Between the sheer desire to not go to the gym and COVID-19, it can be hard to ensure you're getting a proper workout at home. Having a home gym can help you get stronger and healthier and you won't even have to go farther than your basement or garage.
Going to the gym on a regular basis instills discipline, strength, and health but it’s not always the easiest thing in the world. There are tons of amazing reasons to go to the gym, but our brains are wired for the easier path, and that means it only takes a few bad reasons to convince us to not go. Because of this, having home gym equipment is a great way to stay in shape and avoid all of the reasons we tell ourselves we can’t go to the actual fitness studio.
Having a home gym is practical and beneficial for a variety of reasons, but chiefest among these are:
- Home gyms make it more likely for us to exercise because we can do it whenever we want
- We’re not pressured by the presence of other people, which tends to make us embarrassed or worried about criticism
- When used regularly, a home gym can actually be cheaper than monthly gym memberships over the course of years
So what kind of home gym equipment is there, and what would be best for your fitness goals? Let’s take a look and see how you can build a home gym and which pieces are essential.
Strength training isn’t just for muscle heads or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lifting weights improves insulin resistance, makes your body more resistant to injury or sickness, strengthens your bones, and boosts your metabolism. You don’t need an Olympic set from the gym, either; you can get a great resistance workout with just a few critical pieces of home gym equipment.
A solid bench is a foundation for most exercises from bench press to curls and rows. You want a versatile bench that’s sturdy and large, and if you can find one with leg curl attachments, that’s even better.
You want to opt for something that is made of steel, and sturdy enough to support you and the weights your lifting. This is not a place to be frugal – invest in a very solid bench. Additionally, get one that has a benchpress setup, meaning the bars that hold the barbells in place for you to press. If you can find a bench that has an adjustable back, that’s even better, because incline work hits different muscle groups and it’s critically important for all-over strength and even conditioning.
Barbells and plates
If you’re going to be lifting weights, you want a solid, 45-pound barbell. These will hold the heaviest weights and they’ll be useful for the entirety of your weightlifting progression. If you get the smaller bars first and build-up to Olympic barbells, you’ll find the smaller bars are a waste of money. If you can’t lift 45-pound barbells off the bat, it’s no worries – you’re going to want dumbbells anyway, so start with those.
As for plates themselves, you want a set that has everything from 2.5lbs up to 45lbs. These are the basic gym plates and until you can lift all of them on the bar at the same time, the basic set is all you’ll need. Opt for the ones that are big and metal – the rubber or plastic ones do not fit on bars together well. Most big box stores like Target or Walmart, or even Amazon, will have Olympic weight sets, so check there. If you have a local fitness store, they often have both new and used weights as well.
You can also consider larger plates that are thinner – these are somewhat new to the market, intended to be used for Crossfit and the like. They enable people to deadlift without using the biggest and heaviest plates by virtue that all of the thinner plates are the size of the 45lb traditional weights. It’s something to consider if you’re considering that type of weight lifting activity.
Bands are great for beginners to strengthen their muscles, but they’re also highly effective for stretching and increasing endurance. Lower resistance bands – 2-5 pounds – are fantastic for stretching before and after a workout, and heavier bands – 25+ pounds – make for effective, powerful workouts themselves.
Simply affix the bands to your weight bench or loop the handles around your feet, and you can do a variety of exercises from tricep extensions to bench presses and rows. Bands are one of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can have in a home gym.
Resistance bands are also great for Pilates and yoga as well, to add a layer of resistance and strength training to stretches. They also help with those who cannot do work without band assistance, so they’re a very handy tool to have for your home gym.
If you’re serious about getting strong, squats are the exercise of choice. They work your quads and glutes and give you the biggest bang for your effort in terms of exercise. Strong quads make your whole body stronger, from your back to your abs, and can help you prevent injury to your knees and lower back.
With that said, however, you really want a squat rack for both safety and proper squat positioning. While they can be more on the expensive side, squat racks are hugely beneficial for a home gym. Not only do they allow for proper squatting form and safety, they can also be used with a weight bench to act as a spotter for higher-weight bench presses.
AIm for a steel squat rack with thick bars and peg holes to adjust the rack height. You’ll also want the Olympic barbells we spoke about above because squatting with smaller bars simply isn’t as effective. You can also use a squat rack to do good mornings, shoulder presses, and other upper body barbell exercises that need a chest-height staging area.
