the HOME GYM STARTER KIT
5 Essential Pieces of Equipment For Starting a Home Gym
by Alec Enkiri | 10/20/20
Note: this article contains links to products that will help you start building a home gym. I own several of these products and can therefore vouch for their quality. Others that I do not own pass the eye test. I have not been paid one single cent to promote any of them.
The Glory of the Home Gym
I first discovered the glory of owning my own personal home gym over a decade ago. I had been working out for about a year at the time and I knew I wanted to keep getting stronger, keep building muscle, and eventually reach my own potential and I decided it didn't make too much sense to keep paying gym dues - that would in short order exceed the cost of outfitting my own gym - and keep wasting time commuting to and from the gym every day for the next rest of my life when I had a perfectly viable garage available that could house whatever equipment I wanted or needed. And with the advent of COVID-19 and the current pandemic, it seems that more and more people (beyond the stereotypical garage and basement gym hermits) have started to realize the merits of home gym ownership when it comes to both maintaining and maximizing their fitness. Maybe, given the current climate, you simply don't want to take the added risk of visiting the gym multiple times per week. Or maybe you realized that your gainzz are tenuous at best when access to necessary equipment becomes cut off. Whatever your personal reasons are, there are a myriad of benefits to home gym ownership and, better still, getting your own gym started does NOT have to break the bank. All you really need is a little bit of disposable cash and a little bit of space to stash everything!
In my own case, I spent a good bit of time a decade ago now thinking about what pieces of gym equipment are absolutely essential for someone looking to maximize strength and muscular hypertrophy in the long run from the comfort of their very own home gym, and eventually I pulled the trigger on a few major purchases. Since then I have added smaller pieces to my home gym over time, which is the natural progression of any valued collection, but what I want to focus on today is the starter kit - the essential pieces that are necessary to get the ball rolling and provide the hardcore (or future hardcore) fitness enthusiast with the ability to either directly perform, or closely mimic in some way, the great majority of the effective exercises that they would be able to perform in a well outfitted gym of their choice.
Tweaking and polishing your collection can come later as your training style evolves and you figure out the more specific needs that your home gym must have to be able to cater to you and your unique goals, but you can't get to that point without covering the broad strokes first, so that is what we'll cover today.
First we'll run through the 5 essential pieces of starter equipment for building a home gym.
Then we'll tally up the approximate total cost using mid-tier priced products as samples.
Lastly, to finish we'll go over a brief sample training program to highlight all of what can be accomplished even when equipment is limited solely to the basics.
So let's dive in!
THE 5 ESSENTIAL PIECES OF EQUIPMENT FOR STARTING A HOME GYM
1. A Decent Barbell and Weights
You can't weight train without weights and something to incrementally load them onto. The standard barbell still remains the most versatile and vital piece of equipment in this regard. With a little bit of creativity you can perform pretty much every basic exercise using a traditional barbell. Barbells do vary wildly in cost, which is typically reflective of the quality, but some barbells are also designed for certain more specific tasks, whereas others are designed as general use bars. For our purposes here we will want a general use barbell that is economically priced, but also not a piece of shit - which is not necessarily a crossover that is easy to find in that Venn Diagram.
Yes, I own a few bars.
Fortunately for you, I've already done all the leg work here. I've owned shitty bars, I own high quality bars, and I own solid economy bars as well. Focusing on the latter here, I recommend the GOB-86 By Troy Barbell. This bar can typically be found for anywhere from $100-$125, depending on what cycle the moon is in that day and has a 600lbs weight capacity, per the manufacturer (I've put more on it than that though and it it was no worse for wear). If you treat it properly (basically don't drop it onto pins from anything higher than a couple inches) it will hold up very well to heavy training and it will allow you to get strong and put in highly productive training across a variety of exercises. You can bench with this bar, you can press it over head, you can squat with it, you can deadlift with it, you can row with it, you can shrug it, and you can even power clean with it (not ideal due to subpar sleeve rotation, but it gets the job done in a pinch).
Personally, I have done my heaviest ever wrapped squat of 545lbs using this bar and my heaviest ever deadlift of 585lbs using it as well and it has continued on strong for years. For the price and the versatility it provides, coupled with the solid overall quality, starting with this bar is a no brainer for me. You may graduate from it eventually or want some more specialized and/or higher quality tier barbells in the future, but this bar is the quintessential starter kit bar. I've been using it for 10 years and I still do all of my squatting, benching, and overhead pressing with it. Not bad for $100!
