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Maximizing Fitness Experiences with Minimal Fitness Equipment

Bands, Body Bars®, dumbbells, balls (of all shapes and sizes), discs and rollers—our equipment lists have grown considerably longer over the past few years. If you think it’s overwhelming for you as a fitness professional, imagine how students must feel! Have you fallen into the trap of always making your group exercise classes “different and interesting”? If so, is this for your students or for you? The desire to offer variety is one thing, but participants can still be challenged and motivated with only one or two pieces of fitness equipment—or maybe with none at all!

The following trade-off format shows you how to use very few pieces of equipment while still offering a “big” experience.

A New Challenge

While teaching at a new fitness facility that had limited fitness equipment, I had to challenge myself to offer a good workout for multiple levels. The interval training class alternated cardio and resistance work. I had about 15 people in a small space and wanted to keep the moves simple and familiar.

I broke the exercise class into two groups: A and B. After a warm-up and a 10- to 15-minute cardio work out section, group A grabbed resistance bands, and group B took the dumbbells. Group A performed chest flyes with a resistance band, while group B lay on mats and did chest presses with a light set of dumbbells. I timed the class with a stopwatch instead of using repetitions. This allowed people to go at their own pace, focus on form and resist the urge to “keep up” with others or the music. They already did that in the cardio section, so they enjoyed a feeling of ownership at being able to go at their own pace.

After 45–90 seconds, everyone did a set of push-ups, either on the floor or against the wall, depending on personal fitness level. I cued participants to do 10–15 reps, but timing them would have been another option. After a 60-second rest/water break, the groups switched. Since this was the second time around, participants performed the moves on one leg for an added balance challenge. We did another set of push-ups to finish. As we transitioned to the second cardio section, students simply pushed the equipment to the side of the room. After 10–15 minutes of cardio, we used the same fitness equipment to focus on the triceps.

Finer Points

Depending on how much time you have and how the group exercise class is structured, you can do multiple trade-offs; however, resist the urge to grab another piece of fitness equipment. See what else you can do with the same gear. This means knowing your stuff! (Those continuing education courses and workshops come in handy—you can learn endless creative ways to use small fitness equipment.)

Even if you’re fortunate enough to have many different tools to choose from, use only one or two. You’ll find you can use a few pieces of fitness equipment in very different ways while still keeping students comfortable and active. If an exercise isn’t tough enough, make it last more than 45 seconds, vary the cadence or add a balance challenge.

It’s fun to see the two groups working on a different exercise at the same time; however, you’ll need to be in tune with your students more than ever. For example, in the leg workout shown in the sidebar, half of the class is doing stiff-legged dead lifts, and the other half is doing ball squats with a stability ball against the wall. Watch closely and remind dead-lift participants to keep a flat back; at the same time, keep an eye on group B’s knee positions.

The Payoff

If you’re really tight on space, have students do lunges up and down the hallway, provided it’s wide enough and free of obstacles. If you need an extra challenge, push participants to add a high knee lift during the walking lunges, or create your own progression.

This trade-off concept works well if you teach at a school or church and have to provide your own fitness equipment. In fact, this might even be a better, more effective workout than one you’d offer if you had a bevy of options. Bands are inexpensive, and most students are happy to provide their own mat or set of dumbbells. If you’re nervous about starting a trade-off workout, begin with a small group to test it out, and use notes.

Here are some additional benefits I’ve noticed when teaching this type of fitness class:

  • Students enjoy doing a workout that is out of the ordinary. They also appreciate not having to fight for fitness equipment or put a lot of toys back after class.
  • Participants who arrive late find that it’s a simple procedure to follow. They pick up wherever the class is, without interrupting the flow.
  • People find this workout unexpected—it keeps them on their toes.

If you feel “weighed down” by all your options, reorganize your classes and give participants—and yourself—a new choice.

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