How I Began Building the Best Home Gym

I absolutely hated going to the gym. They only had one place to do barbell squats and it was typically in use by college guys doing arm curls for hours. I’d leave the house at 3 am and drive across town and would still have to wait in line for a bench press. Throw in my extreme lack of motivation and you’ve got a recipe for never going to the gym again.

The problem was lifting is really fun and great exercise. So what can you do? Well, what any reasonable person would do in my situation. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on the highest quality equipment found online and paid professionals to build everything in my garage.

I wish! This site doesn’t make that much money.

The actual process was a long adventure of researching forums, strength training books, craigslist and Amazon. It took me months, but it doesn’t have to for you.

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Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, let’s sit down and think about what you might want to accomplish with this project.

Goals

You’ll need to know why you want a home gym in the first place. Maybe the nightmare outlined above is true and you’re absolutely fed up with going out of your way to do a few barbell squats.

Avoiding people is a solid goal of mine, but isolating myself isn’t entirely healthy as far as my mental health is concerned. At least I can avoid people while I work out! Here are some more examples to get you started, some of which are awful.

Good Reasons

  • Health: This is the only body you’ll ever get and you need to take care of it. Personal fitness is a great way to keep your cardiovascular and respiratory health in check and to fight off the effects of old age as long as possible.
  • Convenience: There are no lines to use equipment at your own house and you’ll be able to work-out if you’re snowed in!
  • Gym membership fees: Over the long-term, a gym membership can outpace even the fanciest home gyms in only a few years. Especially if you forget to pay them and get sent to debt collectors like a certain dinosaur we all know…
  • Social anxiety: You need to focus on you, not what everyone else in the gym thinks. That’s a lot easier if they can’t enter your garage.
  • Starting Strength: You read Mark Rippetoe’s bestselling and excellent book and are joining the thousands following in his competitive powerlifting footsteps.
  • You saw Captain America hold back a helicopter and you’d want to handle similar emergencies: ‘Nuff said!

Bad Reasons

  • Become attractive: Nothing can guarantee you’ll be attractive to a certain someone. That said, the worst case scenario is you made yourself healthier.
  • Get skinny: Being fixated on size isn’t a healthy outlook and can even be a symptom of body dysmorphia. Work out for your health, whatever the size.
  • Cure a disease: Absolutely not happening. Don’t believe any alternative-medicine blog telling you otherwise.
  • Lift 1,000-pounds above your head: Don’t make numbers a goal. It’s a lifestyle change for a healthier you, not a Galaga high score.
  • Chronic Back Pain: You’ve read that exercise might help so you’d like to start. That’s good, but you need to really consult your doctor or train with professionals.
  • Meet cute people: Not unless install a mirror or hang up my picture.
    Once you’ve sorted out the why, you can figure out the where, whats and hows of the home gym.

Location, location, location!

Picture of a clean bathroom
This one is already in use for squats.

Close your eyes and imagine working out in your dream gym a few years from now.

Are you in a bedroom, a clear spot in the garage or is it in an unused office? Did you have to move equipment to the 2nd floor of your house or was it the living room of a 40th-floor apartment building?

Each has unique considerations, but a few things to keep in mind are flooring, noise and space.

  • Flooring: Heavy equipment can damage hard surfaces like concrete or wood, especially if you are dropping a 300-pound barbell from a clean and jerk. Specially made interlocking floor mats can protect your equipment and hard floors. The floor also needs to support the weight of all equipment. My old 3rd story apartment in Saint Louis wouldn’t have been able to support a full-size steel squat rack, 500 pounds of plates, a work-out bench and myself all on its 100-year old wood floors. It’s possible I would have lost my deposit.
  • Noise: In your imaginary future workout you drop the barbell. Does it create a lot of noise? Is this going to bother anyone below you? Is it loud enough that your significant other might wake up? Because they get mad and sometimes kick.
  • Space: A lot of treadmills can fold up to slide under a sofa, but a full-size rack and barbell are going to need much more space. If you want enough space for the primary lifts, then you need at least a 10’ by 10’ area for your workouts, not including space to store plates and other equipment.

