Q. What is the best strength- endurance-building equipment? I've been told by some people that free weights (conventional barbells and dumbbells) are best, and then some other people tell me that machines are best. Whom should I believe?G.H.

New York City A. Too much fuss is being made about equipment. A muscle will respond to any equipment if the double-progressive-resistance theory is being observed: that is, increasing the number of repetitions performed and/or the amount of weight being used. It's really that simple. You'll gain strength, endurance and muscle tone and enjoy the other benefits of a strength program using any equipment. Every type of equipment works if it overloads the muscle. All methods work. That's one of the problems with strength training, and that's why there are so many ''experts." Don't listen to someone if they tell you that a barbell is superior to a machine or vice versa. Some people are extremely biased toward a specific type of equipment and can't really analyze the facts. I know because I was one of them. I received my first barbell set when I was 13, and I trained with them exclusively until I was 25 years old. At that time I was the conditioning coach at West Point and I refused to use anything but the conventional barbell and dumbbell equipment. The machine era exploded on the scene in the early 1970s. Rather than admit my limitations, I discredited any type of equipment but the equipment I knew how to use. Well, let me tell you a little story about Milo of Crotona. Milo is on my top-five list of all- time heroes, right up there with Riggo, Theismann, et al. Milo lived in ancient Greece on his daddy's farm and he was training for a competition among athletes. He began hoisting a bull onto his shoulders when it was a baby. He'd walk up hills with this bull on his shoulders every day. The bull grew heavier every day, and Milo's body adapted to the additional weight. I won't bore you with all the details, but the point is that Milo was practicing the overload principle (use more weight and the muscles will get stronger) long before there were conditioning coaches, barbells or fancy machines. I'm not recommending the method nor the equipment Milo used. What I'm telling you is that you can use any equipment and gain strength. Every piece of equipment has structural limitations. And that's the only thing that's important when it's time to select or buy equipment. But if you're not concerned with stimulating maximum gains, it's not going to make that much difference what equipment you use. The barbell is probably the most readily available and popular tool. But the dumbbell evolved long before the bar. Long jumpers in Ancient Greece held two weights in their hands (halteres) while jumping. As they jumped, they swung these pieces of metal forward to help propel themselves farther. A physician in the second century devised a series of exercises using the halteres as resistance. These were the first known dumbbells. The term dumbbell originated in England in the 19th century when two bells with the clappers removed were joined by a handle. With the clappers removed, the bells made no noise; they were "dumb." Eventually the solid and plate-loading dumbbell was designed. The barbell evolved by 1898, and today's bar is not that much different. So what brought on the machine age in the 1970s? It wasn't until then that the research community, the medical community and some extremely intelligent people began to design equipment that was built to adapt to the specific needs of a muscle rather than force a muscle to adapt to a specific piece of equipment. There are some parts of the body that can't be effectively exercised with a bar or dumbbell (neck, adductors, abductors, hamstrings, parts of the shoulders and upper back). There are some structural lim the above, your selection of equipment should come down to the following factors: 1. Cost: The expense of joining a fitness facility may be the most important consideration. 2. Convenience: Find a facility that is close to home. If you have to drive 15 or 20 miles to work out, you'll find every excuse in the world not to go. 3.Preference: Perhaps you already prefer using a certain type of equipment regardless of the structural limitations. 4. Overall development: Select equipment that's designed to develop each major area of the body: the hips and legs, the midsection, all the major muscles in the torso, the arms, and the neck.

I'm not going to recommend which equipment you should use. What's best for me may not be best for you. But be sure to shop around if a variety of facilities and equipment are available to you. Join a club for six to eight weeks. Let the staff show you what their equipment and program offer and then decide which is best for you. Remember Milo of Crotona. It's not the equipment you use but how you use it that produces results. And that's no bull.