Build muscle outside the gym by using the right machines at a park near you

By Jessica Smith
July 04, 2014

The playground isn't just for kids running amok anymore! Parks and rec departments across the country are investing in adult playground fitness equipment, many of which rival some gym offerings. With gear popping up in green spaces from San Antonio to New York City, chances are you have access to some of these outdoor exercise machines.

Although some are odd looking, don't laugh them all off-you really can strengthen and define muscles with select equipment, but others could leave you sidelined all summer from injury. Here are the five most effective and five least effective devices.

Use: Seated Rower


Outdoor Fitness

"Most people are particularly weak in their pulling muscles-upper back, rotator cuff, core stabilizers-and it shows with the poor posture that plagues the average individual," says Mike Clancy, a certified personal trainer in New York City. In addition to strengthening these weaker areas, the seated rower can also help increase the flexibility and range of motion of the shoulders, he says.

Skip: Strength Tester


Outdoor Fitness

The strength tester consists of two heavy wheels; one person is the resistance and the other is the force trying to turn the wheel, a situation that could potentially cause harm because it's easy to misuse, says Lucy Clinkscales, a certified fitness instructor at Hilton Head Health in South Carolina. If your stance is off, for example, it's easy to experience excessive torque on the shoulders, or if your partner is stronger, you may be overpowered, both of which greatly increase the chances of pulling a muscle rather strengthening the shoulders, she explains.

Use: Pull-Up Bar



Even if you haven't mastered a pull-up yet (or even come close), this bar is a great piece of equipment for building upper-body and core strength, says Natalie Jill, a functional fitness trainer and creator of the Rev4 DVD. "Anyone can get a workout on this bar no matter what level they are at." Beginners can start by jumping or stepping up to reach the bar and hanging. Then work up to whatever you can do-even if it's just pulling your body up a few inches, you'll still strengthen your biceps, back, shoulders, and core.

Skip: Elliptical



"There is nothing innately wrong with the elliptical," Clancy says, "but the concept of being outdoors and using a stationary, fixed cardiovascular machine takes away from the very idea of what makes the outdoors so great-natural freedom of movement." Unless you absolutely love it, look for alternative ways to get your heart rate up without having to stay in a fixed position like good old walking and running.

Use: Balance Beam


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"I prefer equipment that requires you to use your own body weight or tests your balance and core strength, like the balance beam," says Sara Haley, a certified fitness expert in Santa Monica, CA. Just to keep from falling off, you have to use all your core muscles (from breast bone to hip bones and everything all around), which translates into more calories burned. To make the most out of this simple yet challenging piece of equipment, Haley recommends engaging your abs and glutes while you walk, balancing on one foot at a time, or extending the lifted leg in front of or behind your body for an additional core challenge. If you're really daring, try closing your eyes-just make sure to squeeze everything tighter so you don't fall.

Skip: Shoulder Press Machine



A shoulder press requires particularly precise form due to the range of motion available in the shoulder joint, Clancy says, but you won't get this from a fixed machine. Translation: Hello injuries and tweaks.

Use: Leg Curl Machine



"More than 80 percent of the general population suffers from a stiff lower back, which is usually attributed to a weaker series of posterior muscles including the hamstrings, gluteals, and erector spinae," Clancy says. Using the leg curl machine can help strengthen the hamstrings, which in turn could lead to improved hip stability and overall general mobility along with reduced knee pain, he says.

Skip: Back Extension Machine


Outdoor Fitness

The back extension machine anchors your feet and hips, which could cause a potential problem for the spine, says Thomas J. Kleeman, M.D., co-creator of the MD Fitness: The Doctor's Workout DVD. "The more abdominal weight you have, the more force you need to use to extend your back-and the more stress generated," he explains. "If this force exceeds the tolerance of your discs and spinal ligaments, you may wind up injured." Avoid this machine if you have existing back problems such as a herniated, slipped discs, or spinal stenosis, or are out of shape or overweight. Try a plank instead to work the same muscles plus the abs.

Use: Parallel Dip Bars


Outdoor Fitness

Get ready to seriously sculpt your arms, abs, and back with the parallel bars. "This stationary structure is a staple in most strength-training programs because of its effectiveness on upper-body development," Clancy says. Nearly identical to the dip bars found in gyms, this simple piece of equipment offers endless options from leg swings to L-sit holds for building the core and upper-body strength and stamina of a gymnast.

Skip: Sitting Rotator


Outdoor Fitness

If used with momentum, the sitting rotator has the potential to cause jarring that can lead to strained muscles, particularly in the low back and hip area, cautions certified trainer Lisa Reed. She recommends using the pull-up bar instead to do a variety of different and seriously effective abs moves (such as hanging leg raises and oblique crunches) that will not only work your core but your arms and back too.

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