How to build a home gym: from a set of resistance bands to a full gym (and everything in between)
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, many of us are choosing to work out at home (or our fitness facilities have been closed for a long while). When gyms first shut down in mid-March, my clients who weren't already working out at home scrambled to get set up for home fitness.
If you're looking to set up (or expand) your home fitness equipment--or maybe even build a full home gym--this article is for you! If you're thinking about upgrading your equipment in the future, I'll be laying out my absolute must-haves, in order of importance, plus extra nice-to-haves.
I'll be presenting pieces of equipment in a specific order, starting with the most important. As we move down the list, I'm making the assumption that all previous pieces of equipment have been purchased. In reality, most people don't follow this linear trajectory when building their home gyms. I work with 50 clients at once, and each one has a different home equipment set-up (and of course each of their programs are individualized and tailored to what they have available).
So, use this article as a guide, and possibly consider filling in "gaps" in your equipment collection as you see fit.
Why not just do bodyweight workouts?
The options are endless for bodyweight moves, from push-up and plank variations to conditioning moves like mountain climbers and jump squats, and from staples like Bulgarian split squats to superhero-level moves like one-arm pull-ups.
Training at home with only bodyweight moves, however, has its downsides. It's much more difficult to adjust the difficulty level of a bodyweight move compared to a resistance band move, for example, so beginners will often find bodyweight-only workouts to be too challenging (and this could possibly lead to injury).
Folks with larger bodies and those with injuries or chronic joint issues may also find bodyweight-only workouts aren't fully suited to their needs.
For experienced trainees, it can be difficult to progress certain movements without adding external resistance. And certain muscle groups are very challenging to train with only bodyweight. The main group that comes to my mind is the muscles of the back (rhomboids, lats, etc.). If you don't have a pull-up bar (or are unable to perform unassisted pull-ups yet), there are very few ways to train the back muscles. This innovative floor slide exercise from Meghan Callaway is an example.
So, if you're gonna work out at home and bodyweight-only workouts aren't ideal, what do I suggest?
The bare minimum: resistance bands
For working out at home, my only non-negotiable equipment is a set of resistance bands. If my clients are just starting out and don't yet own any fitness equipment, this is the first thing I get them to purchase. Resistance bands take up next to no space, the exercise options are endless, and they're damn challenging! How's that for bang for your buck?!
There are several types of resistance bands; what you're looking for is stretchy tubing with handles. They usually come in sets of 5 different strengths, which gives you lots of different resistance options. Also keep in mind that you can double-up (or triple-up!) bands for even more resistance options as your strength increases.
Make sure that the resistance band set you get comes with a door anchor. This is standard and should be included with every set, but do make sure! Having a door anchor drastically increases the number of exercises you'll be able to do.
What to look for: A set of 4 or 5 resistance bands of different strengths that come with foam handles and a door anchor. Most sets also come with ankle straps, but these aren't as important.
Example: Here's the set I (and most of my clients) own.
Approximate investment: $35 - $40 USD
A set of resistance bands will allow you to perform full-body workouts that challenge all your major muscle groups. However, it's generally easier to train the muscles of our upper body with resistance bands, and the selection of exercises is much larger for upper body versus lower body.
Thus, my next suggestion is to purchase a set of "mini-bands". These are flat, looped resistance bands that are most often used for lower-body exercises like glute bridges, clamshells, and squats.
If you're allergic to latex, look for mini-bands made from fabric. I bought myself a fabric set recently, and they are much stronger than latex ones. This is great to challenge your lower body, but makes certain movements (like banded bicycle crunches) impossible! I like having both sets on hand for lots of options.
If the strongest mini-band is too easy for you, start doubling up. If you're doing glute bridges, for example, where the mini-band would sit right above your knees, use one mini-band there, and another around your shins.
What to look for: A set of 4 or 5 mini bands of different strengths.
Example: Here's a set of mini-bands that includes more options (7 strengths) than you'd normally find in a set.
Approximate investment: $15 - 20 USD
Here are my client Ayanna's resistance bands ready for a workout, as well as her training buddy, Gabriel! Ayanna points out that a compact set of resistance bands is perfect for folks living in smaller spaces. You basically have a gym that fits into a small bag!
By the way, my latest book is called Resistance Band Workouts: 50 Exercises for Strength Training At Home or On The Go. In addition to teaching you correct form for 50 exercises, it lays out how to create your own workout programs, whether you're working out twice a week or every day.
Cardio conditioning: get a jump rope!
