2020 has been quite the year.
I’d wager that in at least one significant way, this year looks a lot different for you than last year did. If you’re a regular gym goer, then this is all but a certainty. Gym closures and tedious new rules have turned countless fitness routines upside down, so it makes sense that 2020 has made home gyms more popular than ever.
Maybe you’ve thought about building a gym yourself. Certainly having a private workout space mere steps away sounds enticing, right? But where to begin?
Designing a home gym is an exercise in resource management, and the most precious resources that you have are dollars and square footage. Knowing how to allocate these resources might be the difference between the home gym of your dreams, and a money pit used for little else other than hanging laundry.
If you’re looking to build a home gym, here are eight important items to consider. In fact, I believe they are so important that I prioritized them in my own home gym.
When building a home gym it can be helpful to think of maximizing the number of quality exercises that you can perform per-dollar-spent. For example, a rowing ergometer is surely a great tool, but it’s quite expensive and lets you perform precisely one exercise. A barbell, however, is relatively inexpensive and allows for a tremendous variety of work. Whether your training goals are to build strength, improve body composition, or simply to feel healthy and well, the cornerstone exercises of your program will necessitate a barbell.
Purchasing a barbell can feel a bit daunting because while barbells may look virtually identical when browsing an online catalog, the prices and specifications can vary wildly. Should you get one with or without a center knurling? How about a 29mm or 28.5mm shaft? Do you want good, great, or zero whip? It can all be a bit much.
For most home gyms, your best bet is to find a jack-of-all-trades barbell. Steer clear specialty bars with labels like ‘power’, ‘deadlift’, or ‘Weightlifting’ (Weightlifting, one-word with a capital ‘W’, specifically describes the 2 lifts performed in the Olympics). If it’s significantly more expensive, there’s a good chance that it’s engineered for one very specific purpose. For a home gym, that’s not quite what we want.
The Rogue Ohio Bar is a do-it-all barbell and the primary bar I use in my own gym. It’s high quality and able to handle anything you can throw at it. As long as you perform some basic regular maintenance it will surely serve you well for many, many years. You can always find a way to spend twice as much for a 1% difference in performance, but realistically the combination of price, function, and durability is pretty tough to beat.
Of course, you’ll need some weights to put on that barbell. There are several categories of plates out there, and the type that you choose may depend on what types of exercises you plan to perform in your home gym. Cast-iron or steel plates are great because they take up less space on the barbell and are generally less expensive, but you absolutely cannot drop them on the floor. Bumper plates are designed to absorb some impact so they can be dropped in most circumstances, but they may be more expensive and they take up more space on the bar. I tend to think that bumper plates are a safer bet in most circumstances.
When building my home gym I opted to splurge on some rather fancy plates. I chose these because they’re competition-calibrated, which means they weigh precisely what they say (you might be surprised at how much some plates can vary from their listed weight). These are also available in kilogram denominations, which tend to be less ubiquitous in the US. But of course, these are wholly unnecessary for most home gym set ups. A more modest set of bumpers like these will do the trick just fine in most circumstances.
#3 Change Plates
The smallest denomination of bumper plates is almost always ten pounds. You’ll certainly want to make adjustments much more precise than that, so having a set of change plates to allow for proper loading will be important, too. I’m a big believer in using very small incremental changes, so I personally always recommend getting all the way down to 1.25 pound plates.
If you opt for the competition bumper plates like I did, these change plates from Rogue will round out your collection nicely (not to mention you won’t have to mix kilograms and pounds which can be a headache).
They are likely wholly unnecessary for most home gyms, and in most cases a simple cast iron plate set of five pounds and below will do just fine.
#4 Squat Rack
A squat rack is another absolutely crucial piece of equipment for any home setup. The primary purpose of a rack is to accommodate exercises where the barbell starts off of the ground…which is most of them. Most squat racks also feature another item that really deserves it’s own spot on the list, and that’s a pullup bar. The squat rack may very well be the most expensive piece in your home gym, but it also affords an unparalleled number of important exercises. In a lot of ways it’s what everything else in the gym is built around. A home gym without a squat rack is like a car without wheels.
The type of rack that you choose will depend significantly on the space that you use for your home gym. A 4-post rack is the most durable and versatile, but it can take up a good deal of space. Other racks fold up against the wall when not in use. Or you might opt for a pair of portable squat stands in lieu of a rack. Or perhaps a half-rack. You’ll also want to consider the vertical clearance that your space has, and whether or not you want for your rack to be anchored to the floor. And if you ever plan to expand on your basic home gym setup, many racks allow for attachments like dip stations.
Unfortunately with the squat rack there’s very seldom a one-size-fits-all answer, so choosing the right one for your space will take some thought.
I opted to go with the Burli Mammoth Rack for many reasons, not the least of which is the quality. Plenty of racks from popular suppliers are manufactured overseas and occasionally come with defects. There are places in a home gym where it’s perfectly okay to roll the dice with a bargain option, but in my opinion the squat rack is not one of them.
#5 Safety System
Having some sort of safety mechanism in place for your home gym is quite important. Say what you will about commercial gyms, but if you get stuck underneath a bar at 24 Hour Fitness, somebody will be close enough to bail you out. If you’re training at home by yourself you probably won’t have that same protection, so save your wife/husband/mom/paramedic the shock of finding you blue-in-the-face with a barbell stuck on your chest for the last 7 hours.
