The Best Fitness Gear for Men
No matter how much you love the gym, there will always be days when the prospect of lifting just seems so, well, boring. After all, you can mix up your set and rep schemes all you want, but the dumbbell bench press you're doing now is still the same dumbbell bench press you did last week.
Maybe it's time for a change of scenery. Try getting out of the gym and strength training on the road or outdoors using a portable fitness solution. They're among the hottest sellers on the training equipment website Perform Better, according to Erin McGirr, a sales representative with the company.
And the best part is that these pieces of equipment can help shake up not only where you work out, but how you work out as well, challenging your core, taxing support muscles and improving your performance more than traditional training ever did.
I truly use the TRX more than my weights for resistance training.
Stew Smith, former Navy SEAL and author of "The Complete Guide to Navy Seal Fitness"
Two Straps, Hundreds of Exercises
There's no better fitness equipment than your body. With pushups, lunges, squats, inverted shoulder presses and numerous other bodyweight exercises, you can build a world-class physique for free. Add a simple pullup bar and there's just one movement pattern you can't do: a horizontal pull.
Enter the TRX Suspension Trainer. Used by military personnel in the field, this black-and-yellow, two-strapped contraption allows users to perform the ultimate bodyweight back exercise -- the inverted row.
"Your hands and shoulders are free to rotate," said Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning in Boston.
With the TRX, Boyle says, the rotation of your hands can strengthen and protect the rotator cuff, a frequently neglected group of muscles that are often injured. You can't get that benefit with a fixed bar.
The apparatus is useful for much more than just rows, though. Boyle uses it for sled pulls and said he loves the straps for pushups with his feet elevated in the handles. The instability "really causes you to activate, or turn on, your core body," he said.
"I truly replaced 400 pounds worth of weights and now use [the TRX] more than my weights for resistance training," said Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and author of "The Complete Guide to Navy Seal Fitness."
Smith's favorite exercise is the atomic pushup, a sort of simultaneous pushup and jackknife maneuver. But he also uses the tool to warm up.
"I do a TRX warm-up that consists of mixing squats with rows, bicep curls, high rows and reverse flies. Then I turn around and do a chest press and triceps extension and stretch."
The following are a few exercises you might try with the TRX.
Row: Grab the handles of the trainer and suspend yourself beneath it so your body forms a straight line from head to heels. Keeping your body rigid, row your body up by bending your elbows. Pause at the top, return to start and repeat.
Single-Leg Squat: Stand facing the equipment with your arms extended, slightly bent, and at shoulder height. Extend one leg to the front and lean back slightly. Push your hips back to perform a single-leg squat using the machine to maintain your balance. Press back to start, and repeat.
Plank: Place your feet in the foot cradles of the apparatus, and extend your body so it forms a straight line from head to heels, with your arms directly beneath your shoulders. Brace your core as if you were about to be punched. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Pushup with Elevated Feet: Assume the same position as in the plank. In this position, bend your elbows to lower your chest to the floor, maintaining a rigid body line from head to heels. Press back to start, and repeat.
Intervals With Your Arms
If your knee hurts, your fat-burning cardio interval workout is ruined. Without your legs, you can't run, bike or use a cardio machine. And if you can't swim, you're completely out of luck.
But not anymore. Using thick ropes known as Battling Ropes, you can build strength, torch fat and perform intervals using your arms, shoulders and core body -- even with a bum leg.
"Lately, we've had a couple [of] banged-up kids with hamstring injuries," said Robert dos Remedios, head strength and conditioning coach at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, and author of "Men's Health Power Training." "When we go to condition as a team, they can take their ropes out, get their metabolic work and keep up with their conditioning."
The Battling Ropes System uses long, twisted ropes looped around a fixed point. To work with them, you hold a rope in each arm and create waves down the rope from your hands to the anchor point. You can do two-handed slams of the ropes, make them wave from side to side or perform any number of other moves.
John Brookfield, inventor of the system, suggests starting with alternating waves, where your arms pump alternately up and down as if drumming.
"Few people have equal coordination -- power and speed on both sides," he said. "[Alternating] will actually correct that over time."
If you're going to try the ropes, go hard. Brookfield calls training with them "velocity training" and suggests trying to sustain a high velocity -- the faster you go, the more ripples you'll create.
"My goal is for somebody to sustain that effort for longer and longer periods of time," he said.
Brookfield suggests working for 10 minutes, resting as needed between bouts of intense, high-velocity work. Over time, work towards getting in more waves -- and less rest -- during your 10-minute session.
