10 cheap fitness tools and how to use them

Get fit for less with these budget-friendly home fitness tools (you may already have them!)

10 cheap fitness tools and how to use them

Source: Best Health Magazine, October 2009

Who has the space in their home’or the cash’for a decked-out, top-of-the-line personal gym? Not us. Yet some of the most effective pieces of gym equipment can cost less than 50 bucks! You may already have a yoga mat, a set of dumbbells and aerobics DVDs, but here are other pieces to add to your fitness arsenal that are guaranteed to get results. (You can find these tools at most mass retailers and sports equipment stores, except when specified otherwise.)

1. Ab wheel, $10

Tired of sit-ups? It may look gimmicky, but this little baby can really challenge your midsection, says Todd Matthews, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Aurora, Ontario. Research from California State University-Sacramento shows that among the abdominal fitness equipment studied the ab wheel is most effective.

How to use it
‘ Matthews says to start on your knees and hold the ab wheel in front of you on the floor. Roll ahead slowly, keeping your back straight, using your abs to push forward. Return to the start position using the same controlled motion. This exercise is about maintaining core or midline stability. You want to fight to keep neutral spinal alignment as you roll the wheel out and back. Complete three sets of five to 10 repetitions.

2. Hula-hoop, $5 and up

We know how important it is to strengthen the core; it helps to improve posture and to eliminate lower back pain. Plus a tight midsection is what we all want, right? A fun way to work your core is with a hula-hoop (no crunches required), says Anna Wong, a Vancouver-based trainer with a celebrity client list. Once you get good at it, you can also use it to work your legs and arms. It takes a bit of practice, but it’s fun.

How to use it
‘ Spin the hoop at your waist for one to two minutes for one to three sets, says Wong. Once you get good at that, you can also use it to work your legs and arms. Just lie on your back with one leg up and twirl the hoop around the calf for one to two minutes for one to three sets for each leg. Stand and do the same with each arm.

3. Tubing, $3 to $15

‘Any exercise you can do with free weights you can do with tubing,’ says Susi Hately, a kinesiologist who uses yoga to rehabilitate her clients at Functional Synergy in Calgary. Tubing is a lightweight stretchy rope with handles at the ends, which makes it perfect to take when traveling since it won’t weigh down your suitcase. Matthews says to look for one with a covering’that way if it snaps you won’t get injured. He recommends the 4 Foot Twist Smart Toner for $15 (twistconditioning.com). Holding the handles when doing squats, rows, presses and more.

How to use it
‘ To use tubing for squats, stand on the tubing, with feet shoulder width apart, while holding the handles. Keep your back straight and look forward, and lower your body as if you’re about to sit into a chair. Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, stand back up, and the tubing will add resistance as you return to the start of the move. Squats work your legs and buttocks. Do two sets of seven reps.

For rows, wrap the tubing around a pillar or banister or another fixed object. Stand facing the tubing and grasp the handles so your palms face in. Keep your back straight as you pull the tubing to your hips, so that your shoulder blades come together. Do two sets of seven reps. This will work your back, shoulders and arms.

For presses, wrap the tubing around a pillar or banister or another fixed object. With your back to the tubing have your elbows out and press the tubing forward. If you need more resistance wrap the tubing around the fixed object more turn.

4. Dowel, $2 to $7

Head to a nearby hardware store and buy a 4-ft (122 cm) long, 1-in (2.5 cm) diameter wooden or PVC dowel. (A broomstick sans brush will also work, says Matthews.) You can use a dowel for overhead squats, standing twists, sidebends, and much more, suggests Wong.

How to use it
For squats: hold the dowel overhead as you squat to work legs and buttocks, and scapular and core stabilization.

For standing twists: hold it behind your neck on your trapezius muscle (don’t rest the dowel on your neck) and twist your waist side to side to work obliques

For sidebends: hold it overhead and bend at the sides to work obliques.

‘ You can also use it vertically for balance when doing sidekicks, says Wong.

5. Towel, free from your linen closet

You may think the only use for a towel during a workout is to wipe off sweat, but it can actually be an aid for stretching and strengthening. In fact, you can use it in many of the same ways that you would a dowel, but because you have to pull it taut you have to put more muscle into the exercise, says Hately. Use a large towel in place of a yoga strap for many yoga moves. And if you’re having a hard time with sit-ups, fold the towel and place it under your lower back for support.

