While I’ve got quite a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to training, I also have a few tricks in my gym bag (bad joke in the first sentence, Emily? Really? Good show, kid).
On a more serious note, I do get asked fairly frequently what I keep as my “essentials” in my gym bag. While the biggest essentials to making physical progress are training and nutrition, keeping some of these items handy truly can enhance your time in the gym, and thus, your progress as well. Read on for some of my go-to items that I keep on hand for training! I will also link my Amazon store at the bottom of the post if you are interested in purchasing any of them!
Mobility and Recovery Tools:
Foam roller – This guy is an absolute must have. When you train, you damage your muscles and cause minor trauma/inflammation (pssst – don’t freak out. This is okay!). You have this spiderweb-like connective tissue around all of your body’s structures called fascia, and when any physical trauma occurs, your fascia becomes more rigid and less pliable. If this goes on for too long, you run the risk of injury, exacerbating current injuries, limiting your mobility, and decreasing your proprioceptive awareness.  In comes the foam roller. Foam rolling is one way to practice self myofascial release (SMR). “Self,” meaning you are doing it as opposed to a massage or physical therapist, “myo” as in muscle, “fascial” as in the previously discussed fascial tissue, and “release” as in decreasing that rigidity accumulated from training and/or injury. Use: I like to spend 5-10 minutes preworkout on the foam roller before beginning my dynamic warmup to work out any kinks. I also prioritize spending another 5-10 minutes after training to help reduce muscle soreness and boost recovery right from the get-go.
Lacrosse ball – This one is another great tool for SMR. One big perk of the lacrosse ball (depending on how you look at it) is that it’s small and dense, meaning it can really dig into sore spots and trigger points. I, for example, have a recurring trigger point with my trapezius muscle on the left side, right around the scapula and the trap’s spinous origins. Long story short: it’s a really weird and tough spot to hit. Laying on the lacrosse ball on a hard surface allows me to address the trigger point myself before and after training. Lacrosse balls are also really great for digging into the glute and hamstring area along with the arches of the feet (please don’t neglect recovery for your feet… Think about how much they do, not just in training, but in daily life). Use: Similar to foam rolling. 5-10 minutes pre- and post-workout.
Resistance bands – I like to keep a wide variety of resistance bands on hand. This ranges from those with a smaller circumference to those that make a larger loop. I use my larger looped band in particular more for mobility work, but also for resistance exercises like band pull-aparts, band pull throughs, and Bret Contreras’s infamous “Double Band Glute Burnout” (linked at the end). For the smaller bands, I love these for glute work. Doing banded work is great to not only warm up and activate the glutes, but also for exercises like seated band hip abductions, band lateral walks, band sumo walks, banded drop squats, etc. Bands are also great to keep on hand when you travel, or simply at home, so that you can squeeze in (bad workout pun… Anyone? Bueller?) a pump wherever you are. Pro tip with bands: Use these to also warm up for squats and hip thrusts. I’ll do a few of my lighter, warmup sets of squats with the band around my knees to help me focus on keeping my knees out and avoiding valgus knee movement, and the same applies to hip thrusts/glute bridges.
Squat Sponge – I purchased this at the recommendation of the Glute Guy himself, Bret Contreras (he’s in charge of my programming, so when he recommends something to help with my training, I listen). While I don’t use this for squats (nor do I recommend it), I do use it for hip thrusts. Not all gyms have bar pads, and if you’re trying to do heavy hip thrusts, the pain of the bar digging into your hip bones is extremely uncomfortable. If you want to make the most of your hip thrusts, you’ll want some kind of padding across your lap.
Three-ring ankle cuff – I love a good glute kickback or single-leg abduction on the cables. The bad news is, not all gyms have ankle cuffs, and I’ve never seen one with a three-ring cuff. I’ve done kickbacks on the d-ring or handle attachments before, but there’s the common problem of the handle sliding off my foot. Insert awkward footage of the cable stack slamming back down loudly and me getting somewhat red in the face, along with me getting annoyed because my set was interrupted. I find that having a good ankle cuff keeps me locked-and-loaded and allows me to focus on using my glutes to do the movement as opposed to being worried about keeping the handle attached to my foot. If you buy one of these, guard it with your life. People like to steal them.
