One of the most common questions asked by someone considering a home gym is:
“How can I buy everything I need for the least amount of money?”
This is a frustrating query to answer.
First, everyone’s needs will differ depending on their fitness goals. For the purposes of this article, I will mainly discuss building a home gym for someone interested in weightlifting, whether for bodybuilding, powerlifting or general fitness.
Secondly, it is only with great reluctance that I would recommend inexpensive equipment that compromises on quality. A home gym is an investment in your fitness and physique. It is also a financial investment which will pay off in the long term. For that reason, I would always suggest buying good quality equipment that you will enjoy using. It’s also worth remembering that gym equipment from reputable brands will generally hold its value well.
Make Smart Purchases
Whilst quality should always be championed, it is possible to make smart purchases which will reduce the overall cost of a home gym. Usually this can be done by purchasing gym equipment which is versatile and can be used for a number of key exercises. Typically you will want to ensure that you can perform most of the main compound lifts.
It makes good sense to purchase a power rack, which is incredibly versatile and a core feature of any decent gym. However, if you are on a budget, look into cheaper variations, such as the half-rack or sumo rack.
There is absolutely no need to buy expensive equipment which only has one use, such as a seated row machine. Having said that, it does make sense to buy cheap equipment which hits muscle groups that are difficult to target with other items.
We recommend the following inexpensive but useful items:
A pull up bar to target your lats and traps is a great purchase to complement a set-up based on dumbbells and a bench. It is also a necessity if you opt for a half rack or sumo rack which lacks a pull-up bar. A pull up bar can be a fantastic alternative to a lat-pull down machine for even advanced lifters, as you can buy a weighted vest or weight belt to increase the difficulty as you progress.
A further benefit of the pull up bar is being able to perform hanging leg-raises.
Although very cheap, an ab wheel is a fantastic addition to a home gym. Even a home gym kitted out with a state of the art power rack, Olympic bench, plates and barbell will not be much good when you want to hit your abs. Rather than buying an expensive machine to compensate, it makes financial sense to buy a nifty little ab roller instead.
Thick bar grips
Thick bar grips are cylindrical pieces of silicone that can be placed around dumbbells, barbells and other gym equipment to increase the circumference of the handle. They are based on old strongman-style training methods and there is a body of scientific research that suggests thick bar grips will stimulate greater muscle activation in the hands and forearms. As a result, thick grips can help to develop bigger, stronger forearms and increase your grip strength.
You can save a lot of money by buying secondhand equipment from sites such as ebay, craigslist and gumtree. However, do so with caution. Often sellers may be trying their luck and for example might be trying to offload broken or faulty equipment or simply selling low quality equipment for higher than its recommended retail price! Always closely inspect items before buying them and look for signs of rust/damage.
Whilst good quality equipment should hold its value well, you can often find bargains if patient enough. However, be sure to do your due diligence and Google the reputation of the relevant equipment brand.
Basic set up
This will allow you to perform the following key compound lifts:
- Bench press,
- Shoulder press, and
- Dumbbell rows.
In addition, you can target biceps with curls and triceps with skull crushers, as well as a massive range of other exercises.
Dumbbells are extremely versatile and can be used to target all of the major muscle groups in your body.
However, they do have limitations. Perhaps the biggest issue is that dumbbells are not great for working your lower body. For example, squatting whilst holding dumbbells has issues, as you will need a strong grip to hold heavy weights, and you will find that your range of motion is constricted when compared to squatting with a barbell placed on your shoulders (as the dumbbells will reach the floor before you have gone ATG). For a list of dumbbell exercises that target your legs please see the following guide.
Adjustable dumbbells are a must have if you want to save money without compromising on range of weight iterations. They are far cheaper than a full set of commercial fixed weight dumbbells. The only downside is that it takes time to adjust the weight to your needs – time taken will vary depending on the mechanism for adjustment. I suggest a set of Ironmaster quick-lock dumbbells, which are high quality, durable and very much resemble normal fixed weight dumbbells.
