Some inherent advantages exist in attending a “Real” gym: accountability by your peers, social environment, well maintained gym equipment and usually a larger quantity of equipment. I attend a Crossfit gym once per week since I enjoy the community, mental attitude required and social aspects of working with like minded folks. A Crossfit gym differs in that the only machine’s you’ll see there are rowing machines. The rest of the equipment consists of kettlebells, barbells, metal and bumper plates, pullup bars, medicine balls, squat racks and stands and maybe a single bench. With that as a backdrop of what I consider a gym in line with my goals, most of my gains are done in my home gym.
My dad had a home gym in our basement growing up, which consisted of a cheapo weight bench, plastic weights filled with concrete, cheapo bar and dumbells along with a homemade pull-down machine made with pulleys and weights and chains… sort of medieval torture device looking. I messed around with the weights growing up, even having an “incident” as a child of probably 8 or 9 years old requiring a trip to the doctor, a butterfly bandage and my scrotum (I know, TMI), but I digress. It’s probably because of this youth environment that I’ve always most enjoyed gyms that are only a step or two removed from this home gym. Spartan. Poorly lit. More squat racks and benches than dreadmills. Some of my favorites even sported posters of old school body builders like Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Loved it. Men came in, did their shit and got out. These places weren’t for checking out yourself or preening for the ladies. My current gym is still a lot like that, and Crossfit gyms in general (and I’ve been to about 10 through various travel and events) have this spartan, ass-kicking vibe (though some douchery is present from members despite the physical facility layout and equipment). Focusing on free weights and a little space you can really build your muscles on a low budget.
When building a home gym, you start small and work up. Doing this is the fiscally responsible thing to do and slowly builds your body up. Plus, like any hobby or sport, there’s always more and better gear to buy and in doing so provides its own motivation to use it. To get started you don’t need anything but a little motivation and a pull-up bar, something cheap like this one (I started with and still use this <$20 one) you can temporarily mount on a door frame will do fine. Bodyweight exercises (think bodyweight squats, pullups, pushups, etc.) are a great place to start, and I’ll do entire posts on both body weight and actual weight workouts at some point, but for now want to focus on where to start your home gym.
If you want to do it right you need a bench and squat stands. Squats are a man maker and a booty maker (for the ladies). Doing a quick search on my local craigslist, I saw a half-way decent squat rack and weight bench for $100. You can go the cheapo route for a bench for less than $50 but if you think you’ll stick with it I’d make sure you get a bench that’s going to hold up, doesn’t need to be fancy or adjustable but sturdy. I think I found a bench, a bar and maybe 150 lbs of steel plates for $50 on Craigslist when I started out. This served me fine for the first several months when I knew I needed a better and more safe setup.
Squat stand prices vary, and I much prefer the sturdy nature of any sort of squat rack versus squat stands. A power rack/squat cage is the best and safest but not what I have as you’ll see below. You can find new squat stands/rack for under $100 (see here). You can find new basic built but functional cages like the one below for $250, but the more heavy duty you go, the more you pay. The cage is also a great place to bench if you purchased a plain, adjustable bench instead of one of the mass produced, narrow arm ones that are prevalent on Craigslist. Again start and make sure you’ll stick with it before you invest further… and always remember, Craigslist is your friend.
So now you have a pullup bar ($20), a Bench (say $50) and squat stands ($100). The last thing you need is steel! Ok, here’s a barbell lesson. There are essentially two main styles of barbells: Standard and Olympic. Standard style have 1-inch diameter bar and associated holes in the plate, and are typically much more prevalent in the home gym arena. They are usually poorer quality bars, have greater tolerances (more jangling), narrower and therefore hold less weight than Olympic. There is nothing wrong with this type for most home gyms, and I brought my set to work and still probably use it several times a month. Also, if you have a lower ceiling basement or garage, and want to do overhead work, the several inches gained by the smaller plates may be beneficial.
