The Best Exercise Equipment You're Not Using
These 12 underrated fitness machines and gadgets could give your workout a boost.
By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
At the gym, we're often creatures of habit. We walk through the doors and directly to our treadmill -- as if it has our name on it -- without giving another thought to what exercise equipment we're overlooking. But while treadmills and elliptical fitness machines are great, experts say, some of the best exercise equipment and machines in the gym may be some you've never tried.
And as much as it's comfortable to hop on the same familiar piece of fitness equipment every time we enter the gym, our bodies benefit from variety. Here are 12 of the best unsung exercise machines and equipment at the gym, according to fitness instructors, personal trainers, and exercise physiologists who spoke to WebMD.
Strength Training Fitness Equipment
The Smith Machine. Invented by fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne in the 1950s, the Smith machine is a weight-training machine with a sliding barbell that moves up and down on steel runners.
"This may look daunting," but it's really a great tool, even for a beginner, says exercise physiologist Jim Stoppani, PhD, senior science editor at Muscle & Fitness Magazine. "Because of all the safety latches, you can rack it anywhere, and it provides balance because the bar is on a fixed path of movement," he says.
The benefits? It allows you to perform multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. Squatting with the Smith machine works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, while the weighted bar works the muscles of the shoulders, upper back, and core.
"When you utilize more muscle groups, you burn more calories and you're training several muscle groups at a time," says Stoppani.
Cable-based resistance machines. You can get some multi-muscle strength work done in as little as five minutes, if you use one of the cable resistance machines like the FreeMotion Cable Cross, says Patricia Moreno, a fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York.
"You can train every muscle group," says Stoppani, and "you get the benefit of the continuous tension the cable provides."
A cable machine has two long arms with adjustments that allow you to work in any range, from above, the sides, below, or anywhere in between. You can work different muscle groups simply by moving a lever or turning around, Stoppani explains.
Get creative, suggests Stoppani: "It's really limitless the exercises you can do using a cable machine -- shoulder presses, biceps, triceps, step-ups, lateral raises, even ab crunches."
Low back extension machine. Strengthening the muscles of the back is critical, says Wayne Westcott, PhD, CSCS, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass.
"Eighty percent of Americans have back pain at some point in their lives," he says. Though the muscles of the lower back may not be "showy" muscles like the biceps or the pectorals, he says, they are critical for trunk stability and for absorbing the stress the back often absorbs.
Look for a low back extension machine like the Nautilus or the MedEx, in which you work sitting and strapped in so that your form stays intact. Westcott says this type of machine enables you to stay off of your hip flexors and instead use the muscles of your back to do the exercise.
Neck extension machine. "The neck has to hold up a 10-14 pound head all day," says Westcott. Though neck extension exercises are somewhat controversial, Westcott says that -- done properly -- strengthening the muscles of the neck and upper trapezius will help improve posture and avert injury.
"These have been around for decades, and all the football teams use them to strengthen their necks to avoid injury," he says. "People in sports realize how important it is to have a strong support for the head, but the average person doesn't."
Just make sure you get instruction on using this machine, and always take care to use proper form to avoid injury.
Shoulder rotator machine. The shoulder rotator muscles are often ignored, and this is a good way to work them, Westcott says.
"Because so many people injure the rotator cuff," he says, "we need to work the external rotators of the shoulder."
Generally, he says, "we are not doing enough to strengthen the rotator cuff that holds that loose joint in place. Most everyone ignores the rotator cuff and builds the chest and biceps, but those aren't the ones that hold the joint together."
Wrist and forearm machine. Particularly for women, wrists can be very weak joints. Yet few exercisers work on this area.