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The Unconventional Gym Bag: 5 Cool Things You Don’t Use

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After more than 16 years in the gym, I’m finally starting to train smart.  Quality over quantity, strength over mass, and health over ego.  Fitness is a lifelong journey, something I fully expect to be doing until the day I’m no longer around these parts.

Cat in gym bagI’ve learned a lot of great things through training, been (mostly) able to keep exercise as a habit over the years, finally created my ideal home gym, and even branched out and tried all sorts of new stuff like running, swimming, kettlebells, and different martial arts.  It’s been a fun ride to-date.

So what prompted the recent change in intensity?  I don’t really know.  But it’s been building for some time and, starting with the birth of my son last year, everything about my training got more… well, focused.  Could it have something to do with the fact that I’m now a role model for a little boy who looks kind of like me?  Maybe.  Probably.  I really don’t know.

One thing that’s clear is that my gym bag these days looks quite different from years prior.  My training itself has gone back to the roots.  I don’t use any sort of machines at this point; I stick to dumbbells, kettlebells, and fixed bars.  Yet I’ve become more interested in using toys like the ones below to help me progress, and I like to have them with me all the time at the gym.  It’s the geek in me.

In order to benefit from any of these items, you need to already have a base of both knowledge and fitness.  Don’t jump right into any fitness program without doing the obvious stuff first like talking to your doctor and ramping your training up over a period of months.

But if you’re good to go already, and have a penchant for good workouts, these five things can only help.

Digital Camera with Video

Canon s95I’ll admit, it’s a strange thing to put in your gym bag… and probably not something you’ll actually keep there.  But it’s really quite important if you plan on emphasizing form (which you should).

My kettlebell coach (who rocks) suggested it to me a few months ago after seeing my two-handed swing.  Turning your head during a motion like this in order to see yourself in the mirror is a huge no-no as you can pretty easily injure yourself.  But placing a camera nearby so you can see how your form looks from the side is a big win.  You can see just how far back your hips get, how high your hands are swinging, how quickly you start to fatigue and get sloppy, and what your overall motion looks like throughout the set.

In other words, you can’t improve your form if you can’t see it.

Being a bit of a camera junkie myself, I’ll go so far as to actually recommend a specific camera.  This recommendation may not hold for long (this is being posted in April 2011) but at the current time, the best bang-for-the-buck camera is the Canon S95.  It’s simply the best camera at its price and size on the market given that you’ll likely not use it exclusively in the gym.

Of course, it’s not important which camera you use for this so long as it supports taking video.  You could just use your smartphone if you already have it on you!


GymbossMost athletic watches don’t have good interval training functions, so I’ve switched to using the Gymboss

It’s a small, inexpensive interval timer optimized for intense workouts.  And when I say small, I mean you can clip it onto your shorts and completely forget it’s there.

It’s easy to learn and keeps you on a short leash with loud or soft beeps, or a vibrate feature if your gym is full of wimps who don’t like any noises around them.  I use it primarily for kettlebell workouts, box jumps and other explosive movements, and running sprints, but it will work well for just about any interval-based workout.

And for $20, the price is hard to beat.


PlatematesI first learned about Platemates back in 1999 or so through the writing of Charles Poliquin.  These things are great ways to increase the weight you use on dumbbells or barbells slowly and methodically instead of with large 5 or 10lb jumps. 

They’re magnetic weights that attach easily to existing weights, helping you do things like turn a 40lb dumbbell into a 42lb dumbbell in just a split second.

This keeps you focused on improvement and can help prevent injury by easing you into heavier weights.

Instead of rambling on and on about my own experience with Platemates, a quick Bing search brought up a post by the man himself, Charles Poliquin, on Platemates from last April.  Here’s a snippet:

The best way to coax your muscles into adaptation is through application of the Kaizen Principle.  In Japanese, “Kaizen” means “constant and never-ending improvement.”  It is a philosophy that small, incremental improvements made consistently will, over the long term, produce large gains.  As practical advice for loading, this translates to “increase the weight at every opportunity, even if the increase is very small.”

Poliquin also has a great quote with respect to this training mentality, “You need ways to coax, not force, your muscles to adapt to greater loads.”  Platemates are a pretty cool way to do this.

Cando Digi-Extend Hand Exerciser

CandoPull-ups, deadlifts, swings, and many dumbbell movements are going to give your hands and fingers quite a workout.  Your grip in many cases is going to be the weak link in your body (more on this later) and will fatigue before your primary movers. 

And if you’re spending time driving, typing, or doing other “closed finger” activities over the course of a day, your hands may start to resemble a caveperson’s over time.

Solution: You need to open your hands and exercise your fingers in the opposite direction.

The Cando Digi-Extend Hand Exerciser is a great way to give those finger extensors some resistance to help increase strength and coordination.  I carry this thing with me in the gym and use it in between sets just to make sure I’m actively exercising my finger extensors with each workout.

Fat Gripz

Fat GripzSpeaking of grip development… if you want to continue to get stronger, you’re going to need to be able to turn coal into diamonds with your grip.  You can’t expect to pull any heavy weight if you can’t even hold onto it. 

Granted, not everyone cares about getting strong or throwing weight around, but if you do, you’ll need a grip like a vise.

FatGripz are a great way to build grip strength.

But be careful, you’re going to feel it on your first workout

The recommended protocol isn’t to use Fat Gripz all the time, or even most of the time, you’re only going to use them every once in a while.  For instance, on your ‘light training day’ prior to going heavier in a multi-week cycle.  Just be prepared for some forearm soreness for a few days.

If you have your own favorite piece of gym gear, please do post it in the comments and help out the thousands of people who stop by Refocuser every month!

And if you’re looking for a good gym bag, I use the rad OGIO Locker Bag for getting to & from the gym, and a drawstring back sack (though mine has a special symbol on it) for toting around the gym itself.

* On another note: Part of getting serious with training is more diligent tracking.  I’m considering using more seriously but I’m wondering if a basic Tumblr blog or something is easier.  I’m actually looking for something that incorporates martial arts training as well (jiu-jitsu, boxing).  If you have any experience with good tracking sites, let me know.

Written by Mike Torres

April 16th, 2011 at 4:18 pm

  • I need a Gym Boss…..tabata’s are a pain with my watch.

    I’ll add one item to your gym bag –> a Lacrosse Ball.

    The world’s best soft-tissue release product…better than a masseuse and costs $2 at Sports Authority.

    Roll around the bottoms of your feet to help with Plantar Fascia issues. Roll it around your hip instead of a foam roller for super intense opening. Use it on quads or even your back or hamstrings when sitting in a plane/car, etc.

    • NOT kidding, I was actually using one of my son’s toy balls to self-massage my back 3 minutes before your comment arrived. Was going to go looking around the house for a tennis ball instead because this thing didn’t work at all. Now I’ll get a lacrosse ball instead. Have had a sore neck/upper back all week for some reason. Thanks Ravi 😉

  • Collette

    I always workout with my Timex Ironman watch and heart rate monitor to track calories burned. I’ve also upped the intensity of my workouts to include high intensity interval training to burn more in less time.

    • Thanks Collette! My 6th item was actually the new Nike Sportswatch GPS + Polar HR monitor but I just got it last week, and have only used it a couple times. So I didn’t think it was fair to talk about yet – though I do think it’s pretty great. And of course, a watch and HR monitor serves a lot of the same purpose! Thanks 😉

  • I have a heartrate chest strap that I don’t wear — It marks up my skin and anyway I have a good sense of my heartrate. However, my sense of *time* could definitely use improving! I’m going to check out the GymBoss. Thanks for these tips!