Disclaimer: This list contains affiliate links. Don’t cry about it.
This is a list of muscle-building tools that I personally own and use to build muscle, shred body fat, and track the entire process. There are probably more things you can use if you really want to, but this list should be your foundation.
- Power Rack & Barbell
- Body Weight Scale
- Food Scale
- Measuring Tape
- Calorie-Counting Smartphone App
- Notebook and Pen
- Gym Bag
- Micro Plates
- Pull-up/Chin-up Bar
Power Rack & Barbell
Any exercise that’s worth doing to build hard, lean muscle can be performed inside of a quality power rack with an olympic-size barbell.
Personally, I wouldn’t commit a dime to a commercial gym that didn’t have this for my training… and when the last gym in my town closed down, I put one in my basement.
Pro Tip: If you’re serious about building muscle, find a free, popular novice muscle-building program that uses a power rack and get busy. You’ll make great gains and build a strong strength foundation.
Here’s some standard gym equipment that most people have encountered… dumbbells.
I know, it’s very tempting to walk up to those sleek, pulley machines or gizmos that run on a track, but incorporating more free weight exercises with dumbbells builds those important stabilizing muscles that you don’t use when you’re just yanking on pulleys or sliding on a track.
Body Weight Scale
If you want to accurately track your fat loss, muscle gains, or both, get your hands on a body weight scale.
I recommend a digital one since they’re easier to read and are typically more accurate, down to the tenth (0.10) of a lb or kg.
Some of them even measure body fat percentage, but don’t worry about that because those measurements are not very accurate on a common bathroom scale.
Pro Tip: Keep this in your bathroom and weigh yourself every single morning to really take advantage of this weight loss tool. Then, take the average of your week’s “weigh-ins” as your official weight. Taking the average accounts for water fluctuation which can easily change by 1-3 lbs per day.
If you want to keep the weight of your body in check, then you need to keep the weight of your food in check too.
When you’ve finally nailed down your diet, the best way to keep yourself honest is by weighing everything you eat with an accurate food scale.
Stop eyeballing everything. “That’s probably ½ a cup.”
Put it on a scale.
Tracking dimensions with measuring tape is vital to see if you’re progressing with your training and/or diet.
Pro Tip 2: Just like the practice with your bathroom scale, take your waist measurement (2 inches above the navel) every single day and then use the average as your oficial measurement. Once a week take the following measurements:
- Waist 2 inches above navel
- Waist at navel
- Waist 2 inches below navel
- Left bicep
- Right bicep
- Left thigh
- Right thigh
Calorie-Counting Smartphone App
The most effective way to keep your calories and your entire diet in check is by using a free (yes, free) calorie-counting app for your smartphone.
These fitness apps allow you to plan out meals weeks or even months in advance with access to massive food databases that store both calorie and macronutrient counts.
Plus, if you don’t have any idea how many calories or what kinds of foods you should be eating, the app can usually set your specific calorie requirements for you based on your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level.
I’ve been using MyFitnessPal because it’s extremely easy and pretty darn accurate. MFP also has a desktop website too that I access if I misplace my smartphone.
Here are some other great calorie counting apps that you should also consider:
- Calorie Count by About Inc.
- Calorie Counter, Dining Out, Food, and Exercise Tracker by Everyday Health Inc.
- MyPlate Calorie Tracker Lite by LIVESTRONG.com
A common beginner mistake is to wear the wrong footwear for the exercise you choose.
Just as an example, not all running or cross training shoes should be worn for weightlifting.
Because when you’re lifting some heavy-ass weight, you need very firm traction with the ground to prevent any stabilization-related injuries.
There are, of course, shoes designed specifically for weightlifting and they’re definitely a good investment, but if you want to save some cash and still get the right footwear, follow this short checklist.
Good weightlifting shoes should be:
- Sneakers or athletic shoes
- Comfortable (duh)
- Solid and consistent sole (no cushy heels)
By these recommendations you can wear anything from minimalist running shoes to wrestling shoes to Converse Chuck Taylor’s. These are the shoes that I currently wear and I think they’re great.
Shoes with a solid raised heel like Adipowers are very common too. These are manufactured specifically for weightlifting and are great for squatting.
As for running shoes, get running shoes. Easy enough.
I definitely recommend purchasing shoes in-person, in a physical sporting goods store so you can try them on, but they’re also available online if you’re the lazy gambling type, like myself.
You can’t walk into a gym and work out in your street clothes for a few reasons:
- Your street clothes most likely won’t stretch and breathe when you’re performing your most strenuous movements.
- The staff probably doesn’t allow it and they’ll kick you out.
- Nothing says “I take lifting seriously” like doing dumbbell curls wearing jeans and flip flops.
