8 Gym equipment items you (might) need: Part 1
With the annual bout of rampant consumerism already upon us, it might be time when you are thinking of getting some equipment for yourself or as a gift for your closest exercise buddy.
As you might expect gym equipment suffers from the same malaise as supplements in the fitness industry, in that they are always over-hyped and rarely essential. In truth apart from the weights or machines themselves there is very little you need to bring to the gym, other than yourself, knowledge and a good attitude.
This is the list of essential gym items:
- Comfortable clothing
- Appropriate footwear
- Water bottle
Don’t leave without those 4. Otherwise you’re good.
If you want to casually workout at home, then maybe a yoga mat to preserve your carpet. Giant medicine balls, balancing boards, spring-loaded grippers etc. need not apply.
You are far better off practicing press ups or the plank if you want to work your core, then basically relaxing and rolling about on a giant inflatable ball.
So why was that thing invented?
Because there’s no money to be made from promoting exercises that don’t need equipment.
I won’t even get started on those ‘abdominator’ electric strap on packs that are meant to give you a 6 pack while you sit at your desk. They’re about as useful as using a lawnmower engine to get to the moon.
Stuff you might actually need
Everything in the following list is 100% optional, and it really depends on what you’re doing or your pre-existing medical history to determine what you might actually find useful.
If you have no actual joint or muscle issues then you should probably try and keep it as basic as possible; with minimum assistance from equipment.
Equipment does help, but remember it is essentially a crutch: if you always walked with crutches without needing to you will get bad at walking unaided.
The main point is to improve your body’s performance, not to become reliant on equipment.
However if used correctly and judiciously this stuff can help to push your performance that little bit higher.
The List (1-4)
This is probably one of the first things that springs to mind, because back problems are so widespread and feared in today’s society (see why in my post on modern living).
The back is something people get especially nervous about, and often when people see me squatting or deadlifting with no belt they’ll ask me, “isn’t that bad for your back? Have you not been injured before?” Or, “I tried squatting once, tweaked my back, never again”.
Back problems arise from weakness in that area caused by too much sitting down and not enough activity, coupled with poor flexibility and form when trying to perform exercises.
Avoiding exercises like the squat are not going to help the situation, and when people start wearing belts for bicep curls then you are actually making it worse.
What does it actually do?
The purpose of a belt is to increase intra-abdominal pressure. Essentially if worn properly (i.e. tight) it provides a brace for your abdominals to push against, thus stabilising and giving more protection to your spine.
You actually have a natural ‘belt’ consisting of your abdominals and your lower back muscles (spinal erectors) that are meant to take the load off of your spine. The belt just gives extra stability to the region by giving those muscles something to push against.
There is a lot of debate over whether you should or shouldn’t use a belt: take a random sample of experienced and serious weight trainers and some will swear by them, some will be ‘purists’ and some will use them sparingly.
Even at a professional powerlifting or weightlifting level you will probably see some very high level competitors using a belt, while others will not, while lifting the same impressive amount of weight.
Personally I would advise against, especially if you are a beginner and even up to intermediate/advanced level.
A lot of the belt advantage is psychological; you just feel more secure and stronger once you’re strapped in, like putting a harness on to climb a rock.
While you might use this to get that Personal Record it also means that you mentally become dependent on the belt.
Further, just like wearing pads in American Football can actually increase risk of injury due to people hitting harder as a result of feeling safer, the belt can encourage poor form or mislead the trainee into thinking they are ready for a lift when they don’t have the required core strength yet: we know where this is going.
If you’re weight training to be stronger or fitter for a sport, like many people, then that is another reason to keep equipment use like a belt to a minimum: you won’t be wearing one when you’re on the field so get used to training without one.
If you do want to use one though, then just limit it to your heaviest set; don’t warm up with it and try to go as heavy as you can without (and obviously watch your form).
Lastly if you are going to do this, make sure you select a belt that is the same thickness all the way around, preferably 3 to 4 inches wide. Belts that are wide at the back and thin at the front are doing nothing in terms of creating that intra-abdominal pressure.
Usefulness rating: 6/10
Out of all the items on the list this is probably the only one that is actually a game-changer.
In a lot of exercises your grip strength can be the limiting factor. Your forearm and hand muscles are very small compared to something like those of your back. Your grip will therefore definitely fail first. If your grip fails then you might not be able to work your target muscle properly.
