Starting a Home Gym

When I read through gun communities, I’m happy to see more talk about the importance of physical fitness. Threat assessment is something humans tend to be poor at doing. Case in point, there are a lot of people who choose to carry a firearm for self-defense, which is a smart response to the threat of physical violence. However, many if not most of those people have a terrible diet, do little if any physical training, and/or exercise poor sleep hygiene. Diet, exercise, and sleep are your best defenses against ailments like heart disease. Even though the statistics of suffering from a heart condition are significantly greater than being faced with physical violence, most people (in general, not just amongst those who carry a firearm) don’t bother to address that threat.

I’ve had some manner of home gym since at least 2016 (those are the earliest exercise logs I found). My first home gym was a couple of kettlebells, a small clearing in my tiny apartment living room, and a door frame pull-up bar. Besides the addition of a few kettlebells, it didn’t change much until I bought a house. When my wife and I bought our house, I set aside a space in the unfinished utility room to be my home gym. I laid some rubber matting over the concrete floor and acquired a standalone pull-up bar (technically it’s a half rack, but I wouldn’t trust it with my weight). Over time I added more kettlebells and this year I finished phase one, which was to expand the size, complete my kettlebell set, and add some adjustable dumbbells.

Since I started with a very modest setup, I thought that I’d write some advice on starting your own home gym.

Let me start by addressing an obvious question, why would you want to start a home gym. The answer is, you might not. If you live close to a nice gym, you might be better served getting a membership there. I can tell you why I started a home gym though. If these answers resonate with you, you might be well served by starting one too. When I decided that I need to start exercising, I did an honest analysis of myself. This analysis left me facing to criteria. First, I knew that if I had to drive to get to a gym, I’d inevitably use that as an excuse to skip workouts. If my gym was in my living room, that excuse was immediately off of the table. Second, I’m impatient. Waiting for my turn at a piece of equipment would drive me nuts. This is especially true when I’m busy and want to crank out a workout quickly so I can get on to other things.

My two biggest reasons for starting a home gym was to eliminate two excuses that I knew I’d eventually make to skip a workout: having to drive and having to wait in line. Both ultimately boil down to time. I would use the classic excuse of “being too busy.” There are other advantages to a home gym besides saving time. Gym memberships are a reoccurring expense. When you buy equipment for your home gym, you own it. There’s no reoccurring expense unless you decided to upgrade (with the exception of machines requiring maintenance). The monthly gym fee is cheaper in the short run, but in the long run a home gym is cheaper. Another advantage of a home gym is that you make the rules. Different gyms have different rules. Gyms that cater to casual exercisers (which are sometimes the only gyms available in an area), like Planet Fitness, have rules to foster a casual atmosphere. You can absolutely get fit at those gyms, but their rules aren’t conducive to certain types of behavior like grunting loudly when lifting, yelling when you make a personal best, or slamming weight down. You can grunt, yell, and slam weights down all you want in your home gym (this may not be true if you’re living in an apartment on floors two or up). Along with picking the rules, you also get to pick the music. I enjoy the freedom of cranking up Iron Maiden or Ex Deo during a workout without having to wear headphone.

Now that you’ve thought about the advantages and decided a home gym is right for you, you need to ask a simple question: what resources do you have to work with?

What you have to work with will determine the type of home gym you can build. The first resource you need to consider is money. The more money you have, the more equipment you can buy. If you’re looking at your bank account and feeling like you can’t afford to get gains, worry not. You don’t need a lot of equipment or any equipment at all to get gains. Equipment opens up options. As I will note below, you can start a home gym with nothing but yourself. My equipment recommendations will assume you’re impatient and want to get your gym started as soon as possible. Therefore my recommendations are based on buying new equipment rather than hunting for good deals on used equipment. If you’re patient, used equipment will save you a lot of money, but at the cost of delaying your home gym setup. My opinion is to strike while the iron is hot. If you’re interested in starting a home gym right now, get equipment right now before that interest wanes. Once you have a basic home gym and are using it consistently, start searching for deals on used equipment to expand your setup. With that caveat out of the way, let me begin.

