Building your Home Gym

I wish I could say this nicely, but I hate commercial gyms. I can’t stand public training facilities. Since 1971, the bulk of my training has been in my backyard, my garage or my porch. When you add up the commute time, the gym fees and the hassle of dealing with some zit backed teen who slimes every flat surface in the facility, I prefer to stay home.


I started small. I had my Sears Ted Williams 110 pound weight set and all the spare weights from the neighborhood. In the tenth grade, I could Incline 182 ½ pounds because that is all I had to work with on my porch. I had more flies (the buzzing kind) than pounds. In 1991, the best gym I ever trained in closed and I started again with an Olympic bar, two 35 pound plates and two 25 pound plates. Oddly, I made progress.


Having a perfect home gym might take a few years. In fact, I think it is a mistake to equip your gym too well in the beginning. You want your gym to “grow” as you know you can commit to more and more work. Having a perfect home gym from the start will look pretty when you give tours, but you might never use anything. When it is coming out of your pocket, it helps to “know” that you are going to use a piece of equipment.


Outfitting a home gym, your perfect gym comes down to Cost to Benefit. If you are an elite Olympic lifter, you might want to have the finest barbell in the world, but, if you are like me and only lift in a few meets a year, a klunker works pretty good.


With the fear of sounding cheap, most of the equipment you might own for your perfect home gym is usually borrowed, bought at discount or rigged together with your own hands.


My gym is filled with borrowed, discounted and rigged together training tools. Men’s Health called it “America’s Top Gym.” So, I must be on to something.


The PERFECT GYM is going to be a little about taste. Some of us like movies in black and white with a crying clown. I don’t. There is no right or wrong here, so let’s simply look at what I want and feel free to add and subtract.


The Basic Basics:

An Olympic barbell: if you are pressing, squatting or deadlifting, you need one. How much weight you need is a good question. For the home gym where you train by yourself, you are going to find that for a number of reasons, you might need less than you think. I err on the side of safety training alone. I strive to make every lift in the plan and never miss.


One other thing: when you train at home, you have expensive stuff close to you. For years, I trained with my wife’s brand new car right behind my platform. If I missed a lift or bounced the plates, it would hit the car. I don’t fear missing lifts, I fear my wife.

A Kettlebell. For things like Goblet Squats and Swings, it is hard to replace the KB. I have fourteen in my gym now, but I train groups at my house. For most of us, one is pretty good and maybe a few pairs of KBs for doubles work would be good, too.


Originally, I only had one 28 Kilo Kettlebell and I tried to master all the moves on this one bell. It was far too heavy for some of the movements, but it was great for the swing (I still use the 28 for most of my swing work), the press and the Goblet squat. I am sure you can do much of the KB world with other equipment, but KBs have one big advantage: you can take one out to a field or park and train with it. My 28 and I have had many adventures and it sits right behind me in my car.


TRX or some kind of similar setup. I like the vast number of pulls I can do with the TRX. I can make things easier or harder with a step and I really can play with some of my weak areas. So, for me: the T, the Y, the I and the single arm rows make this indispensible. For outdoor training, this and your KB can turn any place into a full workout gym. I have four TRXs in my gym and two Rip Trainers. When not in use they take up very little space.


Ab Wheels. I get the cheap ones at Ross Dress for Less for ten dollars in mid-January. About two weeks after New Years is the best time to buy lower end gym equipment. The ab wheel is the absolute king of full body tension and it can help your pull up power and counter the effects of lots of hinging. Recently, I got the big steel version from Sorinex as we tend to break the plastic ones often. It has rollerblade wheels and can support multiple large people without fear of smashing the face on the floor.


Good stuff that you might consider.


I don’t have a bench in my gym. It takes up a lot of space and most people just don’t need to bench as much as we think. I do have squat racks, but one could certainly just clean the bell up and do squats like the old timers a century ago. I have a Pull Up/Dip combo and it has certainly proved its worth.


These three (bench, racks, and pull up/dip rack) can be expensive and take up a lot of space. This is where the “perfect gym” is always going to be an issue: the trade offs. I like a lot of ground in my gyms: the floor is an often forgotten area to train. Since the onset of machines, and this isn’t a knock on them although I don’t use them, most gyms try to cram every square inch with crap. Our floors are for Olympic lifts, Turkish Get Ups, rolling (foam and tumbling), corrective work, mobility and flexibility work.