As far as weights go, weight is weight man. Unless you're competing in high level powerlifting competition (probably want calibrated plates in this case) or trying to become proficient at the Olympic lifts (bumper plates, which are expensive, become a necessity in this case) then just take what you can find for as cheap as you can find it, just make sure it's going to fit onto your barbell. You can often find 300 pound standard weight sets on sale for a good price, and barring that you can turn to Craigslist or the Facebook Marketplace to see who's trying to get rid of what. Look around and you'll find some good deals eventually (might end up being forced to overpay now with COVID, but hey, should've hopped on this train 10 years ago with the cool kids).
But what good are bars without any weights to load on them?
Regardless of the route you go, make sure you get a little bit more than you think you'll need at first. You want to be able to grow into it without outgrowing your available weights in the first 6 months and having your training hampered as a result. Plus, it's more economical to buy 500 pounds in one fell swoop then it is to buy 100lbs five separate times. The standard rule of thumb used to be if they were charging more than a dollar per pound they could fuck off, but sanity seems to have gone out the window in recent years and the prices have increased somewhat sharply, especially on a per plate basis. As such, you are better off purchasing a moderate amount of weight initially, preferably with a set that is on sale.
2. Squat Rack
Beyond the actual bar and weights that you will be lifting, a squat rack is the most essential piece of gym equipment you can buy. If you are only going to buy one other thing this should be it! Here's the thing: it doesn't really matter what your goal is. Whether you want to get stronger, bigger, more muscular, leaner, faster, improve athleticism, etc. etc. etc., you should probably be squatting in some form or fashion at least some of the time. Squatting builds muscle and strength and it does so more efficiently than pretty much any other exercise. The more muscle you have the easier it becomes to get lean and stay lean in the long run. Stronger legs increase the ceiling for athletic performance potential. Stronger legs make the body more resilient overall. Heavy axial loading increases bone density, which becomes very important as you age. Basically, you should be doing your squats and the safest way to do so is from within a squat rack.
But it goes far beyond that too. Most power racks these days also come with a pull-up bar at the top. You can also buy additional attachments, such as dipping handles and a pulley system. This means that with this one single piece of equipment you will be able to do squats, shrugs, RDL's, pull-ups, chin-ups, overhead presses, push presses, floor presses, dips, inverted rows, lat pulldowns, cable rows, cable curls, triceps pushdowns, and probably more that I can't even think of right now! Sounds like a pretty invaluable piece, doesn't it?
I personally own the Valor Fitness BD-7 rack (second rack I've owned. First was the Body Solid Powerline Rack, circa 2009, which was a great one, but I gave it to a friend). It's a damn solid rack overall. It's very sturdy, the holes for the safety pins aren't very far apart which is nice, it comes standard with a pull-up bar and a pulley system, you can buy dip handles for relatively cheap, and at $299 it was a DAMN good price when I bought it 3 years ago. Unfortunately, however, the price seems to have increased pretty significantly at this point ($445 now per the manufacturer).
Get yourself a rack and use it!
My only real gripes with it are that it is a little bit snug inside the cage, which made me feel uneasy at first when I was unracking heavy weights on my back, and the pull-up bar does not have neutral handles. Overall though, no regrets on my end with this choice.
3. A Bench
I'm not even a huge fan of the bench press, but I still can't deny that it's one of the best ways to build up raw upper body strength in the pressing muscles. Plus, with there being solid, high quality benches on the market these days in that <$100 price range there really is no reason not include this piece of equipment in your gym starter kit if you are serious about getting strong, getting swole, and maximizing your long term results in the gym.
You don't even need to get one with a rack attached to it, as you are already planning on purchasing a squat rack, which means you can just bench inside of that. Not only does this give you the added safety of bench pressing with the safeties, but it also keep the price down, which is always nice. With this piece of equipment you will be able to perform a variety of pressing exercises as well as chest supported rowing variations, which are an awesome addition to any strength and hypertrophy program. And if you choose to buy one that's adjustable you will also be able to perform incline and possibly even decline bench presses as well, in addition to the usual flat benching.
4. A Lifting Platform
In case you haven't heard, deadlifts are kind of a big deal and no home gym would be complete without some way of being able to safely set the bar down onto the floor without damaging it. But a platform offers more than just the ability to deadlift. You can also do your heavy barbell rows from here, along with power cleans, high pulls, lunge variations, and more! Personally, I do pretty much everything on my platform. If I'm not in the rack, I'm probably on the platform!
