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At Home With the Total Gym

by Daniel on August 12th, 2011

I love the idea: Sit or lie back on a sliding platform whose rails can be raised or lowered, grab onto the pulley handles and — zing! — a full body workout. It’s ingenious… and long overdue. I’m talking about the Total Gym – the mainstay of Saturday morning infomercials and the number one shape-up preoccupation (or so we’re led to think) of Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley.

I was intrigued by the Total Gym. After all, I like exercises that use the body’s own weight. As far as I can tell, the Total Gym is really a thinking man’s modification of an old health club standby – the hack squat machine (an angled platform on fixed tracks designed for back-supported squats). Modify the tracks so they can raise or lower the platform, add cables and handles with pulleys to enable whoever sits (or lies) on the platform to pull themselves up and down, make sure that the machine collapses for easy out-of-the-way storage… and the end product is the Total Gym.

My machine came with assembly instruction sheets (hard to follow) and a video that began with a how-to-put-it-together opening sequence. The sequence was easier to make sense of than the written instructions (good!) but it was demonstrated on a machine different than the machine I was shipped (not so good!).

The Total Gym 1100The Gym I was sent to try out is not the usual in-home Total Gym. I went online to check out available models and found that what I was using was called the Clinical/Deluxe Home Model #1100 – 30 pounds heavier, longer (about 8′), less foldable, harder to put together and a little intimidating for anyone planning to work out by themselves at home. This model is $900 and the Total Gym company graciously lent me some much-appreciated extras: a larger foot platform, dip bars, a pull-up “wing” and an add-on bar for free weight plates.

I didn’t have someone to walk me through a training session on the Total Gym, as I did with the Personal Trainer Home Gym. The video offered a training session demonstrating a series of basis exercises, from which I learned that it’s far better to have someone nearby who already knows the Total Gym and can help you work through the hard-to-figure-out stuff.

I got lucky. My neighbor had a barbecue one day and I met someone who owned a Total Gym. He came over and passed on some terrific pointers: how to get on and off the sliding platform, what exercises worked and didn’t work for him, and, best of all, how to easily make those sometimes tricky adjustments to the Total Gym when you shift from exercise to exercise.

How did the Total Gym work out for me? Not bad. Not great. I found some exercises doable right away – movements that are back supported and can be done safely and easily without much in the way of show-and-tell, such as squats, pull-ups, dips, and seated rows. Other exercises – chest flyes, pullovers and presses, anything involving the shoulders – had to be taken on slowly and carefully. But the leg lunges, jack knifes, sprint starts, and some others were, at the very least, awkward and uncomfortable. In particular, a starter exercise called the leg pull (that later evolves into a kind of hamstring curl) is very hard on the lower back.

As far as getting all 95 pounds of our Total Gym out of the way once the workout was over… no way. At nearly 8 feet in length, the unit would not fit under the bed and did not fold up easily. My wife couldn’t do it (but then, weighing in at 110 pounds, she also had a tough time just raising and lowering the glide platform) and the Gym fought back even when I tried to get it to collapse. But I’m sure I’d get better with practice. The Infomercial Model 3000 is lighter and is probably your best bet for in-home use – and it might even fit under your bed.

If you have a decent knowledge of exercise technique and you’re looking for a basic, full body workout, then the Total Gym can be effective. But if you want to look like Chuck Norris, you’ll probably need to add a bit more to your workout at some point in the future.

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