By Jan Libourel
This dreadful Covid-19 pandemic has wrought havoc in many ways and sadly shows little sign of abating at present. Among its more conspicuous casualties have been public gymnasiums--both small, privately owned gyms as well as some of the well-known chains. At the same time, the need to maintain good health and robust bodily vigor is more imperative than ever. Outdoor exercise classes have become popular. I see them all the time in the parks adjacent to my home. In addition, a great many people have turned to home training. As many of you may be aware, this has created a scalpers' market in exercise equipment. In this regard, I would like to salute my friends at SET FOR SET for having increased the price of their macebells by only a trifling amount (to cope with increased import duties). By way of contrast, I recently saw a kettlebell I had purchased four years ago for $32 (shipping included) being offered for over $100!
The good news here is that you do not need a lot of equipment to get started in home training. The man who most influenced me to take up macebell training was a neighbor (now sadly moved to a nearby town) who was a veteran of an elite military unit in his native country. Now in his mid-50s, he has been maintaining a very lean, well-toned physique. His total workout gear? Two macebells (10# and 15#) and a 35# kettlebell (although the last time I saw him he was considering getting a 20# macebell).
Now, you can find many websites and videos about "garage gyms" or "workout rooms" sumptuously furnished with assorted power racks, pull-up bars, pulleys, rowing machines, lat machines, Roman chairs, gymnastic gear and whatnot. Most of us simply do not have the space or means to create such a set-up. I am writing here for people with limited space for exercise and storage and who cannot afford a lavishly furnished private gym--in other words, most of us.
I have already told something of my fitness story on this blog (Feb. 10, 2020), but I will elaborate on it a bit. I told how between my two years at Oxford I had contracted dysentery in Greece and had returned an almost-skeletal 165 pounds at a height of 6'3". Between the time I returned and the college reopened for term, I stayed in a tiny, rickety flat above a furrier's shop on Broad Street that I had sublet from another student. For workout gear I bought a pair of adjustable dumbbells that gave me 85 pounds of weight. In lieu of a weight bench I employed two massive dictionaries--one Greek-English, the other Latin-English. While I was there, I was always slightly worried that my vigorous exercising would send me crashing through the floor and into the furrier's showroom below! When term started, my friends marveled at my physical transformation. This should give you some idea of what can be accomplished in extremely limited confines with a minimal amount of gear.
Related: Adjustable vs Standard Hex Dumbbells
Upon my return from Oxford in 1965, I immediately purchased another pair of adjustable dumbbells with a maximum weight of 62.5 pounds each. For a number of years they were my sole workout tools. Initially, I used makeshift weight benches, only buying a proper one after completing my education and leaving home in 1968. From then until 1994, I lived in apartments, some of them quite cramped. After decade or so I acquired a barbell and squat racks. With this minimal equipment, I was able to turn myself into a large, powerfully built man. On one occasion I was even asked if I were a professional wrestler! No less an authority than big Bob Hoffman from York, PA, declared that I was a "big, husky guy." While waiting in line to attend a physique event, two men behind me said, "You're about the biggest guy who goes to these things except for Lou Ferrigno." Now, I am telling all this not to boast about what a mighty man I was. Actually, I am a natural ectomorph. At a height of 6'3", I had a wrist circumference of only 7 inches. I did not have much natural muscle density, and I wasn't particularly strong before I commenced training. However, with minimal equipment in cramped surroundings, I was able to build considerable strength and maintain a reasonably attractive and imposing physique (at least I liked to think so) for many years. All of which is by way of saying if I could have done it, so can you!
So, what do you need to get started? SET FOR SET offers two lines of excellent products for the home trainer. First and foremost are, of course, macebells. The virtues of macebells are set forth so thoroughly in this blog site that I see little need to expound on them here. A 10- and a 15-pounder make an excellent starter set for most men. Women, depending on their strength, should probably start with a 7-pounder. There is no shame, by the way, for a man to start with a 7-pound mace. I always like to say, "Nobody ever got injured by starting too light!" Maces are not very expensive relative to other workout gear and take up minimal room. Some people labor under the misconception that you need a lot of room to swing a macebell. Actually, with proper technique, most macebell exercises take up very little room. Ceiling height shouldn't be an issue unless you have an unusually low ceiling or stand over 6'6". Anyway, get a macebell or, preferably, two.
