Fire Life

Keeping It Simple

By Michael Krueger

Long ago, when I was a photography student in Minneapolis, I was assigned to photograph a couple of U.S. Marines for a brochure. I met them at their recruiting office, which happened to be just down the street from a gym and which, according to the hand-painted sign on the 4×8 piece of plywood, was called “GYM.” Curiosity got the better of me, so after the photo session I walked over to check out “GYM.”

It turned out that this was a barebones powerlifting gym. The simple straightforward sign out front reflected the attitude of those training within. It was dark, dusty, smelly, and loud. The equipment consisted of squat racks, dozens of bars, stacks of plates, sandbags, axles, concrete blocks, and just big heavy things to lift again and again. The pounding rock and roll music was punctuated by the clanking of weights and the curses and screams of the lifters. The energy level was off the charts. This was my first exposure to those who live to move iron–the really hardcore lifters.

I saw that you can build a lot of muscle with basic (and even home-made) equipment if it’s coupled with hard work and a “Life is tough, but I’m tougher” attitude. That experience has shaped my life and training philosophy to this day.


Essentials for Weight Training

So, what do you need for a functionally equipped gym? The answer is “very little.” You don’t need floor-to-ceiling windows or chrome or hardwood floors. You don’t need a smoothie bar or a receptionist in a little T-shirt. You don’t even need a locker room; just train and clean up later. All it takes to build muscles and strength are bars and plates, discipline, and dedication.

In my opinion, the essentials consist of only a few things. First, you obviously need a place to lift and that can be at home, at the station, or in a gym. A space dedicated to the activity is nice but not required. You just need enough floor space and headroom to safely train. You also need an Olympic barbell with enough plates to total 300 pounds and a solid, adjustable bench. You need a rack of some sort to make bench pressing and squatting safer, and it should include a chinning bar. A decent mat for core exercises or for just collapsing on when you’re too tired to move is always welcome as well. If you want to be a little fancy, you can add a towel and a water bottle.

But that’s all you really need.


Luxuries for Weight Training

First, let me say that I am a man of simple needs. I’m not a “toy” guy by any means, so my list of add-ons may seem more than a bit pedestrian to those who like a “modern, well-appointed” place to work out.

That said, here are a few things that it’s nice to have as well. First, I would add a second Olympic barbell and an assortment of plates. This just makes it easier to move between exercises without having to clear off the bar and reload. On the other hand, having a bunch of extra plates can cause me a little confusion when I’m tired and loading a bar. I often use the subtractive method (i.e., 300 minus my working weight should leave “X” plates left) and having more plates complicates that a bit. Also, bumper plates are almost required if you plan on doing any ballistic or Olympic-style lifting.

A dipping station is nice to have as well, and it often includes a chinning bar. It takes up a fair amount of room, but if you have it to spare and you enjoy doing chins and dips (and who doesn’t?), it’s a handy thing to have.

A glute/ham machine is a fairly specialized piece of equipment that can be very useful. Not that you can’t train your rear chain without it, but it sure makes it more efficient and effective when you have the proper machine.

A leg press machine is something that many people like; I don’t, so I wouldn’t want one. It takes up a huge amount of space for such a specialized piece of equipment. If you say you like the leg press but it’s only because you hate the squat, get over it and squat.

An assortment of dumb-bells and medicine balls are nice but certainly not required. They, too, take up a lot of space, and you need a good storage system for them as well.

I train many of my clients in my home and have found that they like the barebones approach that I employ. The comments tend to be that it shows that you don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment to get excellent results.

I agree completely.


Aerobic Equipment

My favorite aerobic equipment is the great outdoors. Give me a trail through some woods to run on, and I am one happy guy. Some nice big hills are also one of nature’s great interval “machines.” Best of all, the outdoors is completely free and available at all hours. Of course, the weather can wreak havoc with the overall enjoyment, but for the most part it’s my favorite place to get my heart rate up.

Now, for those who like to get their workout indoors on a piece of equipment, there are many options, some better than others.

Treadmills, elliptical trainers, and stair steppers of various types are by far the most popular cardio training machines. If you are going to use these machines, it’s is best to use them to do high-intensity intervals. Machines make intervals easier since you may closely monitor the intensity of the work you are doing. The Concept-2 rower is also a phenomenal piece of equipment and is well worth the investment if you have the space and are serious about your training.

Spinning classes were all the rage for a while, but that seems to have cooled recently. Spinning is a great workout if you buy into the model and like the environment in which it takes place. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea.

Aerobic classes of many types are also available at most gyms but, once again, you need to enjoy that sort of workout. I’m not a group exercise kind of guy, and I can’t dance at all, so “Zumba”-type workouts aren’t for me.


Combo Programs

“Insanity” and “P90X” type programs are hybrid workouts combining aerobics as well as calisthenics and some weight training. If you don’t mind watching DVDs while you exercise, these can be fun and effective.

“CrossFit” is another hybrid type of workout/sport. Check out a “CrossFit” gym and watch some workouts and talk to the trainers to decide if the routines and the concept are right for you.

The above programs cater to a particular personality and, despite my experience as a military boot camp instructor, I have never particularly cared for them. That isn’t to say that they can’t be effective. If you are capable of ramping up your level of intensity over time, which is required to get the maximum benefit, and you enjoy that type of workout, by all means go for it. Just be sure that it is appropriate to your goals.


Moving Forward

Remember that it is not the gym, the equipment, or the hype that will determine whether or not you are ultimately successful in your exercise program–it’s you. It all rests on your shoulders. No instructor, piece of equipment, building, class, or DVD is going to make you successful. It’s entirely up to you.

Don’t be overly impressed by the latest fancy equipment and posh surroundings either. The hard work to be successful can be done anywhere and with whatever equipment you have at hand.

…Kettlebells? Who needs them? Just swing a bucket of rocks!


Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]