A seated bench with a bar that fits over your knees, a calf press machine allows you to focus weight training directly on your calves to really get that big pump you want. The best part of calf press machines is that they work with the Olympic plates you should already have, stacking them on top to increase the resistance and press you can achieve. Improving your overall strength through progressively overloading the bar, you can achieve significant gains in your calf strength and size by regularly using one of these setups.
Calf press machines are actually fairly small, taking up little more space than a chair, so they fit into just about any home gym with ease. Additionally, they’re not incredibly expensive, so they’re a nice addition to your weight setup.
Cardio has a profound effect on our mood and our health. A strong heart lowers blood pressure, resting heart rate, and improves mental health. Cardio equipment is a great tool for strengthening your heart, legs, and improving lower back pain.
One of the oldest pieces of gym equipment, the treadmill is a great way to increase your daily steps without having to leave the home. Just walking for 20-30 minutes a day on a treadmill is hugely beneficial for your body, and walking for 30-60 minutes a day will have a profound effect on your weight and well-being as you do it longer and longer.
Running is another great treadmill activity that allows you to pump your cardiovascular health and improve your lung function. Most treadmills also have an incline and speed function that allows you to run faster and harder, increasing your endurance over time.
You can get very basic treadmills that only run at a few speeds and track distance, but you can get higher-end ones that track your heart rate, calories burned, distance, and have different programs that continuously adjust incline and speed to mimic running distance outside. Some models will even allow you to race other people via wifi, or train you to go from couch to 5k with built-in systems. A treadmill is honestly the best piece of cardiovascular equipment you can buy for your home gym.
Less impactful on your joints than a treadmill, an elliptical lets you move your legs in oblong rotations that work your calves, quads, and glutes. Like a treadmill, these can have preset routines that mimic traveling over distance. Ellipticals also have a great strength-training component because they have poles that your hands grip, working your triceps and biceps like skis while you exercise. This increases the cardio aspect and improves your overall strength and fitness.
Probably the ultimate in cardiovascular conditioning equipment, stair climbers continually rotate a section of 5-6 stairs that you climb. Since climbing stairs in general causes a potent rise in cardiovascular output, stair climbers are great for getting stronger cardiac output in the shortest possible time.
Weight lifting sessions that are capped with a 5-minute session on a stair climber can burn tremendous amounts of fat and you’ll feel utterly toasted at the end, in a good way. One of the best parts of stair climbing machines is that they take up very little space in your home gym. Whereas treadmills and ellipticals take up floor space, ellipticals are effectively just towers, as you go continuously upwards rather than forwards. They’re a great and affordable addition to your home gym.
This equipment sits on the floor, where you grip the handles and push with your feet, pulling the handles to emulate the rowing motion of a boat. This works your legs, arms, and back, and provides a high-quality cardio workout at the same time. These will often have a screen with a video game-esque setup that allows you to race a computer or other people, connecting over wifi.
Rowing machines can be complex with lots of video game aspects, which appeals to some people, but they can also be very rudimentary and the good news is that both do the job quite well. Whichever you invest in, you’ll get a great workout that’s unlike any of these other cardio machines.
Rowing machines take up about as much space as a treadmill, only they’re a bit more narrow, so you can usually fit one of these in a smaller space if you don’t have room for a larger cardio machine.
There are other pieces of gym equipment that can be cardio, stretching, or resistance training gear, depending on how you use them. Let’s take a look at some of those.
These heavy-duty ropes connect to your weight rack and you whip one with one arm and then the other, creating a wave-like “dueling” motion. This is difficult to keep up for long, making it highly beneficial for your heart and arms, and it’s a very unique cardiovascular workout. You can get these with the width of 2 inches to 8 inches in some cases – the thicker they are, the heavier they are and the more intense your workout will be.
Made of heavy steel and with a handful of different pieces, these machines have a rotating central hub and multiple pulleys that allow you to stretch your back, arms, legs, shoulders, neck, and any other part of your body.
Functionally intended to warm you up or help stretch after working out to avoid injury, the machines can also provide a workout through resistance training. Stretching your muscles against a weighted resistance, even when you’re simply intending to stretch, does strengthen the muscle fibers, leading to gains in strength.
These machines feature a seat with an adjustable bar with a connected set of increasingly heavyweights that you push your torso against. Not only does this strengthen your abs, but it also helps your lower back muscles. In many cases, you can adjust the bar to go back and push backward to work your lower and middle back muscles exclusively. These are very good for people who have problems doing crunches or any other ab workout that requires you to lay on your back, as might occur with a lower back injury or sciatica.