How to Build a Home Gym

A home gym is a smart choice in today’s world.

Indeed:

  • They’re pretty much pandemic-proof.
  • You can train how you want (powerlift, Olympic lift, throw the kettlebells around, and create killer MetCons).
  • You can drop the weights, use chalk, grunt, scream, and listen to loud music.
  • You can customize it any way you see fit.
  • There’s no recurring membership dues.
  • There’s no commute.
  • If you’re more introverted, there’s no other people.
  • You don’t have to wait for the equipment.
  • You don’t have to wipe down the equipment.
“Home” means anywhere on your property, including outside or in the garage. Pictured is my old setup (I’m working on a new one now).

Sounds awesome, right?

Well having a home gym at your disposal is awesome.

But before you dive in head first…

Is a Home Gym Right for You?

It goes without saying that having a home gym isn’t for everyone, and before you go out and build an absolute fitness sanctuary, you need to make sure a home gym will be right for you.

And how do you make sure a home gym is right for you?

Well, you take stock of your personality, lifestyle, and resources and think about things, such as:

Are you more introverted or extraverted?

If you’re more of an introverted type you may love training in a home gym. If you’re more of an extraverted type you may hate it (although you could invite people over to train).

Are you more of a DIY type or do you hate the thought of doing things yourself?

If you’re a DIY type you may enjoy the challenge of building out a home gym. If you hate the thought of DIY you may not like it as much.

Are you more of a homebody or a world traveler?

If you’re a homebody you would surely get lots of use out of your home gym. If you’re a world traveler not so much.

Do you live in a small apartment or a big giant house?

If you live in a small apartment you likely don’t have the space for a full-on home gym (a gym membership [to a good gym!] is probably a better option). If you live in a big giant house you’ll have plenty of space to build out as you see fit.

Are you strapped for cash or rolling in the dough?

Obviously, if you’re strapped for cash building a home gym would be tough, as it can get expensive quite quickly (although you can “bootstrap” a home gym). If you’re rolling in the dough you can no doubt build a home gym as you see fit.

Now I’ll admit these are somewhat extreme examples, and you likely lie somewhere in the middle of each. But they’re just to get you thinking. A home gym isn’t something to jump into haphazardly. You’ll spend a lot of time and money on a home gym, so it behooves you to put some thought into it.

Alright, now that we’ve got that covered (and you’ve hopefully thought the above through), let’s go deeper into how to build a home gym.

The Two Basic Elements: The Space and the Equipment

As I see it, there are two basic elements of a home gym: the space and the equipment. Both are important, and both require plenty of consideration.

Let’s start with the space.

The Space

Seriously, the space will make or break your home gym. Therefore it’s imperative you find a nice, inviting space that’ll help you focus.

Think of it as a “workout office”. You need an adequate space to do your work, right? Same with working out.

Considerations for the Space

Make Sure It’s the Correct Size for Your Needs

The space should be big enough and have high enough ceilings so your equipment will fit, and so that you can do the movements you need to do.

Pay Attention to Colors

Color plays a huge role on emotions. And what emotions should we want to have when training?

Joy. Passion. Enthusiasm. Energy. Excitement.

Therefore, a mauve or mustard yellow may not be the best choice for the wall color in your home gym.

Opt for reds, oranges, and vibrant shades of blue. Check out this site for inspiration, and here’s a good read about the psychology of color.

Also Pay Attention to Lighting

Lighting is huge. Why do you think big commercial gyms use plenty of bright light? Bright light energizes you and keeps you alert.

Make Sure the Temperature Is Adequate

Adequate will be individual to you, but extreme lows and highs are not your friend. Extreme heat can lead to heat exhaustion, and extreme cold will freeze your fingers and toes.

I’d opt for 55-75 degrees, depending on the humidity.

Focus on Flooring

Another overlooked aspect of the home gym. Really look into protecting the floors and your equipment with rubber flooring or stall mats.

It’s true flooring is a pain and it’s expensive, but it’s a must. At least go for a sturdy rug of sorts.