What chalk does is dry out your hands, allowing you get a good grip, useful when you’re sweating during a workout.
For me this was probably the best piece of equipment I ever got: suddenly you’ll be holding onto weights with confidence and it allows you to drastically reduce how much of a limiting factor your grip is in an exercise, without actually becoming a crutch.
Unlike straps, which we will come to next, it is merely drying your hands so you are still holding the weight and therefore developing your grip strength, although it is worth remembering that you could become mentally dependent on it, so only start using it when you start to struggle on your heavier sets.
If you’ve never tried it and have found you sometimes struggle for grip then give it a go; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed with the result.
Unfortunately chalk can be quite messy and if you train in a commercial ‘treadmill and stepper’ gym you’ll probably find they don’t like it.
However I recently switched to using liquid chalk, which is just as effective as real chalk without leaving a mark on the bar, your clothes or a dust cloud.
My current gym is the kind where they frown upon making too much noise with the weights (“can you put that 200 kg deadlift down gently next time?”), and as yet I’ve had no problems using liquid chalk.
Definitely worth looking into, if you are into heavy lifting.
Usefulness rating: 9/10
Straps can be a great help or a great hinderance to progress unless you know what you are doing with them.
For those of you who don’t know they are just strips of material that loop around your wrist that you wrap around the bar to make it easier to hold.
Unlike chalk the straps are taking stress off your grip by putting it onto the wrists, so if overused you grip strength will suffer.
Personally I think there are only about three very specific times when they should be employed.
- Deadlifts in the 5-8 range. While in general you should avoid deadlifts over 5 reps due to the risk of form breaking down sometimes you may want to do more work on your hamstrings, or just use a reasonable weight with enough reps to feel your whole back working. Gripping a bar hard is actually very taxing on your CNS (central nervous system) and so you might want to use straps so you don’t have to worry about struggling to hold the bar, allowing you to focus on the form and your back.
- Bent-over rows. Bent-over rows target the widest and strongest muscles in your body, the lats (either side of the middle and upper spine), but they also require you to hold onto a relatively heavy bar in order to perform them. Guess what is going to give out first, your lats or the comparatively tiny muscles in the forearm? Your grip slipping in this exercise can mean your back doesn’t get fully worked; this is where straps can again allow you to focus on and fully work your target muscle without being hindered by your grip.
- Shrugs. Same principle, you want to target a bigger muscle group (this time your traps) and don’t want your grip to break before the target muscle is fatigued.
Used like this they shouldn’t have a detrimental effect on your grip strength. If you look at elite level Olympic lifters many of them use straps in training to lessen the CNS burden and save their strength for competitions and you only have to look at the weights they put up when competing to know their grip strength does not suffer.
The problem comes when people start wearing them for pull-ups, holding 20 kg dumbbells, bicep curls etc. I’ve even seen people bench pressing with them!?
Before you know it, they’re struggling to hang from a bar with just their bodyweight.
As a general rule I would just stay away from the straps until you are at a level where you can deadlift around twice your bodyweight for a few reps.
Usefulness rating: 6/10
4. Heart rate monitor
This is another one that is actually pretty useful if you want to get more serious about measuring progress.
This applies to running, not lifting weights.
Heart rate monitors are used for putting a figure on your running intensity and therefore allowing you to train more precisely.
Basically you put it on and find your individual ‘lactate threshold’ defined as the moderately intense pace where your breathing rate spikes and becomes less controlled.
By noting your heart rate at different levels of discomfort you can tailor your training to ensure you stay within a certain zone of intensity. For example if you want to recover after a race you make sure you stay in a low heart rate; when you want to push yourself and train hard you try to increase the amount of time you stay at a heart rate above your lactate threshold.
In this way you can take the guesswork out of how hard you are actually working and hopefully make better progress through better planning.
For those who like statistics and figures this can also help focus your training and aid your motivation to hit training goals.
It is worth noting however that most elite or very experienced runners don’t train with heart rate monitors, as your heart rate can be affected by your diet, hydration or overall fatigue level at any given time.
By running a lot you can eventually get to know by perception how intensely you are training and have the experience to tailor your session accordingly.
So heart rate monitors are by no means essential or even necessary to perform. But most of us aren’t highly tuned athletes; they can be very helpful to the amateur looking to more scientifically break their half marathon PB.