8 Gym “Toys” You Need to Start Playing With Now

Supercharge your workout by reaching for these pieces of equipment.

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in February, 2016.


In the far corner of the gym, beyond the treadmills and Nautilus machines, past water fountain and stretching mats, there’s a goldmine of fitness equipment waiting to supercharge your workout.

Half way through February, chances are you’ve gotten into a groove and have a pretty strict gym schedule: heading to an 8 a.m. spin class or bee-lining it for the treadmill, without even thinking of experimenting with some new equipment. But research has long supported the notion that mixing things up keeps your body on its toes, maintaining calorie burn and ensuring that you continue to see results.

And with the insurgence of trendy fitness boutiques, many pieces of gym equipment now go way further than collecting dust next to the free weights; they make appearances during many standard workouts and even serve as the inspiration for creative gym classes that have been designed completely around one piece of equipment.

Look out for these eight toys on the class schedule, or use them to modify standard exercises in your workout routine.

TRX Bands

The bands are one of those pieces of equipment that now have an entire hour dedicated to them on the gym schedule (and even whole studios focused on using the suspension method). And if you’re working on your six-pack for summer, TRX bands are your new best friend. A study in Human Movement Science found that doing a suspended pushup using TRX bands activated the abdominals 184 percent than a standard pushup.

Exercise: Pushup.

How-To: The modified pushup can be done one of two ways: by placing your feet in the straps and hands on the ground, or by placing each hand into a TRX strap and keeping feet on the ground.

Takeaway: Whichever format you choose, suspending your pushup will create instability that works your upper body even more, while also engaging your entire core.

Kettle Bells

Described as a cannon ball with a handle, kettle bells are nothing new: they’ve been laying around gyms since the 1700s. But kettlebell training has regained it’s spot at the popular table and research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that kettlebell training significantly boosts aerobic capacity, while also improving core strength and dynamic balance. The kettlebell workout resulted in a burning of 20.2 calories per minute, which is equivalent to running a 6-minute mile pace. “The only other thing I could find that burns that many calories is cross- country skiing up hill at a fast pace,”said John Porcari, Ph.D., lead researcher.

Exercise: Kettle bell swings.

How-To: Holding the kettle bell with both hands, you will hinge at the waist and then squeeze the glutes as you raise your arms out to a 90 degree angle (using the momentum from your lower body to raise the kettle bell). Let the kettle bell swing back between your legs, and repeat. Once you’re comfortable with two-handed swings, you can steadily increase the weight and also try one-arm swings.

Takeaway: Unlike other upper body exercises, this explosive movement targets the shoulders and upper back and works your hamstrings and quads, all while raising your heart rate and getting in some cardio action (which leads to a major after-burn effect: upping your overall calorie burn).

Foam Roller

Adding some foam rolling exercises to your cool down routine can help speed recovery, getting you back in the gym faster. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that rolling significantly reduced soreness and boosted recovery: reducing muscle soreness one, two, and three days after a squat routine, increasing quadriceps range of motion, and leading to better performance in a vertical leap test.

Exercise: Quad roll.

How-To: Position your body on top of the foam roller, with the roller mid-thigh and supporting your body weight with your hands. Roll from the hips down to the knee and back up again, pausing at any areas that are particularly tight  or painful.

Takeaway: Another study found that only two minutes of foam rolling increased quadriceps range of motion by ten degrees. The roller helps with myofascial release: By targeting very specific muscle groups with a deep massage, you will mobilize connective tissue and improve recovery time (especially for activities like marathon training), while improving soft-tissue quality.


It’s not just a prop in 80s aerobics videos: Using a step for pushups, lunges, and tricep dips helps change up your plane of motion, which utilizes different muscles and ups the intensity of exercises.

Exercise: Jump squats.

How-To: Begin with one foot on either side of the step, and lower down into a squat position. Jump up on to the step with both feet, and then return back back down to your squat, with a foot on either side of the step, and repeat. Mix things up by switching to side to side jump squats, shuffling to one side of the step and then jumping to other side, or turning your jump squats into a one-leg drill, by balancing on single leg on top of the step in between squats.

Takeaway: The step is a great tool to really target and tone the lower body, including the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. Plus, incorporting an explosive plyometric movement like jumping to a traditional squat adds a cardio element, increasing heart rate and improving cardiovascular fitness.

Battle Ropes

If the name is any indication, you’re guaranteed to look like a badass waving the ropes across 20 feet of the gym. And ust a few minutes will skyrocket your heart rate, and leave your muscles feeling like limp noodles. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that battle ropes burned an average of 10.3 calories per minute.

Exercise: Double Wave.

How-To: Hold one end of the rope in each hand, bend your knees and tighten your core. Move both arms up and down at the same time creating a “wave-like” motion with the ropes. You can also try the alternating wave by raising one arm at a time.

Takeaway: The battle ropes are heavy, which adds some serious resistance that strengthens your abs, arms, shoulders, and legs. Plus, the high-intensity exercise not only serves as strength training, but counts as a vigorous workout. Just 10 minutes of rope training reaches thresholds proven to increase cardio-respiratory fitness.


They look harmless, but believe us, after a few minutes you’ll want to light these discs into flames so that they can feel your pain. The abdominal burn is real. Gyms like Gold’s have classes where the devil discs are used in everything from lunges and squats to upper-body exercises to planks, turning up the heat by targeting specific muscle groups even deeper.

Exercise: Plank to pike.

How-To: With each foot on a gliding disc, push yourself up into a plank position. Then, pike your hips up towards the sky, pull your feet towards your arms and keeping legs straight. Return to plank position and repeat.

Takeaway: Adding gliding discs amplifies standard exercises, making them more challenging and engaging not only your core (for a more intense ab workout), but your upper and lower body as well.

Stability Ball

Creating instability is one of the best ways to activate your core and torch calories more. Take your planks, sit-ups, and weight training exercises like flys and overhead presses to the ball to turn a single exercise into a total body workout, and also increase the range of motion in which you can perform certain exercises.  They’re also a great tool when recovering from an injury, as they reduce the pressure on your back and spine, and strain on muscles.

Exercise: Knee tucks.

How-To: Another variation on the standard plank, begin lying with your stomach on the ball, and your legs straight out behind you. Slowly walk yourself out into a plank position, until your shoelaces are resting on the top of the ball. Pull your knees towards your chest, rolling the ball towards your arms, then return to starting position.

Takeaway: This twist on a standard plank adds balance to the mix, which fires up the core. And the knee tuck motion activates the abdominal muscles even more, while also working the legs, specifically the calves.

Medicine Balls

Grabbing a weighted medicine ball instantly ups the burn factor of sit ups, squats and lunges. And adding movements where you throw or catch the balls adds an additional layer of intensity to your workout. According to the American College of Sports Medicine the variety of exercise medicine balls provide serve as a stimulus for physiological adaption, which promotes total body power, muscle endurance, and flexibility.

Exercise: Chest pass.

How-To: Grip the medicine ball with both hands and face a wall, either with both feet straight center or turned to the side with one foot closer to the wall. Pass the ball with as much force as possible to the wall, and catch it when it returns to you.

Takeaway: This full-body exercise specifically targets the core, drawing on muscle groups in the upper body, lower body, and abdominal region. It also raises your heart rate and allows you to engage different muscles by changing up your stance. (For example, beginning facing left or right will engage your obliques as you turn towards the wall.)