How to Build a Home Gym You’ll Actually Use

How to Build a Home Gym You’ll Actually Use

A home gym can be anything you want it to be—even a yoga mat in a corner of your bedroom counts. But if you’d like to build out a full-featured home gym, here are some tips (and my picks for equipment) to get you started. Because ultimately, while fancy equipment is nice, you want a home gym you’ll actually use.

Start slowly rather than buying everything at once

First, don’t think you have to buy everything at once. If you have a limited budget, just pick up the essentials, rather than trying to hunt down every component of your dream gym right now at rock-bottom prices. You can always add to it as you go.

If that means you have to go without a particular item for a while, that’s OK: Cheap gym gear isn’t always bad, but there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not built well, or that’s so gimmicky it isn’t worth it, and you’ll be better off waiting until your budget allow you to buy the right thing. For example, you’ll be a lot more likely to use a normal spin bike like this $US369 Sunny than this $US58 folding gadget that doesn’t have a comfortable seat or offer any serious resistance.

So if you don’t have a huge budget, build out your home gym in pieces. Maybe buy a bar and weights now, a squat rack and bench later, and a cardio machine next year. This lets you choose better quality stuff at each stage, and also gives you time to look for sales and find good deals on used gear.

Designate a space and choose the right flooring

Your home gym could be a part of one room, or it can take up an entire basement or garage. Outdoor gyms are also absolutely an option, as long as you make sure your stuff can stand up to the elements. (Consider some kind of roof for your outdoor space, and/or storing your things indoors when not in use.) 

In a typical garage gym, you’ll want some durable flooring that isn’t going to develop dents if you drop a deadlift. A platform made of multiple thicknesses of plywood is a great idea; the wood distributes the impact along a larger area than just where the weight hits. 

Whether you use a wooden platform or not, you’ll probably want some rubber flooring. Skip those cheap foam tiles that are sometimes advertised as home gym flooring (they don’t last, and are better suited to a playroom for your kids) and treat yourself to some horse stall mats. Yes, the classic choice here is literally the same thing people use in horse stalls. You can buy them from places like Tractor Supply for about $US50 for a 4×6 foot mat. These are what I have in my home gym: several in the garage making a more or less wall-to-wall floor covering, and then two more out in the driveway for when I do lifts outdoors. I even drive over them, and they’re fine. 

Get a good squat rack

If you train with barbells, don’t cut corners: Get yourself a nice squat rack, not just one of those bench press stations with the bench attached. (You will not be able to use it safely for squats or overhead presses, no matter how hard you try. Sorry.)

Make sure your rack has actual safeties or spotter arms. A lot of budget squat stands (like these) have a tiny little nub that the manufacturer implies you can use to set the bar down…sometime, somehow. That’s not good enough. The safeties on a squat rack are there for when you have 300 pounds on your back, you can’t make it up from your last rep, and you need to get out from under the bar ASAP. You’re not going to carefully set the bar down on a six-inch long shelf, even if the manufacturer calls it something like a “security structure.” 

(That said, you can just drop the bar onto the floor if your space and equipment allow, and if you’re comfortable with that maneuver. I do it all the time at my weightlifting gym. But in the confined space of a garage gym, I far prefer having a rack with good safeties.)

With a lot of racks, the safeties or spotter arms are sold separately. Make sure to budget for that if needed.

Get a real barbell

A lot of weight sets marketed for home gyms are too small, too flimsy, too much of a pain in the butt to use, or aren’t expandable beyond the weights that come in the box. For example, this is technically a barbell, but once you can lift more than 54 pounds it will be of no use to you at all, and suddenly you’re out $US129 and have to go barbell shopping again. 

Instead, look for barbells that are listed as “Olympic” (this means they have a normal two-inch sleeve, to match a two-inch hole in the plates). Get one that is a regular, seven-foot-long, 20-kilogram (or 45-pound) barbell. If you want an ez-curl bar or some other specialty bar, that can be a secondary purchase for later.

