If you live in a small space, you may think your at-home exercise options are limited to no-equipment, mostly bodyweight workouts. However, a suspension system or a couple of dumbbells can open the door to a ton of new exercises without taking up a ton of space or stretching your student budget. Illustration by Angelica Alzona. Suspension trainer photo by The U.S. Army. Resistance band photo by Dave Crosby. Dumbbell photo by WilsonB.
Before you decide on your apartment fitness solution, take stock of all your workout options. You may be able to use your university's gym for free or cheap, for example. But if the gym is far away, always busy or not open convenient hours, that's when it makes sense to have your own equipment. Ready to go shopping? Let's check out your best options.
Space Requirements: Since it's just a set of straps, the kit folds up into a tiny package. To use it, you'll need to set it up on a sturdy anchor, typically a closed door and have a space in front of the door where you can work out.
Exercises You Can Do: Signature moves include plank and push-up based exercises where the trainer is your unstable platform. You can also do pulling exercises like inverted rows, and core exercises with your feet suspended. Leg exercises are mostly variations on body weight squats, but that includes some killer one-leg versions.
Suspension trainers are among the most portable exercise kits out there, with a ton of options for exercises to do. The key is finding a good anchor point. You can use a doorway if your housemate is OK with that, or install an anchor in a wall or ceiling if you're allowed. You can also use a suspension trainer outside, if you can find a good tree or railing to attach it to. You'll be putting a lot of weight on your anchor, whatever it is, so choose wisely.
Cost: $30 will get you a good starter set, like this one with three different bands.
Space Requirements: The bands fold up small enough to fit into your pocket. Any space that works for no-equipment exercises will be fine for resistance bands, too.
Exercises You Can Do: Bands are really versatile. Pull with both hands for a great arm and back workout, or step on the band and pretend it's a barbell -- instant deadlift. You can even use them to add resistance to a push-up.
Bands come in different thicknesses, typically colour-coded within a set. When buying bands, you'll have your choice of shapes: Flat sheets, circular bands that will remind you of a giant rubber band or rubber tubing that's typically attached to a handle. Some sets come with clips, so you can attach the band to an ankle cuff. All of these options work well, but you'll want to make sure you can do your favourite exercise with the bands you get. That's a good argument for picking out a workout to try, before going shopping for bands.
Cost: Varies widely depending on the weight and type. You can splurge on a $329 adjustable set that ranges from 2.3kg to 24kg in each hand, or expect to pay around $4 per kilogram for standard iron dumbbells.
Space Requirements: A set of dumbbells takes up as much space as, well, a set of dumbbells. The more sets you have, the more space you'll need to find. Unless you have a ton of weights -- not likely in a small apartment -- you can probably just get away with shoving them under your bed.
Exercises You Can Do: Nearly all your favourite free weight exercises from the gym! Even if you usually do an exercise with a barbell, it's not hard to use dumbbells instead. Deadlifts and bench presses, for example, work fine with dumbbells.
The hardest part of buying dumbbells on a budget is deciding which weights to buy. Pricey adjustable sets solve that problem, but if you're buying single dumbbells, you have to pick the ones that will be the most versatile. Consider picking a weight that feels heavy but doable for small exercises like bicep curls, and a heavier set that works for bigger exercises like bench presses or adding weight to squats and lunges. For me, that would be maybe a 7kg set, and a 14kg set. As you get stronger, the same weights will be less challenging, but you can compensate by adding more reps.
Dumbbells are more expensive than resistance bands or suspension trainers, and they can be a pain to lug around on moving day, but they're great for folks who love doing free weight exercises at the gym, and want to do the same at home. Dumbbells are also a great way to add weight to lunges and squats.
Still have some room in your mini home gym budget? Here are some more items that can be useful, either as accessories to the equipment above, or as items that are nice to have on their own:
- Pull-up Bar: If you love your pull-ups, consider installing a bar -- but be sure you have a secure place to hang it. You probably won't be able to drill holes to attach one permanently, but you may be able to use a bar that hangs on to the door frame.
- Yoga Mat: In addition to yoga, a mat can also be your base for other floor exercises like push-ups, planks and stretching. Rolled up, a yoga mat makes a great stand-in for a foam roller. Use it for strength exercises or for massaging your sore muscles.
- Skipping Rope: Don't actually skip rope in your tiny crowded apartment (you'll only make that mistake once), but if you have a good outdoor or basement space, this can be an easy way to work in a little cardio.
- Swiss Ball: Trust me, you won't have the discipline to inflate it and deflate it for every workout. But if you like to use a ball as a desk chair, or if you can wedge it under your bed, a Swiss ball can add to your workout. Use it for ab exercises, or in place of a bench for bench presses and seated exercises (the instability helps to work extra muscles).
Ultimately, your choice of equipment depends on what exercises you like to do, and what you have the space and the budget for. It's possible to get a good workout with almost anything, but cheap and portable systems like resistance bands and suspension trainers are perfect for small apartments and other small spaces.