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Building a home gym can end up taking both a lot of time and money. The biggest problem we see is people forgoing the most important and versatile pieces of equipment and instead going after what’s shiny. Here’s what you need to understand as you grow a garage gym–despite all of the many pieces of equipment you may end up buying, you’ll likely only use a few pieces for 90% of your training. So, start with the basics, and buy quality equipment form the start. After helping, quite literally, thousands of people build home gyms, Coop believes there are 10 home gym essentials that nearly every home gym owner could benefit from.
To be completely honest, you could get by with just a couple of items. Actually, now that I’ve typed that and thought about it, you would be fine with a single item if you were creative enough and didn’t get bored easily. However, that is the crux of the issue–the amount of gym equipment you own will depend on how easily you get tired of doing the same movements in your training. For this reason, we recommend building your home gym on essentials that you can use often and for a large variety of movements.
I don’t think anyone would argue that a barbell is necessary for the creation of a top-notch home gym. In fact, the barbell (along with weight plates that will be discussed later) is the most important piece of equipment that you will need because it is the cornerstone for doing the majority of strength training exercises including but not limited to the squat, bench press, power clean, deadlift, military press, and curls. I like the barbell so much that I wrote why I think the Barbell is King for any home gym owner on Starting Strength.
You’ll want an Olympic size barbell of high quality that will last. Lower quality barbells will chip and crack, tear up your hands, and even bend or completely fall apart even with limited use. The barbell is the one thing that you actually touch while performing your lifts and you want to make sure to purchase one of high quality. There are likely more barbells available for sale than just about any other training equipment category. Due to their prevalence and the amount of companies making bars, there are now more good bars for sale at great prices than any other time in history.
The first thing to do is to figure out what is the most important features are for you and then find the barbell that fits those features. Do you want an aggressive or passive knurl, how much whip do you want the bar to have, how much spin should the bar have, does the coating matter to you or is it of little consequence? A lot of these decisions have to do with personal choice or how much weight you will be using for each lift. For instance, many barbells will boast of a tensile strength rated at over 220,000 PSI when 190,000 PSI will fit over 99% of lifters in the world. Some of these decisions are extremely important and some of them are not.
If you are just starting out on your weightlifting journey, you probably will not notice the specs mentioned in a barbell review. It’s kind of like a novice golfer using their grandfather’s clubs from the 1960s or a brand new set of Nike irons. The truth is they are going to shoot 120 regardless. But the better you get, the more you notice the minutiae, and it’s the same way with the barbell. If you don’t know anything about the knurl or how the sleeves will affect the spin, then just make sure you get an Olympic bar that weighs 45 pounds and has at least a 150K PSI tensile strength steel shaft.
Our basic recommendations for barbells is as follows:
For most people, the Rogue Bar 2.0 is the best value barbell.
If you are mainly into powerlifting, then the Rogue Ohio Power Bar is the best value powerlifting barbell.
The best, budget-priced barbell in our opinion is the FringeSport Wonder Bar V2.
If you’re into Olympic Weightlifting, we recommend the American Barbell Performance Bearing Bar.
You can see all of our recommendations for barbells and why we picked them in our Best Olympic Barbell Guide for our recommendations.
The squat rack will probably be your biggest investment when putting together a home gym, and as such the purchase should be researched thoroughly. Not only will your squat rack take the most money of anything you buy, but it will also take up the most amount of space in your gym.
There are so many racks that are available and all with certain strengths and weaknesses that it is important for you to understand what you want or need. You should know your space limitations, price limitations, safety requirements, and which accessories you find important for your workouts. Because this is your biggest home gym investment it should also be the one that you spend the most time understanding so that you do not make a mistake in what will be the focal point of your garage gym.
For most people, we recommend getting a power rack. Power racks are the safest type of squat rack because they allow the trainee to work inside the cage. You can set up the spotter arms at whatever height you’d like to prevent injury or damage to your floor. In addition, power racks will, 99% of the time, have pull-up bars at the top and are often modular so you can build your rack over time to whatever size you’d like.
For comparisons to other racks, check out our Best Squat Racks Guide here.
Along with the barbell, weight plates are important because they affect almost every other lift that you’ll perform. The bottom line is that without a barbell, your squat rack and weight plates are useless; but without your weight plates, your barbell and squat rack are useless. I could keep going, but you get the point.
Just like when you purchase a barbell, it’s important that you stay away from the older standard size and focus on Olympic size barbells, the same holds true for weight plates. The standard size is a 1-inch diameter hole that only standard size barbells can accommodate. The Olympic size option opens up many additional features and not to mention they are easier to use and oftentimes sturdier.