Occlusion wraps – If you are familiar with occlusion/blood flow restriction training, it’s worth the investment in some good occlusion bands. I favor the stretchy kind with easy-release buttons.
Belt – I actually left my belt at the gym (#typical), so I will just insert a stock photo from the site here. Belts are a great tool for ensuring safety when approaching max-effort weights on things like squats, deadlifts, snatches, clean & jerks, overhead presses, etc. A belt’s function is to assist with spinal support (ain’t nobody got time for a snapped back), as well as to serve as a reminder of intra-abdominal pressure. Intra-abdominal pressure acts as another support and stability aid. Long story short, using a belt at the right time can help with safety, along with increasing strength. On that note – I personally do not believe you need a belt for every single exercise, every rep, etc. Build a strong core so that you yourself are able to brace it and activate it, and only rely on a belt when you need it.
Lifting straps – Lifting straps are similar to a belt in that they shouldn’t be used for every single grip-based movement, but rather with heavier/maximal loads. Straps assist with grip strength, particularly when grip strength may fail. Examples of times where grip strength comes into play: basically any pulling movement such as deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, rows, etc. I often use straps when attempting a max effort deadlift. Historically, I’ve had horrid grip strength, so straps were a bit more needed, especially on, again, max effort lifts or even higher rep/volume sets. If you need straps more often than you would like to admit, I would recommend spending some time working on your grip strength as well by doing things like farmer’s carries or utilizing Fat Gripz on lighter movements.
Wrist wraps – My first experience with wrist wraps came when I was an Olympic Weightlifter and began getting into heavier overhead movements as well as simply overall increased overhead volume. I have relatively small and delicate wrists, and I noticed a good bit of soreness and fatigue as I went heavier. This even comes into play when people start increasing loads on low bar squats as it places a decent bit of force on the wrist joint. I would recommend wrist wraps to those who are pushing overhead strength and volume, bench press strength and volume, Olympic Weightlifters, powerlifters, etc, especially if you have delicate/smaller wrists for your size. The obligatory disclaimer here is to ensure that, wraps or no wraps, you are putting your wrists in safe and stable positions, as well as mobilizing and stretching them after your lifts (These are “Power Wraps” from Mark Bell’s brand, “Slingshot.” Linked in my Amazon store).
Training journal – I am a big fan of writing my workouts down (sets, reps, weights) so that I can track my progress over time. This also allows me to monitor training volume and how it fluctuates. I got mine from Target!
Headphones – Beats Solo 3 Wireless. I was so on the fence about buying Beats after hearing mixed reviews. I personally love mine. The only problem (which I assume you would have with any over-the-ear headphones) is that they slide a bit when I’m doing more “bent” work like glute kickbacks, cable crunches, etc. However, I love how loud they are and the battery life is amazing. The battery part was huge for me because I’m terrible about charging my headphones. These also come in handy when I’m editing YouTube videos on my computer as they do come with a cord.
Prolofic preworkout – This is my current go-to preworkout from my sponsors, PEScience. This stuff gives great, clear energy and killer pumps. I love how they also included cognitive enhancers in this formula, contributing to better focus during training, not just increased energy from caffeine. My favorite flavor is mango! I also love tossing in a scoop of mango flavored Amino IV (also by PEScience) for some BCAAs.
Thanks for joining me for another blog! Hopefully this gives you some insight as to some items you could include in your gym bag. Tweet me (@em_dunc) if you end up purchasing any of these items and what you think of them! See below for links and discounts.
Amazon store: http://astore.amazon.com/emd05-20
Lifting Straps: http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/bodybuildingcom/padded-lifting-straps.html
PEScience preworkout (Use the code “EMILY” for 30% off your entire order!): https://pescience.com/prolific
Bag: Lululemon, but no longer in production.
Bret Contreras’ Double Band Burnout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fouQlVcMVl4
 Proprioceptive awareness: awareness of where your body/body parts is/are in space, what they’re doing, etc. Essentially the awareness of your movements.
 Valgus knee movement: knees caving inward. This is particularly common in women and very commonly seen coming out of the hole during squats. It can also shatter your kneecaps, so I don’t recommend doing it and working to correct it if you do.