The only time I’d recommend getting anything other than a normal 20 kg bar as your workhorse is if you do a lot of snatches (hello, weightlifters and Crossfitters) and prefer a 15 kg  women’s bar

Make sure you get enough plates

When it comes to loading up that bar, you’ll need a reasonable amount of weight. I’d say a basic starter set should include: 

  • At least one pair of 45-pound plates (you can buy more later as you get stronger)
  • A pair of 25-pound plates
  • A pair of 10-pound plates
  • Two pairs of 5-pound plates
  • A pair of 2.5-pound plates
  • Optionally, a pair of 1.25-pound plates.

The two pairs of 5-pound plates are so you can make every reasonable weight jump from 45 pounds on up. If you only had one, you’d have no way to load 85 pounds. It’s actually okay to get either two pairs of 5-pound plates or two pairs of 10-pound plates; the plate math works out the same but the 5-pounders are usually cheaper.

Don’t bother with 35-pound plates, by the way. You can just load a 25 and a 10. 

If you want to do Olympic lifts or if you like to drop your deadlifts, consider buying bumper plates rather than iron ones. These are a consistent diameter no matter the weight, and they’re safe to drop (even from overhead) so long as your floor is reasonably sturdy. 

Buy enough dumbbells

It’s okay to skip the barbells (for now, at least) and build a dumbbell-based home gym. Just make sure you get enough weight. You’ll outgrow a pair of 25-pound dumbbells pretty quickly, for example. If you’re a beginner or a smaller person, dumbbells that go up to 50 pounds will be enough for a while. If you’re bigger or more experienced, you’ll want to look at sets that go up to somewhere around 100 each.

Adjustable dumbbells are a popular option to save space, but the good ones are often expensive. Watch for sales—they’re often available at deep discounts on big sale days like Black Friday. 

If you’re building your gym piecemeal, you may prefer traditional rubber dumbbells; buy some now that meet your current needs, and then add to your collection as you get stronger. Whichever you choose, do yourself a favor and get a nice rack to hold the dumbbells

Finally, there’s the other type of adjustable—the old school way of just loading your barbell plates onto a set of handles. If you choose this option, you’ll want a decent sized collection of five- and 10-pound weights (in multiples of four) and you probably won’t want to load anything bigger in diameter than a 25-pound iron plate. This is the cheapest and most versatile option, but probably the least enjoyable to use.

Consider a cardio machine

If you can’t afford a cardio machine yet, lace up your shoes and go for a jog (or put on some music and dance). But pretty soon you’ll find yourself wondering if you couldn’t just stay indoors on rainy or cold or sweltering days. If that option is calling you, treat yourself to a nice cardio machine. 

A spin bike would be my pick, but if you’re a runner, you might get more mileage (metaphorically) out of a decent treadmill. Remember to check the specs: some cheap treadmills don’t have a powerful enough motor to let you run at a reasonable speed, and are really just for walking. 

Here are some picks to get you started: 

  • For a bike: here’s a solid Sunny ($US369), or shell out for a Peloton (currently $US1,200).
  • For a treadmill: try the NordicTrack T Series ($US599)
  • For a rower: you can’t beat a Concept2 ($US1,299).

Choose the extras you’ll actually use

When it comes to bonus items like bands, kettlebells, sliders, and all the rest, keep the same strategies in mind. Buy the things you know you’ll use (or that you’re willing to put energy into learning) and aim for decent quality stuff rather than whatever looks like it offers the coolest gimmick or that folds up the smallest. 

If you like calisthenics and bodyweight moves, you’ll definitely want a pullup bar, whether that’s something you bolt to the wall, slip over a doorframe, or install on your squat rack. Gymnastics rings would be another good purchase. A bench (adjustable or flat) is a natural purchase for anyone who loves to bench press. 

One last thought on these smaller items: They’ll often be the first things you pick up when you step into the gym. I like to warm up with a kettlebell, and do some band pull-aparts before beginning my barbell workout. Having some things you can start using immediately—without having to load or adjust anything—can make a home gym a lot more welcoming.


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