What exercise equipment do you really need to get fit?
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, TRX, resistance bands..... it's like another language! And that's just some of the options with strength training gear. Then there's the almost infinite number of machines for cardiovascular fitness. It's easy to spend lots of time and money getting fitness equipment that can either really help get you in shape or collect dust in the corner of the garage. Like many things in modern life there's so much choice it can make for confusion and overwhelm. So what equipment do you really need to get fit? Well after 20 years of mobile personal training I can say with confidence the short answer is
"not much". Sometimes we make the aim of getting fit all too complicated. Let's say you can do 5 push ups and run non-stop for 2 minutes. Then, through following a program for 8 weeks, you progress to being able to do 15 push ups and 10 minutes of continous running. Those improvements would reflect increased fitness and likely change how you look. Clearly achievable without any equipment. Knowledge + desire = results If you're motivated and have a sense of what to do, you can achieve a lot with very little. The Kenyans have shown that with distance running over many decades. Similarly in Cuba world champion long, high and triple jumpers increase power and strength to super elite levels with only rudimentary and rusty gear. On a perhaps more relatable level a Melbourne mum lost 67kg in a year by walking around her clothes line (together with changes to diet). Some equipment though can be really useful, I wouldn't bother carting it around in my car from client to client if it wasn't. 2 considerations about the need for exercise equipment There are 2 factors which I think relate to the need for equipment. One relates to strength training, which is so dam good for you that you really are missing out if you're not doing it but that's another story! The other factor relates to impact with cardiovascular training. There's no doubt that simply moving your own body weight can provide incredibly effective strength training. Push ups are an obvious example. Add pull ups, squats and a few other movements and you've got a workout covering all the major muscles. The problem however is that some of these exercises are just too difficult for someone starting out. Pull ups for instance aren't possible for many adults and unless you have a lot of knowledge it's tricky to do an appropriate substitute. Strength training gear then becomes necessary. Now this opens up all those options listed at the very top of this post. Which one is best? Without hesitation I'd opt for dumbbells, AKA hand weights. I believe the advantages over a barbell (long bar) are that it takes up less space and it means the arms have to work independently. If you have a big strength difference between left and right then dumbbells provide the opportunity to reduce that. Lifting a barbell can mask such a difference and actually allow it to continue. It's possible to move a barbell smoothly and evenly while having 1 side do a disproportionate amount of the work. Dumbbells are also the most challenging to move with control in the desired direction, especially compared to weight training machines. This means more muscles are needed to stabilise and assist. That's a good thing, it means more bang for your buck! Lifting of dumbbells is also functional, which basically means it resembles, and is useful for, movements in daily life.
Now there is a particular type of dumbbell which provides great versaility and value. It's the adjustable style. They're usually sold as a pair and are 10kg each, but by taking some of the plates off you can make them anywhere between 3 and 10kg. This is really useful, as it also allows you to put plates on as you get stronger. You're not just limited to 10kg on each dumbbell either. You can easily buy more small or larger plates to add to your set. In Australia you can pick up one of these sets for $60-$100. What's more you can even use the individual plates on their own. Holding them in a pinching fashion is great for developing grip strength. The smaller plates add a suprising level of intensity if held when walking and similarly they can bring really challenge to shadow boxing drills. Adjustable dumbells are without doubt my favourite piece of fitness equipment, for most peoples needs they negate the need for buying a host of gear. The list of exercises you can do with them is infinite. I hasten to add you can use them for anything you'd use a kettlebell for too. If you've the desire but not the funds or inclination to invest in a pair of dumbbells there are ways of making do. A litre of water weights a kilo, you can fill water bottles with varying amounts of water to create the specific weight you want. Bags of sand or dirt from your local hardware also make for good resistance. There's another really portable and cheap strength implement- resistance bands. For around $20 you can get one of decent quality and moderate resistance. With some creative thought and a reasonably detailed manual you'll find there's plenty of possible exercises. They weigh next to nothing so are great for travel as well. Cardio equipment Running burns more calories than other activities at the same exertion level. That's why it's a 'go to' form of exercise for weight loss and sports conditioning. A 30 minute run is a time effective practical way of working out just about anywhere. What's more, apart from running shoes, it's equipment free. The drawback of course is the impact. A degree of impact is in fact good for building bone density however there is the increased risk of injury such as muscle strain, shin splints and knee pain. Many of the machines you see in gym's seek to address that injury risk by eliminating impact. This includes steppers, stationary bikes, rowers, cross trainer/elipticals and even cross-country ski machines. It can't be denied they all work. The downsides are the monotomy and size (and weight for that matter). If you're going to buy one, invest in a good quality one. Unfortunately the quality usually relates to size, big is beautifull in this context. Light and portable usually equals flimsy. You can add the treadmill to that list. Apart from running, walking on an incline is another way of getting low impact cardio, particularly if you carry some light weights. Out of that lot of cardio machines I favour the cross trainer/eliptical. It's up there with running for calories burnt relative to intensity, while also being similar to the running action. This makes it a handy alternative for injured runners and gives them a low impact option to mix into their running training program. Similarly there's that reduced injury risk for those who just aren't suited to running. What if you don't have the space, money or desire to buy or use cardio machines? And can't or don't run?
