, but we’re just going to focus on the Top 10 and dive specifically into some background information about the trend, how it can benefit you as a fitness consumer, as a fitness professional and also add some general guidance and / or recommendations.

So here we go… Its Number 2 on the List: Strength Training with Free Weights

The Number 2 Fitness Trend for 2023: Strength Training with Free Weights

Before 2021, surveys used a broad definition for “strength training,” but in 2020, this was refined to the more specific title “strength training with free weights.” This change has allowed fitness enthusiasts to dive deeper into the world of free weights, encompassing barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, and even medicine ball workouts.

In 2020, training with free weights broke into the fitness scene at #4, demonstrating its growing popularity. Although it briefly dipped to #8 in 2021, it quickly reclaimed its position, surging back to #4 in 2022. This resurgence highlights the enduring appeal and effectiveness of free weight training.

The History of Strength Training with Free Weights in the Fitness Industry

The history of strength training with free weights in the fitness industry is a rich and evolving story that spans centuries.[2] From its origins as a practice rooted in ancient civilizations to its prominent role in modern fitness culture, the use of free weights has undergone significant transformation and development.

Ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and Egyptians recognized the benefits of strength training with free weights as early as 3000 BC. They used stones, sandbags, and even animal parts as makeshift weights to improve their physical prowess. These rudimentary tools laid the foundation for what would become a fundamental aspect of physical conditioning.

One of the key figures in the history of strength training with free weights is Eugen Sandow, often regarded as the “Father of Bodybuilding.”[4] Sandow, a Victorian-era strongman, popularised the use of dumbbells and barbells in his shows and training routines. He not only showcased his impressive physique but also emphasised the importance of strength for overall health.

The 20th century marked a significant turning point in the history of strength training with free weights. Weightlifting became an official Olympic sport in 1896, further emphasising the significance of strength and muscular development.[5] 

The advent of gyms and fitness centres in the mid-20th century provided accessible platforms for individuals to engage in strength training with free weights. Equipment manufacturers like Nautilus and York Barbell Company revolutionised the industry by introducing innovative machines and equipment, enhancing the effectiveness of free weight exercises and icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Pearl played instrumental roles in popularising free weight training, making it a mainstream fitness activity.

In recent years, strength training with free weights has experienced a resurgence, driven by a growing awareness of its numerous health benefits.[6] It is now recognized as an essential component of a well-rounded fitness regimen, with exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses becoming staples in workout routines.

The Benefits of Using Strength Training with Free Weights for the Fitness Enthusiast

So… we now know that Strength Training with Free Weights has long been a cornerstone of fitness enthusiasts’ routines, and for good reason. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned gym-goer or just starting your fitness journey, incorporating free weights into your workouts can provide a multitude of benefits for your health, body shape, and overall physical fitness.

  1. Health Benefits:

Strength training with free weights offers a host of health advantages. Firstly, it promotes bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis, especially important as we age.[7] Secondly, it can help manage chronic conditions like diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity. Lastly, it boosts metabolism, aiding in weight management and fat loss. Regular sessions with free weights can be a potent prescription for a healthier life.

  1. Body Shape and Aesthetics:

Free weights are your ticket to sculpting a well-defined physique. Unlike machines, free weights engage stabiliser muscles, leading to a balanced, symmetrical appearance. They enable you to target specific muscle groups effectively, aiding in fat loss and muscle toning. From chiselled arms to a firm core, free weights provide the versatility needed to achieve your body shape goals.

  1. Physical Fitness and Performance:

Free weights enhance functional strength, improving your ability to perform everyday tasks effortlessly. Whether you’re lifting groceries or climbing stairs, a strong foundation translates into improved functionality. Moreover, free weights enhance sports performance, making you a more agile and powerful athlete.[8]

The Benefits of Using Strength Training with Free Weights for the Fitness Professional

As a personal trainer, fitness instructor or strength and conditioning coach, we are constantly seeking innovative ways to help our clients achieve their health and fitness goals. One proven method that has stood the test of time is incorporating strength training with free weights into their programs. Not only does this approach provide numerous benefits, but it also adds a dynamic element to clients’ workouts, keeping them engaged and motivated.

