In a world where vibrating ab belts, treadmill bikes, and shake weights all had their time in the spotlight, it's hard to tell whether a strange piece of workout equipment is part of a company's ploy to suck millions of dollars from unsuspecting, out-of-shape consumers, or a breakthrough invention that offers uncomparable health and fitness benefits.
To make the gray area a little clearer, we enlisted the help of Jon Hinds, founder of Monkey Bar Gyms and equipment inventor for Lifeline Fitness. From new-age tools to every-day objects that've been used for hundreds of years (albeit for other purposes than exercise), we identified 10 unconventional pieces of workout equipment that are super effective. Add these to your home gym, or put them to use in your local gym.
“The weighted jump rope is a great tool because it provides the perfect amount of resistance to challenge your lungs and muscles,” Hinds says. You can find a variety of styles, namely leather, beaded, or wire cable ropes that weigh about 1 to 2 pounds. The key is to use a weight that’s heavy enough to make your workout more demanding, but not too difficult where you lose your form. Jump forward and backwards (imitate running backwards) with the weighted jump rope to improve your speed, power, and conditioning—you’ll use completely different muscles and challenge your body, whipping it into fighting shape.
Try: Crossrope has interchangeable handles, so you can switch out the weighted jump rope cables depending on your goal. They have ropes for endurance, speed, cardio, weight loss and power workouts, so you have an affordable all-in-one strength and conditioning piece of equipment that can be used virtually anywhere.
Consider adding sand bags to your rotation of kettlebells and dumbbells; not only do they have a different feel, but they’ll give you a hell of a workout. “The instability of sand bags make them a great tool for odd lifting, because your muscles have to work harder to stabilize the shifting weight,” Hinds says. You’ll use muscles that aren’t typically worked with traditional machines and balanced movements, so you'll build bigger muscle mass. You’ll also develop stronger grip strength, and a metabolic mix of power and stamina.
Try: Brute Force Training makes sandbags varying in size and weight catered to your goals. They’re made from machine washable materials that won’t deteriorate, and rubber-free handles to protect your hands. Plus, there’s a two-year warranty.
“Battle ropes are so effective because they challenge the whole body and boost conditioning, speed, stability, and power in a completely different manner than kettlebells, dumbbells, and bars by using a complete range of dynamic hip extensions,” Hinds says. Variations like quick-hand waves, big snap downs, side-to-side whips, spirals, and slams all work your legs, hips, glutes, abs, arms and back, give you a killer all-over burn in a routine that’s safe and easy to master. (Note: To maximize your results, focus on maintaining the intensity of the motion from beginning to end.)
Try: Onnit has a variety of polypropylene ropes designed to be virtually weather-, water-, and shed-proof. The ends are wrapped with vinyl tape to protect your hands from skin tears, and for additional grip support.
Starting from $90, onnit.com
Or, head to your local hardware store and buy about 50 feet of manila rope (1.5 to 2 inches in thickness).
The ab wheel is unique because “it puts your core in an unstable environment, no matter what position you’re in, like no other tool or device,” Hinds says. For example, you can crawl forward, backward, or laterally out on your hands with the wheel strapped to your feet—engaging your abs with every step in order to maintain alignment and stabilization. Or, you can hold onto the handles and do roll outs again using your core to stabilize and maintain a neutral spine while rolling the wheel back and forth. As if that wasn’t enough, you can even lie down on your back and do leg curls and hip lifts to open your hips and relieve back pain.
Try: Lifeline Fitness' Power Wheel has a wider base to support your weight more uniformly, and wider handles to align you shoulders properly, putting less stress on your rotator cuffs.
“Paralette bars are especially great if you want to begin practicing some higher-level body weight training because they’re simple to use, lightweight and portable,” Hinds says. They make exercises like dips, L-seats, and press-ups more difficult because you’re in an unstable environment with all your weight on the bars (off the ground), deepening the range of motion for each exercise. Although it depends on your routine, your forearms, shoulders, chest, back, and core will almost always come into play.
"I love monkey bars—they inspired me to open my Monkey Bar Gyms—because they develop incredible grip strength, and open the wrists, elbows and shoulders in a natural way that dramatically improves balance, strength, stamina, and power in the fingers, arms, and torso,” Hinds says. Swinging across monkey bars, walking your hands side-by-side along the bar, hanging on the bar, or performing pullups will develop exceptional upper body strength.
Try: If your gym doesn’t have a set, go to a local playground.
“A great tool for athletes and high-level fitness folks, sleds add incredible conditioning, speed and power elements to any workout,” Hinds says. Unlike boxes and tires, you can adjust the weight you add to a sled, allowing you to personalize your workout for power or cardio. You’ll work your quads, glutes, and hips driving the sled forward, and your shoulders and arms pulling the sled by attaching a rope or band.
“Suspension trainers add instability to basically any body weight movement you can think of—pushups, dips, flyes, pullups, rows, pistols, lunges, leg curls, pikeups, roll outs, and tons more,” Hinds says. This is one of the greatest pieces of equipment for full-body strength and conditioning because it uses your own weight from different angles to engage more muscle groups simultaneously. You’re training strength and flexibility, all while developing your core to maintain balance. Plus, it’s versatile; it works at home, in the gym, outside or on the road.
“The chest expander is great for opening up the shoulders and strengthening one of the most imbalanced areas in the body,” Hinds says. You can use it for reverse flyes, presses, rows, and shoulder circles. For the shoulder circles, hold the chest expander in front of your body, your palms facing out. Keeping your arms straight, bring your right hard overhead and back until the chest expander is across your glutes. Then, take your left arm overhead until the chest expander is across your hips in front of your body again. Repeat 5 times one way, then 5 on the other, working up to 15 reps. (Watch here.)
Waterballs are similar to medicine balls—until you pick them up. They’re partially filled with water, so the more you move, the more water sloshes around, and the more you have to stabilize the ball. You can perform pushups, wall squats, leg curls, Russian twists—basically any excericse you'd use with a medicine ball—on a waterball and get even better full-body results.