How to Build the Perfect Home Gym for Your Goals
Building a home gym used to be the exclusive domain of one-percenters. But these days, plenty of people — more than 25 million, according to recent stats — get their sweat on in the privacy of their own homes.
The two main factors that deter people from making the leap to home training? Space and expense. But if you loosen your grip on the Hollywood-style home-gym fantasy, you find that neither is prohibitive.
“When many people think about setting up a home gym, they immediately think about recreating a commercial gym,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., director of fitness and nutrition content for Openfit. That’s a mistake: While the latest gear and gizmos can be fun, they’re by no means indispensable for building muscle or shedding fat.
“At the most basic level, all you need to establish a home gym is six square feet of space,” says Thieme. “Your body can be your barbell — any equipment you layer on top of that is gravy.”
So start simple — and allow your gym to grow right along with your strength and cardiovascular fitness. Next, we’ll take you through the process of putting together the perfect home gym for your needs, goals, and budget.
How to Fill Your Home Gym on Any Budget
Get resourceful and expense doesn’t have to be a barrier to entry.
1. Make it yourself (cheapest)
If you’re willing to go the Rocky route, you can find, make, or repurpose most of what you need. A sturdy chair or coffee table can work well for step-ups. Old paint cans or bleach bottles filled with water or cement can work as homemade hand weights. A tractor tire can be great for deadlifts, jumps, and conditioning exercises.
2. Buy used (moderately expensive)
If you’re not into the junkyard look, go the secondhand route. People sell used fitness equipment all the time, often at very reduced prices. Click through Facebook Marketplace, letgo, Craigslist, or OfferUp and there’s a good chance you’ll find what you’re looking for, especially if you live within driving distance of a metropolitan area. If you buy online, beware of retailers masquerading as individual sellers (you’ll know immediately by their asking price).
3. Buy new (most expensive)
This should be a last resort for durable items like dumbbells, but dedicated retailers like Dick’s or Big Five can represent a better option for big-ticket items with lots of moving parts, like treadmills or weight machines. In the latter case, buying new also makes it more likely you’ll get something that won’t break within a few weeks or months of ownership.
What Do I Need for My Home Gym?
With just a few key pieces of equipment, you can be off to the races. Or at least training for one.
First and foremost, you need space to move. Indoors, this can be a basement, a garage, or a spare room, but don’t dismiss outdoor options like a backyard or terrace. Working out in nature has proven health and mood-elevating benefits. Whatever spot you choose, make sure you have enough floor or ground space to lie down and move your limbs in all directions, and enough overhead space to extend your arms fully when jumping.
Once you’ve designated a space for working out, you already have a wealth of no-equipment exercise options at your disposal, including countless variations of the push-up, squat, lunge, sit-up, plank, and bridge that will keep you busy and challenged for a long, long time. For some of the best bodyweight-only workouts you can do, check out the library of programs on Openfit.
In Scotland, budding warriors lift clach cuid fir — manhood stones (which are actual stones despite their cheeky name). In prison, convicts lift stacks of newspapers. Military units stationed abroad lift kegs, buckets of gravel, and jugs of water.
Lifting implements don’t have to be fancy to be brutally effective. Arguably, the tougher something is to hold and heft, the more effective it can be at building functional strength.
But if you’ve got some money to spend and no interest in lugging a 200-pound clach cuid fir into your garage, pony up for whatever heavy stuff interests you. Here are some of your best choices.
There are two varieties: the new-school type that adjust with the twist of a knob or the movement of a pin, and the old-school ‘bells you load up with plates like mini-barbells. One offers ease of use, the other saves money.
Our top picks:
Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells ($300/pair). Adjustable from 5 to 52.5 pounds with the turn of a dial.
Powerblock Pro 50 Set ($429/pair). Adjustable from 5 to 50 pounds with the movement of a pin.
York Fitness Cast Iron Dumbbells ($120/pair). Adjustable from 5 to 45 pounds.
Another item you’ll never outgrow. These come in two types — the one-inch diameter variety, usually 4–6 feet long, that uses thinner plates with a one-inch hold, and the classic 7-foot, 45-pound Olympic bar with the rotating 2-inch diameter sleeves on each end. Go for the latter and you’ll never buy another bar again.
Our top pick: FringeSport Wonder Bar ($189).
A medicine ball can be used in place of weights for exercises like the lunge, squat, and rotational chop. More important, though, it allows you to perform explosive, upper-body moves like throws and smashes — terrific for building power and three-dimensional athleticism. They’re also a hell of a lot of fun.