Space is precious in most home gyms, so use it wisely.


I like everything to have a place, so I invested in a rack to hold my Kettlebells. You could do without one, but it sits right against the wall and takes up very little space. I always have at least fourteen bells in the gym the three shelves hold them all. I would also recommend plastic bins to hold any kind of thing like pads, foam rollers, ab wheels or anything else that will tend to clutter up the place.


I have a long rope in the backyard that serves a dual purpose. It is mounted fairly high up a tree for rope climbing but it extends far down the yard, too. You can train the Battling Ropes method and still get the best ab workout I know pretending to be Tarzan. Rope climbing is still the most underrated training tool I know. Next to the rope, off of another branch, I hang two rings. We do a variety of things from simple pull ups (the rings rotate into a place that seems to save the elbows) to a bunch of Crow’s Nests and other gymnastic moves. Nothing too fancy, but it is an excellent and fun method of developing grip and core strength.


Bret Contreras kindly sent me a Hip Thruster machine and I’m not sure how I ever trained without it before now. It is simple, yes, but you can really work the hinge movement hard (and safely) and develop wonderful buns. At least, that is what people tell me after I walk past them. I tend to only use bands with this, but we are set up to load it with barbells and weights.


Marc Halpern brought us three bags. One weighs 25 pounds, the next is 50 and the big one is 80. I love bag carries, especially in the Bear Hug. A great little workout is “Bear/Bear” where you carry the heavy bag in a bear hug for a ways, drop it and Bear Crawl back. Then, Bear Crawl back to the bag and Bear Hug it back. These bags are very inexpensive, you can use salt bags for water softeners as weight and toss them in a duffel bag. How you train with them is only constrained by your imagination.


Mike Rosenberg sent me Farmer Bars in 2001 and they have been part of my gym since that time. They are simply the best. Now, for most of us, just do your Farmer Walks with either KBs or the Trap Bar. I use this loading for Farmer Walks with Trap Bars:

Up to 135 pounds, 135.

135 to 185, 185

186-205, 205.

Over 205, 225 pounds.


I know it is simple, but it works very well. Trying to get two Farmer Bars to be loaded evenly is oddly hard (the math is one thing, trying to get it all to balance is another), so just load up the Trap Bar and walk away.


I use every piece of equipment for carries, but I think the Trap Bar is worth the money for Farmer Walks.


I also have an inexpensive vibration plate. I’m not sure about whether it clears my lymphatic system or not, but this thing sure makes stretches better. One knee on the plate makes for the best Hip Flexor stretch I know.


I use PVC for making practice Scottish Hammers and Parallettes Bars. I need to make another Slosh Pipe again as “some people” break them by dropping them on the ground. I love making my own equipment and many of the ideas are absolute idiocy, but it is fun. My first sled was a broken wheelbarrow loaded with concrete. Today, I have a nice fancy one and a Prowler, but nothing was as fun as sprinting with the rusty old wheelbarrow scraping the earth with the noise of a fighter jet. Alas.


For music, I like Pandora. I put it on “The Who” and it tends to have a nice mix for us. Recently, I bought a nice speaker with a Bluetooth connection provides plenty of sound. When I train alone, I listen to Torme, Sinatra, and Jobim. You also need to cover the walls with white boards to record thoughts and ideas and maybe even the workout. A clock or two is also helpful and my friends are great at providing fun stuff for the wall.


My gym is a “No Eye Wash Zone.” That’s MLB talk for “no bullshit.” Equipment is important, of course, but without discipline and enthusiasm, it just doesn’t matter.


Bear Crawls and You

If I told you about a great training idea that was free and readily available, you might wonder what the catch is to this deal. Let me tell you this: for “conditioning,” whatever that means now, and basic upper body strength training nothing might beat the wrestling and football standard drill, the Bear Crawl.


It’s simple to teach: put your hands on the ground and keeping just your toes and hands in contact with the earth, crawl forward like a bear. If that was all you did, that would be pretty good. It is inefficient for us to move like this, so there is a caloric burn, but breathing is also difficult and you need to aggressively move your spine to simply see where you are going.


