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Practical Homeschooling® :

Physical Excellence, Part 2: The Right Equipment

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #36, 2000.

The result of thousands of dollars and months of research: How to find and choose the best exercise equipment.
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Mary Pride

Two issues ago we introduced the eight cornerstones of Bill Phillip's Body for Life physique transformation method, as described in his book of the same name:

  • Cardiovascular exercise
  • Weight training
  • Supplementation (e.g., adding herbs, liquids, and powders with various vitamins, minerals, and other health-building ingredients to your daily diet)
  • A controlled diet
  • Six small meals a day
  • Lots of water to drink
  • Plenty of sleep
  • A new attitude

Body for Life is very specific about the exercise method you should use: how many reps, what kinds of exercises, what intensity level for how long. But the book is non-specific on what kind of equipment you need to buy if you hope to carry this plan out at home.

For folks with a homeschooler's busy schedule and likely small children to look after, home is the only really practical place to exercise. Leaving the kids with a sitter, getting in the car, driving to the gym, working out, showering at the gym, and getting home again just requires too many pieces falling into place again and again. What if you can't find or afford a sitter? Or a child is sick? If you have older children, do you want to explain to your neighbors or the social worker why your school-age children are alone at home in the middle of the day while you're out exercising? These, and other difficulties, make a "basement gym" the ideal solution for those who can spare a few square feet of room.

Of course, you can join a gym. Then each and every member of the family old enough to join can pay an additional large fee to join it, too. Or you can be the only one getting regular exercise. Meanwhile, the younger children will never have the advantage of seeing Dad and Mom work out . . . and trying to "join in" by doing their own floor exercises while you work with your weights.

At this point, I have at least some of you convinced. A home gym it is. So, what equipment do you need to get?

Barbell with one set of plates
Your Weight Bench

There are two main kinds of weight benches: those designed for use with dumbbells (those generally lighter weights you grasp in separate hands) and those designed for use with barbells (a long metal rod that you slip circular weights onto).

Dumbbells and barbells are both called free weights, not because they cost nothing (they sure don't!), but because they are not permanently attached to any device.

A barbell bench comes with attached posts sticking up. You set the bar onto these posts while changing the weights on its ends. A dumbbell bench has no posts sticking up.

Safety tip: Always put the barbell on the floor when you're done with it. A small child might be able to lift the barbell of its stand, only to drop it on himself. It's also a good idea to take all your free weights off each machine when you're done with it and put them on the floor or on a stand, so a child doesn't try using the machine when you're not around and strain himself.

Benches can be stationery (they just sit there) or be adjustable as incline or decline benches. An incline bench allows your back to be supported at various angles while you're sitting on it. A decline bench allows your back to be at various angles lower than your seat. Both incline and decline allow variations on many exercises - variations that exercise entirely different portions of the muscles than a stationery bench. For that reason, we recommend you purchase a weight bench that has a variety of incline and decline adjustments. Typically, such a bench will run around $99 to $299, and may come with some "extras," such as the "Preacher Bench" padded extension on our dumbbell bench (useful for biceps exercises). Some benches have fancier add-on options, such as the "Leg Curl" and "Lat Tower" add-ons for our barbell bench. These both slide into the same slot (not at the same time, of course!) and add a whole range of exercises to the basic bench.

If you're not planning to get any additional machines, I'd say to go for all the useful add-ons you can get for your bench. They pop on and off quite quickly, assuming you ever take them off, and add a lot of value.

Now, barbell bench or dumbbell bench? The advantage of dumbbells is that you have one in each hand and can quickly get rid of them by dropping them to the side. You're not likely to hurt yourself like you could by dropping a heavy-laded bar on your chest or head. (Not that Bill or I have ever had to do this - but for those who exercise with heavier weights and without a spotter, this could be a factor.) Also, dumbbells exercise each arm individually, whereas with a bar one arm can help the other, possibly leading to uneven development. On the other hand, your wrists can only stand so much weight for certain exercises with dumbbells. The Preacher Curl, where you stick your arms over the Preacher Bench, grasp a dumbbell in each hand, and bring them up towards you with your palms facing you, is painful for me with more than 20 pounds per hand. But I can do 61 pounds with a barbell.