The Physical Benefits of Strength Training with Free Weights:

  • Functional Strength: One of the primary advantages of using free weights in strength training programs is the development of functional strength. Unlike machines that restrict movement patterns, free weights require clients to engage stabiliser muscles, promoting overall body strength and balance. This functional strength is invaluable in daily activities and can help prevent injuries.
  • Improved Muscle Activation: Free weights allow for a more natural range of motion, ensuring that all muscle fibres are engaged during exercises. This leads to more significant muscle activation and, ultimately, better muscle growth and toning. Whether a client aims to build lean muscle or increase muscle definition, free weights are an essential tool.[9]
  • Enhanced Metabolism: Strength training has been shown to increase metabolism both during and after workouts. This means clients continue to burn calories even after leaving the gym, making it an excellent choice for those looking to lose weight or maintain a healthy body composition.[10]

Helpful Tips for Fitness Professionals:

  • Assessment is Key: Before incorporating free weights into a client’s program, conduct a thorough assessment of their current fitness level and goals. This step ensures that you choose the appropriate exercises, weights, and progressions to meet their specific needs and prevent injury.
  • Teach Proper Form: Proper form is crucial in free weight exercises to prevent injuries and maximise results. Take the time to teach your clients correct techniques and emphasise the importance of maintaining good posture and control throughout each repetition.
  • Progression and Variation: Keep clients engaged and motivated by regularly introducing new exercises and increasing the weight as they progress. Periodically assess their strength and adjust their programs accordingly to ensure continued growth and prevent plateaus.
How to get the Best Use out of Strength Training with Free Weights in your Programs

OK, are you now ready to take your fitness journey to the next level? Look no further than strength training with free weights. While it might seem intimidating at first, incorporating free weights into your programs can deliver remarkable results. 

Here are some basic “tips” to help you get the best out of your programs that include free weights:

  1. Proper Form: Before adding more weight, focus on mastering proper form. This not only prevents injuries but ensures that you’re targeting the right muscles effectively.
  1. Variety is Key: Don’t stick to just one exercise. Mix it up with squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and more. This variety challenges your body in different ways, leading to better overall strength and muscle development.
  1. Progressive Overload: Gradually increase the weight you lift over time. This progressive overload is the secret sauce for continuous improvement.[11]
  1. Cross-Training Benefits: Strength training with free weights complements other forms of exercise like cardio and flexibility training. It enhances your overall athletic performance by improving stability, coordination, and core strength.
  1. Rest and Recovery: Remember to allow your muscles to recover. Overtraining can lead to burnout and injuries. Schedule rest days to rejuvenate.[12]
  1. Nutrition Matters: Fuel your body with the right nutrients. Protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates are essential for muscle growth and recovery.[13]
  1. Seek Professional Guidance: Consider working with a certified personal trainer. They can design a tailored cross-training program that aligns with your fitness goals and ensures you’re using free weights safely and effectively.[14]
My Top 3 Free Weights Workouts

Regardless of what stage you are at with your health and fitness journey, I always find the K.I.S.S (Keep It Super Simple) principle to program design works best… there’s no need to over complicate things!

Here are three free weight-focused strength training programs tailored for beginners, intermediates, and advanced clients. Remember to consult with a fitness professional or physician before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions or concerns.

Beginner Strength Training Program:

Goal: Build a solid foundation of strength and proper lifting technique.

Frequency: 3 days per week (e.g., Monday, Wednesday, Friday).

Duration: 8-12 weeks.

Workout A:

  • Squats – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Push-ups (or assisted push-ups) – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Bent-over rows – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Back extensions – 2 sets of 12 reps 

Workout B:

  • Deadlifts (start with light weights) – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Dumbbell bench press – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Lat pull-down or assisted pull-ups – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Plank – 2 sets of 30 seconds

Intermediate Strength Training Program:

Goal: Increase strength and muscle mass.

Frequency: 4 days per week (e.g., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday).

