The basics of a home gym

women_garagesI get a lot of mail from people who want to work out at home and would like equipment recommendations. Usually people are looking for some kind of fancy contraption that they saw on an infomercial, something with rods and elastics and flashy lights and slidey things and godknowswhat but it’ll give them a body like the perfectly tanned and dessicated plastic infomercial fitness person and it’ll fit under the bed and it’s only 50 eeezy monthly payments of $49.99.

Well, MY home gym will cost you maybe TWO monthly payments of $49.99, and you can do just about everything you need with it. In this article, I’ll explain how to set up a basic, starter home gym that is cheap, versatile, and kicks the ass of any machine on the market.

As I get older, I like working out at home more and more. Everything is here, including my TeeVee, stereo, and coffee machine. It’s a two second commute. I can work out whenever I like. I can work out while sporting major bedhead, and wearing my pyjamas. Nobody yells at me for using chalk, clanging the weights, or doing odd lifts. And nobody is hogging my equipment.

It’s easy to assume that having a good home gym is restricted to independently wealthy dilettantes who have an entire floor dedicated to their expensive exercise toys. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you can do about a thousand times more with two adjustable dumbbells than you could do with any single machine – or even ten machines.

Above is a shot of most of my home gym setup. Most of it was obtained at the local hardware store or Canadian Tire, and the whole thing probably cost me about $100, including the box it’s kept in. It consists of the following, starting at the top of the photo:

  • A steel box from IKEA to hold most of the stuff, tucked under the table in the corner (you can see the lid off to the right, which goes on the box when not in use)
  • Collars to hold the plates on the dumbbell handles and barbell
  • 2 folded towels, to protect the floor from the weight plates; they also come in handy for loading the bars, as I put the plates on the towels and slide them on to the bar
  • 2 small wraparound 1 lb wrist weights, which come in handy for adding small increments of weight to dumbbells or barbell – I just wrap them around the ends of the bars
  • 2 standard dumbbell handles
  • Weight plates in varying sizes – I have laid out a couple each of 2.5, 5, and 10 lb plates; I own several of each plus some larger ones, which go on a shelf in the hallway
  • A jump rope
  • A little timer for timing intervals
  • An 8 lb sledgehammer for Shovelglove exercises
  • A standard barbell, which stands up in an unused corner when not in use
  • That floor space, perhaps 25 to 30 feet square (just enough to swing the jump rope)
  • A doorway pullup bar (not shown)
  • My front steps, as well as the large outdoor staircase down the street

I have a sturdy coffee table that I use as a bench, and a fluffy rug that serves as a gym mat.

I use the standard bars, which have 1″ diameter ends, rather than the Olympic bars, which have 2″ diameter ends, because the standard bars are cheaper and smaller. For the average trainee, standard bars will meet most needs. However, if you are planning to embark on a powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting career, you will of course wish to invest in the Olympic bars and a more substantial setup.

The first problem with home gym machines is that their exercise range is limited. With this simple setup, I have complete freedom to do an immense variety of exercises. A sample of the exercises I can do with this equipment includes:

  • Olympic lifts such as the clean and jerk and the snatch, as well as their assistance lifts, such as power cleans and snatches, clean and snatch pulls, hang cleans and snatches, front squats, and overhead squats. When I do Olympic lifts, I simply set the collars on the barbell a little bit looser, and the plates spin easily on the thinner standard barbell, which emulates the spinning action of the Olympic bar’s ends. I also do many one- and two-hand Olympic dumbbell lifts such as the one-hand snatch.
  • Ballistic dumbbell exercises such as the dumbbell swing. A super-simple but kickass workout: set the timer for 15 min, and alternate 1 min of dumbbell swings with 1 min of rope jumping for that time period.
  • Squatting type movements such as deadlifts, front squats, front and side lunges and single-leg squats, pistols (unweighted single-legged squats with one leg held out straight in front), and step-ups (good old coffee table).
  • Pulling exercises such as pullups, shrugs, and rows.
  • Pressing exercises such as one- and two-hand overhead presses, side presses, lying presses, handstand presses, and pushups.
  • Raises to front, side, and back, bent over or standing straight up.
  • Midsection exercises including low back, deep torso, and ab exercises.
  • “Manual labour” type exercises with the sledgehammer including wood chops, fire stoking, “paddling”, “butter churning”, and all the other wonderful Shovelglove ideas.
  • Conditioning exercises such as rope jumping, shadow boxing, and stair running, as well as slow bo (staff) drills with the standard bar.

