Pete McCall by Pete McCall

If you belong to a health club, you know how frustrating it can be when you’ve sat in traffic to get to the gym for your workout, only to find it so crowded that you can’t access your favorite equipment. The machine or bench you wanted to use already has someone sweating on it, so you look around to see if you can spot one of those pieces of equipment that seem to get overlooked by most gym goers. In just about every fitness facility, there are “forgotten toys”—pieces of equipment that are frequently available—that can help you reach your goals but you’re just not sure how to use them. Here is a list of equipment that is often overlooked or misused by the typical health club consumer, but that can still offer you a great workout.


Upper-body Ergometer

Most health clubs have at least one of these machines tucked away somewhere in the cardio area. It looks like a set of bicycle cranks on a stand that you use with your arms instead of your legs. \ Using the arms for aerobic exercise can improve mitochondrial density in the involved muscles, which is important for cell health, while also helping expend energy for weight loss. The next time your favorite cardio piece is occupied, spend just five minutes on the upper-body ergometer and you’ll get your heart rate up in no time. 

Rowing Machine

Indoor rowing machines have become more popular in recent years, but it is still one of the more overlooked pieces of fitness equipment, despite the fact that it’s a time-efficient way to perform total-body cardiovascular training. One of the cool benefits of this machine is that you can measure your workout in either watts (power), calories (energy), distance (meters) or time, which gives you a variety of options for measuring your performance. Tracking how many meters you can row or how many calories you expend in a specific period of time gives you direct feedback for monitoring your progress. To receive the greatest benefits from the rowing machine, proper form is essential, so don’t hesitate to ask a member of the fitness staff for guidance on how to use this machine correctly. 

Medicine Balls

The medicine ball is one of the most underused or misused pieces of equipment in the gym. The traditional approach to working out is to do one movement or exercise per body part at a time. While this approach works well for people training for a bodybuilding-type contest, it is not an effective use of time for the average person. One benefit of using a medicine ball is that it allows you to perform a wide variety of multiplanar movements with resistance, which is essential for developing strength in a number of muscles at the same time. The medicine ball also is extremely portable and requires only a minimal amount of space. Learning how to use it properly can provide you with options for when the gym is crowded or if you want to catch a quick workout at home. Here are four medicine ball exercises you can start doing right away. 

Cable Machine

Most health clubs have cable machines with pulleys that can be adjusted to a variety of different heights. Unfortunately, they are primarily used for only three exercises: triceps push-downs, chest flies and kneeling crunches. Cable machines allow you to train your entire body from a standing position. This challenges different muscles to work together at the same time, which maximizes your training efficiency. Cable exercises such as two-hand presses, chops (high-to-low or low-to-high), single-arm presses, single-arm row to single-leg balance or single-leg Romanian deadlift are a great way to get a total-body workout using a single piece of equipment. 

Stepmill (Rotating Staircase)

Most commercial gyms have at least one stepmill in their cardio area—it looks like a rotating staircase. The workout is equivalent to attempting to run up an escalator going down, which is extremely effective for elevating the heart rate. Here’s a fitness industry insider tidbit: These machines are so effective that many personal trainers use them for their own workouts, especially if they’re trying to do the most amount of work in the shortest amount of time.

Stability Ball

These oversized playground balls have been in gyms for a while, but are generally used for little more than crunches. The stability ball, however, allows you to train your body in multiple directions and from different angles. This variety is essential for developing strength between different muscles, which can help create the appearance of a leaner physique. Rather than limiting yourself to crunches, consider doing exercises like knee tucks, pikes, Russian twists or hamstring curls on the stability ball.

Jump Boxes

Jump boxes are designed for plyometric jumps, but are also great for step-ups and split-leg squats. Boxes provide a more stable jumping surface than a step or a pile of plates stacked on one another, both of which tend to topple over. Jump boxes enable you to focus on exploding off of the ground and landing on a higher surface, which minimizes the impact of gravity on the body. The proper (and safest) way to do jumps on a box is to jump up and then STEP DOWN. Jumping down backwards off of a box is unsafe and simply unnecessary. If you want extra explosion in your jump, do a little pre-jump to land on the floor in front of the box. As your feet hit the ground, explode up to the top of the box and then step back down; complete four to six repetitions. When doing step-ups or split-leg squats, use a box that is approximately knee height. You can also step to the front or to the sides of the box, or cross one leg in front of the other.


Kettlebells have been used in commercial fitness facilities for more than a century, but are often misused by the average fitness enthusiast. Because they use many muscles and challenge different parts of the body to work together to create coordinated movement patterns, kettlebell exercises like the swing and Turkish get-up provide a number of benefits that other equipment simply don’t offer. The good news is that many fitness facilities now have kettlebells available on the gym floor, so if your favorite weight bench or squat cage is in use, simply pick up a ‘bell and get to work. The challenge to using kettlebells is taking the time to learn proper form and technique, so investing in sessions with a qualified personal trainer is essential before attempting to use on your own. 

Your Own Body

This is not a joke. You already have everything you need for a great workout. Knowing how to position your body so that different joints and muscles are properly engaged in an activity gives you the ability to do an entire workout with just a little bit of space.

When it comes to cardio training one thing that I have told clients for years is that rather than spending 30 to 40 minutes on one machine, pick three or four machines and spend 10 to 15 minutes on each. This can help reduce boredom and will keep you working hard because different machines challenge the body in different ways. So, the next time you make the effort to go to your gym only to find that your favorite equipment is already being used, don’t be discouraged. Instead, look around to see which one of the pieces just discussed might be sitting all alone. I’ll bet that you’ll see the upper-body ergometer, the rowing machine and rotating staircase sitting alone just begging to be used. If you commit 10 to 12 minutes on each piece you’ll be sweating before you know it. 

If you want to learn how to use any piece of equipment in a way that can provide the greatest number of benefits, consider investing in a few sessions with an ACE Certified Personal Trainer who can help you identify the best equipment and exercises for your needs.