Now that you have settled on Olympic sized plates, you must decide what type of material you want to be used in the production of your plates. There are many choices including traditional iron plates, rubber bumper plates, or urethane bumper plates. The iron plates have been used from the beginning, but they don’t look as good to some people (personally I love the look and feel of iron) and they can cause more damage to the floor of your gym. Rubber or urethane bumpers are usually quieter, not as destructive, and do not lose their aesthetic qualities as easily. Iron is almost always cheaper, and the rubber usually has an odor accompanying it. You can’t go wrong with either, the old axiom that “weight is weight” holds true, but if you plan on dropping the bar, you should avoid iron.
With weight plates, while there are a lot of decisions to make, remember that every plate will allow you to perform the exercises that you want so there shouldn’t be any over-thinking on this purchase. At the same time, the quiet, non-destructive function of bumper plates might be exactly what your space needs and it’s important to know that going in.
To see all of our recommendations for bumper plates, check out our Best Bumper Plates Guide here.
The weight bench may not be the most essential piece of home gym equipment, but for most people, it will end up being used a lot. If you purchase the right one, you can use it for a large percentage of the exercises you will perform either by laying on it (bench), sitting on it (shoulder work, curls, etc.), or using it to prop yourself up (rows, triceps, etc.). You may even use it to get more depth in some of your leg work and ab exercises. The bottom line is that it will get used daily and it’s important to make the right purchase that gives you the ability to do all of the above exercises and more.
When it comes to purchasing your weight bench that goes with the squat rack in your gym, you have 2 basic options to choose from: A Flat Utility Bench or an Adjustable Bench.
The flat utility bench is the standard for most garage gyms and heavy powerlifters. In general, the flat bench is sturdier, has a more comfortable pad, can often hold more weight than its adjustable counterpart, and most importantly for those reading this, is much cheaper. For powerlifters, those are the most important features that a weight bench could have and so it’s what is usually purchased.
The adjustable bench has one major advantage over the flat bench...versatility. In general, the adjustable benches offer more variety of exercises, greater portability, and numerous incline and decline positions oftentimes from 90 degrees all the way down to well below 180. The adjustable bench definitely has its market and if you are not into powerlifting but are just trying to get into shape, or prefer isolation movements, then an adjustable bench is probably for you.
The other things that you have to look for when purchasing your weight bench is the quality of the steel and construction, the maximum weight it can hold, and the quality and thickness of the pad. Most of Titan’s benches will check off the quality boxes that you have, including at least 11-gauge steel and a high enough weight limit that you and the weight you are lifting will fit easily (except for their cheapest adjustable bench which is one of the worst pieces of equipment we’ve used for some time.) Titan also offers both adjustable and flat benches with differing arrays of quality and features.
To see all of our weight bench recommendations, check out our Best Weight Benches Guide here.
Dumbbells are the next most important thing for your home gym. While you can perform most exercises and work out every part of your body with nothing but the items that have been mentioned previously, adding dumbbells into the mix can bring in a huge amount of versatility to your workout. Your dumbbell decision should be similar to your weight plate decision because a 35-pound dumbbell weighs 35 pounds no matter where you buy it or who makes it (except when companies cut corners and make them much lighter, but that’s a subject for a different article.)
With that said, there are a couple of features that could help you make up your mind about which dumbbells to purchase. You could purchase a complete set of fixed dumbbells going from 10 pounds to whatever your max may be in 5-pound intervals. Oftentimes dumbbells will come in sets from 10 to 50 pounds and then supplemental sets above the 50-pound mark until you reach your desired upper weight increments. If you are buying new, you should purchase rubber coated dumbbells because they are generally not much more expensive and can improve the life of the dumbbell along with the life of your gym floor.
The next option would be to purchase a plate-loaded, adjustable dumbbell set. For the plate loaded option, you would have to choose between standard and Olympic sizing, but since you have already purchased Olympic sized weight plates for your Olympic size barbell, the choice is obvious. The bottom line for purchasing a plate loaded dumbbell set is that it will save you money...A lot of money. Since you are already purchasing a high-quality barbell with high-quality weight plates, you might as well use what you have purchased for the less important dumbbell decision. Not only will you save on price, but you will save on space as well.
Rather than purchasing 40 individual dumbbells, you can purchase just two dumbbell handles (or potentially 4 if you purchase 2 different sizes) and they will take up very little space. The quality of these dumbells are usually as high as the barbells of the company selling them and if you purchase a set of Titan dumbbells, then the specs from the barbell will transfer to your dumbbells as well giving you some much-valued consistency in knurling. The downside, of course, is the ease of transitioning from one weight to the next and the work and energy used to do that. Rather than just picking up the next set of dumbbells, you have to take the time changing and racking the weight, and that can kill momentum in your lifting.
