You're finally living the American Dream. You've just bought your first house or rented a good-size apartment, and you're ready to furnish it your way. That is, of course, after your wife or girlfriend picks out every chair, sofa, and curtain in the place. But, fortunately, you've got space for a home gym now-and dammit, that's your domain.
Congratulations. Your days of hearing "Sexy Back" blaring from your public gym's stereo-just as you're prepping for a new one-rep max on the bench press, no less-are finally a thing of the past. There will be no more chance run-ins with locker-room nudists and no more sweating with the oldies on the treadmills next to you until you hear their pacemakers give out.
Nevertheless, a new set of quandaries has arisen. What is the most necessary equipment, and how will it fit in the space you have? Where's the best place to buy it, and how much will it cost? To answer these questions and more, we've planned out the ultimate-and affordable-home gym.
1 | A Power Rack
Also called a "cage," a sturdy power rack encloses a small area you can stand inside for moves like the squat, or slide a bench in or out of for heavy pressing exercises. Its key feature is safety spot pins-two iron rods that slide into any one of several holes on each side of the rack's support beams to protect you from dropping a missed lift. Can't get the bar back up in a bench press? Let it crash on the safety pins. So, in essence, the power rack serves as your spotter. The pins also allow you to work on weak points in your lifts. For instance, you can set the pins at knee height and rest the barbell on them for a deadlift variation called the rack lockout. From there, perform a deadlift as normal through the shortened range of motion. You'll find you can use more weight because you don't have to begin the pull from the floor, and working in this range improves the strength you need to finish the last third of a normal deadlift. A longtime favorite of hardcore powerlifters, a power rack can lead to exceptional strength gains.
A power rack can also eliminate the need for several other pieces of equipment. It typically has pegs on it that you can use to store your weight plates, and it may even come with a chinup bar attached at the top. You can hang all sorts of other equipment off its frame, such as bands, and stow your gear inside it when you're done. The folks at Elite Fitness Systems in London, Ohio-home to some of the strongest lifters in the world-offer a number of great models. We like the one pictured at left, which stands seven feet tall and has a 30"-by-43" space inside the cage. $675 @ elitefts.com
2 | An Olympic Barbell
As the name implies, these are the only bars that pass muster at the Olympics or any other lifting competition. Long, balanced, and almost unbendable, an Olympic bar is designed to fit your power rack. The weight is also uniform (45 pounds), no matter who the manufacturer is-something you won't find with cheaper barbells.
Olympic bars are also long enough to fit in a power rack and to have a standardized diameter perfect for all Olympic weights. (Non-Olympic bars may have a narrower diameter.) Olympic barbells can be purchased at almost any large sporting-goods store or even a local yard sale (see "Gym Dues" on the next page for several price-busting strategies), but York Barbell and Elite have long been known for setting the bar high (pardon the pun). If space permits, consider buying two barbells rather than one. Unlike in a public gym, no one will be rushing you off the equipment, so having an extra barbell will allow you to superset exercises much more easily (as opposed to having to unload and reload one bar for each set). 1,500-lb power bar, $185 @ elitefts.com
3 | An Adjustable Bench
Self-explanatory; just aim for one that gives you multiple angles of incline, rather than ¦at and 45 degrees alone. By working at different angles, you'll be able to stimulate more muscle fibers. But don't bother paying extra money for optional leg-station attachments designed specifically for things like the leg extension or leg curl. Besides often being uncomfortable and rickety, leg- station attachments are unnecessary. You'll get a better workout doing squats, lunges, and deadlifts with your barbell. Elite offers great benches. 0×-90× incline bench, $499 @ elitefts.com
4 | Weight Plates
Any brand will suffice here. As Shakespeare said, a weight by any other name would still be heavy (or something like that). However, make sure you buy round plates-not the octagonal-shaped ones you see in some trendy gyms. While they may be less apt to roll a bit on the floor between sets, plates with multiple sides tend to shift during your set and the corners smack into the floor during any lift that has you setting the bar down between reps (such as cleans or any kind of deadlift variation). That can make for an annoying distraction, if not an injury. Another caveat: Make sure the plates you're buying fit your Olympic bar. If you're ordering online, try to buy the bar and plates together from the same company. If you're shopping for one or the other in person, make sure you know the diameter of the bar. Ivanko supplies plates to many gyms, and Elite includes them with their power racks. 300-lb premium weight set, $285 @ Elitefts.com