Let’s start with budget. If money is extremely tight, you may want to focus your training on calisthenics (body weight exercises). Your body is actually an excellent platform by itself. When I have to fly somewhere, I can’t realistically bring a kettlebell with me. I’m of the opinion that doing something is better than doing nothing so if I don’t have access to equipment, I will do calisthenics. No equipment is necessary for calisthenics so there’s no upfront cost. If you’ve got a few bucks to spare, you can enhance your calisthenics workouts with a pull-up bar and a pair of gymnastic rings, both of which are cheap. Gymnastic rings can be hung from a pull-up bar. While a door frame mounted pull-up bar isn’t ideal for hanging gymnastic rings, I can confirm from experience that they do work (you just have bend your knees for things like ring holds). If you have a bit more money to spend, buy a set of resistance bands. Resistance bands are extremely versatile and you can recreate a lot of weighted exercises with a bit of creativity. During my next flight, I plan to bring my resistance bands so I can get a solid workout in my hotel room if the hotel doesn’t have any strength training equipment.

If you have $100 to spend, I recommend investing in a kettlebell or two. As of this writing, for $100 you can get a kettlebell up to 24 kg in weight from Rep Fitness and Titan Fitness. Both sites offer good quality kettlebells and free shipping. I would recommend against cheaper kettlebells like the enamel coated ones on Amazon. Often the handles aren’t finished well and have protrusions that can make them uncomfortable to use. With that said, if that’s all you can afford, they’re far better than nothing. On his podcast Dan John has mentioned that he find a 20 kg kettlebell to be a good starting weight for most men. I started with a 20 kg kettlebell and agree with his assessment based on my experience. Kettlebells are versatile. You can use them for both strength training and conditioning. You can use them in very tight spaces. You can easily carry them outside and enjoy a workout in your backyard when the weather is nice. In my opinion, kettlebells are the best bang for buck you can get when it comes to workout equipment. Dumbbells are another option if money and/or space are right. Keep in mind that you typically want to buy dumbbells in pairs whereas many kettlebell programs are designed for a single kettlebell.

If you have $500 to spend, my recommendation remains the same except I will suggest buying a set of kettlebells that include at least one each of 16 kg, 20 kg, and 24 kg (if there are any women reading, you will probably want to chop those weights down by four to eight kilograms). Dumbbells become a more attractive option at $500 since you can accord to buy several pairs or you can buy a set of PowerBock Elite EXP adjustable dumbbells and have money left over. I own a pair of these and really like them. They’re not as awkward to work with as they look. There are also expansion plates available that let you take each dumbbell up to 90 pounds.

If you have thousands of dollars to spend, the sky is the limit. At that point your main consideration becomes space rather than budget so let’s talk about environment. If you don’t have a lot of space to work with (which I didn’t when I started), you may want to focus on equipment that can be used in tight spaces. If you live in an apartment, you may be limited in what you’re allowed to install. Management might be upset if they see a power rack bolted through your floor or a deadlift platform in your living room. You’ll also want to be conscientious towards your neighbors (assuming you like or are at least neutral towards your neighbors). Unless you’re on the ground floor, dropping a weight onto an apartment floor is likely to agitate the downstairs neighbors. Especially if you do it habitually.

Everything I mentioned above: pull-up bars, gymnastic rings, resistance bands, kettlebells, and dumbbells can all be used in tight spaces. Barbells require a wide enough space to accommodate the bar and enough space for a bench and at least a half rack. You can still do a barbell setup in a pretty small space though. Machines are space hungry. My wife’s elliptical takes up a good chunk of space. Treadmills, air bikes, rowing machine, and other cardio oriented machines typically have sizable footprints. Strength training machines also tend to be space hungry. If you want to include machines in your home gym, you’ll want a room that you can dedicate to it. Keep in mind that there are wall mounted half racks that can be folded up when you’re not using them and a lot of benches are designed to be stood upright when not in use. That allows you to reclaim space when you’re not working out. If you have a large space like a shed or a garage (assuming you don’t already put vehicles in it), you can pretty much get whatever you can afford.

You can start a home gym with very little money and space. Obviously more money and space brings more options. But don’t be discouraged from setting up a home gym just because your budget is tight or because you live in an apartment.