A second line of products from SET FOR SET consists of their fine resistance bands. I have been increasing my use of SET FOR SET resistance bands since getting a diagnosis of arthritis in my left shoulder at the beginning of summer. I find they are much easier on my bum shoulder than kettlebells or dumbbells for most upper body exercises. And, they work. Just recently I graduated from SET FOR SET's black band to the stronger blue band for bent-over and upright rows and conventional and reverse curls. You can vary the resistance appreciably depending on how you position your hands and feet. These can be stored and transported anywhere with ease, and don't cost much. Highly recommended!
In addition to macebells, the most practical and effective home fitness tools available to the home trainer, in my opinion, are dumbbells and/or kettlebells, and I believe the home trainer should have some, both to complement the macebells and to provide variety to one's workouts. Functionally, they are not dissimilar. In fact, in some languages kettlebells are called "Russian dumbbells." A good many things you can do with dumbbells you can duplicate with a kettlebell or pair of them and vice versa. Let's look at the comparative advantages of both: If you opt for dumbbells, I suggest starting as I did with a pair of handles with collars and four plates each in 1.25, 2.5, 5 and 10 pounds. As you gain strength, you can, of course, get additional plates. For many years, dumbbells typically used detachable collars anchored with set screws and often had a rotating gripping sleeve to hold the weights in place. These worked quite well as long as you were careful to tighten the set screws when changing weights. These days the more modern type of dumbbell handle uses a threaded bar with a removable nut that serves as a collar. These seem to work well as long as you remember to tighten the nuts after each set of exercises. Otherwise they tend to work loose. You can also get fixed-weight dumbbells. In very light weights, they may offer a measure of convenience for the home trainer. In heavier weights, they become very costly and take up a lot of space--fine for commercial gyms but impractical for most home trainers.
Related: What weight dumbbells should I buy?
In recent years, a lot of "gimmick" dumbbells have appeared. Having no experience with them, I will refrain from comment on them. From what I have seen, I haven't been very impressed, but this may simply be the conservatism of an old man.
As a young man, I always regarded kettlebells as quaint relics of the age of mustachioed old-time strongmen in leopard skins. In this century they have enjoyed such a revival that I am sure they need no introduction to anyone perusing this blog. Unlike dumbbells, kettlebells are most commonly purchased in fixed weights. Variable-weight kettlebells do exist, but they don't seem to have gained much favor with kettlebell mavens and aficionados. An advantage of dumbbells over kettlebells, it may be argued, is that they permit very minor increases in resistance, typically in 2.5-pound increments per bell, so that the trainee can gradually increase his strength without reaching a sticking point. Kettlebell theory, on the other hand, holds that major increases in resistance jar the body into developing more strength. Thus, traditional kettlebell weights are typically found in increments of about 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds): 35, 44, 53, 62 and 70 pounds are probably the weights most commonly used by male trainees.
In making comparisons between kettlebells and dumbbells as exercise devices, I may be influenced by the fact that I trained with dumbbells (on and off, anyway) for a half-century. I have been using kettlebells for less than five years. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the dumbbell is the superior muscle building tool, the kettlebell is better for building dynamic fitness and explosive power. I'd be inclined to go along with this. An advantage of the kettlebell is that you don't have to mess around changing plates in the course of your workout, but you will probably soon find that you need several kettlebells for a good workout. My experience has been that it is possible to get a good total body workout in less time and with fewer exercises with the kettlebell. I have found you are more likely to reach sticking points beyond which progress is not possible with kettlebells. The claim that you can progress in 4-kg increments doesn't always hold true in my experience. Kettlebells are deceptive. My first "serious" kettlebell (I had dabbled with a 12kg I had picked up at a closeout sale) was the one-pood (36.11-pound) "chimpanzee" from Onnit. That didn't sound like too much to me, but when I began working out with him, that little chimp was so brutal that I wanted nothing so much as for that workout to be over. In little over a month, though, I had ordered a 45-pound kettlebell. After another month, I ordered a 53-pounder. It challenged me for three months. I then graduated to a 62-pounder a little later a 75-pound bell. The latter remains my heaviest.