Dos Remedios uses the ropes for shorter periods of interval training. He suggests starting by getting a particular rope movement pattern down. For example, complete 15 to 20 reps of two-hand slams or alternating waves, just to get a feel for your own velocity and the pattern you need to complete. Then work your way up to full intervals.
"We use 30-second intervals," dos Remedios said. Alternate 30 seconds of work with 30 seconds of rest for 10 rounds to create a complete interval session.
As you advance, instead of reducing your rest, dos Remedios suggests increasing the intensity within each section of work. A "negative rest," where your rest period is shorter, may not give you the recovery needed for optimum power output.
The Fitness Tool Sold at Home Depot
Ropes, straps -- the coolest fitness tools are often the simplest. And it doesn't get much simpler than a sandbag.
"It attacks muscles in ways that free weights can't," said Zach Even-Esh, owner of the Underground Strength Gym in Edison, New Jersey.
Even-Esh has been training athletes with sandbags since 2003 and says they're ideal for athletes and functional, everyday strength because the weight shifts around.
"When you're using barbells, you're going in a straight up-and-down motion, and the load is uniform. But if you're running around with the kids and you pick them up, it's not like that. Sandbags get you ready for the odd nature of movement."
Because they prepare you for uneven and shifting weight, the bags can reduce injury in sport and in life, Even-Esh says.
And the nature of the bags -- to conform to your body, hands, shoulders -- can prevent injury during the workout, says Jared Meacham, owner of Precision Body Designs in Covington, Louisiana.
"[Sandbags] minimize risk of injury if your body comes in contact with the weight," he said.
The ability to swing, carry or catch the sandbag also provides more versatility than free weights. Meacham likes to use them for zero-rest circuits, for instance, because you don't need to change weights or equipment between exercises.
"You can switch from an overhead squat, where the sandbag is at arm's length overhead, to lunges, where the bag is resting on your shoulders, and go right into an exercise like an ankle chop."
Sandbags are great for exercises as simple as throwing the bag on your shoulder and walking around.
"That's the coolest thing about them," said dos Remedios. "There is literally nothing you can do in the weight room that's comparable to shouldering the bag."
They also work for complex moves. Even-Esh said he likes sandbags because they make technical, high-reward exercises such as the power clean less technical without reducing their benefits.
"[Movements with a sandbag] are easy to learn and easy to teach -- and they have a fast, powerful return on result," he said.
If you're ready to give sandbags a shot, Even-Esh suggests a specific exercise sequence.
Begin with a simple deadlift. Start with the sandbag between your legs. Keeping your back flat, bend your knees to squat down and pick up the sandbag. Stand up by pushing your hips forward and lifting the bag from the floor in a straight line.
Once you're comfortable deadlifting the bag, try a Zercher carry. Deadlift the bag up, then get your forearms hooked under the bag, arms and hands facing up. Walk with the bag, drop it, and repeat.
After some training sessions with this move, try squatting the bag. First clean the bag so that it rests around your shoulders. From here, perform a front squat as you would with a barbell.
The No-Cost Equipment You Already Have
If you're stuck in a hotel with no gym, if you're snowed in or if you just don't feel like leaving the house, you can create a world-class workout with a tool already in your home: a towel.
"For years, and to this day, [towels are] a major source of exercise for competitive bodybuilders preparing to go on stage," said Jared Meacham.
He suggests an exercise called The Swimmer: Lie face-down on the towel with your arms extended overhead, your palms on the ground. Mimic a lat pulldown, using your hands to pull your body across the floor, with the towel beneath you to help your body slide.
Another move he suggests is a lying leg curl. Perform this exercise in a similar fashion to how you would with a Swiss ball, but place your heels on the towel on the floor instead.
A towel can also be used to turn pushups into a floor fly, with one arm sliding out of the towel to the side as your body is lowered to the floor. Bring your arms back together as you press back up.
Additionally, a towel can make your pullups and chinups four times harder, says Stew Smith.
"The towel pullup wrecks your forearms and hands, and pumps up your biceps," he said.
Drape a towel over the bar and grip it with one hand. Put your other hand on the bar as you normally would. In this position, perform a pullup or chinup. You can also do a variation of this with a towel in each hand.
"This usually limits my pullups to 25 percent of what I normally can do," Smith said.
Greg Presto is a sports and fitness journalist and certified personal trainer in Washington, DC. He believes fitness should be an adventure, whether it's on the side of a snowy mountain, trying out a new program in your gym, or even breaking a sweat in your living room. Reach him with workout or story ideas at gregpresto (at) gmail (dot) com.