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Bye-Bye, Barbells: The Latest Gym Accessories

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I’m the first to admit that there are certain times of the year when I care more about working out—say, before a vacation that requires my extended exposure in a bikini, or during holidays that begin with feasting and end with my having to look hot in a tiny little dress.

This year, both of these hit at the same time for me, so I really got to thinking about ways to get a little more bang for my gym time—without having to feel awkward navigating the weight room.

Luckily, there are a ton of multipurpose, easy-to-use gym accessories to choose from. From BOSU balls to foam rollers, I searched out creative ways to chisel my abs (and everything else) by vacation time.

BOSU Balance Trainer
Pronounced bo-sue, this half ball has become a staple in weight rooms and home gyms. For good reason, too—it can be used in enough ways to provide a full-body toning workout and a cardio session. According to the official BOSU Web site, the odd name refers to “both sides utilized,” since you can use the BOSU with the ball side either up or down to mix up your routine.

The versatile tool lets people perform balance, strength, and power exercises together, says Chad Johnston, a Los Angeles-based personal trainer. In fact, when I bought one of these at a local sports equipment store, it came with a DVD of cardio and strengthening exercises. Potential cardio moves range from doing jumping lunges on top of or side to side on the ball; for balance, try doing the usual dumbbell curls while balancing on top.

Feel easy? Flip the ball over so the round side is on the ground, and balance on that. “This really engages the core during what would normally be a single-muscle exercise,” says Johnston. For more creative BOSU moves, look online.

Body Bar
If you’ve been to a gym in the past five years, you’ve probably seen a pile of body bars in the corner of the weight room. “I work out at home with the Body Bar, and I really like the fact that they don’t take much room to store,” says Marilyn Kroner, the principal media representative for the company. The steel fitness bars are covered in easy-to-grip rubber, vary in weight from three to thirty-six pounds, and can work out just about every muscle group.

For a lower-body challenge, try resting the bar on your shoulders, parallel to the floor, while doing lunges. Or use it like a big barbell for bicep curls and tricep skull-crushers, or hold it in the air while doing crunches. The Body Bar company recently made downloadable workouts for every muscle group—arms, abs, back, legs, and chest—available on its Web site.

“This is a great piece of equipment for people who are recovering from injury or anyone not comfortable with lifting heavy weights,” says Johnston. “The resistance allows the body to work hard enough to gain strength and help flexibility.” These six-inch-wide latex bands come in sets of four with four different levels of resistance, from pink (the least resistance) to silver (the most resistance).

Make your usual workout more challenging by looping a Dyna-Band over your back during push-ups, wrapping it around your legs for added resistance in leg lifts or pliés, or putting it under your foot and pulling it up (with your back parallel to the floor) for back pull-ups.

Similar to Dyna-Bands, these are an alternative to traditional weights—and a great way to avoid those free-weight calluses while still working your muscles. “I brought these along when I lived in Europe for six months,” says Emily Faure. “They were light and compact to travel with but provided me with a way to ‘lift weights’ without a weight room.”

These four-foot-long elastic tubes come in six color-coded levels of resistance—from five to thirty pounds—and can be twisted, pulled, and wrapped in over 140 different body-toning exercises (at least, according to a very enthusiastic write-up on the official Web site). The enthusiasm isn’t unjustified, though—these bands come with solid aluminum clips at the end and various handle attachments. Not only can you use them under your feet during curls and things like that, but you can tuck them into a doorframe to create a pulleylike move, too. The Bodylastics Web site provides a list of the huge array of exercise possibilities.

Medicine Ball
These balls look like the rubber balls you might find on an elementary school playground, so the first time I picked one up, I was very surprised by its density (so surprised that I put it down and quickly moved to a new area of the gym). Usually stacked around the stretching area, these weighted balls add a little challenge to the usual core exercises.

They weigh in at anywhere from two to twenty-five pounds and can be held in your hands during ab exercises, like twisting or crunching, or during lunges, squats, and other traditional weight-room moves. “I like using it for a shoulder and leg exercise,” says Johnston. “Squat while holding it in your hands; then, as you come up, use your shoulder muscles to toss it straight up in the air and catch it. Repeat about twelve times.” I ran across a good list of moves on Bodybuilding.com, too; just scroll all the way down to see them.

Rubber Exercise Ball
These have become another weight-room staple because they add a new dimension to any move they’re used for: instability. To deal with balancing on this large ball, our bodies have to recruit groups of core muscles to work together and hold us on there without falling—definitely much harder than it sounds. Researchers at San Diego State University’s biomechanics lab found that these stability balls are super-effective when it comes to working our front and side abs together.

“Incorporating this kind of balance training into your workouts also helps stabilize your spine and prevent injury in the lower back and hips,” says Johnston. Try doing your normal set of crunches on this, or working through upper-body exercises while sitting on it.

Foam Roller
This is definitely my favorite of all the relatively newfangled pieces of workout equipment. The main purpose of this firm foam cylinder, six inches in diameter, is to stretch and massage tight muscles. After a workout, you can roll just about any tight area on it and end up with results similar to those of a deep-tissue massage (seriously). When rolling on it, push down just enough for some gentle pressure or really press hard for a hurts-so-good effect.

Sit on it with straight legs and roll it up and down underneath your hamstrings, or (my personal favorite) balance on the side of your leg as you roll to work on your tight IT band. The foam roller can also be used for core training, since it acts like a stability ball when people sit or lie on top of it, forcing their core muscles to work extra hard to balance. Another amazing ab exercise: hold yourself in a push-up position with the foam roller under your shins; roll it in and back out using your abdominals.

Well, I no longer have an excuse to walk by all this equipment at the gym, since I now know what to do with it. Now, if only I could find a good reason to say no to all that holiday apple pie.

By: Allie Firestone

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