A weighted vest has the same effect as carrying small weights i.e. it adds intensity to walking without any great increase in impact. Not only that you can do other low impact exercises like squats and step ups with the vest on and burn more calories. It distributes the weight evenly around the torso and if you shop around you can get one for as little as $30 for a 10kg version. Another low impact cardio option is boxing. I regularly use it with personal training clients. Specifically, the client wears boxing gloves and I have focus pads. There are so many different ways of striking the pads; punches, knees, kicks. The other positives are they're relatively inexpensive and don't take up much space. Negatives are you need a partner, who has some proficiency with using the focus pads. An alternative is a boxing heavy bag. As the name suggests it's big and you need a suitable space and a beam from which to hang it. As they tend to swing around, something to secure the base to the floor is very handy. No doubt some people do get regular use from them but I reckon they'd have to be the most underused home exercise equipment item over the last 50 years. 3 more things that are useful A few other items of gear which are useful and I use regularly are: A skipping rope, which is small, cheap and offers some variety with cardio. It is also great when alternated with upper body exercises like push ups. The fitball certainly enhances core stability and from a practical perspective provides a mobile bench. It can be used to perform various dumbbell strength training exercises e.g. bench press or a lying row.
A new and welcome addition to my kit is a battle rope. This is simply the type of thing you'd expect to see securing a boat to a wharf. It's suprising how using your arms to wave the ends of it around really gets the heart rate going. No impact on the legs with this one either. It's portable but does take up some space. What equipment is worth getting? This will depend on your individual situation. Factors such as whether you need to limit impact from activities like running and the space you've got available for equipment will matter. Where you're going to workout needs to be considered as well. Much can be done at a public outdoor gym with no additional equipment. Exercising at home can be made more effective with just 1 or 2 pieces of equipment. Again it depends on individual needs, fitness level, what you're most likely to enjoy and any physical issues or limitations. Price is another factor, although to a large extent the value is determined by how much use you get from the purchase. Some of my clients have had incredible use from 4-5 items of gear in their garage. On the other hand we all know that a lot of exercise equipment gets little love and attention and so in practice is of little real value. What would a professional reccomend? The adjustable dumbbell sets offer so much flexibility, versatility and chance to progress. They won't cost you the earth either. If you're looking to add something more to walking and also various other cardio movements then a weighted vest is a great tool. You can even wear one while doing strength workouts to give greater challenge to push ups, pull ups, lunges and more. If you are thinking of getting a cardio machine for your home, then give serious consideration to a cross trainer/elliptical. If possible, try one out to see if you like it, as I wouldn't describe it as a natural movement. Without spending upwards of $800-$1000 on a cardio machine, it's certainly possible to get a few other effective pieces of exercise equipment for around $200. One thing to keep in mind is that new gear can create a degree of excitement and interest, but hoping equipment will inspire and motivate is typically a poor strategy. The novelty will wear off quickly and you're faced with the reality that willingness to put in consistent effort with fitness is largely about intrinsic motivation. Part of this reality is the inevitable challenge of getting started on sessions when you really don't feel like it. In truth this is an understated part of personal training- it makes exercise happen when it otherwise wouldn't. Whereas the latest and greatest equipment doesn't have that effect on an ongoing basis, if at all! Have questions about exercise equipment? Get in contact with me for free no obligation advice- I have no affiliation or vested interest with any equipment company! Need a program to get some value from your exercise equipment? Have a look at my online programming options. I also offer mobile personal training
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