I have a few suggestions to turn this simple move into a fun finisher or quick workout when you don’t have time. First, try not to just move forward. Moving sideways is a bit of a challenge, but backing up with any grace and dignity takes a bit of work. With a friend, have them call out “forward, left, right or back” for up to a minute. I do suggest wearing gloves; I usually use the kind for yardwork as you never now what is going to be on the ground. A tiny rock smashed with full force into your palm hurts more than you think.


My favorite combo is “Bear/Bear.” With a partner, find a plate (probably a 45) or a heavy bag (I use a duffle bag filled with salt for water softeners up to 150 pounds) and give it a bear hug. Start walking. Your partner moves beside you doing the bear crawl. Halfway to a target, say 100 yards, exchange. When you get to the target, rest a bit, flip around and finish it off. The hit on your breathing is extraordinary.


For football players, I use a variation that you might find helpful. Football is a game of changing levels, so we mix deadlifts with Bear Crawls. The combination seems simple, but crawling away after the hit of a set of deadlifts is pretty taxing at first. Strive for five reps with a reasonable load in the DL and go away as fast as you can and stop when your speed and technique begin to wane.


Bear Crawling is free and you can do it anywhere. Add a little to your training and see if you can come up with more variations.

This will be funny…but true

I’m lucky to train almost daily with three nutritionists. By the way, these fine people went to college, published papers and make a living not just counseling people but making menus for a variety of patients in hospitals. In other words, they didn’t take a one-hour course and put the shingle on the door.


The other day, Ashley was struggling with her clients. Which ones you might ask? All of them.


All of them share the share issue: they can’t “hear” Ashley when she gives them honest and intelligent advice concerning diet and/or exercise.


I willing to bet you can’t either: you can’t hear me when I tell you to do reasonable training or when Ashley gives you some insights on appropriate food selection.


It confounded me until my mind connected a class I had in introductory Theology. The usual joke I toss in here was that St. Paul was my instructor and we laugh at my age.


Teaching people something new always runs into two barriers. Every word, concept and symbol carries with it meanings. Ludwig Wittgenstein clarified much of this in the last century, but those of us in fitness, health and performance deal with it daily.


There are two kinds: steno and tensive symbols. Steno (to remember what it means spell it backwards: ONEts) symbols have ONE meaning. Tensive symbols need a bit more information to clarify the meaning.


The best example I can use is what I am working on: my desk. I have never heard anyone ever say something like this: “She is sooooo desk.” Desk means, well, “desk.”


“Bad” is a good example of tensive the past few decades.

“This is a bad movie.”

“That movie was bad.”


Well, was it good or bad? Depending on how you say “bad,” the meaning changes. “Dog” is a great example, too:

“She is a dog.”

“He trained us like dogs.”

“I’m dog tired.”


Oddly, the other day, my vet said she couldn’t do my dog’s nails, his name is Sirius Black, because he was “crocodiling.”


You won’t see the point yet. Let’s use one more example:


Sit your parents down and say the following:

“Mom and Dad the word “Gay” means “happy.” I just want you to know I am gay.” “It’s because of you and the way you raised me, I’m gay. I want the world to know that I am gay.”


There’s no judgment here, but even if you tell someone “gay means happy,” using gay in a sentence shows you a steno symbol.


And now, back to my point:

Fat loss clients have a steno symbol when it comes to diet (or any word that refers to food or nutrition) and training programs (or any word that sounds like workout or exercise).


Diet means “starvation, rabbit food, self discipline, horrible existence.”

Training means “Sweaty mess of goo and vomit on the floor and horrible existence.”


If you say to a typical person: “We are going to learn to shop better, cook healthier meals and use food as rocket fuel,” they will hear:


“Starvation, rabbit food, self discipline, horrible existence.”


If you say to a typical person: “We want to teach you move better so you can feel better, look better and live better,” they will hear:


“Sweaty mess of goo and vomit on the floor and horrible existence.”


The steno symbols of diet and exercise get reinforced every time you see a television ad discussing a 12-week program guaranteed to rip or shred or punish your fat for its audacity for clinging to your body. It’s a rare week when we don’t see a magazine article or book claiming to give you your dream body by eliminating, detoxing, or expunging fat through a strict diet approach.


To deal with this, we need some time to overcome this issue. Reasonable diet and exercise trumps insanity. The last thing most people need is for training programs to make them feel worse! The first step is to get people to “hear” that they have an unexamined steno symbol for diet and exercise. The next is to allow them to try a reasoned approach to food, food choices and food preparation and fundamental movements in the gym setting.