I had hoped to do a cost analysis on dumbbells vs. kettlebells, but the current market, sometimes with insane markups and limited product availability, rendered this impracticable. As a general matter, I think a set of adjustable dumbbells would in ordinary circumstances cost less than an equivalent assortment of kettlebells. However, to get optimum results from dumbbells, you really need an adjustable incline bench, which increases cost and space requirements appreciably. On the other hand, you can get in some good training with but a single kettlebell as a starter. Once you have macebells, resistance bands, a dumbbell set and/or kettlebells, you are going to have a well-furnished home gym.
Related: 18 Benefits of Kettlebell Training
In bringing this section to a conclusion, I should mention that SET FOR SET is planning to introduce a line of kettlebells in the near future. If they are comparable to the quality and value of other SET FOR SET products, they should be well worth waiting for.
If you want to attain the maximum in size and strength you are capable of, you need a barbell. But do you really need one in addition to macebells, kettlebells and/or dumbbells? I trained for quite a few years with dumbbells exclusively, and most of the size and strength I achieved was with them. Eventually, I bought a cold-rolled exercise bar and a set of squat stands. A few years later, I sold the exercise bar and bought an Olympic set. In hindsight, I don't think I achieved anything with the Olympic set that I couldn't have accomplished with the exercise bar, but I just had to have an Olympic set--it was "cool" and "elite." Olympic sets seem much more common and less expensive relative to 1" exercise bars these days than they were 40 years ago. An advantage to exercise bars is that you can use the same plates that you have for your dumbbells. Let's face it, though, if you are really serious about building a competition-quality physique or developing the superhuman strength of a weightlifter, powerlifter or strongman, you are laboring under a decided handicap if you try to do so in the confines of your bedroom. On the other hand, if you are more concerned about simply building a strong, healthy, shapely body, then the barbell becomes optional equipment, at least in my opinion. As previously stated, if you want to take your training "to the max," then get a barbell. Drawbacks to the barbell include the cost, and if you leave it set up, it takes up considerable space. You also absolutely must get a squat rack or squat stands to utilize the barbell to best advantage, as well as a sturdy bench. These also take up more space. There are more dangers in barbell training than in other types of resistance training. In particular, if you are performing heavy bench presses, you should definitely have a spotter. There are no few instances where trainees have been killed when working out alone and the barbell fell on their throats. In any event, some authorities consider the bench press to be an overrated exercise and claim that the incline dumbbell bench press builds a more shapely, attractive chest. Personally, although I did a lot of barbell training over the course many years, I simply don't use mine anymore, at least at present.
No question about it, some very fine physiques have been built using bodyweight, with perhaps a pull-up bar and a few other pieces of gear. Your own body is your equipment with little, if anything, else required. We all know some bodyweight exercises from our school days. Every military unit on earth, I am sure, makes extensive use of bodyweight training to condition its recruits. With the proper form and lots of reps, bodyweight exercises can improve muscle tone and increase cardio. The vast majority of flexibility exercises do not involve equipment. On the negative side, bodyweight training works best--at least so I have found--for people who are already endowed with lean, sinewy, muscular, athletic bodies. The great drawback to bodyweight training is that while many bodyweight exercises are highly challenging and beneficial, if you can't perform them initially, you are stymied! For example, almost anybody who is not on life support can handle a pair of 5-pound dumbbells and progress from there, but if you can't perform a single pull-up to start with, how are you going to make any progress? (Of course, you can use resistance bands to give you a boost initially, but then it ceases to be a pure bodyweight exercise.) This is not to say that if you have the talent and the body for it, you can't do wonderful things with bodyweight. My hat is really off to anyone who can perform a tiger bend pushup to cite just one very challenging exercise. Briefly, if you can utilize bodyweight to best advantage, more power to you. Be careful, though! There was an interesting case in a nearby town recently in which a woman fractured here cervical spine and died while attempting a handstand pushup. Her relatives accused her husband of murdering her and staging the accident. The authorities declined to prosecute, however. On the principle of "reasonable doubt," a conviction would probably have been very hard to obtain.