At this stage in the game (i.e., well before building a full-on home gym), you're likely not investing in cardio equipment. Instead, get yourself a jump rope! Swimming and jump rope are the only forms of cardio/conditioning I do. (I swim in a lake down the street from my house 3 days a week.)
A jump rope is extremely portable for travel or outdoor workouts, and it provides excellent "bang for your buck" when it comes to getting in a really challenging workout in a short amount of time.
What to look for: There are two main types of jump ropes: standard PVC, and cable for speed work. PVC ropes are great for all-around conditioning, but if you want to take your rope jumping to the next level, you'll need a thin cable speed rope. This will allow you to do double- and triple-unders, and perform jumps much faster than a PVC rope.
Example: My favourite brand of standard ropes is Buddy Lee. They do have speed ropes available; I just haven't tried 'em yet. This is the Buddy Lee rope I use most often. My favourite speed rope is 5Billion.
Approximate investment: $19 - $49 USD
Recovery and mobility
A regular mobility practice will complement your strength training and improve recovery from your workouts. I suggest investing in a foam roller, which can be used not just to roll out tight muscles, but also as a prop for some important stretches.
For everything you need to know about foam rollers (including how not to use foam rollers), check out my second book: Foam Rolling: 50 Exercises for Massage, Injury Prevention, and Core Strength.
What to look for: Look for a full-length (36") foam roller so you can lie on it lengthwise with your head on one end and your tailbone on the other end. Most foam rollers at this length are solid. If you want to amp up your self myofascial release (fit pro speak for "self massage"), try a "Grid" foam roller that has ridges built in. Most of these types of foam rollers are shorter, so make sure you also have a full-length roller.
Approximate investment: $30 USD
Your next step: rounding out your home fitness equipment
Some of my clients invest in resistance bands and mini-bands, and stop there. The variety of exercises is endless, and you'll be able to do very effective workouts from home. Moving on to additional equipment is entirely optional, but has its benefits. Typically, more advanced trainees will require more equipment options.
Next on the list is a stability ball. This does take up significantly more space than a set of resistance bands, but if you're going to be doing home workouts long-term, it's worth it. If you're seriously tight on space, skip this and move on to the suspension trainer.
Adding a stability ball to the mix will allow you to challenge your core in many different ways, and adds an element of instability to the mix (which resistance bands don't offer). There are also countless stability ball-specific movements that aren't possible with resistance bands, like roll-outs, hamstring curls, pikes, tucks, push-ups, and much more.
What to look for: The most common stability ball size is 55 cm. If you're taller than 5'10", you may prefer the 65 cm size instead.
Example: Here's an example of a higher-end option. My awesome client Natasha has one of these, and loves it.
Approximate investment: $25 - 75 USD
Got resistance bands and a stability ball, and want to continue levelling-up your fitness equipment? Next on the list is a suspension trainer. Most commonly known by their brand name--TRX--this piece of equipment is absolutely brilliant.
Similar to resistance bands, one piece of equipment allows you to perform hundreds of exercises. For home workouts, suspension trainers come with door anchors. You'll need to make sure you have a sturdy door and frame, as well as space surrounding the door to perform your moves.
What to look for: Make sure your suspension trainer comes with a door anchor! You'll be able to use it both indoors and outdoors.
Example: Unfortunately my favourite brand (WOSS) went out of business, so I haven't personally tried any options other than the standard TRX brand, which is common in commercial gyms and personal training studios. TRX will always be the most expensive option, but there are others to look into (I just can't vouch for them as I haven't tried them myself). Here's a low-cost ($46 USD) suspension trainer.
Approximate investment: $46 - 120 USD (most will be on the higher end)
Pull-up bar and assistance band(s) [optional]
Next up, specifically for those who want to learn how to do their first unassisted pull-up, is a good quality doorway pull-up bar. Most of my clients are working toward strength goals, and one of the most common (and one of the most challenging, but rewarding!) is nailing an unassisted pull-up for the first time. My clients who are already busting out pull-ups then work on increasing their consecutive reps, and learning challenging new variations (typewriter pull-ups, hockey grip pull-ups, weighted pull-ups, etc.)
If you want to start working toward your first-ever pull-up, you'll need to get yourself a pull-up bar!
What to look for: Make sure you get a pull-up bar that hooks over your doorframe. What you don't want to get is one that squeezes into a doorframe like a shower curtain rod. That's an accident waiting to happen! An apartment my husband and I lived in for a few years had frameless doorframes, so we nailed a 2x4 to the top of a door in order to use a pull-up bar.
