It’s easy to get lulled into complacency when you’re consistently hitting the gym. You can’t just sleepwalk your way through workouts, though. Instead, you need to consistently mix up your routine—not just sets and reps, but your workout equipment, too.
Heavy squats and bench presses are mainstays for a reason: They build muscle. But to bust plateaus, challenge your body, and increase your workout motivation, you need to look beyond the traditional equipment in the gym, says Jon-Erik Kawamoto, C.S.C.S., and Thomas King, C.S.C.S., both strength and conditioning coaches at JK Conditioning in St. John’s, NL, Canada.
“Using novel equipment, you can target muscles you don’t normally target,” says Kawamoto. “You can also hit muscles with a different stimulus, which may be able to help you develop strength to move forward from a plateau.” And in crowded commercial gyms, utilizing less popular equipment can also save you time, which means doing more work per session.
We asked King and Kawamoto for the seven best pieces of workout equipment lifters typically don’t use, and how to properly add them into your routine.
A few warnings before you jump in, though: Use lighter weight until you figure out the proper technique. Be ready to devote more time to practicing proper form. After checking out our guide, ask a certified personal trainer or coach to assist with your form.
Basically just a cannonball with a handle, the kettlebell is great for increasing your muscular stability and balance. Kettlebells enhance shoulder stability by pressing them, says Kawamoto. They are also excellent for increasing heart rate and dynamic leg strength via swings, cleans, and snatches.
Tips: Keep your wrist straight when in the front loaded position. If the kettlebell hurts your forearm during swings, you can wear long sleeves or wrist wraps to limit contact.
Caveats: Balancing a kettlebell on your forearm can be challenging, so be careful not to hit yourself in the head.
Suggested Exercises: Swing, single-arm shoulder press, single-arm snatch, single-arm clean, front squat
Sandbags designed for fitness have strategically placed handles to give you lots of options for hoisting and hauling them around. (Theoretically, any sandbag will work, but the specially designed ones are a little easier to implement.) Sandbags work well for dynamic instability training because their cumbersome weight will test your core and boost joint stability, says King.
Caveats: Balancing the bag on your fists can be tricky when doing overhead presses, so pay extra attention to form.
Suggested exercises: Thrusters, bentover rows, reverse lunges
This simple device—just a wheel with handles around the axle—was all the rage in the ’70s, but has come back into fashion in the last 10 years. It’s affordable, and, as its name implies, is perfect for targeting the abs and core muscles, Kawamoto says.
Tips: Keep your wrists neutral and watch your lower back—be sure to maintain core rigidity and pelvic tilt. Only roll out as long as you can maintain a neutral, or flat, spine.
Caveats: If you feel lower-back pain during abs rollouts, switch to a less back-intensive abs exercise like the plan
For those allergic to the treadmill or elliptical, the rower is a good choice. “Rowing is a joint-friendly cardiovascular exercise that challenges both upper- and lower-body muscles,” says King.
Tips: Initiate the push portion of the row with your legs and then finish the pull by engaging your arms and upper back. Your lower back should stay strong, not bowed, as you pull the erg.
Caveats: Don’t over-extend your lower back at end of the pull—if you feel lower back pain, don’t pull quite as far. (Here’s a primer on common form errors on the rowing machine.)
With its stout metal frame and pads, the glute-ham developer (aka GHD) looks a little bit like a torture rack—but it’s a great tool to target your hamstrings, glutes, lower back. The GHD uniquely challenges hamstrings, says Kawamoto—but be sure to ask a trainer or gym employee how to properly get on the GHD before attempting.
Tips: If you’re doing reverse crunches, don’t lower yourself so far that your glutes disengage. Keep squeezing your glutes and lower back throughout the range of motion.
Caveats: Reverse crunches can be very difficult, so reduce your intensity if you feel a hamstring cramp coming on. Make sure you’re warmed up before using it.
Now an accepted and essential part of any serious lifter’s repertoire, these stretchy bands aren’t just for aerobics anymore. Resistance bands are portable, joint-friendly, cheap, and versatile. Bands can also help you train to push through sticking points in certain lifts.
Tips: You can use bands to intensify traditional lifts like band-resisted pushups, band-resisted deadlifts, or band-resisted EZ-bar curls.
Caveats: If the band looks like it’s going to break or has cracks in it, get a new one.
Suggested Exercises: Band-resisted pushups, band-resisted deadlifts, band-resisted good mornings, band-resisted rows
Super-popular and found in most gyms now, suspension trainers are extremely versatile. “These are portable, offer variable dynamic instability training, and challenge the core differently than traditional exercise equipment,” says Kawamoto.
Tips: Maintain rigid core throughout each move.
Caveats: If you feel lower back or joint pain, adjust your technique.
Suggested Exercises: Suspension-trainer pushups, suspension-trainer single-leg squats, suspension trainer rows
BY ADAM BIBLE