Now, the only caveat to this section is I'm not going to endorse a commercially built platform because, for what they are, they tend to be pretty overpriced, or at least they used to be when I was in the market (I'm talking $1,000 for what is essentially a few sheets of wood with some rubber slapped on top). With the recent explosion in popularity of Crossfit, and Olympic lifting becoming more "mainstream" as a result of that, companies like Rogue have recently made some economy platforms that are at least worth looking into. I can't really vouch for the quality of said platforms because I have never seen or used one, however, I can say that I have never been disappointed by a piece of equipment that I have gotten from Rogue. With a price tag of $255 for an 8x8 platform I would consider it if I was in the market for one myself these days. Though, per the description on Rogue's website, it is designed for Olympic weightlifting (which necessitates the use of rubberized bumper plates), so there's no telling if it will hold up to the rigors of heavy deadlifting with good old steel. I suppose that's a question to ask the manufacturer before purchasing.
The route I went a decade ago was to build my own platform. I think the lumber was a bit cheaper back then, but either way, it looks like a sheet of standard 4x8 plywood is going for about $40 at Home Depot these days. You'll need 5 of them so that's $200 right there. You'll also need a way to get them back to your house in one piece. In addition to that you'll need a sheet of horse stall matting for the sides of the platform (that super thick and durable rubber), which is going to run you about $50. Add in some screws, taxes, etc., and we'll just round it up to an even $300 for the sake of ease. Then there's the personal labor involved in assembling it. But at a time when the cheapest platforms available were $1,000+ this was a freaking steal and I was more than happy to build my own. If there is enough interest I can write an article detailing exactly how I did it.
Homemade lifting platform. 11 years and still going strong!
I've had my platform for over 10 years. I built the damn thing in 2009. I have deadlifted nearly 600 pounds on it using steel plates. With bumper plates I've done clean and jerks, power cleans, power snatches, and high pulls for years, all of which I drop freely from as high up as overhead. I don't hesitate to drop my steel plates onto it when deadlifting either. I moved a few years ago and in order to bring the platform with me I had to disassemble it. Much to my delight, the plywood on the underside of the thick rubber mat, after 8 years of heavy use, was still perfectly intact. I reassembled it at my new place and it's still going as strong as ever. So, for $300 and a little bit of labor a homemade platform is durable as hell and is basically going to last you a lifetime. It will also guarantee that no damage is ever done to your floor no matter what lift you are performing on it. After factoring in the shipping on a Rogue platform, the two are roughly the same cost, but the homemade platform likely requires a bit more effort to assemble...it's worth it in my opinion though.
But the choice is yours! If you enjoy working with your hands then you might choose to go my route regardless. If you aren't quite as dexterous then perhaps you'll grab one from Rogue (although there will still inevitably some assembly involved there). And actually, I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has used or owns one of the economy Rogue Olympic lifting platforms. How does the quality stand up to a traditional platform? Let me know! I'm sure others are interested in hearing from you as well.
Alternatively, if you don't want buy a full blown platform you can also just double up on the horse stall mats. That would put about an inch and half of solid ass rubber between you and your floor. I can't say if that will eventually put your floor at risk from heavy deadlift or not - it might - but it would be substantially cheaper than either of the first two options!
5. Adjustable Dumbbell Handles
And finally, you need to get your hands on some dumbbells! A full rack of bells is obviously not feasible for most home gyms (it's also super pricey), and buying just one, or two, or even three different pairs of dumbbells is not really going to help you accomplish much in the long run either. You need the adjustability aspect to really make use of these as that will not only open up the doors to many other exercise options in addition to greater exercise variety, but it will also mean that all those exercises can be progressed upon incrementally as needed to continually spur adaptation. As far as dumbbell training in a home gym setting goes, the best way to accomplish this is with a good old fashioned pair of dumbbell handles that you can load with the weights you already own.
With dumbbells at your disposal now you have the option of performing pretty every single exercise that you would perform with a barbell...but with dumbbells instead! That means DB bench press, DB Romanian deadlifts, DB overhead pressing, DB rowing variations, lunge variations, etc, etc. I also like to perform weighted jumps with my dumbbells and even one arm power snatches, which are my personal favorite! Overall though, these are simply going to give you a lot more options in your training, which is very important when you have a home gym (which is already somewhat restrictive by nature), as that is going to help you continually inject variety into your routine which is going to keep motivation and excitement high and help prevent stagnation.
The market is all fucked up right now because of COVID, but a cursory Google search reveals that you can still find some good deals out there, even on handles that house 2 inch plates. So if you find yourself a good deal and the reviews say the product is worth a shot then I say jump on that shit before it's gone!
Another timeless piece of equipment.
