You know strength training is important, but when your schedule is packed, squeezing in a trip to the gym can be impossible. Setting up for a weights workout at home gives you more flexibility. We went straight to the experts to find out the smart, safe way to get started using free weights at home.

Strengthening Trend

Buying strength training equipment for the home is a strong trend among adult women and men. "It's the wave of the future," says Ken Baldwin, recipient of the 1999 IDEA/Life Fitness Personal Trainer of the Year Award and president of a Boston-area firm that implements fitness programs in homes, offices, and fitness facilities. "From busy executives to parents caring full-time for their children, we're seeing an explosion of interest in home-based programs."

Experts agree that, for active adults, home workouts can be practical and appealing."All that travel to a gym is often a deterrent," says Jennifer Layne, MS, a senior research associate at Tufts University and contributor to two best-selling books on strength training for women. "A home routine works better for many people."

Getting Started

Before you begin doing preacher curls in the living room, here's what the experts say about setting up free weights safely:

Be aware of space constraints in the room you'll be using. Look for a place that's spacious, well-lit and clutter-free.

Be sure the room has good air quality. Basements are private and out of the way, but the air can get damp and moldy, especially in summer. Try running a dehumidifier.

The Goods
Invest in proper equipment:

  • A full-length mirror can help you check posture, bent knees, and other cues for proper form.
  • Use a bench for working the chest and back; a model that goes from flat to an incline works best. As a stand-in, use a step bench for step aerobics; for seated exercises, use a regular chair with a cushion or phone book for height and padding.
  • To begin, you'll need several pairs of dumbbells of varying weights. As a guideline, women may choose to start with 3-, 5-, and 8-pound dumbbells ($4.25-$10.95 per pair), adding 10 and 12 pounds ($13.95-$15-95), and then higher weights over time. Men may start with 15-, 20-, or 30-pound dumbbells ($17.95-$29.95), depending on their current fitness level. Do not attempt to make weights with sand-filled milk jugs or bags of rice. When it comes to moving something heavy overhead or across your body, it's safest to buy equipment designed for that purpose.
  • Try different weights at a gym or sports equipment store before buying to see which grip, look, and feel you prefer. Functionally, there's no difference between metal and vinyl-coated dumbbells.
  • Resistance bands or tubing ($4.00-$14.95) provide excellent resistance for the muscle groups. Also, bands are compact and travel well.
  • A dumbbell rack ($69.95) keeps weights out of the way to prevent tripping, stubbed toes, or accidents with small children.
  • For floor exercises, you'll need a mat ($7.95-$14.25) or folded blanket.

Equipment is available at sporting goods stores (new or used), discount stores, small athletic equipment retailers, and through mail order.

Create Your Program

If you haven't worked with weights before, a trainer can teach you a program. Some trainers will also come to your home and suggest ways to use the space to your advantage. Depending on where you live, home visits with a trainer range from $40 to $85 or more an hour. Find a trainer through referrals from friends, gyms, the yellow pages, or websites. Always check credentials and interview candidates to find a comfortable rapport.

A cheaper alternative is to work from a book or video, such as Weight Training for Dummies by Liz Neporent and Suzanne Schlosberg, which is comprehensive, readable, and appropriate for women and men. Strength training videos by Donna Richardson or Kathy Smith also teach the basics effectively.

Making Progress: Expert Training Tips

  • Choose a schedule you can commit to. For beginners, strength training two to three days a week works well. A morning routine works well, because we are often more tired later in the day and may decide to skip yet another session.
  • Never push yourself to full fatigue. Lifting too much weight is dangerous, especially when you're at home by yourself.
  • Watch your technique carefully in a mirror. You may perceive that you're doing something correctly, but you need to see if your motions are correct.
  • Lift and lower weights with slow, controlled movements. If you rely on momentum, you won't isolate the muscle group or get the results you want.
  • Increase weight and repetitions gradually. Whatever the exercise, be sure you can do 12-15 repetitions comfortably before increasing the weight.
  • Make sure equipment is properly stored and monitored. This is especially true if you have children in the house. Parents should also make sure they have time for themselves to dedicate to exercise during a period when the children are occupied and supervised.