The bottom line is that, if you are starting to use weights for the first time, your first bench should be a dumbbell bench, preferably one with an incline/decline option and some add-ons.

Men, teenage boys, and strong women and teenage girls may want to advance to a barbell bench, or to switch between the two depending on exercise, as Bill and I do. If you're getting a barbell bench, the most important thing is to get one with very strong supports for the bar. You are going to be resting a lot of weight on those supports, and you don't want them cracking or bending. Even if you start out at a relatively puny weight level, don't underestimate what you might be lifting in a few months!

Iron dumbbells—simplicity itself! To use a different weight, just grab a different pair. The weight is engraved right on.
Your Dumbbell Weights

You know those cute little sets of pastel weights - 1, 3, and 5 pounds - that they sell in Sears and WalMart? If you're just starting out with weights, and you're really out of shape, start out with that set. I kid you not. The experts say - and I agree - that the first couple of times you go through your exercise routine, you should do it with very light weights. This helps your muscles learn the "feel" of the exercises, and keeps you from getting macho and overstraining yourself.

Since you won't be stuck at this level very long, you might as well pick up a pair each of 10-pound, 12-pound, and 15-pound free weights as well. You'll be doing most of your exercises with these, once you move on from the cute pastel numbers. In fact, nine months after we started weightlifting, Bill and I still use these iron dumbbells for starting weights for some of our exercises.

"Power Blocks"—adjustable dumbbells—attach or detach plates to change the weight. More versatile but more complicated.
You can keep on getting scarier and scarier-looking dumbbells, at quite a bit a pop, or you can make your next move to the very cool "PowerBlocks" dumbbells (1-800-446-5215 for a dealer near by, 1-800-651-1937 for a free brochure, www.powerblock.com). The set is designed so each individual dumbbell can be adjusted from 5 pounds to 50, and with the purchase of the add-on kit each can weigh as much as 90 pounds. The handle (also called the "core") comes with two removable 2.5 pound steel weights. This core fits inside a series of stackable 10-pound weights. You pick the exact weight you want by sliding the attached selector pin into the weight stack. The basic set goes for $299, and the add-on kit (which we have not yet purchased) is another $220. It's really quick and easy to adjust the weights, they don't take up much room, and you won't have to keep buying sets of dumbbells. These are the brand I saw Bill Phillips using in his Body of Work video, and they are definitely the creme de la creme. The only reason I don't suggest you purchase them first (assuming you can afford them) is that, if you're like me, you'll want to be sure you're continuing with the exercise program before you invest in any very fancy or expensive equipment.

Your Barbell Weights

Before you buy a bar and weights, see if any of your local stores have a special on a set. (The kind of stores you are looking for can be found under "Exercising Equipment" or "Fitness Equipment" in the Yellow Pages.) An "Olympic weight set" is what you're looking for. It's possible to get a good set on sale for around $99. Otherwise, you could spend three times as much getting individual weights at individual prices.

About Kids and Weights

Until the age of about 18, kids' bones are still growing. Hence the often-heard advice that "people under the age of 18 should not lift weights." The fear is that heavy weight-lifting will cause bones to develop wrong. Emphasis on the word heavy.

The fact is that many public schools have weight-lifting programs for their high-school and junior-high athletes. While we, as homeschoolers, know better than to slavishly imitate the public school system, the point is that I haven't heard of any epidemic of kids with bone problems emerging from these programs.

Common sense tells us that God intended kids to be able to handle their own weight, plus some. You can't slop the hogs or fork hay to the cattle if you can't lift anything until you're 18.