Even if you only have a pair of adjustable dumbbells, you can do most of these exercises. Most exercises have one and two-handed or -legged versions. For other ideas, check out ExRx’s exercise directory, Body by Fish’s exercise list, more stair exercises than you ever thought possible, and of course, the awesome Bryce Lane.

Many people are concerned about starting with free weights and assume that machines are safer. Take a look at the picture to the left. That is a 2.5 lb. plate, the smallest size plate (although you can often buy even lighter ones if you look around). That’s my hand, and I don’t have very big paws. That’s a free weight. Not so scary, is it? You can start with just holding that little plate for your resistance. Hell, you can even start with soup cans. No matter what your strength level and ability, free weights will accommodate it. A great way to start is with a combination of bodyweight-only exercises (such as those in Bryce Lane’s article, above) and simple free weight exercises, using as light a weight as you feel comfortable with. Then you simply add weight as you practice and progress. For example, you can make a basic beginner workout to do three times per week that includes:

  • Unweighted squats, 2 sets x 15 to 20 reps
  • Standing overhead dumbbell press, 2 x 15
  • One-hand dumbbell row, 2 x 15, either on bench or bent at the hips with non-lifting hand resting on a counter or table
  • Counter, knee, or regular pushups, 2 sets
  • Shrugs, 2 x 15
  • One-legged calf raises on step, 2 x 15
  • Ab or lower back exercise of choice, 2 sets
  • (on non-weights days) Staircase running, 30 to 60 second “sets” with 10 to 20 seconds rest

And wala! There you are! Almost a ninja already!

The other common safety concern that people have is getting stuck under the bar during certain exercises such as the bench press. There are two ways to address this: don’t ever work to failure intentionally (you shouldn’t anyway), and use dumbbells for the one or two exercises that are high risk. Again, if you are a competitive powerlifter you will probably train at a gym, or be willing to invest in a more complete bench press rack setup. The average person will do fine with dumbbell presses as an alternative. However, in most cases, you’re not going to be trapped under anything. You should use the correct amount of weight so that you are in control of it at all times. If a two-handed or two-legged version of something is getting too heavy for you to manage, cut the weight down until you can handle it properly, and/or switch to a one-handed or one-legged version. And almost no exercises require holding a bar directly over any important body parts anyway. Usually, the worst that can happen is dropping something on your toe.

The second problem with home gym machines is that to expand your repertoire, you have to buy more machines. With a setup like this, adding resistance is easy: I just buy a few more plates every now and again. Weight plates are pretty cheap, and you only have to buy small increments, as you need them.

As you can see in the photo, adjustable dumbbells can be made into any size you like. The dumbbell on the right is 43 lbs., and the one on the left is 8 lbs. You can even use the unweighted handles if you’re a total beginner; the dumbbell handles I own are about 3 lbs. each. With adjustable dumbbells, you don’t need to buy a whole bunch of dumbbells in different weights. You just put the dumbbell together in any way you prefer. The wraparound wrist weights can help you add small amounts of weight if you don’t want to commit to the 5 lb. jump of adding on a couple of 2.5 lb. plates. Or, you can even add a little weight to only one end of the dumbbell, although I don’t recommend that with a barbell.

However, let us say that you do have a bit of room, money to invest, and a commitment to strength sports. In that case, I recommend purchasing an Olympic weight set along with a power cage or rack. The only exercise that I cannot do with my current setup is the back squat, as I can’t press enough to get the bar up and over my head, on to my back (I just use front squats instead). If you are super fancy then you will make an Olympic platform and buy bumper plates, and at that point you don’t need my help anyway. Endure my jealousy and undying envy instead.

Don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Humans got strong long before there were gyms. Just find heavy stuff and move it around.