Most gyms and health clubs have a combination of aerobic exercise machines (e.g., treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical trainers) along with free weights (barbells and dumbbells) and strength-building machines.

What you use depends on your experience and your goals. Ideally, invest in a session or two with a certified personal trainer who can explain how to use the equipment safely and even suggest some routines that will help you improve your fitness.

A typical health club houses a variety of cardio machines. The machine that is best for you is the one that you like to use the most! If you will ride a bike for 30 minutes but get bored on the treadmill after 15, then stick with the bike. Better still, try alternating machines — never use the same one two times in a row — to avoid exercise ruts.

Weight machines are generally easier and safer to use than free weights. They also make it possible to focus on strengthening specific muscles. Because most machines move along a fixed path, they help ensure correct movement and reduce the risk of injury. Machine workouts can also be more time-efficient than free weight workouts because adjusting the weight is just a matter of adjusting a pin; you don’t have to actually remove or add weights.

The advantage of using free weights — dumbbells and barbells — is that the movements required tend to be “functional,” i.e., they mimic the way we move in real life. If you play a sport, using free weights is a great way to prepare your muscles for the demands of that sport. Free weights aren’t better than machines, just different. Whereas each machine is designed for one particular muscle group, a pair of dumbbells can work practically any muscle, depending on how you use it. Plus, free weights are less confining than machines, and they better mimic the things you do every day. If you are thinking about investing in home exercise equipment, consider that a set of free weights can potentially do the work of a dozen machines.

Exercise tubes are long, thin rubber tubes with handles on each end. Bands are just giant rubber bands or straps. You can build plenty of strength with these cheap gadgets, and you can use them at home, at the office, and even on an airplane. Used properly, they can strengthen just about every muscle group you can work with free weights or machines.

If going to a health club for exercise isn’t something you’ll commit to, consider “building” your own home gym. For about $100 you can gather a variety of equipment that will help you build strength and cardio fitness and improve flexibility. Here’s a look at some basic but versatile equipment:

ItemApproximate Cost
Jump rope$10
Inflatable 2.2-pound medicine ball$15
Adjustable dumbbell set$45
Stretch tube with handles (for resistance training)$10
Support strap (allows you to attach the resistance stretch tube to stable objects like a door)$6
Yoga/workout mat$15