The Burli Mammoth Spotter Arms fit seamlessly with my Mammoth rack, so they were an easy choice for my personal gym. And while the primary use of safety systems is keeping you safe, these also provide some additional benefits over the more standard pin and pipe system. They can be placed on the inside or the outside of your rack, and the plastic lining protects the finish on your barbell from metal-on-metal contact. While I don’t plan on getting stuck often enough for that to be an especially big deal (though on the occasions I do get stuck they can be a lifesaver), they also work well for some more advanced methods like inertia lifts and certain isometric methods that I use quite regularly.
#6 Adjustable Bench
Having a bench to sit or lie down on is another crucial component for many core-curriculum exercises. And while a flat bench is a good start, an adjustable bench allows for significantly more exercise variety (particularly when paired with the next item on our list like this…and this). They’re generally more expensive than a typical flat bench, but well worth it for what it provides.
I wouldn’t trust REP with every piece of equipment in my gym, but they’ve surely made a name for themselves with some outstanding benches like the REP AB-5000. This model is particularly great because of the pop-pin method of adjustment, and the quality and heft for the price are really tough to beat.
#7 Adjustable Dumbbells
While it’s possible to build a home gym and workout program without a set of dumbbells, having them available opens the door to so, so many useful exercises that it’s hard for me to imagine a home gym without them.
Finding a set of dumbbells for a home gym can be a challenge, especially in a post-COVID world. If space and money are no object, then feel free to splurge on a full set of dumbbells like the ones you might find at a typical commercial gym. But given the enormous footprint and exorbitant cost ($4,000 at least), this is seldom an option for a home setup. Instead, consider either a pair of adjustable or plate-loaded dumbbells.
Both adjustable dumbbells and plate-loaded dumbbells come with trade offs though. Many adjustable dumbbells feature funky ergonomics that can make certain exercises untenable. They may also have plastic parts that, when damaged, effectively ruin the whole set. Plate-loaded dumbbells can also be clunky and often require a good deal more time to swap weights. Still, in most cases the pros of either adjustable or plate loaded outweigh the cons when compared to a full set.
I happen to have two dumbbell pairs in my personal gym, but I’ll choose to highlight the Pepin Plate-Loaded Dumbbells here. The Pepin dumbbells are as close to a perfect plate-loaded dumbbell as I’ve ever seen. They’re far quicker to adjust than most other loadable versions, and the brilliant screw-in design of the handles means that the actual size of the dumbbell changes depending on the load that you choose. That is, a 20 pound dumbbell will be significantly shorter than a 100 pound dumbbell. This might sound obvious, but consider that with other plate-loaded dumbbells the size of the handle doesn’t change. This means that using smaller weights leaves you with an unwieldy length of sleeve sticking out either end.
Admittedly the Pepin dumbbells skew towards the more expensive end of the spectrum, so in many cases an adjustable dumbbell will be a better combination of cost and features. Powerblocks have been the industry standard for years, and they’re often my go-to choice when building a gym for a client. They’re durable as adjustable dumbbells go, but still, don’t drop them.
#8 Resistance Bands
Resistance bands can help to fill in a few gaps when transitioning from a full-service commercial gym to a home setting. Bands differ from the other tools on our list in the way that they provide resistance. Barbells and dumbbells work because they’re heavy and you lift them against gravity. But bands don’t rely on gravity to provide resistance, so you can perform exercises in directions other than up-and-down, like movements that you perform with cables and pulleys in a typical commercial gym. A seated row or triceps pressdown, for instance.
I want to be very clear, however, that bands are not perfect substitutes for cable machines. They can be a useful tool, and given how inexpensive they are they’re certainly better than nothing, but bands absolutely have significant shortcomings. I’ll save the exhaustive details for another time, but the short version is that bands ‘weigh’ different amounts depending on how far they’re stretched, and this really matters. We can make use of them in certain circumstances because they’re often the best option available, but using them correctly is more complicated than you might expect.
There are plenty of good resistance band options out there but I opted for the Rogue Monster Bands. There’s nothing unique to this particular product line. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most bands all come from the same place and have different labels slapped on them. Not exclusively, but often.
When buying bands, usually a pair of each of the three or four lightest options will suffice. There’s virtually no practical use for a band with 100 pounds worth of listed resistance. And I much prefer this version as opposed to the tube-shaped ones with the built-in handles.
If you’re reading this in 2020 (or shortly thereafter) and are considering building your own home gym, you’re certainly not alone. Home gyms are as popular now as they ever have been before with 59% of American’s opting to cancel their gym membership for good… which is both good and bad. The bad news is that many suppliers have been stretched to their limits, so some pieces of equipment might have lead times stretching into weeks and months. This added hassle on top of all of the other questions that come with building a home gym might very well make for a daunting challenge.
Some good news; however, is that with many of the big suppliers spread so thin, other creative minds and talented builders have found opportunity. Two of my absolute favorite pieces of equipment – my Burli rack and Pepin Dumbbells – didn’t exist before this year. So while it may have taken longer to build my home gym than it would have a few years ago, it’s undoubtedly higher quality now than it would have otherwise been.
And of course, the best news is that once your home gym is functional, it can have a profound, positive impact on your lifestyle. Say goodbye forever to commuting to and from the gym. And say goodbye to looking for a parking space. And gym contracts. And waiting for equipment. And the gym creepers. And questionably-sanitized locker rooms. All gone.
While it’s true that in all but the most extravagant circumstances your home gym won’t feature everything you might use at a commercial facility, some smart planning can make such compromises comparatively small when weighed against all of the benefits. All of this combines to make this current moment both the most challenging and the more rewarding time to invest in a home gym.
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