What they’re good for: Pure strength. “You’ll be able to lift more weight with a barbell than any other way,” says trainer James Crew. “Aim to master at least the basics: the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press.”
What they aren’t good for: Cardio conditioning. Sure, it’s possible – multi-move barbell complexes are an option – but as a rule, the less co-ordination required, the harder you can work.
Key move: If nothing else, you should be able to deadlift your own bodyweight for five reps. Start with the bar on the floor and a double shoulder-width grip, and drag it up your shins, keeping a flat back.
What they’re good for: Improving body composition. “They’re ideal for moves that target specific muscles, like lateral raises and biceps curls,” says Crew. “But they’re also manageable enough to use in fat loss workouts.”
What they aren’t good for: Explosiveness. Snatches, cleans and swings are all possible, but much easier – and safer – using kettlebells and barbells.
Key move: The Zottman curl works your biceps, forearms and grip, with a twist on the traditional curl that’s impossible to mimic with other kit. Do a normal biceps curl, rotate your hands so your palms face downwards at the top of the move, lower slowly and repeat.
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What they’re good for: Explosiveness. “You’d need to be training somewhere pretty tolerant to start throwing dumbbells around,” says Crew. “So you’ll lose some power in decelerating them, whatever move you do. With medicine balls, you can slam or throw them as hard as you like.” Maybe check with the gym staff first.
What they aren’t good for: Isolation moves: sure, you can make do, but the lack of a handle to grip when things get sweaty is pretty much a dealbreaker.
Key move: If your gym takes a dim view of slams, the wall ball is your full-body back-up. Squat, then drive up and throw the ball at the top, aiming to hit a wall or target. Catch and repeat.
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What they’re good for: Sports performance. “Plyometrics training will improve explosiveness in almost any sport,” says Crew.
What they aren’t good for Cardio. Box jumps are a popular fixture in high-intensity workouts, but by doing them repeatedly, for high reps, you’re increasing your chances of catching a shin on the box or blowing out an achilles tendon through fatigue. To minimise the risks, step – don’t jump – down.
Key move: The box jump is best, but if your box isn’t tall enough to test you, make it tougher: drop into a squat and pause before you explode up. You’ll remove the stretch reflex, making it more challenging.
What they’re good for: Fat loss and conditioning. “You can do full-body movements for ultra-high reps with kettlebells,” says Crew. “That means packing a lot of work into a very short timeframe.”
Key move: The basic swing builds explosiveness and cardio: stand with your feet slightly outside shoulder width, bend your knees slightly as you swing the bell back, then pop upright to swing it up to eye level. Don’t worry about the overhead version – if it’s getting too easy, grab a heavier bell.
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What they’re good for: Upper-body conditioning. “Battle ropes are one of the few bits of cardio kit that work your pecs, biceps and triceps harder than your legs,” says Crew. “Use them as a finisher on chest day.”
What they aren’t good for: Planned progression. It’s difficult to quantify reps on the ropes – the closest you can get is making sure every “wave” reaches the anchor point – so there’s little incentive to push yourself to new heights each session. They’re best for the self-motivated.
Key move: The full-body wave. Bring both ropes up and down together, like you’re ending an exuberant drum solo. For extra effect, add a jump to each rep.
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What they’re good for: Building back strength. Pulling moves – from the pull-up to the muscle-up – are among the trickiest to do without kit, which is why there’s a case to be made that the pull-up bar is the most essential bit of kit in any gym.
What they aren’t good for: Isolation moves. By definition, almost any move you do on a pull-up bar will work a huge array of muscles – so if key body parts need attention, focus on them with dumbbells.
Key move: The pull-up – that’s palms facing away, not towards you – is a classic for a reason: it builds your back, biceps and core. Do it with hands shoulder-width apart, feet together, chin over the bar at the top.
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.
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