Better Workouts With Less Equipment

by Michael on June 24, 2009 · 0 comments

When I posted my guide to a simple starter workout, I had no idea how many people were looking for just that: it has quickly become the most popular post by far – and exercise the most popular topic – on this relatively new blog.

I’m happy so many of you are searching for strategies to improve yourselves, and I ache to serve. Let’s keep you rolling with some tips that will get you there faster, while preventing injuries and saving you money.

The interrogation room at Gitmo.

The interrogation room at Gitmo.

Ditch the Machines

If you’re like most people, you’ve joined a gym at one time or another. And you were likely attracted by the floor full of equipment – specialized machines for working as little as a single muscle at a time. Machines for the calves. For the triceps. For the shins (I kid you not). Shoulder shrug, shoulder rotation, shoulder press, shoulder raise. A neck(!!) machine.

The problem is that 90 percent of that vast floor full of machines is next to useless to 90 percent of people:

  • You’ve got too many muscles to isolate just a few with machines – your body will be out of balance unless you spend a large amount of time at the gym.
  • Locking an arm or leg into a single-joint movement (such as leg extensions) places a lot of load on the joint.

Minimize to Maximize

Unless you’re an experienced bodybuilder or have a specific muscular need (therapy or avoiding stress on an injured muscle), you should be using movements that recruit entire muscle groups – you’ll gain lean muscle faster, lose fat faster, and best of all, get out of the gym faster. An entire-body workout can be accomplished with just these items:

Using just these alone, you can perform a workout that will strengthen your arms, legs and core, with literally hundreds of movements at your disposal that work multiple muscles. When you perform free-weight exercises your body not only has to move the weight up and down, but it has to stabilize the weight laterally, recruiting far more muscles than most machines. Add a barbell and a rack and you can do heavy squats and deadlifts. With a good pair of running shoes or a jump-rope for cardio, you’re set.

If you can’t afford dumbbells, hit the park. Do your pull-ups at the kids’ jungle gym and pushups in the grass, and then walking lunges across the field. Hell, learn how to do burpees and you’ll have an ass-kicking workout you can do in a hotel room!

If you are a gym member, they do have some equipment that can offer more variety and an enhanced experience. Rowing machines are great low-impact, high-burn cardio. A back-extension station beats having to bend over a bench with your feet weighted down. And their barbell racks and benches help you avoid the problems of getting a heavy weight in and out of lifting position (just stay away from the Smith bars).

Form Creates Function

Speaking of heavy weights, when you use free weights, especially in heavier exercises like squats or Olympic lifts, I can’t overemphasize the use of proper form. I speak from experience: back when I didn’t know what I was doing, I was performing a simple squat on the Smith bar, which not only enabled me to use more weight than I really should have used but also enabled me to use a position that stressed my spine too much. On about the fourth rep I got about halfway up and felt something in my back just give, followed by a wave of pain. Fortunately I’ve got a great chiropractor, but it was a long time before I felt really comfortable doing squats again.

There are three steps to getting and maintaining proper form:

  • Learn the movement.
  • Practice the movement with light (or no) weight.
  • Lift not one pound more than you can do with perfect form.

Go to the Video

At the gym you’ll see people all around you lifting with poor form. Don’t copy the people around you, even if they look like they know what they’re doing – it’s simply not worth risking injury. Instead, watch someone who knows what they’re doing: YouTube is a treasure trove of technique videos. For example, a search for “shoulder press technique” gives me this as the second result:

A lot of good instruction there. And with my natural skepticism I don’t have to take one YouTube user’s word that this is the correct way to perform a shoulder press – there are dozens more videos to give me a second opinion. There are often even videos of bad form so that you can recognize it.

Be a Lightweight

Then, when you begin a new exercise, first practice it with no weight at all until you have the form down tight. Use a mirror – contrary to popular belief, the gym didn’t put them everywhere just so you could check out women. If you can afford a few hours of personal training, it doesn’t hurt to have someone who can watch you and critique your form.

Then use a light weight – just enough so you can feel the bar. Most guys who lift heavy (and do it properly) start with a light weight, or just the bar, as a warmup. Then gradually add weight until you get to a weight that you can feel taxing your muscles but enables you to maintain that form. You never have to “max out” on weight if you “max out” in reps instead.

Know Your Body

The old axiom, “no pain, no gain” is true. With any weight training program there will be some pain. Often not until the next morning, but if you’re taxing your muscles they will feel sore at some point. Make sure, however, that it’s soreness and not strain, especially in your lower back. You may need to take a day or two off (or work other body parts) if you’re feeling pain in your back or knees. You’re not here to injure yourself. If you have a bad back or bad knees already, you may need to work around them. The leg press is one machine that can give you a lower-body workout without placing a load on your back.

Working out never has to be complex. Keep it simple and take it easy. Know what you’re doing, and you’ll do it better. Now get out there.

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