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.


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