Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
I’ll go out on a limb and guess the reason you visit Muscle and Strength is to build lean muscle, get stronger and possibly add a little functionality to your life. I also bet you are constantly on the hunt for better, more effective ways of training to pack on said muscle.
It’s no mystery that the fitness industry is always introducing, and sometimes reintroducing, new pieces of equipment promising to be the missing link to your sought-after gains. But what to make of all these bands, chains, ropes and sleds, and other gear designed to help you on your muscle-building journey? Are some actually effective or are they simply a part of the fitness marketing machine after your hard-earned dollar?
Below are nine well-known items you may find at your local gym. Some will be familiar – you may currently use them in your program as I write this. Others may be foreign and require a little explanation. I also breakdown the pros and cons of each and give you my two cents on if they are worth your time and effort or just a waste of time.
The ever-popular TRX Trainer was born out of necessity. Designed by a former Navy SEAL, it was developed for fitness in the field – lightweight, mobile and versatile. The adjustable straps and handles make training anywhere a reality when a gym is nowhere to be found. Not only does the TRX utilize your own bodyweight for resistance, it also focuses on building balance and stability in your routine in a very unique way.
Pros: Portability, convenience and light weight. The TRX Trainer is extremely versatile enabling you do diversify resistance, correct imbalances and increase difficulty.
Cons: For muscle-building purposes the TRX Trainer has its limitations. If your goals include building considerable strength and packing on serious muscle the TRX falls short.
Is it worth it? Yes. Adding it to your already comprehensive collection of free-weight exercise will only add to your overall development. The TRX will challenge your balance, core and stability like no other piece of equipment.
Bands and Chains
A few other widely-used pieces of equipment, especially within sports strength and conditioning circles, are bands and chains. These two provide a unique training effect not possible with the traditional barbell or dumbbell – linear variable resistance (LVR). LVR is simply an increase of resistance as the band is stretched or the chains are raised link by link from the floor. This provides the muscle with an increase in training load within the set recruiting more muscle fibers thus increasing muscle and strength gains.
Pros: Increasing muscle fiber recruitment within a set, exposing the muscle to a new and unique training stimulus and strengthening the entire range of motion while virtually eliminating the infamous “sticking point.”
Cons: Using bands and chains requires a specific level of training experience – they are not for the newbie. Also, set-up can a bit time consuming and in need of a training partner for assistance.
Is it worth it? It depends. If you are out to add a little variety to your current routine then, performing a few band and chain-assisted exercises will go a long way. However, if you are more interested in designing an entire strength program around LVR then it could prove difficult regarding equipment availability and convenience at your local gym.
You’ve seen these odd contraptions before; Bosu balls, wobble boards and Swiss balls among others. The goal is to create an unstable surface hoping to build balance and all of those tiny ancillary muscles neglected by the big lifts. By keeping the body off balance you are supposed to establish a more balanced, functional body for real-world application.
Pros: Using any instability device or anything new, can always instill a bit of variety and interest into any program. Many claim the improved stability and balance benefits as well.
Cons: Unless you need this specific type of training for a specific type of sport or activity your current training program should have little to no space for instability devices that have the surface unstable versus your own body (such as with TRX). Also, they do little for overall health and physique changes. Spend your time wisely.
Is it worth it? As stated above, spend more time on functional training if increased balance is your goal. Destabilize the body not the ground for a better, more realistic challenge.
Around for literally a few thousand years the medicine ball has recently made a comeback among functional trainers. Big, heavy and cumbersome, the medicine ball is an extremely versatile and demanding piece of equipment. Used as a strength builder, interval cardio tool or just as an overall bad-to-the-bone display of aggression and might, it will make any boy a man in little time.
Pros: Whether you are performing Russian twists, floor slams or throws, the medicine ball is an unforgiving tool when it comes to energy expenditure and full-body functionality. Inexpensive and somewhat mobile (depending on the weight) it also brings into play the always inviting use of a training partner as well.
Cons: Some gyms may not want you slamming their balls to the ground or against the wall. They may also prohibit throwing for safety reasons.
Is it worth it? Yes. Heavy, cumbersome and unforgiving, the medicine ball is not only an effective tool of the full-body, fat-burning trade it is also a huge departure from using equipment with functional handles and grips giving you one unique workout.