Most people will need to bend their legs when using doorframe pull-up bars, as the bar isn't very high. I highly suggest finding a bar that sits higher than the doorframe, so you can practice pull-ups with full form (straight legs). Unfortunately this type of bar is much more difficult to find.
Example: Here's an example of a standard doorway pull-up bar--the most common type. However, I'd highly recommend investing in an elevated pull-up bar that sits above your door. I've used this one in my office door for several years, and love it.
Approximate investment: $40 - 70 USD
Because pull-ups and chin-ups are my favourite strength exercises, I went all-out and invested in an outdoor pull-up rig. If you're not lazy like me, you could build your own! I don't use this rig as often as the pull-up bar on my squat rack, but I do use it when a training buddy and I are doing supersets, and one of the exercises involves the squat rack. When my buddy is using the rack, I'm outside on the pull-up rig. It's also fun to bust out a few pull-up or chin-up reps here and there while doing yard work!
If you're working toward your first unassisted pull-up, you'll need some pull-up assistance bands. Work with your coach (shameless self promo: check out my coaching programs here) to develop a tailored, specific training plan. You'll be performing a lot of moves off the pull-up bar (like hollow holds, deadlifts, grip strengtheners like weighted carries, etc.), but also a lot of moves on the bar, like hangs, negative reps, and more.
Along with other pull-up training progressions, assisted pull-ups should be part of your workout plan. For this you'll need pull-up assistance bands of various strengths. At first you'll use a thicker band that gives you more assistance, and as you gain strength, you'll use progressively less assistance.
By the way, the assisted pull-up machine at your gym is not an effective way of training for a real pull-up. It takes your core and glutes out of the equation, and doesn't teach you to stabilize your whole body as it hangs from a bar. All this means your work on this machine won't translate very effectively into full, unassisted pull-ups.
What to look for: Pull-up assistance bands are long, looped, flat resistance bands. They're usually colour coded by strength, even across different brands. The most common strengths are green (more assistance), purple (less assistance), and red (even less assistance).
Examples: This is the most commonly used assistance band strength. If you can't yet do a few reps using this band, work on developing your overall upper body strength and your pull-up specific strength first. As you get stronger, move down to the next band, and finally the lowest strength.
Approximate investment: $15 - 27 USD per band
Keep in mind that pull-ups and chin-ups aren't the only thing you can do with this type of resistance band:
A mini gym at home
So, by now you've got the following:
✔ Set of regular resistance bands
✔ Set of mini-bands
✔ Jump rope
✔ Stability ball
✔ Suspension trainer
✔ Pull-up bar and assistance band(s) [optional]
Here's your next step:
Dumbbells and an adjustable bench
For folks seriously committed to strength training at home, the next step is to acquire a set of dumbbells. Many of us already have a set or two of dumbbells lying around, but I'm talkin' about a full set of dumbbells.
If you're going to invest in a set, I'd highly recommend getting an adjustable one, which will save both space and money.
I've had the Bowflex 552 set for over 3 years. It's used between 8 and 10 times a week by 3 different people, and it still looks (and feels) the same as when it first came out of the box. At 15 different weights in one set of dumbbells, it's one of the best investments in fitness equipment I've ever made.
You can also invest in individual pairs of dumbbells, but you'll need to keep purchasing heavier ones as you gain strength, and they'll take up much more space than an adjustable set. The only downside to adjustable dumbbells is that they're typically slightly larger in size than regular dumbbells, which can make some exercises a bit awkward. To me, it's a small price to pay and easy to get used to.
To get the most out of your dumbbells, you'll need an adjustable weight lifting bench. Without one, you won't be able to do bench presses (flat and inclined), step ups, Bulgarian split squats, supported or prone dumbbell rows, decline curls, and many more fundamental strength movements.
What to look for: Adjustable dumbbells typically range in weight from 5 to either 25, 50, or 90 pounds. The set I have goes up to 52.5 pounds; I likely would have purchased a heavier set if I didn't also own barbells and plates. Get a set that will allow you to train at your current strength level, but also includes options outside your current strength level.
For a bench, make sure the backrest is adjustable. It's handy to have the seat adjust as well, but it's not as important. I suggest getting a bench that has minimal additions like large rollers to keep your legs in place for sit-ups, as these tend to get in the way of other strength moves. Also, if you're tight on space, look for a foldable bench.
Approximate investment: $350 - 675 USD for adjustable weights; $90 - $200 USD for a bench.
Bonus: I recommend you get an elevated stand to go with your adjustable dumbbells, so you're not constantly picking them up off the floor whenever you want to change the weight. Here's the Bowflex model.