Yes, it will work, but it takes some illumination on the part of the client or athlete.


But, once they do, you will be gay.

Reclaiming the Bars from those —-, dirty Apes!

If I could summarize smart training I would say this:

Train your whole body daily with enough work and appropriate load.

Let me give you two words to aid in your understanding of training the movements with appropriate work and load: Integrity and Environment.


Integrity is a word I use often in my work. I use it to talk about “being the same person in every situation,” being true to one’s values and system, and, the key for this section, “being one piece.”


“The body is one piece” has been a teaching truth of mine for decades, but it can be simplified to “Integrity.” As you train and pursue your goals, you must think of your body (mind and soul) as one piece. Your feet, even if you don’t realize it, are searching for clues from the ground to protect you from making life changing or life altering error. You inner ear is helping out the feet by providing feedback on what is upright and rest of your body is sharing information to help the decision making process. There are sharp toothed and sharp-clawed animals out there trying to eat you and all kinds of obstacles to overcome.


And “everything out there” is the environment. It can be water, ground, trees, rocks, falling rocks and everybody else. It can be as controlled as a cement floor and an air-conditioned room or as chaotic as the breakers hitting a tidal pool. We are constantly waging a full scan on everything around us and reacting to all this input.


We can use integrity and environment to help understand the fundamental human movements and how they can be seen over the lifetime of training.


Let’s just discuss the upper body and how your local playground might be the best toolkit for training you know.


The Push is an attempt to separate from the environment. Babies strive to push the floor away to begin moving on their own, the bench press is an attempt to separate the bar from the chest and we spent much of our life pushing away mom and dad so we can grow up. Not surprisingly, pushing muscles tend to be the muscles of youth. As you review Janda’s Phasics, you will note that these are the ones (the pushing muscles) that weaken with age or illness.


The Pull is how we unite or embrace our environment. When we try to bring things closer to ourselves, like a pull up, row, or embrace, we are attempting to close the gap between our integrity (our body) and the environment. Sports naturally flow between push and pull as we try to leverage an opponent or nature. As we age, we wish everyone we know were just a bit closer either due to hearing loss or just distance. Janda’s Tonics are the muscles that tighten with age or illness.


If you wish to do both the Push and Pull in the healthiest, safest manner, go look for some Monkey Bars. If you ever want a full upper body workout in about a minute, swing from hand to hand across the Monkey Bars.


Hold on. Why do we call them Monkey Bars? In Wikipedia’s definition of “Brachiation,” there is a very interesting description of the traits of brachiators:


“Some traits that allow primates to brachiate include short fingernails (instead of claws), inward-closing hook-like fingers, opposable thumbs, long forelimbs, and freely rotating wrists.”


Sound familiar? Yeah, well, look in the mirror! Go find a park and rename them “Human Bars” and take back our equipment! Like Charleton Heston warned us: “Take your paws of me, you damn dirty ape!” My friends, let me warn you: First the playgrounds, then the world. Seriously, there are movies about this!


No. Really.


There is a beach in California with rings set up so that one can “fly” back and forth and back and forth. Now, by the time you read this, some group interested in safety will have banned them, but if you want to look fantastic in the upper body, start brachiating. The beachcombers who do these big swings look amazing. Now, the chicken or the egg question: does swinging build this physique or does a certain physique allow “flying rings.”


Either way, it doesn’t matter. Your upper body is made to do it. Its job is to both separate and embrace the environment.


Traditionally, I have gathered a bunch of our typical training drills into something I call “The Sixth Movement.” I am never sure what to call this, but basically it is everything besides push, pull, hinge, squat and loaded carries. It is groundwork. It is rolling. It is literally “everything else.” Generally, though, the Sixth Movements seems to encourage this:

Integrity with the Environment

Rolling on the ground makes falling seem safer. Turkish getups simplify popping up off the ground to get some more beer during the Super Bowl. Rolling on the floor with a grandchild makes everyone happier. That last one isn’t scientific, but it is true.


The Sixth Movement(s) bring you back to the early days of sitting around a fire and listening to a story. We are reminded of sliding in and out to spark the embers, sliding back into the earth to hear the story, and rolling over on the ground to fall asleep.


