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Equipment update: The past two weeks I have been discussing home weight-training equipment. I ordered a Nordic-Flex Gold machine and described my experiences with it after using it for a month. I also tried to compare the NordicFlex to the Soloflex and Trimax machines, which are quite similar in function and price. The question remains, what are the alternatives if you don't want to spend $1,000 to $1,500 for one of these small, compact units in your home?

Since strength is developed by lifting more than you normally lift (overload), any system that causes overload will make muscles stronger. The simplest system to overload muscles is called calisthenics. In this system, you lift your own body weight to provide overload. Examples of calisthenic activities are push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. Push-ups are very similar to the bench press using weights or a weight machine and will develop the chest and the back of the upper arms (triceps). Pull-ups are similar to pull-downs on a weight machine and develop the front of the arm (biceps) and the muscles on the side of your trunk (latissiumus).The problem with calisthenic activities is that you cannot overload some muscle groups effectively and some exercises are difficult to do (for example, pull-ups). In addition, since your own body weight is the resistance, once you're able to do a certain exercise, it is difficult to progress to a higher level of strength.

The use of free weights is another alternative for developing strength, and the cost is really quite low. In one advertisement last week, a 110-pound set of vinyl-coated weights and a bar was only $19.96. However, it is difficult to do exercises such as knee extension and flexion, the bench press or the pull-down with free weights.

To make free weights effective, you need a weight bench of some kind, preferably one with a knee extension/flexion attachment. A bench of this type was advertised this week for $95.55 in one store and $89.97 in another. And, the $89.97 bench had an arm-and-pulley arrangement for pull-downs. As I mentioned before, pull-downs develop the muscles on the side of the body. Since these muscles are difficult to train without a pulley device, the second bench would be especially useful for a person who wants to develop strength with only a small investment.

The less expensive strength-training machines with either rubber bands or weight stacks for resistance that I tried (from $299.97 to $669.97) were not very well put together. I would prefer the free weight/weight bench setup described above to any of them.

There were some beautiful strength machines in the $1,200 to $1,500 range, but they were quite large and would require more space than many of us have in our homes. And of course you could always join one of the fitness centers. I saw a yearly membership advertised for only $93. If the center was conveniently located, this would be an excellent value for someone who has little room at home.

I do feel strongly (no pun intended) that everyone should do some type of strength exercise. Aerobic exercise is the most important in terms of overall health but will not train the fast-twitch muscles. As we get older, these fast-twitch muscles begin to atrophy if they are not trained using strength-training techniques.

I'll discuss this issue in some future column.