Olympic style is what you’ll see in high school, collegiate and most chain gyms. Typically these bars are 7 feet in length and weigh 45 lbs with end sleeves that are roller mounted allowing the tighter plates to spin when necessary. The sleeves and weight inner holes are 2 inches in diameter. Prices will vary from $50 to $300 for the bar.
Absent some Craiglist finds (which again are all over the place if you’re in a populated area and are patient) steel plates of either type will run you typically run between $0.50 to $1.00 per lb. I recommend you find them used (either Craigslist or places like Play it Again Sports have them). So if you plan to be squating or deadlifting 300 lbs in short order (and that’s a good amount of weight and something you may not need for a short while at least) you’ll be spending between $150-$300.
Where the fun really begins is doing Olympic movements (not to be confused with Olympic bars, though that’s where the bars get their names) or other movements where you may drop the bar. The “Olympic” lifts are Clean and Jerk and Snatch (wow, do both of those movements sound dirty!). If you plan to do this (staples in the Olympic training movement, including Crossfit), you’ll want bumper plates. These are high impact dense rubber plates that won’t destroy floors and have a little bounce. You can find these for just over a $1 a lb to $2 a lb, so more expensive than steel but more versatile as well. Until you get stronger at the Olympic lifts, you probably will need less than 200 lbs of bumpers and can supplement with steel (same size diameter). If you do these lifts, I’d recommend building a platform to further protect your floor and give you a nice surface to lift from. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a 4’x8′ plywood sheet in the middle and some horse mats on the side. You can find a number of resources like this to help you build your platform.
If you take my advice and build over time, you’ll generally accumulate all you’ll need to be “swole“. Depending on your location, your available space and your wife’s desires to not have your gear in the Living Room, I’d recommend a basement or a garage or outside for your gym. Each has their advantage/disadvantage.
- Basement: The Good: heated and cooled in appropriate season, likely access to outlets to put on your old Slayer and Metallica CDs. The Bad: possibly low ceiling heigh limits what you can do, noise may cause disruption to other house activities, finished basements need to protect floor and walls.
- Garage: The Good: higher ceilings, out of the way. The Bad: may require space for a car, not heated/cooled- so in the summer you’ll be sweating your nuts off and in the winter freezing your hands off, fewer outlets for music but if you find one it’s a good opportunity to introduce your neighbors to Slayer and Metallica.
- Outside: The Good: chance to show the neighbors how to lift, out of the way of anything interior. The bad: Subject to the elements, only available to warm-weather folks
Here’s my garage gym setup, nothing fancy and just enough space to get in what I need to get in among all the other stuff in our garage. Squat rack, bench, bumpers and bar, 45# kettlebell, rings, pullup bar, some standard weights/dumbells, Concept2 rower, lifting platform and jump ropes. The jack-o-lantern bucket is where I keep my chalk.
What goals you set are up to you. As you get into it, you can add more gear like my photo above. Things you may consider include a permanently installed pull-up bar (way better than door mounted), kettlebell(s), rings, maybe a rope, and some tires. I’ve been adding to my gym (and working out in it 3-4 days a week for the last year) slowly. I’m getting some tires next (for tire flips and to use for high-pull Olympic Lifting) and maybe a heavier kettlebell and a rope, but besides a real squat cage, my gym is pretty dang complete for what I use it for. For now, I’m following Outlaw Programming (a lot of Olympic Lifts but other heavy strength and conditioning sessions), but if you’re into gaining strength I’d recommend Starting Strength or Crossfit Football if you want to get strong and stay fit.
Final words: stay safe out there, use a spotter when needed, and have fun. The feeling after lifting or gaining five, ten, or twenty lbs of muscle, or getting that body you wanted (you too ladies, Holly’s ass has gotten even better after squatting!) is very, very satisfying though it takes effort to achieve.
EDITED NOVEMBER 2013:
My updated gym is below, we added a nicer Pendlay bushing barbell and another 160# in bumpers and a 70# kettlebell along with more space. Additional cost for everything (incl. new horsemats and plywood) was roughly $800.