For these reasons, here’s a short checklist of apparel that I recommend for anyone who wants to look like a casual gym junkie:
- Gym shorts – These should either be loose or allow some stretching.
- Shirts – These can be tank tops, stringers, or classic t-shirts.
- Sports bra – Women only. (Please don’t make me go into detail.)
- Headband – Keep your hair out of your face.
Pro Tip: Even if you usually work out in shorts at the gym, still consider getting a pair of sweatpants when performing deadlifts. Good deadlift form means keeping the bar as close to your body when pulling the bar of the floor. Sweatpants provide some padding between the bar and your shins to prevent scrapes. If you want even more protection, consider deadlift socks.
If you’re looking for some really awesome shirts with cool graphics that will make you look like a total badass, then here a few online stores and clothing lines I highly recommend:
- Raskol Apparel
- Under Armour Alter Ego (So awesome, but pricey. That’s why I’m asking Santa.)
Notebook and Pen
These are a couple of the simplest tools on this list, yet they made the biggest impact on my strength and body transformation results.
The most common reason why you’re not losing fat or gaining muscle is because you’re not tracking your progress at the gym.
Now, this is where I might seem like a senile old coot, but I prefer using an actual notebook and pen when tracking my lift numbers instead of a smartphone app. The only reason I do this is because I already have my timer, podcast player, and Spotify running at the same time and I’m starting to get annoyed switching back and forth between apps.
Get yourself a small pocket notebook and a decent pen to keep in your gym bag and then carry them around with you while you do your exercises.
For weightlifters, track these items:
- Type of lift
- Amount of weight used
- Reps and sets completed
For cardio junkies track:
- Type of cardio
- Average speed
- Average heart rate
- Distance traveled
- Estimated calories burned
Then, imagine yourself coming back to the gym for your next session, reading your last entry, and knowing exactly what you did before so this time you can do more.
For weightlifters, try to get more reps or add a little more weight.
For cardio junkies, try to go faster or farther than you did before.
If you have any suggestions for good tracking apps, send me a message and I’ll include it here.
There are two types of belts that you should consider using as a weightlifter:
- Lifting belt – Some of the heavy compound lifts like squats and deadlifts require a great deal of core stabilization. Of course, doing abdominal work can strengthen your core to be more supportive during these lifts, but at some point, especially if you’re thinking about competing, you’ll need the help of a belt for added support.
- Dip belt – These belts allow you to hang additional weight off your body when performing different lifts. If you enjoy doing pull-ups, chin-ups, or dips, lowering the rep ranges and adding more weight using this kind of belt can increase your progress and add size to your arms.
Since these are a very “lifting specific” tool, you’ll only find weightlifting belts in sporting goods stores and online.
OK, so this one’s a no-brainer, but you need a nice gym bag to carry all your gear to and from the gym.
There’s a huge variety of bags and they differ by price, color, storage available, size, pockets, etc.
If you’re planning to haul all the gear on this list, consider something like the Nike bag I have. It has plenty of storage for clothes, shoes, ipod headphones, locks, micro plates, belts, and anything else you might need.
Otherwise, consider something like a small draw-string bag that goes on your back to carry your very basic items.
Here’s something that you probably didn’t even know you needed, but it’s one of the most effective tools to consistently build strength with each session over long periods.
For most training programs, after you successfully perform all your reps with a certain weight, you get to increase the weight for the next session.
The problem is sometimes these training programs tell you to increase the weight by 2.5 lbs or less.
The first time I read instructions like that, I thought to myself…
“But wait… my gym’s smallest barbell plates are 2.5 lbs. If I put one on each end… that totals 5 lbs!”
That’s right. The smallest barbell plates in a typical gym are 2.5 lbs.
If you actually want to work in total increments of 2.5 lbs or less, you need to get your hands on some micro plates, which are basically plates less than 2.5 lbs.
Pro Tip: If you’re stalling on any of your current barbell lifts, try dropping the weight by 10% and then working back up in very small increments using micro plates. It’ll take longer to get there, but you might be surprised how easily you blow past your previous plateau.
If one of your goals is to gain a ton of upper body strength and add some size to your arms (guys mainly), then a personal pull-up bar might be just what you need.
Unlike most of the other things on this list (and Martin Luther King’s dream), all pull-up bars are not created equal.
The best kind of pull-up bar for your money is the mountless door frame kind. I’ve been using the Iron Gym bar and haven’t had any problems with it.
Pro Tip: Pull-up bars that attach over a door frame rarely require you to attach with screws and mounts like the manual suggests, however, any section that touches your wall or door frame might actually do damage to the woodwork. Fortunately, this can easily be solved by placing a wider flat piece of wood between the section that grasps the door frame and the overhead wall and using folded towels between the bar and the door frame on the other side of the wall.