Maybe it’s because I was an engineer prior to becoming a trainer, or maybe it’s that I grew up with a father who MacGyvered stuff around the house long before MacGyver became a verb. Whatever the reason, I have a habit of coming up with random fixes for life’s little challenges. Or in some cases, for my gym’s little challenges. Today I decided to share some of the inexpensive non-gym tools I use to help my gym run more smoothly.

1. Extreme Velcro tape
This stuff is amazing. I mean, it’s not duct tape amazing, but it’s pretty cool. I was trying to figure out better ways to make the gym more efficient. We do semi-private training, with every client following their own customized program. Each program is on a clipboard with a pen attached for easy reference and updating.

clipboard clutter
I was lamenting that I didn’t like having clipboards cluttering up benches and plyometric boxes, when a client suggested velcro tape. He noted that they use it for basically everything on the space station, which excited me.  “Well if it’s strong enough for the space station, it’s definitely strong enough for my clipboards.

Anyone see the flaw in that logic? 3…2…1…There’s no gravity in space. Clearly the logic was weak but it was a great solution.

So much better! We put the velcro tape strip horizontally on the back of the clipboard and vertically on the wall so that they can attach without having to be perfectly aligned.

Once you’ve started using Velcro, it’s pretty much impossible to stop. We now also use it to store our timers, cleaning clothes, to affix name tags to exercise mats, and I’m currently experimenting with it as a way to keep our rubber floor mats from shifting apart.

more velcro

2. Kitchen timers

I used to have gym interval timers in the gym, but they were so clunky to use that I was always on the lookout for an alternative. In addition to the non-intuitive, leaving most people pressing buttons until one seemed to do what they wanted. The downside of this, is that periodically one of the timers would just start to beep. It seems there is an alarm that is easy to accidentally set. Thankfully it is also easy to turn off (following the same approach – touch buttons until it stopped), but it was annoying. In addition to being clumsy to use, they didn’t last, probably because the alarm kept going off.

Fast forward to an unrelated trip to the kitchen section at Canadian Tire and the ten dollar kitchen timers with big buttons, and a big digital screen caught my eye. I stopped and contemplated briefly and then put three of them in my basket. Our only remaining gym timer hasn’t been used since.  I’m not actually sure why I haven’t thrown it out.  In fact, I just threw it out.

kitchen timer 2

3. Carabiners for everyone! 

How many ways can you use carabiners in a gym that doesn’t do climbing? Four and counting at Custom Strength. We use carabiners to store our mini-bands, combine with a climbing daisy chain to make a weight belt, connect cable attachments to a functional trainer, and add a smaller weight to a kettlebell for carries (combined with a small climbing strap).

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Mini-band storage, daisy chain weight straps, functional trainer connectors


weight strap
We use this to weight glute bridges, hip thrusts and feet elevated inverted rows. It also works well with some weight plates.


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We use this to provide an increment between our 50, 60, and 70 pound weights; to add to our 70 pound weights; and to increase the weight without increasing handle-size for our smaller-handed clients.

These solutions are inexpensive and because it is climbing equipment, they are strong enough to carry or transfer the weights they hold. Each carabiner is rated to hold 5,500 pounds (when the weight is pulling it lengthwise, which it is), and the daisy chain straps we use  with them are rated to 4,840 pounds. Our clients get strong, but so far none of them are quite that strong.

4. Magnetic hooks

Until I owned a gym, I had never been accused of being a neat freak. I’m sure any if any of my friends are reading this, they are shaking their heads and chuckling at the very thought. But it turns out at the gym I have a need for things to be in their place. If you’re a trainer and also want things to be stored neatly, then you know that functional trainers (aka cable columns) are the worst. Most gyms store the attachments in a pile on the floor, such that you have to rifle through to find what you want.

Not at my gym. Or at least not since I discovered super-strong magnetic hooks at my local hardware store.

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In addition to tidying up the place, we also have one attached to the weight stack so we can hang fractional plates on it as a way to provide smaller weight increments.


5. Two by fours

A few years ago, after attending a natural movement course, we started using two by fours in our gym to add an extra balance element to some of our exercises. In addition to providing an efficient way to add balance work to our programs, it’s also a surprisingly good way to clean up single leg Romanian deadlifts, and to progress bear crawls. We also use them to help our clients feel the idea of global stability when performing exercises like single arm cable rows and presses.

We even test drove a bear crawl joust. Danielle kicked my butt in the inaugural battle, so obviously I decided it was a terrible idea. But now I’m thinking it may be time to bring them back.


6. Chip clips

I’m sure every gym has chip clips at the ready, for those days when you don’t quite finish your pre-workout bag. No? Okay, maybe not. But it turns out they make a great and inexpensive storage option for slideboard booties as well as a way to get the second TRX strap out of the way while performing TRX rear foot elevated split squats.


7. Plumbing pipe stability ball ring

You know how stability balls follow you around after you put them away? Whichever way you go, it somehow manages to be right there. No more! For a few bucks at your local hardware store, you can make rings out of flexible plumbing pipe and pipe fitting that will ensure your stability balls behave .

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8. White wet erase marker for kettlebell weights

You know how kettlebells all have the weight imprinted on one side in such a way that you have to look closely to find the one you want? Or do you?


Once I got the idea to use white wet erase markers, it took me a few days to actually go ahead and do it. I had this feeling that writing on equipment was defacing it. Thankfully I clued in that it is my equipment, and this would make it better. I was reminded how much better recently, when one of our awesome trainers at Custom Strength took the initiative to re-write the numbers as they had faded a bit over the years. It was pretty much the talk of the gym for the next week. I’m not sure if this says we need to step up the excitement, or if it really is that awesome.

9. Climbing strap

Bench side plank is a favourite exercise at our gym as it’s both a great progression and regression for the side plank, as I demonstrate in the video below.

This can be done by having someone hold the person’s feet, but if you either don’t have access to a spare pare of hands, or you want those spare hands free for something else, then this strap is a great option. I purchased both the strap and clip at Mountain Equipment Coop (if you’re in the US, that’s our REI equivalent).

There you have it: my 9 gym hacks for a smoother running gym.

Do you have gym  hacks you use at your gym that  you care to share? If so, please post them in the comments.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a geeky personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada. 

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