How to Get the Most Out of Exercise Equipement?

Bars & Bands, Cables & Handstands

This article describes the pros and cons of various kinds of  new exercise equipment used for strength training – bodyweight , weight machines, free weights, exercise bands, etc. Each has its benefits, and you should experiment to find what works for you.

Bodyweight Exercise

Pros: Free, Always available, Natural movements
Cons: Harder to increase difficulty incrementally, Requires a bit more creativity

You can get a full-body workout anytime you want without a single piece of equipment. Using the resistance of your own bodyweight, you can strengthen every major muscle group through its natural range of motion. There are hundreds of movements to try, each with several variations, but here is a short list of basic patterns and example exercises to get you started. See what other variations you can think of.

[Movement] – [beginner exercise], [intermediate exercise], [advanced exercise]

Squat – bodyweight squat, jump squat, pistol
Bend – bodyweight good-morning, one-leg deadlift, king deadlift
Push – kneeling push-up, decline push-up, one-arm push-up
Pull – doorframe row, inverted row, sternum pull-up
Lunge – stationary lunge, walking lunge, split squat
Twist – twisting crunch, windshield wipers, hanging windshield wipers
Gait – walk, run, sprint

If you have fifteen minutes and some floor space, you have all you need. Add a pull-up bar and exercise ball for even more bodyweight options.

Weight Machines

Pros: Simple, Controlled Movements
Cons: Simple, Controlled Movements

That’s not a misprint. The single exercise machines that live in the gym offer simplicity and safety and not much else. They can be a good option for beginners, older trainees, and people returning from injury. They also work as great “finishers” for those interested in building muscle. However, the fixed path of movement makes strength gains somewhat less transferable to the real world.

Smith machines are more versatile than single exercise machines, but they also have a fixed bar path. Cable pulley machines, on the other hand, allow a variety of exercises and angles – you could almost classify them below with free weights. All these machines are expensive, so you generally find them in gyms rather than basements.

Free Weights

Pros: Versatile, Natural Movements, Easy to increase resistance
Cons: Require strict form, Slightly higher risk of injury compared to machines, Some exercises require a spotter

Free weights are fantastic. With a pair of adjustable dumbbells or a barbell and some plates, you can do hundreds of movements that will build strength in all planes of motion. Unlike most machines, which have a fixed path of movement, free weights require the lifter to control the path of the weight.

This means two things: 1) your body will recruit more muscles to stabilize the weight, and 2) proper form is very important to reduce the risk of injury. People occasionally get injured lifting weights – still far less than most sports – and it’s usually because they let their form suffer. So keep your ego in check, and don’t add more weight to the bar unless you can do so with strict form. Remember that cheating isn’t progress. Progress is progress.

What about dumbbells versus barbells? Both have benefits. With dumbbell upper body exercises, you move each arm independently, so they demand more coordination and stabilization and allow a greater range of motion. With barbell upper body exercises, you move both arms together, making the movement more stable and reducing the range of motion. This means you can really load up the weights to exert maximal force.

When it comes to lower body exercises, grip strength often limits the amount of weight you can use for dumbbell exercises. With barbells, though, you can use a mixed grip (one hand prone, one hand supine) or rest the bar across your shoulders, allowing you to lift more weight. For both upper and lower body exercises, barbells generally offer a stronger stimulus, and thus require more effort and longer recovery times.

Clearly, dumbbells and barbells have unique advantages, so mix it up to get the benefits of both.

Exercise Bands

Pros: Versatile, Portable, Safe, Cheap
Cons: Resistance varies throughout the movement

Exercise bands are a great option for travelers or someone on a budget. Especially when combined with bodyweight exercises, bands can help you develop strength in all major muscle groups and through all planes of motion.

Exercise bands differ from other methods of strength training because they depend on elasticity to produce resistance, instead of gravity like bodyweight exercise, free weights, and most machines. In practice, this means that band exercises are usually most difficult at the point of peak contraction, rather than in a stretched or partially contracted position. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since new stimuli spark new adaptations, but it does mean that it is more difficult to strengthen muscles in their weaker ranges of motion.

There are two primary ways you can overcome this particular difficulty. The first is to ensure strong tension on the band when your muscles are in the stretched position. In some cases you may only be capable of partial movements. That’s fine. Just be sure to do some full-range movements as well. The second method is to add a gravity component – that is, use bands and bodyweight, or bands and free weights, so that when the band is looser, your muscles are working harder against gravity.

Decisions, Decisions

Now that you know the pros and cons bodyweight exercises, machines, free weights and bands, you can experiment and choose what’s right for you. Each has its place, broadly speaking, so if you’ve been stuck on machines for years, or if you’ve never touched a resistance band, try a few new moves and see what happens. Your body might thank you.


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4 thoughts on “How to Get the Most Out of Exercise Equipement?

  • December 5, 2010 at 7:07 am

    When you perform a push up, you have to press approximately 70% of your body weight. With pull ups you have to be able to pull 100% of your weight up to the bar. If you don’t have the strength to do correct push ups or pull ups, for a significant number of repetitions, you can’t get any positive results or you don’t even try. One of the best aspects of the Push Up Bench is that you start off with immediate success. As you move through each level you can achieve your goal many times over-which in turn motivates you to keep exercising. The Push Up Bench is designed to make push ups and pull ups easier. This will allow for a greater number of repetitions. You can start at the highest level, which means you only have to push 28% of your body weight instead of 70%. The Push Up Bench transfers the weight from your upper body to your feet- decreasing the amount of weight you have to press. Now you can do push ups with perfect form- which allows you to get full range of motion and hit all the muscle groups the push up exercise has to offer. As you get stronger, you can increase the weight you have to push by going through each level until your on the ground doing normal push ups. You can also increase the load on your arms by doing decline push ups. The Push Up Bench is adjustable to fit each person’s height from approximately 4’8 to 6’4. You don’t have to stop once you reach a full push up. The Push Up Bench also makes pull ups easier. By sitting inside the Bench you are able to perform seated or assisted pull ups. If your looking to tone your arms, increase your strength, need help passing a physical fitness test or just want to look and feel better, the Push Up Bench can help you achieve your goals. To learn more google “push up bench”

    • December 5, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      David, thanks for sharing your thoughts about the push up bench. I’ve never heard of those before, but I’ll take a look with Google.

    • December 7, 2010 at 6:43 am

      I used to have a client that used her sink to do push ups. That reduces the amount of required upper body strength. We’d use the flat bench in her sessions until she was strong enough to go to the floor after building more shoulder and core stability with planks, etc. Just another alternative.

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