Get the Music Going

Music is incredibly important for training. There’s a reason all gyms have music (whether it be good or bad music is another conversation altogether). Music can act as a kind of an ergogenic aid, reducing RPE, improving energy efficiency, and can lead to increased work output [1].

You can buy good portable speaker pretty much anywhere, or even hook up your own sound system.

Keep It Distraction-Free

Obviously one big disadvantage of working out at home is that distraction is just a stone’s throw away.

Therefore it’s imperative to eliminate distraction any way you can. This means having nothing close by that could distract you (phones, TV’s, books, magazines, etc.).

Keep It Safe

In other words, don’t train in moldy basements or place your equipment next to your buzz saw.

Bring the Noise

You must be able to make some noise (from music and you). If you have to be quiet as a mouse it just might not work.

What Spaces Work Best?

Basements

An obvious choice, but you’ll likely have to make some adjustments to make it a better atmosphere for training. Also ceiling height may be too low for things like overhead movements and pull-ups.

Garages

Another obvious choice, get the car and the junk out of the garage and get to it. If you live in an extreme climate you’ll be at the mercy of the weather (unless you have an attached heated or cooled garage), but garages usually have high ceilings and lots of space, which is a huge plus.

Outdoors

You get to be in the fresh air and sunshine, but again you’re at the mercy of the weather. Best for those who live in more moderate climates. If you create an outdoor gym I suggest you cover your equipment or bring it inside after each use.

Bedrooms, Living Rooms, etc.

Obviously not ideal, but they can work. Ceilings will likely be low, you can’t drop weights, and you likely won’t be able to fit much equipment, but they can work in a pinch. Kind of last resort options or options for those who want to supplement a gym membership.

Let’s get back to it…

The Equipment

Now to the fun part…the equipment! But wait…before you deck out your space there are some things to consider.

Considerations for Equipment

Only Get What You Need

In the excitement of creating a home gym, you may rush out and attempt to buy everything under the sun.

Don’t.

Start with minimal equipment (which I’ll go over below). You can get plenty done with minimal equipment and a little creativity (creative MetCons, skipping rope, running, sprints, hill sprints, etc.). And then, if there is something you just can’t live without, buy it.

Don’t Clutter up Your Space

This is related to the point above. Clutter is bad for any space, but it’s really bad for a home gym.

You’ll need space to do all types of movements, so I suggest you keep it as “open concept” as possible.

In Most Cases, Used Is Just As Good As New

Quality fitness equipment holds its integrity for a long time. Add in the fact that many people use a piece of equipment a couple times and then make it an expensive clothes rack, it just makes sense to buy used and get a better price.

Scour garage sales and thrift stores. You can find gems there. Check Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or OfferUp. Find outlets that sell imperfect or blemished equipment. I got a good deal on my York iron weight plates because they has some minor blemishes that don’t affect them at all.

Pay Up for Quality

Quality usually costs less in the long run, as cheap crap wears out quickly and needs to be replaced.

I have experience with this. I’ve been burned by cheaper lesser quality fitness equipment. Most of it I ended up just putting out on the curb with a free sign. What a waste of money.

Pay up for stuff that will stand the test of time.

Equipment to Consider

A Barbell

The barbell is hands-down the best tool to build strength and power. Therefore, it should be considered high priority in your training and in your home gym.

I’ve lifted millions of pounds with my Rogue Ohio Bar (got it in 2016) and it’s still going strong.

Weight Plates

When it comes to plates, rubber ones are more versatile but more expensive. You can get iron plates pretty cheap but they can’t be dropped (think weightlifting).

Adjustable Olympic Dumbbells (Handles)

Dumbbells are awesome. They’re versatile and require much coordination, making them almost a must-have for your home gym.

But…they’re also extremely expensive. A full rack of dumbbells could run you thousands of dollars.

Adjustable dumbbells somewhat solve this problem, although they’re not as great to work with as regular dumbbells (they’re a little more awkward and you can’t drop them). Adjustable dumbbells come in two basic flavors: Olympic (as in Olympic plates fit on them) and spin-lock (which use a smaller hole in the plate). Both work fine.

