Over the decades, fitness fads have come and gone—hello, Vibro-Belt, Tae Bo, and Shake Weight…and goodbye. As long as physical fitness is a coveted asset, those As-Seen-On-TVers and other exercise opportunists will hawk training equipment and programs of varying (and often dubious) effectiveness. Don’t get sucked in! The following nine options are tried-and-true to actually build muscle, shred fat, and improve fitness—no money back guarantee needed.
The workouts that this buzzy term encompasses are definitely of the test-of-time variety, even if they’re cloaked in having-a-moment names, such as TRX suspension training or CrossFit. “Functional fitness simply implies movements that the human body was meant to do: pushing, pulling, jumping, climbing, squatting, throwing, lifting,” says Brian Jaffe, coach and co-owner of LA’s Cave CrossFit. These activities have a multitude of benefits, building coordination, flexibility, balance, power, and more. “The efficacy of these training modalities in developing the human body is unmatched by machines, steady-state cardio, or fad fitness," Jaffe says.
These moves require many muscles working in synergy, yielding more strength and greater metabolic gains—a.k.a. what we pretty much all want from a resistance workout. The squat is the granddaddy of lower-body strength building, whether back-loaded, front-loaded, or unloaded. The secret to its success: employing the largest muscle groups in the body—glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Another great lower-body exercise is the barbell deadlift, so-named because it requires you to lift weight that’s dead (not moving) from the floor. “It’s the single best extensor chain exercise—utilizing the hamstrings, glutes, and upper back—out there,” says Mike Clausen, owner and coach at DIAKADI Fitness Performance Life in San Francisco.
For the upper body, let’s not forget the humble pushup. A favorite of gym teachers and drill instructors alike since 1905 when the term was coined, pushups train basically the entire upper body and core, with no special equipment required. Finally, pullups (bodyweight, assisted, or plate-loaded) work the upper back muscles to great effect, and are potentially a life-saving skill—or so you’d think, if you watch a lot of action flicks.
First developed in England in the 1950's, the concept was a revelation in fitness at the time. By combining strength training with the heart rate-revving effects of cardio, you get all the muscle gains, plus burn more fat and calories to boot. “As one’s body becomes more efficient with circuit training, his ability to work harder improves, too,” says Maurice D Williams, MS, CSCS, owner of DC-area Move Well Fitness.
The first heart-rate monitor was developed in 1977 to help Finnish cross-country skiers gauge training intensity. It’s been used by athletes across the board since the mid-80s, for a very simple reason. “Heart-rate monitors are an excellent way to engage how hard—or not—a person is working,” Williams says. “For those who desire to lose weight or are training for some type of event, wearing a heart-rate monitor is one of the easiest way to determine intensity.” The most interesting thing you might learn, should you invest in one: You might actually be going too hard, too much of the time. It’s essential to vary your intensity for the greatest gains in strength, speed, and power.
The Russians were onto something back in the 1700s when they first started using kettlebells, though at the time their primary function was for weighing crops. As a workout tool, they’re even better: The shape and weight distribution makes them ideal for ballistic movements. For example, the kettlebell swing get you all the benefits of the deadlift (hip and glute loading and unloading) and kicks it up a notch by improving lower body power. Even straight strength moves, like the overhead press, become more challenging with kettlebells, as the core needs to kick in even more to stabilize against the lopsided weight.
Organized fisticuffs have been around since basically forever, though the sport didn’t morph into the padded-glove ring dance we know and love until the turn of the 20th century (fun fact: Boxing made its Olympic debut in 1904, and the US took all the medals—because it was the only country that entered). Whether or not you choose to square off with another human or a heavy bag, the workout itself is top-notch for both strength and cardio benefits—and for blowing off some steam. “Boxing-style workouts continue to be popular because people enjoy them, and they like to feel they are training like the pros do,” says personal trainer Mike Creamer of NYC’s Anatomically Correct Personal Training.
The earliest indoor rowers were designed back in the mid-1800s using hydraulics so that competitive rowers could get in some winter practice; in the 1960s and ‘70s, these athletes got machines that used straps for resistance. The erg that gym-goers are more familiar with was patented in 1981 and continues to get attention as the lesser-sung hero of cardio equipment. “It’s arguably the single most efficient and effective workout you can do, Creamer says. “As more and more people are discovering it, I think group rowing will become the new spinning.” Why? In addition to awesome cardio benefits, its movement pattern—glute-dominant leg press followed by back-dominant row—helps undo some of the ill effects of endless sitting.
What was once a pastime of children (and a game of the 17th century Egyptians before that) became a fitness kick for adults in the 1970s that hasn’t abated. “That little thing can make a grown man cry,” says personal trainer Sara Jespersen of Trumi Training in Stillwater, Minnesota. “From double jumps to sprints and high knees, it challenges your brain, your heart, and your lungs.” Not to mention your legs. It’s used for warm-ups, agility drills, and cardio bursts in boxing, CrossFit, and circuit training, and is even a workout in its own right in specially designed rope-skipping classes.
That strip or tube of stretchy rubber has been around longer than you’d expect, with the first iteration patented in the U.S. by a Swiss inventor in 1896. Interestingly enough, his rationale for why his “gymnastic apparatus” was revolutionary isn’t much different from the benefits we extol about resistance bands now. “They travel easily, come in decent resistance levels, and can be used for almost any exercise,” Jespersen says. “Sure, they don't look really manly at first, but wrap that band around your upper back for a resisted pushup, or wrap it around a pole for a plank row—it's a little slice of brilliance.”