Substitutes for Hand Weights


Sometimes fitness magazines show their models working out with 16-ounce water bottles as hand weights. But that size of bottle only weighs a little more than a pound, so they're nowhere near enough resistance for most exercisers. If you don't have dumbbells or don't like using them, ditch the small water bottles and go for large detergent jugs, sandbags or, better yet, purpose-built equipment like resistance bands and suspension trainers.

The Big Bottles

  • A gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds. That's enough for a beginner to benefit from working with full or partially full gallon jugs for hand-weight exercises like pec flyes or biceps curls. Once lifting that gallon jug doesn't feel like much of a challenge, you can upgrade to a full detergent jug that can weigh a lot more; for example, a 210-ounce detergent jug weighs more than 13 pounds when full. If you're feeling really ambitious, a 5-gallon water jug weighs more than 40 pounds.

Sandbag Training

  • Sandbags simulate the sort of awkward weight you may be called upon to move around in real life; that awkward weight and the bag's malleable nature also develops grip strength. Instead of using a contractor's sandbag on its own, put the bag in a durable duffel bag with a small handle on each end. Contractor sandbags usually weigh around 55 pounds. If that's too much weight for you, cut a small slit in the sandbag, pour some sand out, then apply heavy-duty duct tape to seal the slit. You can use the sandbag for many of the dynamic lifts that you'd do with kettlebells, or hold it in a bear hug for exercises like squats or alternating lunges.

Suspension Trainers

  • Suspension trainers and adjustable-height gymnastics rings allow you to turn almost any hand-weight exercise into a body-weight workout instead, complete with an inherent instability that forces your core to work overtime. For example, you can adjust the suspension trainer or rings to halfway between head height and your highest reach, then use them for pullups; adjust them at about waist height for doing dips; or move them low to the floor to use as a base for pushups.

Elastic Resistance Bands

  • Elastic resistance bands are exactly what they sound like -- giant, super-tough rubber bands or elastic tubing, which provides dumbbell-like levels of resistance when stretched. The heavier-duty resistance bands usually have handles to help you maintain a solid grip, as well as specially padded door anchors that let you anchor the middle of the band to the top, bottom or side of a closed door so you can push or pull on both ends at once. Elastic resistance bands pack down small and light, so they're the perfect hand weight substitute for using while traveling -- but they're also more vulnerable to damage than the other solutions mentioned here, so always check your elastic resistance bands for any nicks, cracks or other signs of wear before each use.

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