-- Roy M. Wallack
With a little curve
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SmartBells: Curved, 11-by-9-inch oval weight plate with two large cutouts for your hands; used for full-body, strength/stretching exercises.
Likes: Allows for a strength-and-flexibility workout that's unique, low-stress and invigorating. Great way for non-exercisers to get a full-body workout and for hard-cores to get (at the very least) a tough warmup. The curved shape encourages you to lift and rotate it around your head, arms and legs -- even whip it between your legs like a showboating basketball player -- in sweeping, flowing arcs that make the exercises seem easier than they are. The difficulty increases with the weight; SmartBells are available in a plastic 1.2-pound version (suitable for the elderly); the standard red-coated, 4.5-pound aluminum model; and a black, pig-iron 12-pounder (for athletic types). Includes clear plastic stand, DVD and wall chart.
Dislikes: The standard "Basics" DVD is good but provides only about 14 total minutes of exercises; DVDs with tougher challenges are sold separately. Hard-core exercisers looking for a pronounced strength effect will have to wait for heavier "Performance Bells" of 18, 24, 36 and 48 pounds debuting in February.
Price: $69.99. (800) 500-2030; www.smartbells.com.
Working the core
Valeo Tanker 5>25: A two-handled, hard plastic, adjustable-weight, 13-by-9 1/2 -inch medicine ball that you can fill with sand or water. Empty, it weighs 5 pounds; filled, 17.5 pounds (water) and 28 pounds (sand).
Likes: Unique, all-body strength/flexibility workout or warmup -- similar to SmartBells, but with more challenge and less comfort and fluidity. Combines a two-fisted grip with the bulk of a kettle bell, then adds an internal side-to-side sloshing of water or sand that forces your core to work harder to stabilize the load. The range of weights will satisfy everyone from novices to Adonises. (The 17.5-pounder worked me well.) Several unusual core- and coordination-building exercises are possible, including cross-body chops, golf swings, even push-ups. The DVD's dozen instructional exercises make a solid 12-minute workout. Includes an exercise wall chart (that oddly includes only eight of the above exercises).
Dislikes: The DVD isn't long enough and lacks a true workout routine (you have to double up on the 12-minute instructions). Beware: You may stub your toe on the rock-like plastic, and the wrench used to cinch the cap tight will be easy to lose.
Price: $49.99. (800) 634-2704; www.valeofit.com.
Simple but effective
Lebert Equalizer: Twin free-standing supports, made of 28-inch-tall steel tubes with foam handle grips in the middle, allow a variety of exercises.
Likes: Surprisingly effective -- even for hard-core athletes. My initial skepticism over the bare-bones devices disappeared with an opportunity to do real dips, push-ups, one-legged squats, knee-raises, and weird but hard supine pull-ups. A laminated chart offers several more body-weight exercises, stretches, even an upright row (using one support as the weight). Easy, 20-minute assembly consists of screwing in eight Allen bolts; wrench included.
Price: $99. (888) 556-7464; www.lebertequalizer.com.
Something to hold on to
Harbinger Weighted Fitness Ball With Strap: Sand-filled ball of soft PVC plastic with a Velcro strap to hold it to hand or foot.
Likes: More useful than a similar-weighted dumbbell. That's because, in addition to a variety of core and upper body exercises, these 6-, 8- or 10-pound balls can also be used for leg exercises (adductor/abductor, curl and extension). It's also much safer than metal dumbbells because it doesn't hurt when it drops on your big toe. Can be held in one or two hands.
Dislikes: The weights are non-adjustable and too light for dedicated gym rats.
Price: $20 (6 pounds), $25 (8 pounds), $30 (10 pounds). Available only from retailers; prices will vary. (800) 729-5954; www.harbingerfitness.com.
Irvine-based fitness writer Roy M. Wallack is the author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.