Strength training equipment | choosing the right tool for the job

If we’re going to carve out time to exercise, we want to ensure that we’re getting the best results possible for our efforts.

And that means choosing the right tool for the job.

With so many different exercise tools available (dumbbells, barbells, stability balls, resistance bands, Bosu balance trainers, TRX suspension trainers, medicine balls and cable and pulley machines, to name a few), it’s not surprising that even long-term exercisers get confused.

For example, squats (an exercise used to strengthen the legs, glutes and core) can be performed with body weight only, against the resistance of a band, with dumbbells held down by your sides or at shoulder height, with a barbell across the back or front of your shoulders or with the aid of a suspension trainer (just a handful of the hundreds of squat options available; see my favour 5 squat variations here).

Different goals, fitness levels and physical limitations (not to mention different muscle groups) require different tools to get the job done.

That being said, for many exercises, it matters less which tool you use than that you’re working your muscles to near-fatigue and making regular changes to those exercises to accommodate increases in strength and endurance.

Things to consider when choosing which exercise tool is best for the job
  • fitness level, physical ability and comfortable with using ‘gym’ equipment: When choosing which tools to include in a client’s strength program, I always consider their fitness level, how much experience they have with weight lifting and whether they have any physical weaknesses or limitations (e.g., previous injuries, limited range of motion, underdeveloped mind-to-muscle awareness, etc.).

Resistance bands are often the easiest way to introduce people to strength training. For many exercises, the band is only a small step up from performing the body weight version of the exercise. And the fact that there’s no ‘number’ on the band means that exercisers learn to listen to their body as they find the level of tension (or ‘load’) that’s just right for them.

They also provide continuous resistance, in both the ‘up’ (or working phase) and ‘down’ (or non-working phase) of an exercise, allowing you to harness the benefit of both concentric and eccentric contractions. Just make sure you keep tension on the band at all times.

Dumbbells are also fairly ‘easy entry’. They come in small sizes and are simple to use. For individuals that have marked left-right strength asymmetries, using dumbbells for exercises like presses and pulls will force the ‘weaker’ side to improve more quickly than using resistance bands or barbells might (the latter often mask muscular imbalances, as the stronger side takes on some of the weaker sides load without having to decrease the overall weight used).

The TRX suspension trainer is a more advanced tool, in that exercisers often need to have a reasonable amount of core strength in order to compensate for the lateral shifting of the handles that occurs during many exercises.


Regardless of the tool you use, it needs to challenge your muscles, preferably long before you’ve performed 30 or 50 repetitions :-).

  • program goals: We all have different fitness goals (hence the need for a personalized and individualized program). Some tools work better than others for certain goals.

For example, I might favour dumbbells and barbells over resistance bands or the TRX for a female client of intermediate fitness whose primary goal was to build muscle mass. Why? Hypertrophy training relies on fatiguing the muscles in a fairly short period of time (6 to 12 reps). While resistance bands might get the job done early in this client’s training history, as she gets stronger and out-grows the bands, her muscles (in particular the ‘bigger’ ones) will no longer be challenged and she’ll stop seeing progress.

For a client who was more interested in improving body composition without building overly noticeable muscles, I might use a combination of resistance bands, dumbbells and stability balls (among others). The emphasis would then be on higher reps and timed intervals, with lighter weights and less resistance overall.

And for the client who’s looking to improve their performance in a particular sport? Tools that emphasize core stabilization, like the TRX suspension trainer or the Bosu or a balance board, would be used to challenge the body in a manner similar to the way it’s challenged during the game itself.

  • exercise goals: Just like program goals vary from woman to woman, so do the goals of individual exercises. Depending on which tool we use for the job, the focus (and difficulty) of the exercise changes.

Imagine that we wanted to work the muscles of our chest. There are lots of ways to accomplish this. We can use body weight only (e.g., push-ups). We can use anchored resistance bands (e.g., chest flys and chest presses). We can use dumbbells and barbells. We can even use the TRX.

Each of the above exercises and variations of the exercise has there own unique place in a strength training program. Often times, different equipment is used as a means of progressing an exercise.

Additionally, you may find that performing a TRX exercise (for example, a TRX pushup, see below) feels a little different than performing the exercise with another piece of equipment (in this case, a standard floor pushup). Switching tools from time to time forces the body to use different stabilizing and supporting muscles (you’ll be able to tell when you notice a little extra delayed onset muscle soreness the day after you perform your regular workout with different equipment).


Looking to add some variety to your workouts? You’ll find dozens of free workouts (and workout videos) here, in my Workout Library.













  1. All too often people will have a ton of exercise equipment that they never use! These could be treadmills, kettlebells, it doesn’t really matter. A lot of people will just see someone else have something so they think they have to have the same equipment. But if you want the most out of exercise equipment then you need to know what your fitness level is and what your fitness goals are. Tamara, you gave a lot of solid and actionable advice for those new to fitness and those that have been in the game awhile.
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