Strength and conditioning has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. My dad built a shitty home gym in our basement, with a crappy standard weight set complete with concrete filled plastic weights. He made a pulldown rig with two pulleys, a cable, a PVC tube, a chain, and a few eyebolts. It was pretty ghetto, and not unlike the start of my home gym. I’ve been doing S&C through the years in various ways as supplements to sports I was in (wrestling, BJJ) and then as my primary focus over the last 4-5 years.
Over that time years, I’ve gone from Craigslist ghetto to well equipped, but knew from Day 1 that once I got rolling it would stay with me. I understand completely if making a home gym isn’t for you. Maybe you’re on the fifth floor of a walkup apartment in NYC. Maybe you don’t have the space. Maybe your office has a free gym you use, or you simply like getting out of the house to take care of business. That’s awesome. For me, I’m super busy and prioritize looking good naked and being healthy, so a home gym is a no brainer. I consider it an investment that will pay itself off many times over compared to gym memberships.
Building a home gym isn’t hard, it takes a little capital outlay, but once your set up you can add as little or as much as you want. It presents great and easy gift opportunities for my wife since there’s always something you can add, from $20 to $200, but the basics are there day in and day out. But here’s the minimum you need to set up a lifetime home gym that will last. I use every one of these things every week, without exception.
1. Bars and Bumpers
You can’t have a home gym without a decent olympic-style bar. I have a couple – a cheapish power bar by York, and a nicer Pendlay bushing olymipic bar. I use both every week. The other thing you’ll need are bumper plates. Steel is cheaper (roughly a $1 a pound, you can find on Craigslist or used sporting good stores), but bumpers offer much more versatility. Going overhead and dropping with any exercises or failed attempts, and they simply feel better moving around to me. You’ll likely spend between $450-600 on a bar’/bumper starter set from somewhere like Rogue, Muscle Driver USA, or Again Faster, or you can piece-mail it yourself. A midlevel barbell will do you well if you have nothing and should last forever, whether you’re doing Crossift type stuff or traditional powerlifting. You can supplement with steel as needed to get the weight you need. I don’t recommend getting 15 or 35# bumpers, stick with 10, 25, and 45#s. I have 400 lbs of bumpers and another 150 lbs of steel, enough for loading up both bars for some couplet workout of whatever type, or a workout with a friend which happens on occasion.
2. Horse Mats
Whether inside or in a garage, you need to protect those floors. A 4×6′ rubber horsemat (3/4 inch thick) will run you about $40 each at the farm implement store. Get at least two as a barbell is 7′ so you’ll want an 8′ wide area to lift. My area is 12’x8′ so I have four placed in a rectangle, with my squat rack taking up about a third to half of that area. Give them a chance to air out as they are stinky at first as they off-gas from the rubber.
A bench is a key lift for general strength, and one you need to do if you want to look hot in the summer. You don’t need an $800 rogue bench, but you need something fairly quality that I recommend has adjustments to incline. I have something like this Universal 5 Position Weight Bench for under $150, though you can find something similar on Craigslist usually for a fraction of the cost. While you can get one with the built in bench press arms, I recommend getting just a straight-up bench for flexibility and use of space, and use your squat rack for bench as well.
4. Squat Rack
A squat rack is something you can find on Craigslist too (usually) though quality will vary. I use something like below I got for $50 on Craigslist and it works fine. A full power cage would be even better, but this cheaper “U” style rack works 95% of the time, even when benching alone there are attachments that help if you fail (I know, I’ve failed multiple times and use them). But find what works for you. A friend of mine didn’t have a rack for years! He’d simply clean his weight up and front squat. I’m sure he was leaving gains on the table, but that’s an option only for the super cheap. Eventually he made a rack out of 4×4’s, so was both cheap and resourceful. For $120 in materials and some time you can build a wood rack too.
5. Pullup Bar
When I started I used a door frame bar which is ok, but if you have a real home gym, a real pullup bar like the one I use which is a basic wall mounted Rogue unit ($135). They have a more simply designed pullup unit that can go on ceiling joists or walls for a little cheaper ($120). They make good gear and the grip/powder coating feels a lot better on the hands than some of the homemade plumbing piping units I’ve used at cheap home gyms.
Dumbbells are probably underrated in the Crossfit world, but in the real world they are an important part of any home gym. Unlike barbell work that works a linear motion in most traditional weight work, dumbbells allow a variety of lateral movements that are important to prevent muscle imbalances. Flys, lateral raises of all types, dumbbell presses, farmer carries, dumbbell walking lunges, there are many things you can do with them. For a long time, I used a cheap adjustable pair exaclty like this, and then bought standard plates at garage sales or used sports stores for $0.50 a pound or less. They rattle around, come loose, and are generally a pain, but pretty dang cheap. If you have the money and lack the space, you can get a better designed flexible set like the Bowflex
or PowerBlocks. They are both $300, but actually good value since you’d need a plethora of individual dumbells at that cost to replicate the flexibility you get with those. Workouts like P90X rely on something like that, and if that’s what you want to do, I recommend following Coach Wayne at Team Ripped. I personally do not like either of those high end adjustable sets, and prefer to use traditional hex dumbbells you can find at Play It Again sports or garage sale or Craigslist. Expect to pay $1 a pound, if you find them for cheaper, snap them up. If you are starting to go this route, and are working on a budget, go with something like a 20 or 25, and maybe a 40 or 45 pound set. You can do a lot with those levels, lateral raises, presses, drop sets, walking lunges and so forth.
I love kettlebells. Like LOVE them. Last November I did 10,000 swings in the month. But you can use them for presses, snatches, cleans, goblet squats, walking lunges, Turkish get ups, and farmer carries. When I started out, I bought a 1 pood (26 pounds, 16 kg) bell. I quickly moved up to a 1.5 pood (54 lb, 25 kg) bell that is pretty versatile for conditioning or strength movements. Today I use a 2 pood (72 lb, 33 kg) for my swings, and am looking now for a 2.5 pood neighborhood (~90 pounds). If anyone knows someone at Onnit, I’d love a “review bell” of the BigFoot 2.5 pood bell. Sooo sweet! Expect to pay $2+/lb for kettlebells. And while you can find cheaper ones, the quality of a Rogue or Again Faster one is much better with the powder coating versus primer/paint/epoxy ones the cheaper suppliers give you. Trust me, I’ve got several different kinds and stick now to the higher quality ones for a little more.
8. Good shoes
Lastly, this isn’t so much a home gym feature, but equipment to give you success. You’ve probably all seen that guy squating in squishy tennis shoes. Ugh. Get good footware and you’ll notice a difference. I really only wear two pairs of shoes if I’m lifting, a hard-sole shoe like Chuck Taylor All-Stars or Indoor Soccer shoes, or lifting shoes like This. If you haven’t used lifting shoes, you may want to try, especially if your ankle flexibility is limited. They put you in better position for squatting, and are a must for any olympic lifts. Otherwise, a hard-soled shoe is a must as lifting in a floaty, squishy shoe is really unstable and can cause injury when you start loading. But you probably already knew that.
That’s it. Probably 95% of my home gym workouts use these items. Are they cheap? No, but you can compromise at first, but if you’re serious you’ll end up with a setup like I recommend. There are still things on my wishlist, but I too only have so much money and room to store everything, so this equipment hits my sweet spot. We were paying $150 a month for a Crossfit gym during some of the bigger investment in our home gym, and this approach has paid off multiple times since then. Again, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, it can be great. I love rolling out of bed, grabbing a cup of coffee, and be working out in a 5 minute window.