Getting the most out of your at-home workout

By Robert McCoppin | Daily Herald Staff | February 15, 2008

Listings for home exercise equipment on eBay often contain the same sales pitch:

"Never used."

The phrase is proof of our widespread tendency to delude ourselves. If we could only work out at home, the thinking goes, we'd transform ourselves into swimsuit models.

Dave Raczak knows better. Over the years, he's bought all kinds of exercise equipment for his home in Schaumburg, only to find it collecting dust.

He tried an elliptical machine, but it aggravated his back. He bought an Ab-Doer (as seen on TV), but never did it. He shelled out $1,000 for a Bowflex, but now he's selling it untouched -- the only workout he got was putting it together.

His sister has a basement full of his unused stuff. "I've learned now it's not in me. I wanted to believe it was, but it isn't."

Exercising at home is the most convenient way to do it. But in many ways, it's also the hardest. TV, family and the fridge tempt with constant diversions.

The first step in deciding if home exercise is right for you, experts say, is to figure out your motivation -- exactly why do you work out?

Setting goals

Let's say you want six-pack abs. Kevin Gianni, author of "The Busy Person's Fitness Solution," asks why. If you're just going to hide your abs under a T-shirt, you'll probably never crunch them.

If it's to look good on the beach on your upcoming vacation, then you have a concrete goal to work for.

But it can take weeks or months to see obvious results. And many people simply want to get in overall better shape.

So Gianni urges clients to set a series of gradual goals. Achieving them provides motivation to keep going.

The first noticeable results of working out are often little things, like being able to walk up stairs without getting out of breath, or having more energy.

Run a charity 5K in the spring. Improve your cardiovascular health. Look good for your spouse. Or feel like you did 10 years ago.

Setting goals and getting help to achieve them helped Annette Schlenker turn her life around working out exclusively at home.

124 pounds later

Two years ago, Schlenker was depressed, unmotivated, and weighed 265 pounds.

She didn't want to fall victim to her family history of heart disease and diabetes. But she hated working out at health clubs, where she felt like people were watching her "huff, puff and die."

Today the 21-year-old Lombard woman works for her parents' company, which makes custom measuring devices, is studying illustration in college, and gladly works out six days a week at home.

The transformation started when she hired a personal trainer, Jeanne Penton, to come up with a home workout plan that included core and strength training and kickboxing, which Schlenker enjoyed. Together, they worked out three times a week.

After Schlenker made progress and started feeling more energy, she was motivated to do more. She started keeping a food log, counting her calories, and running on a treadmill six days a week in addition to her training.

After losing almost half her body weight, Schlenker feels terrific, is getting tons of compliments, and wants to lose a little more.

She converted a room into a mini-gym, complete with boxing speed-bag, and says finding a trainer was the key to getting her motivated.

"My trainer put me in boot camp mode all the time," she said. "I got past my goal weight way faster than I ever thought I could."


The most popular pieces of workout equipment -- the treadmill, elliptical trainers and resistance machines --all work fine, trainers say.

But the trend in exercise, Penton points out, is whole-body training, to gain strength for everyday activities, rather than isolated movements as with weight machines.

A mom will rarely use a motion like a leg extension, but may often simultaneously lift and twist to carry a child or put away groceries.

So for cheap and space-saving equipment, Penton suggests using resistance bands, exercise stability balls and Bosu half-balls.

Resistance bands can be attached to any door frame to do a variety of exercises that build muscle and burn fat.

Stability balls work multiple core muscles, like abdominals, the back and butt. All three pieces of equipment can be purchased for less than $200 total and stored in a closet.

As a former trainer at large clubs, Penton knows about two-thirds of people who sign up at the clubs rarely or never go back after the first month.

If someone wants to work out at home but can't afford ongoing training, Penton recommends at least hiring a trainer for a one-time consultation.

The trainer should come up with a list of goals, create a program to meet them, and run the client through them at least once to make sure it's done properly. Penton offers such a consultation for $150 through Destination Fitness, an in-home exercise training firm in Johnsburg.

Once you get started, Penton said, it takes six to eight weeks to develop a good workout habit, so give it time to see results.

Working out at home also eliminates the ultimate excuse -- that you couldn't get to the health club.

Trainers rarely have cancellations with at-home clients, Penton said.

"We know where they live."

Home gym checklist

Heavy-duty equipment:

Treadmill, elliptical or weight machines: Quality machines run $1,000 and up. Cheap in this case means cheap -- the more you'll use it, the more you should spend. (Consumer Reports recommends the Landice L7 Cardio Trainer treadmill for $3,000. Bowflex machines offer resistance training with a free range of motion to adjust to users' different sizes, and it's easier to move than weights.)

Inexpensive equipment that stores and travels easily:

Rubber resistance bands: They work like weights to increase strength, but travel better, and don't hurt if you drop them. You can stand on one end, attach them to a dooryway or wrap them around a pole for a wide variety of exercises. $10 at

Stability balls: Do sit-ups, back and side bends on large exercise balls, $15 to $35. As with all exercise, proper technique determines safety and benefits.

Bosu half-balls: Used for balance training during aerobics, calisthenics, etc. $100 at

Yoga mats and foam rolls: Mats cushion and prevent slipping. $10 to $22 at Target. Foam tubes used for stretching, balance, massage. $10 to $20 at

Sources: Trainers Jeanne Penton and Kevin Gianni, Daily Herald research.