Have you ever seen a piece of gym equipment and wondered, What in the world does that thing do? While it may be tempting to stick with the tools and machines you already know how to use, many of those funny-looking, what-the-heck-is-that gadgets can deliver some powerful body benefits—and they’re not as intimidating as they look.
Use this guide to get familiar with some of the best gym equipment, talk to a trainer to get more hands-on instruction, and vow to give one of them a try at your next workout. (Progress to using these tools only after you have built a strong base of muscular strength.)
What It Does: This device provides a balance challenge, forcing you to engage your core muscles to stay steady as you stand on top of it.
How to Use It: Just standing on a Bosu®ball (either side) and trying not to fall off is a great way to challenge the muscles that stabilize you throughout your legs and core. Once you get the hang of that, the possibilities are endless. Turn things up a notch by balancing on it while doing push-ups or squats; if you do so with the round side down, you’ll up the difficulty.
You can also try standing on it while doing arm curls, placing it under your hands or feet before taking a plank position, or sitting on it for crunches. Similar props include balance boards (a wooden platform perched atop an unstable base) or inflatable rubber balance discs.
Fitness Ring/Magic Circle
What It Does: Invented by Joseph Pilates, the creator of the Pilates discipline of exercise, these rings provide gentle, continuous resistance as you press in (or sometimes out) against the round frame with your arms or legs. As you steadily squeeze the ring, you will engage muscles that aren’t usually recruited during a particular exercise, like your inner thighs while doing an ab move, for example.
How to Use It: Lying on your back on a mat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, place the ring between your legs, just above your knees. Try a practice squeeze as you pulse your knees. Now, place your hands lightly behind your ears and engage your abs as you simultaneously crunch upwards and squeeze your knees slightly inward. Hold for several seconds, then release.
What It Does: Using a foam roller can help release the tension in the connective tissue surrounding the muscle and improve flexibility. Many trainers and exercisers reach for them to give tight muscles a deep post-workout massage.
How to Use It: To work the side of the upper leg, also known as the IT band (a common sore spot for runners), get onto your side with the roller under your right hip, perpendicular to your leg. Bend your left knee and place your foot on the floor in front of you for balance. Using your planted foot and your hands, slowly push yourself across the roller and back.
What They Do: When you place your hands or feet on these small plastic discs and slide them smoothly across the floor, your core and the rest of your body must engage to stabilize your movements.
How to Use Them: Place a disc under your right foot, and, left leg planted, slide your right foot out to the side, bending your left knee to lower into a side lunge. Pause, then slide back to the start. Continue for a full set of 8 to 12 reps, then switch sides.
Or, use a disc (or two) to spice up your plank: Get into plank position on your hands and toes with a disc under one hand and the opposite foot. As you hold the plank pose, simultaneously slide your arm and leg out to the side, then back in again. Switch sides halfway through your hold.
What It Does: They may be new to you, but kettlebells date back to the 1700s and they are ideal for creating dynamic swinging movements that strengthen muscles while also elevating your heart rate.
How to Use It: The dynamic movements of kettlebell training are best learned from a qualified instructor, so signing up for a class or a personal training session is the safest way to start. But the foundational kettlebell move is called the swing.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees soft and hold the kettlebell with both hands, arms extended straight down. Hinge forward from your waist with a flat back, bringing the kettelbell between your legs, then squeeze your glutes to bring your pelvis forward, swinging your arms up to about chest height. Repeat the movement to continue to swing, making sure your power comes from your legs and your strong, stable core rather than your arms. You risk back injury when a kettlebell is used incorrectly.
What It Does: Holding onto the ends of one of these giant, heavy ropes and moving them through different patterns—like snapping the rope up and down to create waves—strengthens muscles throughout your body, elevating your heart rate for an aerobic workout.
How to Use It: Loop or tie the middle of the rope around a sturdy anchor (like a weight rack) and extend the two ends straight out. Grab one end in each hand, and rhythmically raise and lower them, creating a ripple effect through the length of the ropes. Crouch and stand as you raise and lower, using your entire body to create momentum in the rope. You can also try alternating waves, so you raise one side and lower the other simultaneously.
What It Does: Jumping on this mini-trampoline provides a fun cardio workout with minimal impact on your joints, plus a calorie burn on par with treadmill walking. As you propel yourself through different movements that boost your heart rate, you’ll also be working on balance and coordination.
How to Use It: A class is the best way to get started, since an instructor will be able to lead you through a range of exercises and provide a motivating soundtrack. (Headphones can come dislodged easily when you’re jumping up and down.) But if you’re jumping solo, don’t be afraid to use your imagination.
Jump with high knees, do jumping jacks, practice your best boxing punches and twist, turning your feet to face one way and then the other as you bounce.
What It Does: By holding onto (or tucking your feet into) nylon ropes suspended from above, you can increase or decrease the amount of gravity you are working against, creating infinite possibilities for strengthening and stretching—no weights needed.
How to Use it: Grasp one handle of the suspension trainer in each hand, elbows bent to the sides and hands at shoulder height. Lean forward, keeping your abs and back tight and your body in a straight line. Straighten your elbows to push yourself back, like doing a push-up. The closer to the floor your body is angled, the more challenging the move.
Another tip: The wider your feet, the easier it will be; narrowing your stance or standing on one foot will make it harder.