Who isn’t familiar with Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley in those late-night and early-morning Total Gym infomercials? About 10 years ago I took the bait and bought a Total Gym, and still have it. Today I’ll give you my review as a long-time user of the product.
I’ll preface by stating that I lost nearly 60 pounds after getting the Total Gym, but in no way can I give the machine all the credit. In addition to purchasing this equipment, I drastically altered my horrendous diet at the time. But the Total Gym provided my only form of exercise during much of this weight loss phase, so I feel that it certainly deserves some of the credit.
While the Total Gym gives you the ability to work many muscles, it seems better suited to some than others. Below are my Total Gym pros and cons.
While the Total Gym is still heavily touted in overnight infomercials, you can find the product in stores. There are a variety of models, which run the cost gamut. You have such models as the Total Gym 1100, which can be found at stores such as Dick’s for about $200, while on the other end of the spectrum is the Total Gym Power Tower which pushes $5000.
Total Gym Pros
The Total Gym provides a great variety of workout options, especially for the upper body. Many exercises can be performed in succession, with little or no stopping required in between. For example, you can go from chest presses to curls in seconds. Or go from from rows to curls without stopping at all. I found that my arms, back, abs, and chest all benefited most from the Total Gym.
The Total Gym is durable piece of equipment. I’ve had the same Total Gym for over 10 years now, and it still works just as good as the day I bought it, with all of the original parts still intact. I have rarely gone more than a few days in all of those years without using it, so it has had a lot of use.
After about 8 years of use, the unit began to squeak while I performed certain exercises, and I noticed the cords began to show signs of wear where they meet the pulley.
I’m not much of a gym type, preferring my solitude and privacy. I also don’t like driving 15 minutes each way to workout. Having a comprehensive exercise machine at home is invaluable to me. A gym membership over the past 9 years would have been much more expensive.
Over time, I developed a sort of mental wish-list for the Total Gym. I hesitate to call these “Cons” as much as “Issues” because not everyone uses the Total Gym the same way, and the “cons” below may not be problematic for all consumers.
Total Gym “Cons”
Aside from hamstrings – which can be worked quite well – I’ve found the lower body workout to be lacking in comparison to the upper body experience. There are leg pulleys which provide some additional exercises, but those have always felt quite awkward to me, as are some of the other suggested leg exercises. I found that squats or calf raises, for example, don’t provide as much resistance on the Total Gym as they do from merely doing them from a standing position.
While the Total Gym can be used purely for cardio purposes, not everyone will find it to be a suitable replacement for a treadmill or elliptical. This depends on the user. I never found rows or squats to be superior to an elliptical. I’ve also found that I have to lower the resistance to get a cardio-type workout, or my muscles fatigue faster than my heart rate increases.
With my model of Total Gym, it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was a limit to how much muscle I could add with the unit. The resistance is limited, and some models don’t allow you to add more weight. Thus, without a weight bar, muscle gain will be somewhat limited. Apparently the minds behind the Total Gym also figured this out, as they added a weight bar option, which I feel is indispensable. Some people have posted videos how to modify an older Total Gym to add a weight bar yourself.
While the Total Gym can be folded up and put away, most Total Gym users I know (including me) leave it set up. It’s not necessarily difficult to put away, but doing so feels a bit clunky and becomes somewhat of a hassle.
Getting into Position
One issue for some is simply getting into position for some exercises. This was actually a deal-breaker for a friend of mine, a 5-foot-tall woman, who found many of the standard exercises to be easier than the act of getting into position for them. In my experience, the only exercise which was so awkward that I stopped performing it was the hamstring exercise. This requires you to maneuver to the top of the unit and place your feet in the foot holders, which can be difficult to do on the highest resistance setting, as I couldn’t put my feet on the ground while performing this maneuver.
My 16-Month Experiment
From August 2011 to December 2012, I engaged in an experiment using the Total Gym. For the first 12 months I used nothing but my Total Gym for my workouts. Each month I increased the resistance level and the number of reps. Yes, I counted every rep! By the 12th month, I was doing about 700 reps per day – alternating body parts to avoid over-training.
On the 13th month, I began adding dumbbells and additional cardio to my daily regimen, again varying muscle groups and taking planned days off for rest.
The result of my experiment can be summed up this way. After about 8 months of increasing resistance and reps, I noticed more muscle in my upper body, but it seemed to plateau around this time and no more noticeable gains were achieved. Adding heavier dumbbells and cardio in addition to my Total Gym routine led to further muscle gains and fat loss in months 13 through 16.
Good for the back?
On the 17th month, I decided to take a few weeks off to rest (and also because it was the holidays). After nearly a month of very limited exercise, I began having back spasms – which had not happened all all during the 16 month experiment. I should point out that one of my favorite exercises on the Total Gym is rowing, which is great for the back muscles. While this is purely anecdotal and conjecture, I believe all of those rows over the past 16 months probably strengthened my back muscles and helped to prevent spasms from happening earlier.
Despite the list of “issues” above, I recommended the Total Gym, and have suggested it to many friends over the years. Be aware that height and weight can alter your Total Gym experience, and it may be too awkward for some shorter people. It does, however, provide an excellent workout to most body parts and is enjoyable to use. I wouldn’t purchase one without the weight bar and dip bar options. The latest Total Gym models appear to address some of the concerns I had with my older model, and I am considering replacing my decade-old Total Gym with an updated version.
Have you used the Total Gym? Let me hear from you in the comments below.
And to leave you with one final Chuck Norris Total Gym joke we’ve seen online a few times:
Chuck Norris does not use the Total Gym, the Total Gym uses Chuck Norris.
Updated December 22, 2014
Originally published January 2013