So, some conclusions, assuming we are talking about basically healthy children:

n Young kids can do all the situps, pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, and dips they want. In fact, they should. These exercises have the kid handling his or her own weight only. For preteens, with their faster metabolism, a controlled diet and lots of these exercises should solve any weight problems.

n If your child has a basically good physique, there is no reason to start him on a weightlifting program other than the kinds of exercises mentioned above.

n If, on the other hand, your teenage child is obese, and does not yet have any conditions that would preclude vigorous exercise (a chat with your doctor might be in order), you must weigh the added risk of death from heart attack or other conditions associated with obesity against the slight risk of bone problems if the kid goes crazy with weights. Because serious exercise, most likely including weightlifting, is the only way your child is going to get the weight off and keep it off. Dieting alone will reduce heart muscle mass and most likely result in depressing yo-yo results. Of course, you will want to start off s-l-o-w, as I explained above, and you might not want the child to push for the last erg of exertion, as Bill Phillips recommends for adults. Feel your way.

n If your teen child is scrawny, the Body for Life plan, which includes supplementation along with cardiovascular exercise and weightlifting, has worked wonders for 18-year-olds. If pull-ups, push-ups, etc. aren't doing the job of building up his muscles, and if your doctor has no credible medical objections, how can messing with weights be worse than carrying water to the cows?

Keeping all the above in mind, we have enrolled our children in a local Tae Kwon Do center, signed up several of them for a local swim club, and purchased an exercise station for pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. The little ones love working out on this! I've never told any of them to exercise with it, but they're down there every day. I'm telling you, these little girls and boys are getting rock-hard muscles and, something new in our family, hard stomach muscles, as opposed to the poochy paunches every one of these kids seemed to be born with.

Your Home Gym

Regardless of what the Body for Life book and muscle magazines tell you, you can't do all the best exercises with just a bench and free weights. So, what about one of those all-in-one "home gym" exercise stations?

Yes, we have one of those too. We got it on sale for $299 at Sears. It enables us to do leg extensions, pull downs, leg presses, and an exercise that resembles bench presses in its effects that you do while sitting upright.

To change weights, you simply move the pin on the weight stack. It's impossible to drop a weight on yourself - a factor

if you exercise alone. More fancy setups

include cables for arm and back exercises, which I wish we had, but for the price, this has been a good investment. It will not substitute for a weight bench and free weights, but will give you additional exercises to add to your repertoire.

Your Cardiovascular Exercise Device

Bill Phillips has a Cybex brand bike in his home, with a programmable interface that allows you to set it up for his type of intensity training, if that helps you. Had I known, I would have bought that type of bike, but the one we have works well enough, except it kills my rear, making some kind of padding a necessity. (We use a spare piece of foam rubber.) All of us who need to lose weight ride this bike 20 minutes at a time, three days a week. You could use a treadmill, a stair climber, a rowing machine, or even a set of stairs and the great outdoors to do your cardio workouts. I have weak knees and a bad back, hence the bike. Also, I've learned how to read while riding it (the secret is in how to hold the book so it

doesn't jiggle), which makes workouts go a lot faster than walks used to.

Again, it's not just putting in a few minutes that does

the trick, it's how you put in those minutes, which is all explained in the Body for Life book. We loved this book so much we added it to our catalog. You can order it from us at 1-800-346-6322 for $26 plus $3 shipping, if you haven't already picked it up at the store.

Yes, Weigh!

Two issues ago I mentioned how much more effectively you can keep track of your weight with a doctor's scale and how important such a scale is to an effective weight-loss or weight-gain program. I finally found a mail-order source for such a scale. This isn't the cheapest price I've seen ($309.10 plus $17.95 shipping), but it is the very same "Health o meter" scale we own. It's accurate to better than 1/4 pound and comes with a five-year warranty. Item code is J27335: the catalog I found it in is Conney, 1-800-356-9100, www.conney.com.

Remember, you don't have to get every piece of equipment at once, and it's all durable, long-lasting stuff. the main thing is to get started building that strong physical foundation which will help your whole family develop character, gain strength and respect, and have the "body power" to be your best!

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