If you hit the gym on a regular basis, your weight room habits are probably more ritual than whimsical. Your routine, in fact, may start well before you ever break that first bead of sweat — think of the increasingly popular “get ready with me” trend on social media or jamming your favorite hype songs on the drive.
Once you cross the threshold of the gym doors, however, it’s all business. And the first order of business is hitting up the stair-stepper. Or aiming squarely at the squat rack. Everyone has a favorite thing in the gym, and your weapon of choice in the weight room says more about you than you might think.
Here are a few of the most popular pieces of gym equipment (plus, some fresh ways to use them) and what they say about you. Think of it as your fitness horoscope.
The stair stepper is the crucible of cardio machines. At a glance, it doesn’t look that difficult (you may have climbed some steps to get to your gym, even). Fifteen minutes in, though, and you’re huffing and puffing and clutching the support rails.
If your favorite form of cardio is a power hour on the stair climber, you probably enjoy testing your mental capacity as much as your physical limits. That, or you’re training to guarantee you can carry all the groceries from the car to the kitchen in a single trip.
Try This Stair Stepper Workout
The stair stepper is great if you’re looking to break a serious sweat, pump up your backside, and get a little existential in the process (after all, you’re constantly climbing…nowhere). If you’re looking to spice up your cardio routine, try this brief but brutal stair stepper workout:
- Step for two minutes at a low, sustainable speed.
- Every subsequent minute for the next 8 minutes, increase the speed by 1.
- Maintain that top speed for 3 minutes.
- Every subsequent minute for the next 5 minutes, decrease the speed by 1.
The barbell: Beautiful in its simplicity. And, also, frustrating in its simplicity. If you prefer to work with the barbell when you hit the weights, the phrase “keep it simple, stupid” probably resonates with you on a deep, cerebral level. Maybe it’s a bumper sticker on your car, or on your calendar, or maybe you heard it from your dad one too many times growing up.
The barbell isn’t a toning tool; it’s a teacher. You seek out the bar when you want to strip away the fat and fluff of fitness fads, get your hands dirty, and work. Nothing quiets the mind like a few sets of touch-and-go deadlifts, after all. And no exercise machine on Earth can give you the same feeling you get from sending a loaded bar soaring overhead during the snatch.
[Read More: Best Power Racks For Small Spaces, Folding, And More]
Oh, and you never have to worry about someone derailing your workout by asking to work in during a barbell exercise; if you’re squatting, they can squat with you or wait their turn.
Best Barbell Exercises
As far as free weights go, barbells crush the competition in terms of convenience. You can get a mighty fine full-body workout in without ever so much as glancing at the dumbbell rack. These barbell exercises cover every fundamental movement pattern out there and are all but guaranteed to coat you in muscle from head to toe:
If dumbbells are your favorite tools to work with in the gym, you probably fall into one (or more) of the following categories:
- You saw Pumping Iron and it made a strong impact on your burgeoning fitness career.
- You absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, be arsed to wait for the only squat rack to open up (“seriously, why are you doing that exercise in there?”).
- You have “fun mom” energy.
- You believe unilateral training will fix — or prevent — your fitness woes.
You can substitute dumbbells in for just about any barbell-based movement and do just fine. Unilateral exercises are legitimately therapeutic when applied correctly. Oh, and dumbbell circuits are just plain fun.
Try This Dumbbell Circuit
Your gym may have dozens of pairs of dumbbells, but you don’t need to sample them all to have a good calorie-burning workout. Move through this sequence three times, taking little to no rest between exercises, to break a real sweat and get your heart pumping:
- Dumbbell Floor Press: 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Renegade Row: 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Front Squat: 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Push Press: 10 repetitions
- Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk: 10 paces per leg
Kettlebell purists swear by — and worship at the altar of — their versatility. Ask anyone who practices kettlebell training full-time and they’ll tell you there’s nothing you can’t do with them; build muscle, gain strength, burn calories, improve coordination, file your taxes, mow your lawn…the list goes on.
Behind that zany devotion, though, is more than a little truth. Kettlebells really are one of the most widely-applicable pieces of gym equipment out there. If you like to take a “Jack of all trades” approach to fitness, they’re probably your favorite tool to swing, or thrust, or row, or whatever.
Training with kettlebells might make you feel like you’re ready for whatever life throws at you. In a way, you’d be right. You may not be as strong as a barbell-bound powerlifter or have the engine of a full-time endurance athlete, but you can perform pretty damn well in just about any area of fitness.
Try This Kettlebell Circuit
Think of this kettlebell circuit as a buffet of gains; you’ll sample a little bit of everything along the way. Swings will help you train for power, carries will test your endurance, Turkish get-ups build full-body strength, and so on.
- Turkish Get-Up: 5 repetitions
- Kettlebell Power Clean: 6 repetitions per arm
- Kettlebell Push Press: 6 repetitions per arm
- Kettlebell Swing: 20 repetitions
- Kettlebell Suitcase Carry: 10 steps per leg
If you favor the cables, you probably fall into one of a few camps. You’re a golf dad, practicing your swing between sets of haphazard triceps pressdowns. Or perhaps a fresh-faced gym newbie, inspired to hit the iron after seeing Chris Bumstead win his fourth Mr. Olympia title.
