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The best gym equipment may be no equipment at all

Given all that you have going on in your life, the time you spend at the gym is valuable. You want to get the most out of every workout and be sure that you’re targeting areas of your body that you’re trying to strengthen and tone. But your typical fully stocked gym can be an overwhelming place, one filled with wall-to-wall equipment and free weights in every corner.

Instead of wasting even five minutes on a machine that doesn’t deliver the best results, fitness expert Jenna Wolfe, formerly of NBC’s Today and author of Thinner in 30, lets us in on the best and the not-really-worth-it gym equipment to target your abs, legs, butt and arms and for overall cardio.


We all know abs (and the coveted six-pack) are made in the kitchen, right? With that sliver of wisdom out of the way, you’ll obviously still want to hit the gym to work on building a strong core, which translates to a stronger overall body. But your best bet as far as machines are concerned is no machine at all.

“I love planks because they force you to focus on that exact area,” Wolfe says. “Turn it up a notch by balancing your legs on a stability ball while doing a straight-arm plank. Or balance your forearms on the stability ball and, keeping your body straight, try rotating the ball in small circles, 10 each way.”

More: 5 reasons you have to try a dark exercise class

Legs and butt

The bad news is that you can’t “spot reduce” areas such as your thighs and buttocks, but you still can tone these areas to build lean muscle, Wolfe says. As is the case with abs, you’re going to want to look past all machines at the gym and concentrate on finding a set of free weights that challenges you just enough.

“The best overall exercise for sculpted legs is the squat,” Wolfe says. “It uses nearly every muscle in your lower body. It also helps tighten your core and improve your balance and flexibility. Grab a weight, hold it at the base with both hands, and squat down until it comes close to touching the floor or until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Make sure you are pushing through your heels and that your toes are pointed outward.”

As for all of those leg machines at the gym? “I’m not a big fan of either the leg press or the leg extension machines,” Wolfe says. “Both focus on single muscle groups, and neither provide much practical strength.”


Weights are wonderful, of course, but there’s one machine at the gym that Wolfe says can deliver a powerful arm workout — as long as you’re using it correctly. “The elliptical machine with the rowing handles can really target your arms if done right,” Wolfe says. “Use enough resistance to challenge yourself, and then perform intervals (one minute of high intensity focusing on your arms, one minute less intensity focusing on your legs).”

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Most people have a favorite cardio machine and one they dread more than waking up on Monday morning. For some, the treadmill burns the most calories and delivers an addictive runner’s high while others can’t fathom putting their knees through that kind of torture. In Wolfe’s opinion, one machine rises above the rest. “The stair-climber (not the StairMaster) is the most effective piece of cardio equipment,” Wolfe says. “It mimics actual steps. Challenge yourself with a steady pace, and do not hold onto the handlebars unless you feel faint or winded.”

You may be wondering why most of Wolfe’s tips focus on minimal equipment and moves that use your own body resistance. The answer is simple, and might even make you rethink your expensive gym membership: She believes you can get just as good a workout, if not better, without any equipment at all.

“Your body is the best piece of equipment you own,” Wolfe says. “Pushups, squats, jumping jacks, high knees, mountain climbers, burpees, sprints — all great multi-muscle exercises that burn fat, strengthen and tone without relying on equipment.”

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

30 Yoga poses you don't need an expensive studio to teach you
Image: John Fedele/Blend Images/Getty Images

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