Duration: 12-16 weeks.

Day 1 – Upper Body:

  • Bench Press – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Bent-over Rows – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Overhead Press – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Dumbbell Curls – 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Tricep Dips – 3 sets of 10 reps

Day 2 – Lower Body:

  • Squats – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Romanian Deadlifts – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Lunges – 3 sets of 8-10 reps (each leg)
  • Plank – 3 sets of 30-60 seconds

Day 3 – Rest or Active Recovery (light cardio or yoga)

Day 4 – Upper Body:

  • Pull-ups or Lat Pull-down – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Incline Dumbbell Bench Press – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Barbell Rows – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Hammer Curls – 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Skull Crushers – 3 sets of 10 reps

Day 5 – Lower Body:

  • Deadlifts – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Leg Press – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Bulgarian Split Squats – 3 sets of 8-10 reps (each leg)
  • Back extensions – 3 sets of 12 reps 

Advanced Strength Training Program:

Goal: Maximise strength and muscle development.

Frequency: 5 days per week (e.g., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday).

Duration: Ongoing, with periodic deload weeks.

The advanced program utilises the Intermediate Program but focuses on increasing the Load (intensity) and decreasing the rep range to 6-8

Please note that all three programs should include a warm-up and cool-down with dynamic stretches and static stretches, respectively. Additionally, progressive overload (increasing weights over time) is crucial for continuous strength gains in all programs. It’s essential to maintain proper form and consider incorporating rest and recovery strategies, such as active rest days, foam rolling, and adequate sleep, to prevent overtraining and reduce the risk of injury.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, incorporating free weights into your workout routine not only builds muscle but also fosters functional strength, balance, and overall well-being. So, whether you’re aiming to sculpt a lean physique or improve your daily life, make sure to embrace the power of free weight strength training at your gym. It’s the path to a stronger, healthier you.

Please Note: The information provided in this article are the opinions and professional experience of the author and not all activities are recommended for the beginner or participants with underlying health conditions. Before following any advice or starting any fitness, health and wellbeing journey please consult with an Allied Health Professional and / or General Practitioner.


  1. ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2023: Thompson, Walter R. Ph.D., FACS
  2. The History of Fitness: Lance C. Dalleck, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D. University of New Mexico
  3. The History of “Exercise Is Medicine” in Ancient Civilizations: Charles M. Tipton, Department of Physiology, University of Arizona
  4. Eugen Sandow: The “Father of Bodybuilding”
  5. Weightlifting at the 1896 Summer Olympics 
  6. Evidence Mounts on the Benefits of Strength Training: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  7. Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health: Department of Internal Medicine, Chonnam National University Medical School, Gwangju, Korea.
  8. The Importance of Muscular Strength in Athletic Performance: Sophia Nimphius, Centre for Exercise and Sports Science Research, Edith Cowan University, Australia.
  9. A Comparison of Muscle Activation Between a Smith Machine and Free Weight Bench Press: Exercise Physiology Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, California State University
  10. Effect of Acute Resistance Exercise on Postexercise Oxygen Consumption and Resting Metabolic Rate in Young Women: Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University
  11. What Is Progressive Overload? Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on December 22, 2022 Written by Kristen Fischer
  12. The Science Of Post-Exercise Recovery: Research From The A.C.E (American Council of exercise) Scientific Advisory Panel, Lance C. Dalleck, Ph.D.
  13. A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis And Meta-Regression Of The Effect Of Protein Supplementation On Resistance Training-Induced Gains In Muscle Mass And Strength In Healthy Adults: Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.
  14. AUSactive Register of Professionals
Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin

Steve has spent the last 19 years in the Australian Fitness Industry as a Group Fitness Instructor, 1-1 Coach, State Manager, Business Owner and is currently an Educator for the Australian Institute of Fitness. A lifelong fitness enthusiast he started his working life in the Military which guided him into the fitness industry where his passion for helping others on their health and fitness journey has been realised. Steve believes that for anyone thinking about getting fit or healthy they should “just get started” as “doing something is better than doing nothing”.

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