Our relationship with the earth shouldn’t be “me and it,” it should be “I and Thou.” Yes, it might be a bit heavy for a lifting audience, but just roll around for a while and trust this point.


Crawling can be seen as simply “engaging the horizontal environment.” Brachiating can be summed with “engaging the vertical environment.” You don’t need to swing from limb to limb to engage the vertical environment as you can do that simply through Monkey Bars or Rope Climbing. The recent popularity of rock climbing reflects this basic truth of the human person: we like to explore what is around us and hidden behind that next curve, tree, or mountain.


I was lucky to be educated in the last wave of the classic Physical Education programs. We began the year with marching. Can you even imagine the number of phone calls to the principal if today you had kdis marching around the schoolyard following the commands “To your left, to your left, to your left, right, left?” We learned sports and games, but we also spent quality time on climbing ropes, high bars, dipping bars and Monkey bars.


In most P.E. classes today, you simply see pick-up basketball games and dodgeball. In many states, it has all but vanished for the scholastic curriculum. If you don’t learn certain skills as a child, bicycling and swimming quickly come to mind, it is going to be difficult to pick them up in your adult years. Learning to ride a bike involves some falling and tumbling and this isn’t always the best for adults.


Let’s rediscover the great tradition of physical training.



Easy Strength…new videos and information

I made the mistake of going on to a popular forum site that Thomas and Lindsay tell me about often. Once there I found a discussion of “Easy Strength” and one, um, “lifter” wrote that he/she couldn’t understand why I had all of these “different programs.”

So, I thought about it for a while. It’s true, this is the original program from Pavel:

“For the next 40 workouts, pick five lifts. Do them every workout. Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling. Go as light as you need to go and don’t go over 10 reps in a workout for any of the movements. It’s going to seem easy. When the weights feel light, add more weight.”

And, that is exactly what I did…and I made the best progress of my career. It is that simple, yes…but not that easy. But, let’s be honest, thousands of years ago, Hippocrates said this:

Obese people and those desiring to lose weight should perform hard work before food.  Meals should be taken after exertion while still panting from fatigue.  They should, moreover, only eat once per day.”

Yet, you can find books, PDFs, forums, discussion, magazine articles and all the rest of media arguing over the minutia of what I call “not eating.” Others call this “fasting.”

To make it more complex, we call it “Intermittent Fasting.”

So, thousands of pages are being written over the difference in “Not Eating” versus “Fasting” versus “Intermittent Fasting.”

When I say Easy Strength or the 40 Day Program or Even Easier Strength, it’s all about the same thing. Mostly.

I have a one-hour video on Easy Strength and feel free to learn from it. Here you can find the companion PDF, (the slides from my Powerpoint): New Easy Strength.

I wrote an article that really goes into depth here and smart people would read it before starting the program.

For more information on the details, try my book, Intervention.

For more information about arousal, tension and heart rate, try my book, Now What?

The first book that I read specifically about training was Myles Callum’s body building and self-defense (all lower case, by the way).

Callum’s explanation on isometrics/tension underscores the “problem” most people have with Easy Strength:

“This method (isometrics/tension) is based on a new theory (the book was published in 1962) of muscle growth. German and American scientists and doctors have found that a muscle can grow at only a certain rate. And, according to this theory, it doesn’t take as much work as we used to think. If you flex any muscle to its maximum power and contraction, and hold it there for six seconds, once a day, the scientists say, the muscle will grow in strength just as fast as it can grow.

Whether or not this method of muscle tension can ever really replace weight-lifting is still a matter of controversy. Some scientists say it can; endless repeating of strenuous exercise, they say, “does not make the strength of a muscle grow any faster.” Weight-lifting, however, may make the size of the muscle grow faster.”

That’s the rub for most readers: Easy Strength is all about getting stronger. Hypertrophy is about body building, acquiring more lean body mass.

From my experience, most people are NOT strong enough to get much from bodybuilding work. They need to get stronger to get the hormonal cascade from the bodybuilding work.

And, to get stronger, you need to first learn tension, then add load.

That’s why I recommend learning tension from basic movements like:

  • Push Up Position Planks (PUPPs)
  • Hip Thrusts (and variations)
  • Goblet Squats
  • Farmer Walks (and Suitcase Carries)

These exercises not only teach movement (if needed), they also teach mastery of tension. Once tension is taught, Easy Strength builds the loads.

From there, the world of lifting is yours.