Adjustable Dumbbell Handles
Adjustable Olympic dumbbell handles.
Collars

Collars hold the plates on the bars. Spring collars are the easiest to get on and off.

A Squat Rack

It doesn’t have to be some huge expensive rig, you just have to be able to do barbell back squats and pull-ups.

If you really can’t get a rack, you can sub in different types of squats (for a while). You will still need something to do pull-ups on, though.

A Pull-Up Bar of Sorts

Most good squat racks come with pull-up bar of some sorts. If you can’t or won’t get a rack, a door-frame pull-up bar could work. You could also make your own if you’re handy.

Any way you choose to roll with, a pull-up bar is a must.

A Bench

You’ll need a bench to do bench presses and seated overhead presses. You can also use it for “box” jumps and decline push-ups.

Kettlebells

I’m personally very fond of kettlebells (they’re fun, take up very little space, and are very portable), but like dumbbells they’re expensive. Also, since they’re an “odd object” of sorts, they require some time to master.

Home Gym Kettlebell
“Frances”
Jump Ropes

Jump ropes are in the “so-inexpensive-why-wouldn’t-you-get-one” category. Great for warm-ups and conditioning work.

An AbMat

AbMats make sit-ups much more effective. Check them out here.

A Belt

Only for when you’re going really, really heavy (one-rep max territory). Do not wear one if you’re not going heavy (you need to build up core strength).

A Dip Belt

A dip belt is a belt with a chain attached so that you can add weight to pull-ups and dips. A great way to train heavier with these foundational movements.

Chalk

Chalk is great when you’re lifting heavy loads, doing lots of pull-ups, and/or your hands are getting sweaty.

Stop Watches

A lot of workouts will be timed for measurability and to keep the intensity up.

A Foam Roller and Lacrosse Balls

For self-myofascial release.

Medicine Balls

Another great tool, and great for working on power.

Bands

Bands are great for prehab and rehab stuff, as well as some light strength training.

A Weight Vest

Great for adding weight to bodyweight movements or walking/running.

A Hammer and a Tire

Sneaky good conditioning and a great stress reliever. You can also flip the tire.

Boxes

For box jumps and the like.

A Dip Stand

A dip stand is for, you guessed it… dips. You can also do “L”-sits with it.

A Cable Apparatus

Cables are nice to work in every once and awhile. They’re especially good for building strength throughout the entire range of motion of a given joint, as they provide an “even” resistance throughout the entire movement.

“Cardio” Machines

“Cardio” machines are very nice to have but expensive and take up space. You would do quite well with an AssaultRunner, Rogue Echo Bike, or a Concept 2 Rower if you have the means.

What Equipment Do You Actually Need?

I would start with a rack (with equipped pull-up bar), a barbell, rubber bumper plates, collars, an AbMat, a jump rope, a stopwatch, a belt, chalk, and a foam roller.

After you’ve gotten the essentials above I would look into dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, medicine balls, boxes, and a weight vest.

The above would sufficient for 99% of people, but then if you really wanted to take your home gym to the next level, you could look into “cardio” machines, hammers and tires, sleds, and the like.

Oh Yeah, Don’t Forget Proper Footwear

When you’re lifting heavy, running fast, and just generally training like a maniac you’ll need proper footwear…trust me it makes a difference.

Here are my go to’s:

Nike MetCon – for strength and/or weightlifting focused workouts.

Nike Free MetCon – for, shall I say, “lighter” workouts (less strength and/or weightlifting focused).

Nike Winflo – for longer, usually standalone runs.

Barefoot – for some workouts I go barefoot, like a kettlebell living room workout. It’s good to go barefoot once and awhile.

You: The Third, and Most Important, Ingredient in All of This

It goes without saying that a home gym is no good if you don’t use it…so after you build it get in and get after it. This is the most important part of the equation. Nothing works if you don’t.

-Eric

References

1. Karageorghis, Costas I, and David-Lee Priest. “Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I).” International review of sport and exercise psychology vol. 5,1 (2012): 44-66. doi:10.1080/1750984X.2011.631026