Yet another age-old tool for strength and power development emerging from the history books and into gyms is the kettlebell. Unbalanced, unforgiving and ugly the kettlebell broke many of the training beliefs that were once thought of as law in the 1980s. Highly functional and versatile due to its unique handle and distribution of weight, the kettlebell offers many benefits over the traditional dumbbell.
Pros: Due to the uneven load, the kettlebell challenges your entire body in very different ways than traditional barbells and dumbbells allowing you to develop power, balance and explosiveness. Additionally, kettlebells can easily be a part of any high intensity cardio training routine as well.
Cons: As with all training equipment there is a learning curve. Haphazardly swinging without any thought to proper form and function can quickly lead to injury.
Is it worth it? Yes! Although exclusively using kettlebells for all of your fitness needs would leave gaps, they do present myriad benefits when used in conjunction with your current routine or replacing certain exercises for sake of variety and ultimately results.
Appropriately named, battle ropes have quickly become a trendy mode of cardio conditioning amongst personal trainer clients. Heavy ropes tied to a stable apparatus or station with motions such as waves, slams and snakes (among many others) are torturous tools of the trade offering a breath of fresh air from the tedious and boring steady-state stuff.
Pros: Full-body metabolic conditioning, intense core work and a much-needed dose of fun from the boredom of traditional cardio. Battle ropes will also give your upper body a due thrashing.
Cons: Of course you don’t want to base an entire workout around a single piece of equipment, but you will find difficulty in some gyms actually finding the room to do these space-hogging ropes.
Is it worth it? Yes and no. If you have the space and available equipment then by all means add it to your routine. But if speed and convenience are important factors then you may be better off adopting some of the other options listed here.
Building explosive power is a must for any athlete wanting to up their game. However, the use of box jumps has found its way out of the strength and conditioning facilities and into the local gym. Either as a useful tool for trainers or as a part of a cross training class, boxes have proved to be an effective way to not only increase lower body strength and power but also add an element of cardio to any routine. Box jumps, step-ups, straddles and many others make up just a few things this simple yet versatile piece of equipment can enable you to do.
Pros: Simple set-up, convenient, power development and a cardio component. Using a box will put a different spin on traditional lower body and cardio training.
Cons: Box training isn’t for those with ankle, hip or knee problems. It is also recommended for those weighing over 240 pounds to take caution as this can put undue stress on your joints.
Is it worth it? Yes, if you’re joints are healthy enough. Box training can be a welcome, effective and interesting way of infusing some power and intervals into your routine without stepping on a treadmill.
Staying on the subject of functional exercise, sled training is another increasingly common form of cardio conditioning found in hybrid-style as well as mainstream gyms. Pushing and pulling a sled has proved to be an effective, real-world related exercise building power and full-body strength for a leaner, stronger physique. Think of sled training as dynamic forms of deadlifting and pressing.
Pros: Many – upper and lower body strength, endurance and power, overall cardio conditioning and major fat-loss effects.
Cons: Space and availability. Much like the battle ropes finding enough room and an actual sled can be a challenge – not all gyms carry such equipment. Another factor to carefully consider is using proper form and technique – injury is a concern for those with little to no experience.
Is it worth it? Yes. If you have the means to use a sled and consult with a qualified trainer about proper use then go for it. It will likely become a welcomed change from the boring cardio you might be too used to.
Less common in mainstream gyms but more so in CrossFit boxes rings were once thought of as exclusive to Olympic athletes and only to be seen every four years. With the functional and bodyweight training movement only gaining steam, rings fit into this genre quite well. Muscle-ups, dips, pull-ups and other static strength movements make up a few effective but difficult exercises when on the rings.
Pros: With the lack of a fixed, stationary bar rings provide an instability factor forcing you to recruit much of that supportive musculature and manipulate your own bodyweight through multiple planes of motion.
Cons: For most, especially those new to training, will find a fairly steep learning curve. Seek a qualified trainer to help with building strength and technique while maximizing injury prevention.
Is it worth it? Yes, but. Using rings in your routine can have a big impact on your physique, but it may be a good idea to master some stationary bodyweight moves first such as dips, pull-ups and push-ups on stable equipment and surfaces.