A regret of my old age is that in the days of my youth and prime so many wonderful forms exercise equipment either had yet to be invented or else were languishing forgotten. Had they been available, I believe I should have been a decidedly superior man, physically. I am at least grateful that I am able to avail myself of such great options in my old age. Anyway, I thought I would give brief reviews of some other "unconventional fitness" items that I can claim some experience with:
Indian Clubs: Briefly put, I love 'em. You can read more about them in my March 15, 2020 post on this blog. They are a form of enhanced calisthenics and a great warm-up tool. They are also just plain fun to swing without being excessively strenuous. The wooden ones are aesthetically appealing and rich in tradition. It saddens me that my shoulder arthritis has curtailed much of my swinging with them, but there are still some movements I can perform without pain, fortunately. A couple of pairs are a nice addition to any home gym. You will need a fair amount of space, including ceiling clearance, if you wish to swing them indoors.
The Clubbell: This is essentially a heavy steel Indian club, variously sold singly or in pairs depending on weight. My experience has been limited to a pair of 10-pounders at a local gym. I swung them as I would a pair of Indian clubs. They seemed to have a sort of "dead" feeling compared to the wooden clubs. In fairness, my heaviest Indian clubs (6.5 pounds each) are somewhat lighter than the clubbells I used. Recommended exercises for the clubbell seem to be a melange of those for the macebell, kettlebell and Indian clubs. Since I am extremely partial to the latter three, I assume that clubbells may well be a good addition to your fitness arsenal. However, since I am well supplied with macebells, kettlebells and Indian clubs, I have never felt the need to supplement them with one or more clubbells.
Battle Ropes: I always found this term puzzling until I learned the inventor of this exercise called it "battling ropes," presumably from the movements where the ropes are swung laterally against each other. This makes more sense. I've studied a lot of history in my day and never read of a battle being fought by shaking ropes! This impresses me as a very good upper body exercise that brings quite a few muscles into play. It is probably best if you have a back yard in which to utilize the ropes. Unless you have very spacious quarters, probably not too practical for indoor use.
Sandbags: Although they have only recently come into vogue, these are really quite ancient exercise devices. These have much to commend them. Not too expensive. They can be easily emptied for transportation. Many can permit a wide range of weight adjustments. Their soft and floppy characteristics make them more "real world" than most resistance tools. (I find it incomparably easier to carry a 45-pound kettlebell than to manhandle a 45-pound sack of dog food from the front door out to my garage!) Their only real drawback, at least as I see it, is that they can leak sand.
Medicine Balls: These are good calisthenic enhancers. Many bodyweight and floor exercises can be made more beneficial by the addition of a medicine ball of moderate weight. You can bounce them, throw them around and do other fun things with them. They don't cost very much, and I'm glad I've got a couple.
Slamball: Called a "deadball," by the British, these are a variant of the medicine ball. Unlike a medicine ball, it doesn't bounce, just lies there after you slam it. It is squishier and generally heavier than a medicine ball. I have a 40-pounder. It is the single most brutal exercise device in my fairly extensive array of such things. After a rousing 45-minute macebell or kettlebell workout, I am nearly always raring to have another workout the next day. After a half-hour workout of vigorously slamming the slamball, I invariably feel so pulverized that I need a rest day before I can resume training. Not for the slothful and half-hearted!
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There are innumerable other pieces of exercise/fitness gear, but these are some of the leading choices in my lengthy experience. In the end, I suppose any exercise or equipment that doesn't hurt you or cause injury is much better than inactivity. Whatever gear or exercises you choose, the main thing is to keep on training--hard!
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