Exercise Equipment—It Gets Personal

Thu, 6 June 2013 - 1:42 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Runners, cyclists, and others who primarily schedule only cardio workouts can find encorporating a new strength training regimen a little intimidating. The vast array of machines at the gym, as well as the endless TV advertising of newer and better products for the home, can create uncertainty and confusion and ultimately put you off from beginning strength training at all, which is unfortunate because it is a very effective way to increase lean muscle mass, balance, power, and resistance to repetitive stress injury. Strength training one to three times a week ultimately improves your primary activity and overall health.

The problem for many people exists in the combined unfamiliarity of gym weight training devices (and gym culture) and the fact that many home machines—which you can slowly master in privacy—are so costly. Because home weight training “systems” require significant financial commitment, the tendency to delay a purchase you are not entirely sure you’ll take to can be great. But the fact is that you can start a strength training regimen small, and relatively inexpensively, with a few key items readily available at any retail sporting goods store. The key is to recognize that when it comes to choosing exercise equipment, personal preference reigns supreme. 

Strength Training On a Budget

Remember that whether they harness gravity, body weight, external weight, or tension as a resistance force, strength training devices all do the same thing in different ways: they help you build strength. If you’re just starting out, you can save a fortune by selecting a few basics—comfortable walking shoes plus hand weights or resistance bands or tubing—instead of investing a considerable sum of money in weight lifting machines. The following recommendations come from the Harvard Medical School’s January issue of Health Beat:

Ankle weights. These are optional for strength exercises like the side leg raise and hip extension. Look for comfortably padded ankle cuffs with pockets designed to hold half-pound or 1-pound weight bars to add as you progress. Ankle weight sets are usually 5 to 10 pounds. A single cuff may suffice, depending on the exercises you intend to do.

Exercise mat. Choose a nonslip, well-padded mat for floor exercises. A thick carpet or towels will do in a pinch.

Hand weights. Depending on your current strength, start with sets of weights as low as 2 pounds and 5 pounds, or 5 pounds and 8 pounds. Add heavier weights as needed. Dumbbells with padded center bars and D-shaped weights are easy to hold. Weighted bands that strap onto wrists and kits that let you screw weights onto a central bar are available, too. Weights are a good place to save cash by checking sports resale stores.

Resistance bands and tubing. Resistance bands or tubing can be used for a full-body strength workout. Attractive features include low cost, light weight, portability, and ease of storage. As with weights, you can measure how challenging the resistance is by how many repetitions of an exercise you can do: if less than eight, resistance is too high; if more than 12, it is too low. Positioning your hands or feet closer together or farther apart on the band or tube before starting an exercise helps vary resistance. Try different positions to learn which make repetitions easier or harder. Look for tubing with padded handles on each end. These also come in several levels of resistance from very light to very heavy, designated by color. Some brands come with a door attachment helpful for anchoring tubing in place when doing certain strength exercises.

Gym and Home Strength Machines

You can launch an effective exercise program using only what nature gave you: your body. But because regular activity remains an elusive goal for most people, a multibillion-dollar industry has blossomed around the promise of surefire success. Health club memberships and home exercise equipment are excellent exercise solutions for many people. Do keep these cautions in mind, though:

  •  Even the best equipment and most tricked-out gyms only produce results when used regularly.
  •  Learn to use equipment properly to avoid injuries that could sideline you temporarily or permanently.
  • Exercise equipment comes in all sizes, shapes, and price ranges. It pays to check consumer ratings and follow our other tips for smart consumers before making your purchase.

Cardio Machines

And if you’re on the lookout for a change in your cardio routine or crosstraining activity, here are a few gym machines to keep in mind when you tire of the stationary bike and treadmill. (Remember too that while it offers an excellent cardiovascular workout, stationary biking isn’t as effective in preventing osteoporosis as load-bearing exercise.)

Cross-country ski machine. This machine lets you exercise arms and legs simultaneously, as you would in cross-country skiing. The sliding motion is easy on the knees. When considering a gym membership, look closely at these machines. They provide an excellent total-body, low-impact cardio workout. On some machines, you have to move one ski forward to make the other move back. On others, the skis move independently. In addition, certain ski machines use ropes, while others have stationary handgrips. Check out all these types to see which one is most comfortable for you. Look for a wide foot bed for stability.

Rowing machines. Rowing machines work the back, arms, and legs simultaneously, and so they also offer as close to a total-body workout as is available from a machine. Unless you’re used to rowing, the motion initially may feel unfamiliar, and some people find it hard on the back. If you decide to purchase one for the home, consider pulley models instead of piston models for a more realistic rowing experience.

Stair-steppers. These machines provide a low-impact workout that approximates climbing flights of stairs. Some modes have levers with handgrips to work arms, too. Beginners may find stepper machines strenuous, and the motion can be hard on the knees. Look for machines that provide independent foot action and are equipped with handrails and large stair platforms.

Elliptical trainers. These machines provide a circular up-and-down motion that’s a cross between a ski machine and a stair-stepper. They provide a nearly impact-free workout, which is easy on the joints. Resistance and grade can be adjusted automatically or manually on some models, and levers with handgrips to work the upper body may be available, too. It may take a little while to get used to the unusual motion. Look for comfortable handlebars and nonslip pedals with curved ridges. Try the machine out at varying speeds and grades to make sure it feels stable.

Versions of each of these cardio machines for the home vary in price from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending upon whether a machine is motorized or programmable, and whether it has add-ons, such as devices to measure heart rate, calories or METs burned, time elapsed, and so forth. While this information tends not to be entirely accurate, it could encourage you to step up your workouts or may be important if your doctor has advised you to limit activity.

Ultimately, the equipment with which you strength train, crosstrain—or even regularly utilize as your primary activity—must be of a type that you can endure for roughly an hour or more, and can return to regularly without feelings of tedium or unpleasantness. This means that you should continue your quest for the right equipment until you discover a personal favorite; it may also mean acknowledging that this favorite can change over time and that keeping your workouts fresh is as important as beginning them in the first place.


Harvard Health Beat, Jan. 31, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/86nrrp6

ExRx.net, 2012, Weight Training, Exercise Instruction & Kinesiology, http://www.exrx.net/Exercise.html

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® March / April 2012 • Volume 30, Number 2)

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