Here's my client Nicole's home workout space, including a set of adjustable dumbbells and a foldable bench. Equipment that easily fits into a closet when not in use!
Dumbbells and kettlebells are very close in priority on my list, so if you're interested in learning kettlebell-specific strength movements (like Turkish get-ups, swings, cleans, front squats, snatches, and more), you may want to invest in a set of kettlebells before a set of dumbbells.
The reason I listed kettlebells after dumbbells is that acquiring a full set of kettlebells will be pricier than an adjustable set of dumbbells, and they'll take up more space.
There are two main types of kettlebells: standard cast iron kettlebells, and competition kettlebells. Standard kettlebells vary in size based on weight, while competition kettlebells are all the same size, regardless of weight. Competition kettlebells have a slightly smaller handle diameter, which might be more comfortable for some lifters, and they're designed for single-arm movements. Cast iron kettlebells are usually more comfortable for two-handed moves.
Here's my competition kettlebell collection. And yes, my training buddy and I painted some of them so the set resembles a rainbow :) I do have a few standard cast iron 'bells as well.
What to look for: If you're a beginner or intermediate lifter, standard kettlebells are the way to go. If you're an advanced lifter, you've mastered the basic kettlebell movements, you want to take part in kettlebell competitions, or you're a Professional Fitness Nut, you may want to invest in competition kettlebells.
Approximate investment: $300 USD (a few different weights) - $1,000+ USD (decent selection of competition kettlebells)
A fully-equipped, badass home gym
Ready to take the plunge and build a full-on home gym? I recommend a space at least 10 feet wide and 12 feet long. High ceilings (i.e. 9 feet or more) are best. Your gym will need to be housed in a basement, garage, or detached shop on your property. A few of my clients have built full home gyms in large bedrooms of their houses. If you're planning on adding a squat rack to your space, you'll need a width of at least 10 feet to allow for the 7-foot standard Olympic bar plus room on either side to load plates.
My garage gym is 10 feet wide by 16 feet long. This space is perfect for two people to work out simultaneously, if workouts are planned in advance to consider who's using what and how much space each person needs for any given exercise.
The most important piece of equipment every home gym needs is a squat rack. Along with your rack you'll need a standard Olympic barbell and weight plates.
I'm assuming that most people building full gyms already have all the aforementioned pieces of equipment, so you'll be able to use your bench in the squat rack for bench pressing (flat and incline), and of course you'll be able to perform barbell back squats! You can also use your squat rack to anchor your suspension trainer and resistance bands, practice pull-ups and chin-ups, and much more.
What to look for: What you're looking for is a standard squat rack, also called a power cage. There are countless options, but you just need these main features: "walk-in" cage set-up (i.e. bars on 3 sides), adjustable safety bars, pins/small bars so you can lift a barbell off the outside of the squat rack (e.g. for deadlifts), and a pull-up attachment.
Example: Here's the squat rack I got for my gym, after careful measurement. It's slightly shorter than standard height, as I've got low rafters to deal with in my garage.
Approximate investment: $300 - 600 USD
I opted to purchase two barbells because I mostly work out with training partners. One of us could be using a barbell for landmine work, for example, while the other is bench pressing. Or one of us could be doing deadlifts while the other is doing squats. Start with one barbell, and see whether you need an additional one down the road.
What to look for: Look for a standard, 20-kilo (44 pound), 7-foot-long Olympic barbell.
Example: I went all-out and purchased unconventionally-coloured barbells, as you can see in the pic above. Gotta match my overall red-and-black theme!
Approximate investment: $250 - 400 USD per barbell
There are two main types of barbell plates: standard and bumper. I opted for bumper plates, which are all the same diameter regardless of weight. They're made of rubber, while standard plates are made of metal. The metal plates are less expensive, so start there!
Note: if you're deadlifting less than 135 pounds with standard plates (so you'd be using plates smaller than the standard 45-pound size), elevate your bar so you're not lifting it from the ground. One way to do this is to use the pins on the outside of your squat rack.
What to look for: When purchasing plates, make sure they have 2-inch holes to fit a standard Olympic barbell. You'll need a good selection of weights: 5 lbs, 10 lbs, 25 lbs, 35 lbs, 45 lbs (a pair of each). You may want to get additional sets of 5- and 10-pound plates to give you more total weight options.
Approximate investment: $300 - $700 USD for a full set, depending on type and total number of plates
Bonus: It's extremely useful to have a plate rack to store your plates. Here's the one I have.
Fractional plates: If you're a serious lifter or a newbie, you may want to consider fractional plates. These are small barbell plates in weights like 1/2 a pound. These are super useful for gradually adding to lifts like bench press and overhead press. Here's a Rogue set as an example.