The third option, an adjustable dumbbell set, combines the best features of the first 2, but with one major flaw...quality. If you are planning on lifting heavy and need the weights to last for a long time even if handled roughly, then an adjustable dumbbell set isn’t always the best idea (unless you go with something like Powerblocks.) There are some great options out there, and they do make a lot of sense for a garage gym, but if you are throwing around heavyweight, I would stick to one of the more traditional options.
Kettlebells provide great supplemental movements and exercises to a program, but similar to your dumbbell purchase, you should spend less time on your decision here compared to your decision for the big three (squat rack, barbell, weight plates). There are plenty of options available from a traditional cast iron kettlebell (the ones we’d suggest for most people, to your competition style kettlebell set, to your plate loadable kettlebell swing, all the way to your adjustable competition style kettlebell and any of these options will work fine for swings.
Any of your loadable swings or adjustable kettlebells are great for garage gyms in that they take up very little space when not in use and they’re cheaper overall. There are downsides to both of these options as the adjustable option is expensive and the plate loadable option is somewhat awkward and slow when loading/unloading the plates.
The more common choice is the cast iron or competition style kettlebell set. The downside of this option is that more pieces take up more space and as you add more pieces to your collection, the price continues to rise as well. To fix this issue, decide what weights you actually need before purchasing a pre-chosen set. You may only do 1-2 exercises with a specific weight each time thus limiting the number of pieces that need to be purchased. If you use kettlebells extensively (which probably most of you do not, and if you are, you should go with higher quality bells) then an adjustable set is probably for you. If you are more selective and specific in your kettlebell needs, purchase the cast iron kettlebells in just the size and numbers that you need and stay away from the prearranged sets.
Depending on the space in your garage gym, the best idea would be to purchase both gymnastic rings and a pull-up bar. In fact, the squat rack you purchase may, and if you choose our Top Picks it definitely will, have a pull-up bar connected to it. If this is the case, and you have room for gymnastic rings, buy them. They are inexpensive, take up very little room, and can add a lot to your training regimen. If you’re not purchasing a power rack with a pull-up bar on it, then your pull-up bar is more important than the gymnastic rings as long as you are not designing a garage gym to do predominantly bodyweight movements.
If you are purchasing a pull-up bar separately, don’t buy a door-mounted unit. They are less safe, can hold less weight, and are just not very nice looking no matter which door frame you use. Instead, go with the stud mounted system that can either be installed into studs in your ceiling or your wall. While the stud mounted pull up bars are usually a little more expensive, it will be a lot safer and look a lot better. If you are purchasing gymnastic rings as well, we suggest wood over nylon, unless left outdoors.
Conditioning equipment should be one of the latter choices when you decide to build a home gym. Although I’d consider it somewhat a home gym essential, I don’t think it’s at the top. The reason being?
It’s easy to go run outside or do burpees on your floor.
Lifting weight is a bit more difficult and requires some specialized equipment in most cases (unless you want to lift logs and rocks.)
The cheapest piece of cardio equipment I’d recommend is a jump rope. After that, I’d suggest a sled. After that, either an air bike like the Rogue Echo Bike or a rower like the Concept 2 Model D Rower or a SkiErg like the Concept 2 SkiErg.
The reason these pieces of equipment are great is because of the value they provide. Most people think they need to go out and buy a treadmill as their first piece of equipment. This is almost always a bad idea. Not only can you run outside, but a treadmill is
Start small and if after a few months you still really want that treadmill, then get it. But not until then.
The foundation of your training is your flooring. There are a myriad of options available to fill your gym with for your feet to grip, press, and pull against.
Here’s what you need to consider, what is the type of flooring that will best protect your foundation, equipment, and body. For most people, most home gyms, and most training styles, rubber flooring is your best bet.
Rubber flooring is firm enough to prevent destabilization during squats, deadlifts, and other ground-based movements, improve grip between your shoes and the floor, and not soak up sweat and other liquids. Yet, it will compress enough to prevent damage to your foundation and weight equipment.
We suggest avoiding EVA foam tiles and going with rubber instead. Foam will compress over time, decrease your stability, collect moisture, and not last nearly as long.
You can go with rubber rolls, but for most people, the best value exercise mats are rubber stall mats from your local farm and feed store like Tractor Supply.
This one may seem silly, but I’m not joking, a leaf blower is an absolute essential to a garage gym. Either listen to me now before you start or just remember to get one after a couple training sessions and getting annoyed by chalk, leaves, and dust cluttering your floor.
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