How to use it
‘ Wong suggests using the towel to stretch your sides (with towel overhead bending at the sides), hamstrings (lying on the floor, hook the towel around your foot and pull your leg toward you), chest (standing, hold the towel in both hands behind your back) and quads (hook your foot and pull it up behind you to your buttocks).

6. Balance tools, $15 and up

Balance discs, boards and cushions are great for all fitness levels. For a beginner, these pieces of equipment can improve’you guessed it’balance, which experts agree can help to encourage proper posture by improving balance and joint stabilization while strengthening and toning the core muscles.

How to use it
‘ For beginners, use the balance tool near a wall or table so that you can grab on to it should you lose your balance. Sit or stand (with one foot or both) on the disc for two to three minutes. For more experienced fitness buffs, challenge your regular workout of curls, squats, lunges and more, by standing on the unstable base while doing each rep, says Wong.

7. Gliding disks, about $25

Seriously fun and seriously heart-pumping, gliding disks can really make you sweat. With these round plastic discs that slide easily on a smooth floor surface, you can do lots of floor exercises like lunges, pushups and others, says Wong. Just remember that control and good form are important. Wondering if it’s worth the investment? ‘You can fold two hand towels as a homemade version of gliding disks on a smooth floor surface to try it out,’ says Wong.

How to use it
‘ Try lunges (including side and reverse lunges, allowing your feet to glide as you bring your body up and down), speed-skaters (bent over like a speed skater, propel your body from side to side with your arms and legs), core pushups (slide your hands together and apart, using your abs to keep you up) and others, says Wong.

8. Pool noodle, $2

A pool noodle, really? Yep, Hately swears by it for stretching. ‘Cut a pool noodle across the width into half or thirds, depending on length of your torso,’ she says. ‘Lying on the pool noodle is specifically good for someone who wants to release the stiffness that builds up after a day at work at the office.’

If you find you love stretching this way, you can invest in a Pilates or white roller for $15 and up, and Fitter First (fitter1.ca) sells a long lasting squish-resistant roller for under $50.

How to use it
‘ Place the noodle on the floor and lie on it so it’s between your shoulder blades, under your neck and extends to your bra strap. Let your shoulders relax to the floor to stretch the pectoral muscles. Hold for two to three minutes.

‘ Another stretch: lie on your back over the pool noodle horizontally so it sits at the bottom elastic of your sports bra, hold for two to three minutes to release tension in your back.

9. Balls, $1 and up

Something as simple as a tennis ball can relieve muscle tension.

How to use it
‘ For self-massage, Hately suggests rolling a tennis ball against a wall using your back, shoulder blades, legs, glutes, legs, and even on the floor under your feet.

Use a medicine ball (about the size of a basketball and typically filled with sand to make it heavy) to help strengthen muscles; exercises include overhead extensions, curls and tons more.

How to use it
‘ Use the medicine ball instead of dumbbells for overhead extensions and curls. You hold the ball with both hands and curl up behind your head for overhead extensions and toward your chest for biceps curls.

‘ For overhead throws, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and be sure you have room in front of you for the ball to travel. (Don’t stand near a wall.) Hold the ball behind your head and throw it forward as hard as you can. You can step forward to get more distance.

‘ For a squat throw, start standing with your feet shoulder width apart and hold the ball at chest level. Squat down, until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Quickly rise, even jumping, to throw the ball as high as you can. Let it bounce once and do another rep. These are challenging exercises, so start out with three reps.

Exercise balls, which are large air-filled rubber balls with a diameter between 45 to 85 centimetres, are now fairly common, says Hately, and you can buy a cheap one for about $20’be sure it is burst-proof. Matthews recommends a Sissel 45-cm diameter ball called the Swiss Pro Ball that retails for $49.

How to use it
‘ Exercise balls provide an unstable base which will make your muscles work harder during a workout. Try this exercise ball workout from readersdigest.ca.

10. Jump rope, $5 and up

To improve physical coordination and sneak in some playful cardio, try a jump rope. It can burn more than 700 calories per hour. ‘The skipping rope is the only piece of cardio equipment I can think of that you can get for five dollars,’ says Matthews. And the impact does help build bone mass, which is good for us women, as we’re at higher risk than men for osteoporosis.

How to use it
‘ If you have joint issues, check with your doctor before going ahead with a jump rope program. Matthews gets some of his clients to skip for a warm-up, and for others he uses it as intense cardio. But it’s a good interval workout, he says. Skip for one minute, and rest for 15 seconds, and repeat four times. Too easy? Skip for three minutes and rest for one minute, and repeat four times.

This article was originally titled “Get Fit for Less,” in the October 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.