Expect to spend at least $5,000 on a full home gym, not including cardio equipment. I spent a total of $10,000 CAD, but that included installing new flooring, a second window, and a new garage roof.
If you're serious about building a full home gym, you should now have the following equipment:
✔ Set of regular resistance bands
✔ Set of mini-bands
✔ Jump rope
✔ Stability ball
✔ Suspension trainer
✔ Pull-up bar and assistance band(s) [optional]
✔ A full set of dumbbells (I recommend adjustable)
✔ Weight lifting bench
✔ Kettlebells [optional]
✔ Squat rack
✔ Barbell plates
This collection of equipment is all you need for well-rounded, effective strength training. If a client of mine had this equipment available, I could program workouts for them for years without feeling limited.
But...what about cardio?
You'll notice I haven't included any cardio equipment (other than a jump rope) in my suggestions. That's for a few reasons:
Cardio equipment generally takes up a lot of space.
If you do get cardio equipment, the type will depend on your training goal. If you're a serious runner, you may need a treadmill if you live in a colder climate so you can train in the winter. If you're a cyclist, you'll need a bike trainer and/or spin bike. If you have joint issues and impact activities are off the table, you'll need a rower, elliptical, or stepper.
Cardio equipment is used for one purpose, and it's expensive. All the strength equipment I've suggested can be used for countless different moves.
I don't have cardio equipment in my gym because it would take away valuable space I need for my strength moves, and for two people to be able to work out in the gym at once. I'm also not a cardio equipment kinda gal -- I'm not sure I've ever spent more than 10 minutes at a time on a treadmill, spin bike, or elliptical. For cardio I jump rope outside, and swim 3 days a week (lately it's been lake swimming as our pool has been closed for many months due to COVID).
Oh, and I also have a bike desk, on which I spend an hour or two a day while working.
Compact cardio equipment
Even as a non-fan of standard cardio equipment, I do have some suggestions for cardio workouts at home.
I just backed a Kickstarter campaign for an extremely portable rowing, skiing, and paddling machine. I'm not so sure about the paddling and skiing options; I was mostly looking for a compact rowing machine. This one takes compact to a whole new level!
I haven't had a chance to test this out yet, as it'll be shipped in February 2021, but it looks promising.
Call me crazy, but I love this thing. Don some leg warmers, blast your favourite 80's tunes, and pretend you're in a workout video released on VHS. I've used this mini-stepper for a few years now, usually while on the phone. It's not going to give you a super intense cardio workout, but it's fun and it's better than sitting on the couch!
What equipment should you not get?
The world of home fitness is absolutely full of B.S., ineffective contraptions. I could write multiple books on the fitness equipment you shouldn't get, but I've seen two pieces of equipment pop up more often, so I'll point them out here.
For 99.9% of us, standing on an unstable surface doesn’t translate into anything we do in our daily lives. BOSU balls and other “instability” training implements started as rehab equipment, and later got picked up by trainers. Well-designed studies show that professional athletes who performed BOSU ball training *decreased* their athletic performance. Other studies show an increased risk of knee injuries with BOSU ball training when used for lower body instability.
We can train balance just fine (and much more effectively) on stable surfaces. That’s what we’re walkin’ around on all day anyway! How many athletes do you know who play their respective sports on wobbly, air-filled surfaces?
I reserve BOSU balls for a very few select moves with clients (like push-ups and planks on an overturned BOSU, where the feet remain grounded and the upper body is unstable). Just save your money and get an awesome new kettlebell or two instead.
A Smith machine is a squat rack with a barbell attached to a rail. The barbell moves up and down a track. The vast majority of commercial gyms have at least one Smith machine--and sometimes, commercial gyms have only Smith machines, with no regular squat racks that have freestanding barbells (pro tip: don't join one of these gyms).
In a Smith machine, the bar moves only up and down, not side-to-side or forwards and backwards. Not only does this put you in unnatural positions (which could lead to injury), but it also means you're not training your stabilizer muscles that would be working if you used a regular barbell.
For more on why training with a Smith machine might not be a good idea, check out this article.
Owning home fitness equipment is kinda like getting tattoos. You're always going to want more! The suggestions laid out here cover all the basics, but depending on your training goals and preferences, you may want to invest in a few additional pieces of equipment. Some of mine include adjustable steps/risers, gymnastics rings, push-up handles, a dip belt (for weighted pull-ups), a medicine ball, a foam barbell cover for hip thrusts, and more I'm probably forgetting at the moment.