Med balls come in two major types: one that bounces back and one that doesn’t. Choose the bouncy kind and get two: a 5- and 10-pounder for women, a 10 and a 15 for men. Buy heavier ones as you get stronger.
Our top pick: Valeo (prices vary by size)
Exercise bands are the opposite of weights; whereas dumbbells are clunky, cumbersome, heavy, and pricey, bands are convenient, portable, lightweight, and cheap. Bands are versatile — use them for strength-building movements like the row, face pull, glute bridge, and pushdown, as well as rehab, flexibility, and activation exercises like the clamshell, external rotation, and pull-apart.
One downside: Exercise bands do wear out — so consider buying new and going with high-quality options.
Our favorite: NT Loops – Longer, stronger, more durable, and more comfortable than most other bands out there. More expensive too, but worth it. A pair of bands, one heavier, one lighter: $89.
When the TRX Suspension Trainer came out in 2004, it was touted as the only piece of equipment you’d ever need. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but get one anyway (or something like it), for one main reason: bodyweight rows.
Thanks to TRX and the handful of other suspension trainers now on the market, this exercise — great for building oft-neglected back muscles and keeping your shoulders healthy — has become a staple exercise for many top trainers. But once you have a suspension trainer in your equipment arsenal, you’ll quickly discover the boon this brand of instability training can be for boosting athletic performance and functional, total-body strength.
Our top pick: Lifeline Jungle Gym XT. It has the best foot cradles on the market, and costs about $100 — half what you’ll pay for the TRX, which is also an excellent choice if you don’t mind shelling out the extra bucks.
Sooner or later, every fitness enthusiast wants to slay the pull-up dragon. It’s one of the best moves for building muscle in your back and biceps, and it’s a great test of the only type of strength that matters: relative strength (i.e., how strong you are for your size). Not ready for full-on pull-ups yet? Put your exercise bands (above) to work, and do an assisted version.
Our top pick: ProsourceFit Multi-Grip Chin-Up/Pull-Up Bar ($30).
A good bench is useful for much more than just pressing bar-bending loads. It can help you work almost every muscle from your calves to your forearms from multiple angles — especially if you buy an adjustable version that allows you to change the incline to, say, zero in on your upper pecs during the dumbbell press or work your biceps through a greater range of motion during seated curls.
Our top pick: Fitness Reality 1000 Super Max Weight Bench ($89).
We’re putting this item way down the list for a couple of reasons. First, it’s typically expensive. And second, it’s not necessary. The only two moves that really require a rack are the barbell squat and the barbell bench press, and both can be performed with dumbbells sans rack. That said, having a rack in your home gym definitely increases your badass quotient, and is important for doing barbell exercises without a spotter. So if you have the space and can afford one, go for it.
Our top pick: If you’ve got a thousand bucks to spend, spring for the Rogue R-4 Power Rack. It’s nearly unbreakable, beautifully constructed, and comes complete with both fat and skinny pull-up bars.
If that’s a little rich for your blood, you can pick up a Rogue 90″ Monster Lite Squat Stand for about half the price.
As your home gym grows, you’ll probably want to add these items to the mix. Depending on your perspective, they might be low-priority or they might be staples. Purchase accordingly.
Kneading your muscles not only before and after workouts but also between them can help enhance blood flow, ease tension, and break up muscle adhesions. That can all translate into a faster, more effective recovery and greater exercise performance. A simple, firm model like Perform Better’s Elite Molded Foam Roller ($23) is all you need.
Keep this in your gym bag for a do-anywhere cardio workout that builds power and endurance as it enhances cardiorespiratory fitness. We like this superfast, super skinny one that you can get for $10.
Great for stretching and floor work, a yoga mat also makes a colorful accent to all the black and gray in your newly tricked-out workout space. Go thrifty with this $11 choice, or spend about 10 times as much on this one — it comes with a lifetime guarantee. Your call.
Of all the spiffy elements you can add to class up your home gym — from fancy mirrors to nifty lighting to a pimped-out AV system — the one you should prioritize is flooring. A nonskid surface cannot only help reduce your risk of injury (and prevent scuffing your floor), but also minimize the impact of plyometric exercises.
If you’re able to cover the whole floor, go with the ProsourceFit Puzzle Exercise Mat, which comes in pieces that interlock. Otherwise, get a few pieces of the XMark Fitness XMat, which come in 4’x6′ sheets, to go under your bench, rack, and anywhere else where the floor is likely to see heavy use.
Take full advantage of all of your new equipment with Openfit, a digital streaming platform for integrated fitness, nutrition, and wellness. We’ll show you how to best utilize the equipment in your new home gym no matter your goal.
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