Back in 2002, my high school built an entirely new “fitness center” – complete with shiny new barbells, racks and machines. It was great timing – I had just started my first off season with the football program, and I fell in love with the weight room. I loved learning new exercises, and I loved learning more about training. My team lived in the new weight room- much to the displeasure of the other sports teams. It was super nice – when it was open. Strangely, my school had a policy of shutting down the fitness center during long breaks such as Easter, Christmas and even during midterm exams. My school had off for two weeks for Easter, and close to a week and a half for Christmas. Not exactly the most consistent training environment.
Then one Christmas morning, Santa brought me a 210 lb weight set and a bench. I set it all up in the basement of my house, and home gym version 1.0 was born. A life goal was made- I now wanted (NEEDED) to build a gym in my own house! This gym would never close, I wouldn’t have to compete with other people for equipment and I could do whatever I wanted. It would be all mine. And it would be amazing.
Spoiler alert – I did end up fulfilling my wish. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was my garage gym. Since Black Friday is upon us, now is as good of a time as ever to walk you through how I would start a garage gym in the year 2015.
Where to Start
Any style of training can be done in a home gym, but unless your budget is not an issue, you will have to prioritize your equipment purchases. Make a list of “wants” and then circle the items that you deem a priority. Try to keep the priority items to a max of 3.
Regardless of your discipline, every home gym should start with a good barbell and some weights. Barbell training allows you to train every muscle and movement in your body, while easily scaling the difficulty higher (just buy more weight!) as you get stronger and stronger. If you can’t afford a rack, that’s OK! You can get creative in the meantime.
1) Get a good Barbell
My first barbell was a typical department store brand bar with a hex bolt holding the sleeves. Do not buy a barbell like this. They are usually very cheaply made and can break pretty easily. My barbell’s sleeves have detached from the shaft on numerous occasions. A nice starter barbell should run you anywhere between 250-400 dollars. This is where you should invest the most money from your budget.
Much like automobiles, barbells have many makes and models. Each model is made for a slightly different use, and barbells also have “upgrades” and bells and whistles that can cost hundreds more over a more vanilla model. Barbells come in zinc, chrome, and European steel. Just like an Italian sports car, the fancy barbells cost a lot of money!
The finish of the barbell will not help you lift more weight, but a more expensive finish will require less maintenance over the long haul. Bare steel will require frequent brushing and oiling, while chrome is virtually rust proof. Zinc is someone in the middle. Unless you train somewhere very humid, a zinc barbell should be just fine.
Besides the cosmetic differences, some barbells are constructed in a way to produce more or less spin. Spin refers to how freely the collars rotate around the shaft. There are two types of construction – bearing and bushing. Bearings are significantly more expensive – they allow the sleeves to spin effortlessly and have more moving parts. Bearings are not usually necessary for someone just starting out. They are only important if you are an experienced weightlifter or a Crossfit competitor. A bushing barbell is more than adequate – and much more budget friendly.
Unless you only want to bench, squat and deadlift, look for bumper plates. They are way more multi purpose than traditional iron plates, and your garage floor and your neighbors will thank you later. You don’t need to invest thousands for a set with fancy color codings and elite specifications. Look for the bulky black rubber ones. Thanks to the explosion of Crossfit, nearly every single equipment manufacturer sells them, and prices are a lot more competitive than years ago.
Since a good barbell should take precedence over fancy bumper plates, you may look to cut corners on the plates. What you can do is start with a pair of 45 lb plates, and gradually add more pairs as you can afford them.
3) Rack City
If you don’t really care about benching, you can make due without a rack for a while until you can afford one. Cleans, snatches, rows, strict press, front squats all don’t require a rack. Add some sets of push ups, and you can get in excellent shape with just a barbell and some weights. However, if your goal is to build a great home gym, you will have to eventually suck it up and buy a rack. There are two common styles of racks: a squat stand and a power rack. A squat stand is usually free standing, with two columns that have hooks to hold the weights. Many squat stands now come with pull up bars too, if you have the ceiling clearance. A power rack is usually bolted to the floor and has four columns all connected together at the top. Power racks are significantly more expensive, less mobile and more sturdy. I personally have a squat rack and I am able to do nearly everything I could do in a power rack. For a home gym, a squat stand allows more flexibility.
4) Other Stuff- Biggest Bang for your Buck
To supplement the basic barbell/weights/rack set up, there are some relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment that can be used for a variety of different purposes, making them perfect for home gym with limited space on a limited budget. Kettlebells fit that criteria perfectly. Kettlebells can be used for strength training in almost every circumstance a dumbbell can, but you can also use the kettlebell for conditioning circuits and faster, more explosive movements such as the clean, swing and the snatch. Another one of my favorite low budget purchases was a suspension trainer (think TRX or gymnastic rings), which allow a total body workout for a reasonable price.
Some other tips:
1) Look For Used
Looking for used equipment is the fastest and most economical way to build a home gym. Many Crossfit boxes, commercial gyms and regular people are selling like new stuff for a lot less than new prices You also save on shipping and tax if you find a local deal. I have personally sold a commercial grade squat rack and adjustable bench on Craigslist, while also purchasing my GHD and Airdyne bike. If you are willing to look, I think you will like what you will find.
2) Automating The Search
Technology can greatly increase your search efforts. Craigslist is flooded with used equipment listings every day, but the quality stuff does not last long. Leveraging a service such as IFTT (if this, then that) and Gmail will make sure you are the first to see a new post that fits your search criteria. This is a good starting point to learn more about the free service.
3) Recommended Brands
Like any other industry, people tend to have their favorite makes and brands. Fitness equipment is no different. I am personally partial to Rogue Fitness – everything I own from them feels like it would survive a nuclear war. Other companies that I have bought from and have had positive experiences with are Pendlay / MuscleDriver USA and Again Faster.
Cost vs Investment
Finally, I think it is better to look at a home gym in terms of investment vs cost. Cost is a very black and white way of looking at money. It also rarely leads to growth. Think about your long term health and wellness. Consider the time that you save each day not driving to the gym. Think about the feeling of accomplishment when you fit workouts in during a busy week when you know you otherwise would not have gone to the gym. The best way to create a new habit is to make it as easy as possible to perform the task you wish to make a routine. Nothing says easy like walking out into the garage and pressing play on your own playlist!
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