Building Muscle Strength and Size: Making sense of gym exercise equipment

By Allison-mhangoh | Health nuggets | 1 May 2021

The gym can be a confusing place, especially when you’re just starting out on a strength training or muscle building program. There seems to be a lot of complicated machines and devices, which can be off-putting when you don’t have some background knowledge on their purpose and how you can at least get started. Even worse, new designs keep flocking in due to recent technological advances, thus making it even harder for the experienced.

However, the diversity shouldn’t scare anyone as it means more options to get you started. All you need is some basic knowledge on most of the standard equipment. This article will take a look at the key devices used for strength training in terms of what they are designed for, related advantages, and how you can go about exploiting their potential for maximum gains from your strength training program. Let’s begin.

Strength/resistance training equipment



This class of equipment primarily allows participants to enhance muscle power and size, which is commonly known as “bulking up” in fitness enthusiast’s circles. This is possible through systems or devices which provide a certain load which the participant’s muscles should work against at a predetermined intensity. Key gym equipment for strength training include Pulley Systems, Variable Resistance Machines, Elastic bands or tubing, and Free weights.

Free Weights



Free Weights are perhaps the most popular form of resistance training due to their incredible versatility and cost effectiveness. They include handheld weights which typically fall somewhere within 0.5-75lb weight plates, and cuff weights (O.5-25lbs).


Key Advantages


  • They allow for more discrete increments in terms of loading.
  • They allow for a myriad of exercises. Exercise positions, direction and speed can easily be changed for more variability.




  • You may need more time to familiarize yourself with the exercise technique.
  • They can be less practical: You may need to constantly load or unload a series of weights as you are switching between different types of exercises.

Safety tips

  • It’s prudent to start by working with a professional or an experienced partner. Poor technique may lead to unnecessary injuries and ineffectiveness.
  • Always make sure the weights are securely loaded with aiding devices such as collars or safety clips.
  • Proper form and tech should be the first goal. Keep your muscles safe. There won’t be the next exercise session if you get your muscles injured because of an inappropriate load and poor technique.


Pulley Systems



Pulley Systems are popular in most gym settings for good reasons:

  • They provide for an ideal environment where the loads can be adjusted carefully according individual goals.
  • They allow for a wide range of exercises targeting multiple muscle groups.

In a basic pulley system, a weight/load plate is attached to a cable that goes over a single or double pulley to attach to the users handle. The user pulls on the weight by either pulling or pushing on the handle.

The actual pulley can be designed in a number of ways aimed at achieving a specific effect. For instance, some systems come with an elliptical pulley, which allows for changing loads as you are pulling the weight through range.

When it comes to loading, most systems come with a stack of weight plates which can be adjusted to achieve the target load. The individual weight plates typically fall into the 2.5-5lb range. High performance training systems may extend the plate load to around 10lb to allow for 10lb increments.

Most systems also come with a clip at the end of the cable to allow for attachment to different types of handles. These include the straight bar, basic hand-grip or cuffs. Being able to accommodate a variety of handles provides one distinct advantage: The system can be adapted for a wider range of exercises.

If you’ve used these pulley systems before, you might have quickly noticed that they tend to be incredibly versatile. With the right handles around, you can easily modify the system to perform a variety of workouts, targeting almost all the key muscles of the arms and the torso.


Variable Resistance Machines



These machines came on stage to address one common flaw associated with basic pulley systems and free weights: Inability to maximally challenge the muscle throughout the range as the weight is being lifted.

Let’s spend a few moments on this concept for a better understanding.


Length-tension relationship of a muscle


Rigorous scientific investigations have looked into the factors that affect a muscle’s ability to generate force for a given load. One of them is its initial length. The length tension relationship describes how a muscle’s initial length affects its ability to generate force in a single effort. In short, a muscle cannot generate maximum force if it’s overstretched or shortened.

Maximum force is generated when it’s in a neutral position called the “Resting Length”. When this is applied to a muscle that’s pulling a weight through range, such as during a Biceps Curl, the greatest force is generated when the weight is going through the midrange of the lift/movement.

If the weight remains constant, it means that the muscle will only be loaded to its maximum capacity at several portions of the movement. The problem with this is that the exercise will not fully exploit the muscle’s capacity to change in terms of strength and size. Some benefit will be there but not as it should be when the muscle was treated to a changing load that matches it throughout the movement.

Variable Resistance machines solve this problem by introducing a changing load throughout the movement of a given exercise that ensures that the muscle is appropriately challenged/loaded regardless of the position. This is made possible by a special device within the machine known as an Elliptical Cam.

In general, the machine applies lower resistance at the beginning, followed by maximum resistance in the middle, and lower resistance at the end of the movement. Most variable resistance machines are designed with specific muscles groups in mind, thus allowing a limited number of exercises per device.

Like most pulley systems, these devices tend to come with weight stacks, with each individual plate weighing somewhere between 5-20lb. The stack can be adjusted by means of a pin which goes through the middle to separate the desired number of weight plates from the rest.

Other systems incorporate more modern weighting systems such as Hydraulics, but they are fairly uncommon and tend to be expensive. Additional features associated with variable resistance machines include seats and leave arms that are designed to assist with stability and movement precision.




  • Provide for a more effective way of maximizing muscle performance of specific muscle groups compared to traditional methods.
  • They are relatively easy to learn. Stabilization features such as handles, seats and rails make it easy to isolate the desired movement.
  • They allow you to save a lot of time as they are almost already set up.



  • The fairly high-tech nature makes them a bit more expensive than most traditional equipment.
  • They tend to be adapted for training of specific muscles.
  • The weight stacks provide for fixed increments of the load. This may be a problem if you need smaller increments to progress your loading.


Elastic Bands and Tubes



This method of training uses elastic bands and tubes as a way of applying resistance to the exercising muscles for strength and size enhancement. It presents one of the most cost effective and convenient ways of strength training methods ever devised.

Elastic bands exert force/resistance against a muscle through the tension that’s generated as a result of the stretch. However, they should not entirely be compared to other forms of training such as pulleys and weights. They possess special properties which one needs to be aware of in order to use them effectively.

The amount of force or total resistance they can produce at any given time depends on the thickness and amount of stretch/elongation.

The tension/force increases with the stretch up to about 250% of the original length. This means that you will need more effort to stretch the band as its length is increasing to about ×2.5 the original size.


Using Elastic Bands and Tubes: Practical considerations


  • A set of Elastic Bands typically comes with different colors, which stand for different resistance levels. For instance, the Theraband brand offers a variety of colors which allow for 20-30% increments in terms of force.
    • The elastic band should not be stretched beyond 250% of its original length.
    • The starting length of the band should be equal to the length of the lever.
    • Beware of cyclic loading: it’s important to know that the bands elastic properties change with time. If you stretch the elastic band to 2 times its length for about 500 cycles, the overall force production capacity decreases by 5-12%. His means one thing: You need to replace the elastic band after a period of usage.


Setting exercise loads when using Elastic Bands


The principles of muscle strength training still apply when using elastic bands. The training load needs to be set based on Repetition Maximums. In case you are not aware, the term Repetition maximum refers to the maximum weight you can handle for a certain number of times in a particular exercise. For instance, a 6 Repetition Maximum (6RM) refers to the amount of weight you can only lift for up to 6 times. 1RM maximum refers to the amount of weight you cannot lift beyond one repetition.

Repetition Maximums help you to understand your baseline strength levels and set appropriate targets. When it comes to elastic bands, it is recommended that beginners start with 3-4 sets of 6-10RM. This means that you need to find out the color that provides enough resistance to limit you to around 10 repetitions. That would be your starting point.

If such a resistance level is not available, you can use the strongest color, and determine how far you can go with it in terms of the number of repetitions. That would be your starting point. However, it should be noted that it’s hard to maximize results with this approach. Though you may experience strength gains in the initial stages, benefits may shift towards developing muscle endurance rather than strength thus you may need to get an upgrade after a number of sessions.

For those looking to enhance athletic power and overall performance, a higher intensity is recommended. An initial intensity level of 90% of the 3 Repetition Maximum is deemed appropriate.

Body weight



Your body weight can be a highly effective tool for enhancing overall fitness and muscle bulk. There is a multitude of exercises which utilize the body’s weight to induce advantageous changes within the muscles. These include popular workouts such as Push Ups, Pull Ups, Squats, Calf Raises, and Triceps Dips. The greatest advantage is that most of these exercises can be done in the comfort of your home as they mostly don’t need you to have any equipment.

Perfect form and technique is all that’s needed. However, other equipment may be integrated with these exercises to progress to higher levels of training. For instance, Push Ups and Squats can be done with weights in order to achieve more gains in someone who’s become too accustomed to the exercise. However, you may not always need equipment to advance the exercises. Just altering the position may take advantage of gravity to provide a greater challenge to the exercising muscle.


Considerations before Taking on any exercise equipment


There are a few basic questions you need to answer before jumping on any cool-looking machinery in the gymnasium. Let’s have a quick wrap up.

– Which muscles should be my primary target?

– Which type of strength training do I need? Is it about increasing sports performance, body building, or general fitness?

– Which exercise activities should I focus on? What’s the best option?

– Do I know the current status of the muscles I want to train?

– Which method of resistance training is most appropriate? Free weights, elastic bands, or variable resistance machines?

– Which precautions should I look out for? Do I have any history of previous Injuries or any medical condition.

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