Or, in a darker timeline, you pitch your tent at a cable machine for the better part of an hour and slowly work through one or two exercises for every single body part. Someone asks you to work in? No dice; still have to do cable curls, cable crunches, cable bench press, and cable snatch.
Jokes aside, cables belong in just about every gymgoer’s weekly routine. Their main benefit is that cables, unlike free weights, aren’t constricted by the uniform pressure of gravity; whatever direction you pull, they’ll resist. This applies a consistent resistance curve, making cables a great way to get a sick pump, strengthen your golf swing, or build an entire workout around.
Best Cable Workouts
You can perform a killer workout without ever moving your feet from a cable station. From lower body to upper body to abs and arms, your options are almost endless. Just make sure you let others work in if they ask. Try these workouts on for size:
Are you resistant to change? Does it feel like the world is moving faster than you can keep up with? Do you have a big exam coming up and no time to choose between studying and staying in shape? If any of these hit home, you probably enjoy spending time on the treadmill.
Treadmills are safe, simple, and straightforward. They’re easy to use and, more importantly, easy to use well. If you want to live a more active lifestyle, boosting your daily step count on the treadmill is a fantastic way to start. Leave the ski ergs and the Echo bikes to the CrossFitters; slow and steady wins the race.
Benefits of Treadmills
If the treadmill is your go-to for cardio, most of these benefits are things you’re already aware of. If you (foolishly) think the humble treadmill isn’t worth your time, you might want to think again:
- Treadmills are a great general-purpose warm-up tool.
- They’re user-friendly, aren’t complicated to operate, and you can find plenty of them in just about every gym.
- Adjusting the grade of the treadmill serves as an easy way of increasing the challenge.
Most commercial gyms dedicate a large swath of their floor space to housing dozens (and dozens) of exercise machines. If you’re a free weight purist, most of them probably amount to wasted space in your eyes.
But if weight machines are your bread and butter, you probably value machines for all the right reasons. Newcomers are drawn to lifting machines often because they don’t want to look foolish or clumsy working with the barbell. On the other hand, if you’re process-oriented, you might like working with machines since they take the guesswork out of training. There’s no fancy technique to learn; just follow the instructions, apply effort, and move on.
Best Gym Machines
You may not have a full hour to dedicate to a machine-only resistance training workout. In such cases, you’ll have to pick and choose where you spend your time. These exercise stations stand a little taller than their counterparts in the weight room.
- Smith Machine: The Smith machine allows you to get your feet wet with basic barbell mechanics without worrying about falling on your backside or losing control of the bar itself.
- Machine Chest Flye/Pec Deck: This station applies consistent tension to your chest during the flye motion, something you won’t get if you use dumbbells.
- Leg Extension: You can use this station to isolate your quadriceps muscles without having to perform compound moves like squats or lunges.
- Hip Adduction: This machine allows you to target your hard-to-isolate hip adductor muscles on the inside of your thigh.
- Assisted Pull-Up Machine: Work up to your first pull-up with this machine, which applies some moderate assistance if you’re not strong enough to pull your own weight.
Much to the dismay of equipment manufacturers the world over, your body is just as much of a tool as anything you’d find in your local Globo Gym. Bodyweight training purists reject modernity and embrace tradition; calisthenics is, basically, the Paleo diet of physical fitness.
Not that that’s a bad thing, after all. There’s a reason that professional athletes and the armed forces alike build their performance bedrocks with push-ups, chin-ups, and crunches: These movements (and many more) build robust and versatile strength. Oh, and don’t bother hiding it — it’s fun to turn heads in a commercial gym by stringing together a few pristine muscle-ups.
Get Your First Muscle-Up
The ability to do a clean muscle-up signals that you’re simply built different. Not quite there yet? No biggie. Work through this simple progression and you’ll be well on your way:
These five movements build on each other to create the movement pattern of the muscle-up. Once you can perform 10+ comfortable repetitions in the first exercise, move on to the second, and progress your muscular endurance until multiple band-assisted muscle-ups are easy pickings. Then, you’re ready for the real deal.
More Training Content
Stereotypes may be partially rooted in truth, but you should never feel down about enjoying one kind of exercise more than another. Despite what iron-bound gym bros or relentless calisthenics devotees may say, no style of training is intrinsically superior.
That idea extends to the equipment you find in your gym as well. If clanging and banging the free weights helps you feel good, put on muscle, and work hard, go for it. If you prefer to hit the machines or the treadmill and break a real sweat, sweat it up. Not sure what to do during your next workout? No worries. Your next training article from BarBend will light the way:
- How to Train Bodybuilding Once Per Week (and Make It Count)
- The Seven Worst Gym Machines Your Workout Does NOT Need
- What’s the Average Biceps Size (and How Do You Stack Up?)
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