There’s a little game I like to play sometimes, and it seems to be popular with other folks who tend to work out at home: What equipment would I buy if I were starting a new home gym from scratch? Or you can play the advanced version: if you already have (insert common items here), what would you buy next?
This question gets a bit more practical around the holiday season, when maybe someone is hoping to buy you the next thing you need, or you’re looking ahead to your January resolutions. So whether you’re outfitting your own home gym or looking to buy something special for the gym rat in your life, here are some of the top things to consider. We’ll start with space- and budget-friendly items, then move on to some bigger-ticket buys.
If I had to put together a home gym from scratch, I think I would start with two kettlebells: one light enough to strict press or snatch, and one heavy enough to make swings and goblet squats challenging. (If I had a smidge of extra cash, I’d buy them as adjustable kettlebells, like these from Titan, so they could get heavier as I got stronger.)
Pulling exercises are some of the hardest to improvise outside of a gym (although if you took my advice about kettlebells, you could do rows with those). A pullup bar barely takes up any space in your doorway, but it opens up a ton of possibilities.
Cardio is good for you. I keep telling myself this, and I’m almost starting to believe it. With a spin bike, you can do intervals or steady state work while staying comfortably indoors when the road outside is dark, or wet, or icy. The price range of options here is wide: you can splurge on a top-of-the-line Peloton or go for one of the budget bikes (like a Sunny) that are less than a fifth of the price.
Dumbbells are a great way to lift weights at home. They’re smaller than a barbell, less specialised than a set of kettlebells, and you can do a ton of different workouts with them.
As with kettlebells, you’ll need to decide if you want to get a few pairs at specific fixed weights (cheaper to start), or go for a pricier adjustable set. Powerblock and Bowflex are the fancy kind, if you have the money but want to save space.
If you’re into powerlifting or weightlifting, or just want to go heavy in your general strength workouts, there’s really no substitute for a good ol’ barbell. “Standard” bars with a one-inch hole are common in budget sets, but your purchase will have more longevity if you opt for an “Olympic” style bar with two-inch collars. Get a 20 kg or 20-kilogram bar unless you have a specific reason to get something else.
Iron weight plates
You’ve got a few options for plates — we’ll discuss another in a minute — but iron plates are the classic choice. They’re sturdy, appropriately heavy, and up to almost any job. Get any kind that appeals to you: regular metal plates, plastic-coated ones, vintage-style deep dish. Anything but hex plates.
Not everyone needs bumper plates, but if you’re one of those people who does, skip the iron plates entirely and go for the good stuff. Bumper plates are essential for Olympic lifts (the snatch and the clean and jerk) and they’re also nice to have for other lifts, like deadlifts. In general, the cheapest kind are made of black or crumb rubber and are labelled in pounds; expect to pay a premium if you want them in kilos with international standard colour-coding.
Squat rack or power cage
You know you’ve Made It as a home gym owner when you have your own squat rack. Consider the amount of space you have available, since some racks require tall ceilings and all require a good bit of space around the sides so you can get to the bar to change the plates. There are folding racks, half racks, and full racks. You can also go the DIY route with one of those concrete-bucket-and-lumber squat stands everyone was using during lockdown. (I still have mine! They’ve held up great.)
If you have dumbbells or want to do any sort of bro workout, you’re going to need a bench. I’m more a barbell person, so I just got a flat bench that can fit in my rack when I want to bench press. But people who do more dumbbell work often prefer a sturdy adjustable bench that can be configured for incline or upright seated work.
Throw a band on your pullup bar and you have a way to do assisted pullups; hold a band in your hands instead and you can do band pull-aparts. Bands are also a great addition to your barbells if you don’t have quite enough plates (or if you’re a fan of conjugate training, in which case you’re probably already putting bands and chains on everything that isn’t nailed down.)
My first choice for a cardio machine is the bike, as mentioned earlier. But if you want another device, I’d vote for a rower. Rowers involve your full body, and they’re great for interval training. The Concept 2 is probably the best-known brand here. (Not a rower person? My third choice would be a treadmill.)
Sandbags are the underappreciated workhorses of many a home gym. Sand is dirt cheap — almost literally — but expect to pay a few bucks for a really quality fabric sandbag to put it in. (That said, you can DIY this, and we have instructions.) Start with a bag that weighs maybe half as much as you do, and practice picking it up, carrying it, and generally doing anything people do with weights. Yes, you can even press it overhead if you’re careful. If that’s all too easy, go for a bag that weighs as much as you do, or more.
A box is a handy thing to have around, and one of the few things I’ve always wanted in my home gym but never found the space for. With one box, you can do box jumps or box squats. With two, you can do dips or stand on top of them and set up a belt squat. The possibilities are endless.
If you’re shopping for the person who has everything, I’ll tell you what they don’t have: another specialty bar. After a normal barbell, a typical next purchase is a safety squat bar. You could also go for an axle, which is great for practicing strongman events, or a cambered or duffalo bar (honestly, I’m not sure why powerlifters love these so much, but they do). A dedicated deadlift bar is perfect for the deadlift specialist in your life, and a football bar or swiss bar gives you lots of options for pressing. A log is great for the spoiled strongman or strongwoman in your life, or an EZ-curl bar for the bodybuilder.