Even if you're a barbell man at heart, such as myself, you'll still want access to dumbbells. They just really open things up so much in terms of variety, which makes them a staple for any home gym starter kit. But remember, they are only really feasible if you can run the gamut in terms of weight, which requires that they be adjustable in some form or fashion.
approximate total cost
Barbell + Weights: $500
Squat Rack: $450
Lifting Platform: $300
Adjustable DB Handles: $60
A decent up front investment, yes, but the long term value of this equipment (should you make use of it) far, far exceeds the up front cost, and if you take care of the stuff it will literally last you forever. Look at it this way, the last time I had a gym membership was back in 2017. I didn't have anywhere to house my equipment at the time so I needed a membership somewhere. I found a good gym and I was paying $50/month to be a member there, which is actually quite cheap as far as good gyms go. For example, just to provide some perspective, this gym had literally every piece of equipment that you could find at a standard Crossfit gym, however, the average monthly cost of a Crossfit gym membership in the United States is $155 per month. So this gym was just as well stocked for one third of the cost, meaning that's about as good of a rate as you are ever going to get at a well stocked gym. So unless you want to "work out" at Planet Fitness (free pizza though!) you should be prepared to budget at least $600 per year (but probably more) into gym membership fees.
And even with that rate, if you are lucky enough to find it, you would still recoup your entire investment in just over 2 years by purchasing your own home gym starter kit ($1,410 / $50 per month = 28.2 months). The difference is that you would actually own the equipment, you wouldn't EVER have to wait around for pieces of equipment to open up, you wouldn't have to ever smell anyone's BO but your own, and you would save hours each week - and the corresponding gas money - commuting to and from the gym that you could now allocate towards more important things (like spending time with your wife and kids, you asshole).
QUICK SAMPLE TRAINING PROGRAM
4 day per week, upper/lower split using nothing but home gym equipment!
Session 1 (Lower Body)
A. Squat (5 x 5)
B. Romanian Deadlift (4 x 6-8)
C. Hip Thrust (3 x 12-15)
D. Barbell Rollout (3 x 8-10)
Session 2 (Upper Body)
A1. Bench Press (5 x 5)
A2. Inverted Row (4 x 8-10)
B1. Dip (3 x AMRAP)
B2. Close Grip Chin-up (3 x AMRAP)
Session 3 (Lower Body)
A. Snatch Grip High Pull (5 x 3)
B. Deadlift (3 x 5)
C. Front Squat (3 x 5)
D. Reverse Lunge (3 x 12-15)
Session 4 (Upper Body)
A1. Overhead Press (4 x 6-8)
A2. Neutral Grip Chin-up (4 x 6-8)
B1. Larsen Press (4 x 8-10)
B2. Chest Supported Row (4 x 8-10)
And with that very basic training program you would have pretty much all of your bases covered in terms of general strength and hypertrophy work. You wouldn't really be missing out on very much by foregoing the real gym and outfitting your own, and whatever specialized equipment you were sorely missing out on you could simply purchase as an addendum down the road to make your home gym even more personalized. In the meantime though, you would be forced to cut out the fluff and really hammer down the basics instead. And that's part of what makes a home gym so damn invaluable in the first place! There is no junk equipment; there's nothing in the place to simply waste time on; there's nowhere to hide. You either come in and bust your ass on the productive, staple (read: "hard") exercises or you simply don't bother that day. But then you can't lie to yourself and say, "oh yeah, I got my workout in today. It was a real burner!" When all you did was look at the squat rack, say "nope," and then went and did a bunch of leg extensions instead. That cop out doesn't exist in a home gym.
And even still, the exercises I provided in this sample program are really just the tip of the iceberg. Even with this limited equipment you could modify this program almost indefinitely, it just requires a little bit of know how and a little bit of ingenuity. From there, add in a little bit of running or swimming (or pick up basketball or stadium stairs or whatever form of movement based activity you prefer) and you would have a comprehensive fitness program that will keep you strong, mobile, agile, muscular, and in great overall shape for the foreseeable future.
That's really what we're all gunning for anyway and it doesn't take hordes and hordes of fancy, expensive equipment to achieve all of this. It just requires a few pieces of basic but highly essential equipment. Yes, you are sacrificing the ability to have access to a plethora of more specialized equipment and potentially high end equipment as well, but you are also saving an assload of money on gym dues and commute time in the long run. Trade offs. Go the route that makes the most sense for your personal situation. For an increasing number of people, especially in the pandemic year 2020, the home gym route simply makes the most sense now. So hopefully this guide will help those budding home gym enthusiasts to make the most pragmatic decisions when it comes time for them to outfit their own home gyms. Best of luck everyone!
I sleep now.