5 | A Swiss Ball
You're probably familiar with funny-looking, inflatable toys from your single days, and while the Swiss ball may not seem like as much fun, it won't pop as easily. Kidding aside, if you're still not exercising (at least from time to time) with a ball, you're missing out. One of the only devices that allow you to train your abs through a full range of motion, the ball's many functions only begin there, since it can also be used to enhance total-body stability (the foundation for strength and power). Generally, you want to get one that's big enough so that your hips and knees will be bent 90 degrees when you sit on it. As your ball training progresses (go ahead and laugh), you can add larger and smaller balls (yeah, yeah) to your inventory, expanding the kinds of exercises you can do. If your home gym doubles as an office or entertainment room (someplace you might be sitting a lot), a Swiss ball also makes a good replacement for a chair, forcing you to keep good posture and train your abs while you do work or watch TV. (Resist-A-Ball is one of the most well-known Swiss-ball manufacturers.) 65-cm ball, $30 @ resistaball.com
6 | Bands
A cheaper and more versatile alternative to a cable station is to buy bands. A good elastic band can provide every bit the workout of a cable, as it applies the same constant tension to your muscles. Just loop or tie them around one of the beams on your power rack, and you've got an instant machine with which to do pulldowns, rows, and almost any other exercise you can think of. Bands can also travel with you if you need to take your gym on the road-they attach just as easily to doors. However, beware of flimsy bands that easily tear. The stretch bands made by Iron Woody are strong and durable for long-term use. intermediate package, $90 @ ironwoodyfitness.com
7 | Dumbbells
Here's where you really need to practice minimalism. You don't need a set of 20 dumbbells that go up in five-pound increments. That just creates more for you to trip over when you're crossing the room between supersets. A better option is to look for what's known as selectorized dumbbells-in which the dumbbell rests in the center of a stack of plates, and you can turn a knob to add weight or unload it. This gives you the total poundage you'd get from a wall-length set of dumbbells in the space of just two weights. The only drawback is that, as you go up in weight, you end up with a long and cumbersome dumbbell that makes certain lifts difficult (picture whacking your outer thigh every time you curl a 45-pounder).
The solution: Buy a selectorized set that goes up to about 50 pounds, and then buy regular dumbbells for the heavier weights you need-a pair of 70s, 80s, and so on. If you find that you need smaller increments between the larger dumbbells, try adding Plate Mates ($32 @ dumbbellbuddy.com). Buy a few pairs of the two-and-a- half- and five-pounders-they magnetically attach to any weight, instantly increasing the load. (Our favorite set of selectorized weights comes from PowerBlock.) 50-lb set, $349 @ powerblock.com
8 | A Punching Bag
Not only does pounding a heavy bag provide the manliest cardio workout possible, it also saves a ton of room and money. Who needs a $1,500-plus treadmill or stairclimber when you can do intervals on the bag, letting out your aggressions and building total-body power at the same time? Try a 50- to 100-pound bag (Everlast is the gold standard in this department) and hang it on your power rack. You can take it down and roll it into a corner when you're done. Note: To protect your hands, you should invest in some boxing gloves, too. 100-lb heavy vinyl bag, $100, and 12-oz bag gloves, $80 @ everlast.com
9 | Flooring
When it comes to laying the groundwork for your gym, it depends what kind of floor the room has. If it's carpeted, you may be all set-but be prepared to pull out some Febreze, as months of sweaty workouts have a way of leaching into carpeting. If it's hard-wood, you'd be wise to lay down some rubber matting. It'll protect the floor from the damage of dropped weights and scuffs, as well as being easier on your body during floor-based exercises. Look for the interlocking square variety (easy to put together, even if jigsaw puzzles aren't your thing), which can be trimmed with a utility knife to fit the corners of your room. The worst criticism we've heard about this kind of flooring is that it can be permanently indented if you leave a weight on it overnight (hint: rerack your weights), and that it can buckle or pop up from its seams. In the latter case, simply apply some heavy-duty double-sided tape and stick it to the floor. Rubber flooring is relatively inexpensive, resistant to water and odors, easy to clean, and should last for years. Check out the flooring made by Mitchell Rubber Products. $5.49 PER SQUARE FOOT @ GREATMATS.COM
Joe Stankowski is the author of Create the Ultimate Home Gym, available at homeexerciseresources.com.