As another birthday approaches and another awesome gift from my wife enters my garage (this year, a pair of 105lb dumbbells, last year a strongman log), it dawns on me that I’ve amassed quite an impressive home gym over the years, and in doing so learned quite a few lessons about the differences between home gyms and commercial gyms. It is my intent here to pass those lessons onto you, the reader, so that, should you decide to go down this path (or if you’ve already done so and are looking for another perspective), you may learn from my experiences.
This picture is actually pretty old. I've added since then.
If all you want is to just get away from the gym and still get stronger, I would argue that all you need is a pair of squat stands, a barbell, some plates, and an iron gym. This will allow you to perform a variety of squats, overhead pressing, chins, deadlifting, and rows, while taking up a very small footprint in whatever space you are working with. Ironmind used to have a picture in their product catalog of a guy that set up a gym in his apartment where he put away the stands and bar in a closet when he was not using it and took it out to lift, and it was pretty baller. If you are creative with your programming, this set up can take care of you for years. That said, here are a few key points to keep in mind.
-Never pay full prices for iron plates. There are way too many resources available to get used plates. Look up craigslist, check out garage sales, go to used sporting goods stores, look for gyms that are closing, do whatever it takes, but never pay full price. The price of iron is constantly going up, don’t be a victim of this. Be aware that cheap plates won’t be calibrated, and will more likely be heavier than advertised, but all this means is that, when you get to a comp with calibrated plates, it will be easier for you. Bumper plates are a different story, and if you can find a deal, jump on them, but otherwise, be prepared to spend money.
-A cheap bar is not necessarily a bad bar. There is a lot to be said about high quality barbells, and they are definitely worth the investment once you get heavy into the home gym, but starting off with a cheapo beater bar for the home gym isn’t a terrible idea. If you’re just starting out and don’t really know if the commitment to the home gym is going to work, it’s better to test the waters with some cheaper equipment, so that not a whole lot is lost. Additionally, even if you end up purchasing something higher quality, a cheap bar is great to have when you perform rough lifts with it, like rack pulls, pin presses, zerchers from pins, etc.
WHAT TO BUY NEXT?
What I have found that is unique about home gyms is that, many times, you tend to start off with the exotic and work your way back to the mundane. Don’t get me wrong, expanding from the most basic set up I outlined earlier, I would say the next 2 obvious choices would be a power rack and an adjustable bench, simply because these two purchases once again open you up to a variety of exercise choices. However, after this, we run into an interesting bit of training philosophy.
One of the key benefits of a home gym is that it’s YOUR gym. It means it has everything you need and nothing you don’t. As such, it becomes tough to convince yourself to buy the things that were already readily available for you (and still presently are) at your nearest commercial gym. I’ll bet your local gym had all sorts of cable machines, dumbbells as far as the eye could see, a leg press, calf raise, etc. Did it have a reverse hyper? Glute ham raise? Swiss bar? Safety Squat Bar? Now we’re starting to identify the deficiencies. In turn, if you really absolutely had to use a lat pulldown machine, you could always swallow your pride and get a day pass, or even (god forbid) a $10 a month membership at your local Planet Fitness type location to use all of their machines, but if you were really aching to use a reverse hyper, your only chance is if YOU own one.
Everyone has a bench press, but how many people do you know that have one of these?
This is why, in my experience, home gyms tend to end up being a collection of the bizarre and exotic. You start off thinking you’re going to bring the commercial gym experience home, and instead end up crafting something completely unique and specialized. EMBRACE this. I’ve had my home gym for over 7 years now, and just NOW put in a lat pulldown and got some heavy dumbbells, whereas the safety squat bar was one of the first things I purchased after the rack, bar and plates. That normal stuff is out there and easy to get access to, but if you’re going to have a gym, have YOUR gym.
“Buy nice, don’t buy twice” is a pithy saying that is cute because it rhymes, but I have found it lacking when it comes to outfitting the home gym. I’ve honestly had far more successes buying from the sketchiest, shadiest and crappiest looking fitness equipment providers that I can. This ultimately boils down to who a product is built for, and for what intention.
Keep in mind that when your local commercial gym buys equipment, it does so with the intention that it’s going to get used. A LOT. By a LOT of people. It’s also probably going to get abused, because for one, sometimes people don’t know the correct way to use equipment, but additionally most humans are selfish creatures who don’t care about someone else’s property. Therefore, they purchase equipment that can last a long time with minimal maintenance while being put through the wringer on a daily basis, year after year. You won’t be doing this. Odds are, you will be the only one using the equipment, unless you train with a small group, in which case the amount of use it will experience is still minimal compared to in a commercial gym. Your stuff doesn’t need to be “built to last”, only built to outlast YOU.
Additionally, it’s very easy to buy into the advertisement hype on some sites, were world record holders talk about how much they love X brand equipment because it can hold up with all the abuse they heap on it, and how they used a cheaper version and it broke in a matter of days. This is where honest self reflection can save you some cash. I realized that I was not a “big guy” in the world of lifting. I’m barely 200lbs on a full stomach. My body simply doesn’t stress a GHR the same way that Brian Shaw’s does. The big guys definitely need industrial strength stuff, but you may be able to get by with the home version.
I always look for the absolute cheapest deal possible when it comes to my next purchase, and I have only been burned one time by a guy that was selling products he simply didn’t have in his inventory. Everytime I have RECEIVED a product, it’s accomplished the goal. It’s a total no frills operation, but since it’s MY gym, I only need to impress myself. So far, I have gotten away with a cheap safety squat bar, swiss bar, glute ham raise, strongman log, power tower, power rack, landmine, and I’m sure a bunch of other things as well. When you buy cheap, you have to put it all together yourself, and it comes in a million pieces, but the money you save is money you can invest in another piece of equipment.
I have bought SO much equipment from this site. I think they saved money by never updating their homepage.
Want to know the difference between deadlift mats and rubber patio tiles? The former costs $50 per mat more than the latter. So many items marketed as fitness equipment are being practically given away at other locations when used for a different function. So much of this is just marketing. Start getting creative when it comes to outfitting your home gym.
Unless you are pressing 500lbs, you probably don’t need to spend $300 on an axle. Go to Home Depot, get a 2” steel pipe cut to 7.5’ and use duct tape or hose clamps to make some collars on the end. Don’t spend $80 on “rack savers”, go buy some towing straps for $5. They can tow a 2 ton vehicle, they can hold your squat. Don’t buy “lifting chains” and get killed on shipping and handling, go to a tractor supply store and buy as much chain as you want for pennies. If you do it right, odds are you will spend more time at Home Depot than Sports Authority.
Additionally, try to be creative with the stuff you DO have. Many times, a new piece of equipment isn’t necessary, you simply have to make use of all the equipment you DO have. You’ve got a pull up bar, bands, chains, and a dip belt. Do you really need a lat pulldown for some variety? Try band assisted pull ups, or band assisted pull-ups while wearing weight, or thread the chains through your belt so the weight increases as you go up, or put the band through the belt and anchor it to the floor, or etc etc. Sometimes, something like 2 $5 minibands will open up a million new options, and little toys and tricks can go a long way in providing longevity to your current situation.