Alternatively, you could buy a pair of good quality Olympic dumbbells, which allow for a a greater range of different weight iterations than adjustable dumbbells and have a very high max weight capacity (i.e. they are only limited by how many plates you can fit on each bar). I would also recommend Olympic dumbbells, as the weight plates and Olympic collars can be used with an Olympic barbell should you wish to upgrade your home gym in due course.
Adding a weight bench to your home gym will open up the possibility of performing lots of key exercises. It is a fundamental essential which you will see, without exception, in every level of commercial gym. A bench not only allows you to perform supine exercises, such as the bench press, but it also provides support for dumbbell rows and bench dips.
An adjustable weight bench is more versatile than a flat bench and, though typically more expensive, is generally a much better investment. With an adjustable bench you will be able to perform seated exercises, such as the shoulder press and seated curls, lateral raises etc. When purchasing an adjustable bench, make sure that the bench you are interested in has a suitable weight capacity and can be adjusted to as many different levels of incline (or decline) as you need.
Intermediate set up
If you want to go one step above the basic home gym set-up, then you will need to buy a half-rack, a weight bench, an Olympic barbell, Olympic plates and Olympic collars.
With these, you will be able to perform the following key compound lifts (as well as the Olympic lifts):
- bench press;
- shoulder press;
- pull ups (depending on the half-rack)
- squats; and
Unlike with the basic set-up, you will be able to hit your lower body hard and will be able to perform all of the main lifts promoted by the most popular strength training routines. The only real downside to the intermediate set-up is the lack of dumbbells for isolation exercises. You could compensate somewhat by purchasing an EZ bar for hitting your biceps and triceps.
A half-rack is generally a cheaper and smaller alternative to a power rack so is a great alternative if you are short on cash or space or both!
The main difference is that a half rack is usually not enclosed. This means that the safety catches do not go between two sets of uprights. Instead they extend out of one set of uprights and are not attached to anything on the other end. This obviously means that the safeties on a half rack are somewhat less robust than the safety catches on a power rack. However, if you buy a half rack from a reputable brand, this is unlikely to be an issue.
On a half-rack, you can position the j-hooks at different heights to allow you to squat, bench, shoulder press etc.
Many half-racks also come with a pull up bar, so you can target your back as well.
We recommend the Rogue HR-2 Half Rack.
Olympic barbell, plates and collars
An Olympic barbell might not look that expensive when compared to a set of adjustable dumbbells. However, you also have to factor in the cost of Olympic collars and weight plates. The costs of plates and collars will vary significantly depending on their quality. To help find the right Olympic collars for you, see our detailed guide.
Because a barbell (on its own) is less versatile than dumbbells, I consider it to be slightly less cost efficient to go straight for a barbell if you are on a tight budget. However, when combined with a half-rack or power rack, a barbell becomes a much better option, as you can perform all of the main compound lifts.
Even without a rack you can perform a number of exercises , including deadlifts, the clean and snatch and the clean and jerk. However, you may need to invest in a suitable platform or padding to protect your floor.
An Olympic barbell is approx. 2 inches in diameter, so be sure that you buy the right size collars and weight plates.
In terms of weight plates, a standard 300lb Olympic set is a good place to start – and you can always buy more plates as you progress. A 300lb set should contain the following (excluding barbell):
- 2 x 45lb
- 2 x 35lb
- 2 x 25lb
- 2 x 10lb
- 4 x 5lb
- 2 x 2.5lb
Advanced set up
If you want to make sure your home gym has pretty much everything you could need (without breaking the bank), then I would suggest purchasing everything under the intermediate set-up above, as well as a set of Olympic dumbbells or adjustable dumbbells. Once you have those items, you will be able to perform key compound and isolated movements.
However, you may find that you may to mix up your routine or make your work out more challenging. If that happens, you can start to buy add-ons to your rack, such as dip handles, landmine attachments etc.