How to boost your gym workouts: 7 free trainer tips

A treadmill, dumbbells and free weights will always deliver great gym workouts. But if that's all the equipment you ever use with your membership, that's like splurging on a trip to Paris but only visiting the Eiffel Tower and eating crêpes suzette. You're missing out on other amazing stuff.

Gyms today contain countless pieces of equipment, machines and other gear that not only can transform your gym workouts and your body, but also make exercising more fun and interesting. Here, trainers share their top picks for the best equipment you're not using but should.

The rower

"I see people waiting for a treadmill and think, 'But there is a machine right behind you that is so much better!'" says Donna Walker, an elite-level personal trainer at Lakeview Athletic Club in Chicago. Trainers love the rower because it counts as cardio and strengthens muscles head-to-toe: arms, shoulders, back, core and legs. Don't let the fact that you sit during your session fool you; Harvard researchers found that a 185-pound man can burn 377 calories rowing for 30 minutes.

Try it: Row 2,500 meters as quickly as you can, row slowly for a few minutes to recover, then go 2,500 meters again, trying to beat your previous time, Walker suggests.

Bosu ball

These "balls" look like they've been chopped in half — round and bouncy on one side, flat and hard on the other. "A Bosu adds an element of instability to any exercise, requiring you to activate your core," says Stephanie Steiner, a specialist-level trainer and personal training manager at Lakeview Athletic Club. Walker sees the benefits firsthand: "My clients who use it end up with tighter abs, tighter glutes and leaner legs."

Try it: Place the Bosu on the floor bouncy side up and do a forward lunge, stepping your front foot on the ball. Or use it for plank walks.


Unlike a dumbbell, a sandbag is unstable, so your body has to work harder to lift it, explains Rodrigo Velarde, a specialist-level trainer at Bucktown Athletic Club. That extra work translates into a bigger calorie burn during your gym workout and stronger muscles.

Try it: Pick up a sandbag and carry it in both arms as if cradling a baby and walk around the gym's perimeter. Or, lay the sandbag over your shoulders when doing lunges.

Your body weight

Moves that use only body weight are better at improving what's called functional fitness — the type of strength you need for everyday life. What good is bench pressing 100 pounds if you have trouble carrying your toddler and a gallon of milk into the house?

Try it: Bear crawls are one of the best ways to utilize body weight, Velarde says. To do it, walk down your gym's hallway on all fours. Or, try walk-outs: Place hands on floor, walk them out in front of you until you are in a plank then walk them back. Walk down your gym's hallway on all fours. hands and feet. Or try walk-outs: Walk hands out to get in a plank then walk them back.

TRX Suspension Straps

You'll find these long straps, which have handles on the ends, anchored to a wall at the gym. Trainers recommend them for cardio-boosting circuits of pushups, pullups, planks, upright rows and a variety of other moves because they force you to activate more of your core muscles to stabilize yourself. You can also easily adjust the moves for different fitness levels: The closer you stand to the anchor, the more challenging the exercise. Research shows using the straps during pushing moves (like pushups) activates more muscle activity than when on the floor.

Try it: Replace standard pushups with TRX pushups: Stand facing away from the anchor, holding the handles. Tilt your body until you're supporting yourself with the bands and do a set of pushups.

Resistance Bands

Bands pull double muscle-building duty thanks to the unique benefit of providing negative resistance. What that means: If you do a bicep curl with dumbbells, when you lower the weight, gravity can cause you to lower it quickly, missing out on some of what's called the eccentric contraction of muscle. Bands, however, work against you as you both curl and release.

Try it: Swap free weights for a band to do bicep curls. Curl up 2 counts, slowly lower for 4 counts.

The staircase

Exercisers tend to walk by a facility's staircase without seeing it's amazing potential for your gym workout, Walker says. "Every time you step up, you lift your own body weight," she explains. "Stair climbing sculpts leg muscles, but it also brings up your heart rate quickly (and so burns calories) because of the complex, compound movement happening over and over again."

Try it: Run, skip, hop, step up and plank pushup off of the stairs, Walker says.


—Nicole Catanese for Chicago Athletic Clubs

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