How to Build an Awesome Home Gym
There are levels to this...
My last straw as a monthly fee-paying gym member involved a pair of stolen underwear. That’s as far as I’m willing to go with that story.
Gym horror stories are a well-known phenomenon. Commercial gyms leave much to be desired. Frequented by pumped-up gym bros or creepers, filled with broken or cluttered equipment and often exorbitantly priced, there’s plenty of reasons to avoid them.
After my underwear caper, I stopped going and never looked back. I’ve been a home gym-proponent for more than eight years, experimenting with different equipment and setups. Based on that experience, I’d like to share my current thinking about how to build the best home gym. Just where should you start?
Alex’s note: I’m not recommending any specific products in this guide.
Home Gym Level One: Bodyweight Baller
Suitable For: Bodyweight workouts
Space Needed: A doorway and enough room to fit your entire body
Equipment Needed: Yoga Mat, Pullup Bar
Minimum Cost: About $50
A beginner bodyweight setup won’t cost you much. The yoga mat isn’t just for yoga…it’s great for doing any sort of exercise or stretch where you’re seated.
The most important piece is finding a pullup bar. There are a lot of options here: you can buy one that fits in a doorway, get a larger piece of equipment that stands up in a garage or shed, or even build one in your backyard! I’ve actually had all three over the years. If you are renting, keep in mind that a doorway pullup bar might damage your door frame.
Optional Equipment: Ab wheel, pushup handles/parallettes
An ab wheel is one of the few ab-related products I’d recommend. In general, I believe in targeting the abs as a secondary muscle through other exercises (ex. pullups), but I’ve found the ab wheel to be a good, inexpensive way to get some supplementary core work in.
Some people like the feel of doing pushups with handles, and they do allow you to go slightly deeper. For me, gymnastic parellettes are the slightly better piece of equipment, but they will cost significantly more than a good set of handles. The upside is, in addition to using them to get deeper on pushups, you can use them for other, advanced bodyweight exercises, like L-sits.
Home Gym Level Two: Kettlebell Crusher
Suitable For: Learning kettlebell basics; workouts on the go
Space Needed: Enough space to swing the kettlebell
Equipment Needed: One kettlebell
Minimum Cost: $30
If you feel like you’ve mastered bodyweight workouts and are looking to step it up a notch, why not level up your home gym with a kettlebell? Kettlebells are great for both building strength and endurance. In fact, you can do an entire workout with one kettlebell.
One other great thing about kettlebells? They’re highly portable. You can take them to the park or with you to visit family. You can take them outside when the weather’s nice. You’ll never be without workout equipment again.
I recommend starting with basic kettlebell swings, so you’ll want a weight that you feel comfortable swinging. This video gives some good advice on selecting a kettlebell, and I encourage you to go to a store instead of buying online. Try out both swings and presses and make sure you’ve got the weight that’s right for you.
Optional Equipment: More Kettlebells
I started with a 20 pound kettlebell many years ago, but got progressively stronger on both swings and cleans. You can upgrade down the road and add to your collection. They’re easy to shove in the corner of a room, garage, closet…wherever.
Home Gym Level Three: Dumbbell Devotee
Suitable For: Strength and endurance workouts with weight
Space Needed: Part of a room, garage or shed
Equipment Needed: Flat bench, starter set of dumbbells
Minimum Cost: $275
This is where it gets more expensive, but if you want infinite options for your strength workouts, there’s nothing better than dumbbells.
As someone who used to swear by barbells, I’m fully #TeamDumbbell for those of us over 40. They allow your body a greater range of motion and they are safer. Stuck and can’t move the weight? Just drop them.
For an adequate dumbbell workout, you’ll need a flat bench. While adjustable benches may look enticing, I’ve had a few over the years and found the consumer-grade ones to be flimsy. A flat bench gives you the ability to do simple dumbbell exercises like chest and shoulder presses, and doubles as a step platform.
In terms of weight, I’d recommend two initial purchases: a set of light dumbbells (8/10/12, or 5/8/10 depending on your strength level), as well as a heavier pair that you can use for presses and leg movements (anywhere between 15 and 30 pounds to start, again, dependent on your strength level).
As you get stronger, you can add to the collection. At which point, you might need…
Optional Equipment: More dumbbells, dumbbell rack
Funny story! I’ve had a dumbbell rack in a box in my garage for nearly ten months. I swear, I’m putting it together soon, dear.
Home Gym Level Four: Heavy Bag Hero
Suitable For: Boxing and/or kickboxing workouts
Space Needed: Part of a room, garage or shed
Equipment Needed: Heavy bag, gloves, wraps and a stand/rack
Minimum Cost: $275
Boxing and kickboxing are excellent all around workouts, as well as an amazing stress release. Tough day at work? The heavy bag is waiting for you. I’ve also personally noticed that boxing helps me with hill climbing on my bicycle.
The easiest option here is one of those freestanding bags (like a Wavemaster) with a base at the bottom where you insert water to keep the bag standing. I’ve used these before, and while they are functional, the downside is they are harder on your hands, as the part that you are hitting and kicking is really just a piece of foam that’s positioned on a hard, plastic base. You’ll definitely want to use hand wraps under your gloves if you go this route.
If you purchase a more traditional heavy bag, you’ll have to find a way to hang it. I’ve currently got mine on a heavy bag rack. I don’t recommend this. It limits your ability to use the bag for kickboxing, and it’s not as stable as hanging it from the ceiling.
The ideal setup for a heavy bag would be hanging from the ceiling in a garage. If you’re not handy around the house, I suggest hiring someone to hang it for you, as it has to be properly anchored to a support beam in your ceiling.
Heavy bags come in multiple sizes, so you’ll want to choose the size that’s right for you: