A Simple Guideline for What Equipment to Use At The Gym

“Hey Harold, so I’m traveling next week, and the hotel gym…”

That’s usually how the conversation starts, and it’s almost always after a Ninja at MFF finishes their last set of a certain exercise. Yesterday it happened with Alex, after the last set of a barbell bench press.

Alex is going to spend a week in Florida for New Years, and we chatted about a strategy for how to make the most out of the hotel gym.  The “What should I do when I travel” conversation is one of my favorite topics to chat about, and I’m hoping that this simple strategy helps you choose appropriate exercises and equipment, regardless of what gym you’re in.

Progressive Overload: It’s the basis of everything.

Let’s start with a simple idea, and that’s the concept of progressive overload.  Simply put, progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. We’re most accustomed to discussing progressive overload by talking about weights, so I’m going to continue on that topic.

When you first start exercising, and your training age is 0, everything is an appropriate stimulus.  Body weight exercises, kettlebells, dumbbells – basically everything works. On a long enough timeline, with weight as the only variable, those loads aren’t heavy enough for our regular training.

When you’re training at a gym like MFF or most big box gyms, as your training age increases (say, 3+ years) the squat rack, barbells, and weight plates will become a staple of your programming. Most gyms have dumbbells up to 100lbs, or kettlebells up to 48kg, but the odds that you load a barbell to capacity are basically zero.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love dumbbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight exercises. As you get stronger though, I don’t think that they should be the main focal point of most strength training programs.

The Basics of Equipment Prioritization.

There are more variables to account for other than weight lifted, but it’s a damn good place to start. As a general rule, I like prioritizing strength exercises that give you the greatest chance of developing technical proficiency and getting stronger. (That sentence can be an entire article in and of itself, and we’ll tackle that topic soon!)

Now, consider this basic heuristic for how to prioritize the equipment that you find yourself around:

When you have access to barbells or specialty bars, use them.

During your typical week of strength training, my guess is that most of us will have access to a traditional barbell or specialty bars like a hex (trap) bar or safety bar. If you can consistently follow a program that includes any of the exercises below, you’re in the fast lane to developing fitness:

Exercises like the front squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, bent over row, reverse lunge, and floor press are some of the highest yield exercises that you can possibly include in your training program.

Compared to these big lifts, everything else we discuss can be considered marginal gains. Here’s the bottom line: When you have access to barbells, it’s probably in your best interest to use them.

When you have access to dumbbells or kettlebells, use them.

As great as barbells can be, they have their limits.  While they’re a great piece of equipment for the big lifts, they’re not so great for everything. Any time you want your arms to move independently of each other, for example, the barbell is a poor tool for the job.

Some examples included, but are not limited to: Goblet loaded exercises are an alternative to front rack positions with a barbell.  Dumbbells allow for nearly infinite pushing and pulling exercises that arms moving in unison, or opposition, in which the wrist and forearm are free to rotate in space. Dumbbells and kettlebells allow for movement in more planes of motion, and once the big lifts are completed in your program, this is our second equipment priority.

Most hotels and resorts have dumbbells to use, so being fluent with enough movement variations are going to be very useful when you have access here. My favorites include:

Goblet Squats, dumbbell bench presses, farmer loaded split squats, dumbbell single arm rows, kettlebell or dumbbell single leg deadlifts, and any version of a loaded carry.

If these exercises can make their way into the second half of your program, do them.

When you have access to bodyweight exercises, use them.

As great as barbells and dumbbells can be, there are exercises that you won’t need to lift a weight to make good things happen to your body.  The good news is that bodyweight exercises can be done anywhere where there’s enough space to move, from your hotel room to the aisle on an airplane.  (Yes, I’ve done split squats on an airplane. No, nobody cares!)

Exercises such as push-ups, split squats, inverted rows, glute bridges, planks, deadbugs, and bear crawls, can be incredible to include in the second half of your program.

While the inverted row does require equipment, there are enough variations to keep access pretty open. Body weight exercises, without adding weight, don’t benefit from the same progressive overload concept, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck doing the same ol’ push-up until you’re 80 – fortunately, there are hundreds of variations of each of these to include in your programs.

When in doubt, doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Exercise culture can be quite polarizing, leading us to believe that our workouts have to happen at extreme intensities or durations to be effective. Quite simply, that is not true.

While I tend to live closer to the maximum effective dose rather than the minimum effective dose camp, I’m also a realist: Doing something is always better than doing nothing.

It’s easy, especially when traveling, to completely skip a workout because it’s not the same workout you’d do at your regular gym, with a coach.  For me, that’s like taking a zero on a test rather than trying your best. You get points just for writing your name on the SAT, right?

Every little bit of physical activity and fitness matter, and participating is actually the most important thing.  If you don’t have access to a certain piece of equipment, there’s no need to worry. You can always move down the list and create a great work out.  Follow these priorities based on what you have access to:

When you have access to barbells or specialty bars, use them.

Exercises include: front squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, bent over row, reverse lunge, and floor press.

When you have access to dumbbells or kettlebells, use them.

Exercises include: goblet Squats, dumbbell bench presses, farmer loaded split squats, dumbbell single arm rows, kettlebell or dumbbell single leg deadlifts, and any version of a loaded carry.

When you have access to bodyweight exercises, use them.

Exercises include: push-ups, split squats, inverted rows, glute bridges, planks, deadbugs, and bear crawls.

When in doubt, doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Number 4 is honestly my favorite one on this list, because it makes you think the most.  Maybe you’re traveling somewhere where there’s a gym that’s better equipt than what you’re used to, but maybe you’re in an AirBnB with no gym in sight.  That’s totally okay.

Maybe you walk around a new city instead of taking public transit, drop into a fitness class instead of doing your own thing, bring along your running shoes, or rent a bike and head out to explore.  The options are nearly limitless, and I can’t say this enough: Doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Let’s pack things up.

Ready to hit the road? Great, where are we going?!

Regardless of where it is, having a priority list of how to utilize equipment once you’re in the gym can help us make the most out of our workout time we have, leading to more long-term consistency, and better long-term health and fitness.

I’m hoping that this guide can become a perennial reminder of how to be consistent with your fitness so that you can get into the gym, wherever you may be.

As always, if you have any questions, please reach out and let’s chat!

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