Originally, I only planned the floor space requirements based off the dimensions of the power rack I bought, the Titan T-2. It was around 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. I’d have plenty of room, right? Huge mistake! I completely forgot that not only will you have a 6-foot barbell hanging from j-hooks at chest height, but that I would need room to maneuver around the whole thing to load and remove plates! Luckily, some things could be shuffled around and made room. Crisis averted and I’ve been absolutely in love with this rack ever since! One of these days this sentence will be replaced with a link to a formal review, I totally promise!

Huge box of steel.
Isn’t it gorgeous? Kind of a pain in the ass to build alone.

New Toys!

Easily the best part of this adventure is picking out equipment. I bought a spiral notebook explicitly for planning and wrote down everything like prices, floor space requirements and more while I got my bearings. Doing the same will save you a lot of headaches. Trust me.

Nearly every piece of equipment you can find in a commercial gym can be purchased for your home these days from Amazon. No matter how weird it may seem when shipped to you. I was planning on doing barbell exercises anyways, so I wasn’t worried about complicated machines from high-end commercial manufacturers.

There are also those complicated pulley-based machines with all the big sticks of plastic splayed out in every direction. They are absolutely unnecessary. They take up a lot of space and can only be used for a handful of activities for the high price. Not to mention maintenance and repairs are a nightmare. They don’t even hold laundry that well. Maintenance for a 45-pound steel plate? Don’t place near a nuclear explosion.

If strength training isn’t your focus, there are plenty of cardiovascular options that are more useful than the pulley-torture-chambers. Ellipticals, treadmills, rowing machines and weighted accessories are becoming increasingly more affordable. I’ve been looking at used ellipticals lately and the prices fluctuate but are around the same price as a good bench.

No Floor Space?

Is the area a little tight on free space? Then get creative! Maybe you only have a small apartment or the corner of a bedroom to work with and that’s fine. Instead of a full-size power cage, try a half-rack. Instead of a variety of larger machines, try dumbbells. If all else fails, some resistance bands, a pull-up bar, yoga mat and bodyweight fitness might be an option.

A bench press can eat up a lot of space and likely won’t have a convenient place to hide. If it doesn’t fit in a closet it won’t hurt anyone to use it as an impromptu laundry-basket support or nightstand until you need it.

Leaving my powerlifting bar lying around is asking for an accident take place, but thankfully it stores easily under a bed. If you have enough space underneath, you can even investigate folding treadmills and rowing machines.

Price Tags and Shipping Costs and Bears, oh my!

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You might pass out when looking at the total cost. I nearly did. To make things easier you don’t have to buy everything at once. For example, do you really need 300-pounds of plates right off the bat? Think of the poor USPS driver that has to bring that to your door.

Also, I saved a ton of money buying used equipment and you can too. A college student might have sold theirs when they moved, a couple might get rid of it all to use the space for a kid’s bedroom, or aliens could be harvesting lungs from a fitness center they took over but they don’t need the equipment. Regardless where it comes from, you benefit with cheap equipment.

There’s no worry about the quality of used equipment like dumbbells and bars either. Who cares if your 45-pound plate is a little scuffed or your plates aren’t the same color? Paint them! You can save hundreds of dollars buying them used and I wouldn’t recommend any other way.

However, I can not recommend buying used items that can seriously harm or kill someone. For example, if a bench leg collapses and you fall with the barbell on top, then your fitness savings will have to go towards your funeral bill! Does the seller really know how much weight the safety catch on the cage can support? Is the emergency cut off device missing from the treadmill? Are those stains really just red paint?

Be smart. It’s always better to buy something new than use a rusty barbell with no manufacturer’s imprint and risk your life.

Let’s Buy Stuff!

Slow down a bit. You know where you want to end up, and you know how you want to get there. You even have a pretty good idea what you’ll use. What could be the problem?

Reviews.

Take a moment to research the equipment before you buy a particular brand or model. Reviews are a great way to find out the color doesn’t match the picture online or that the barbell doesn’t actually weigh 45-pounds. That actually happened with a CAP barbell I bought!

But it’s not always negative!

You may find reviewers preferred the bar due to a different knurl pattern and now you need to educate yourself what that even means to decide if you care or not.

Is all of this really necessary?

I was easy to avoid driving across town to go to the gym at 3 in the morning. It’s not so easy when I have to walk through my power cage after dropping off the kid for school. That’s a pretty big incentive for my ADHD brain. In addition, there is a sense of personal investment because of all the time and money poured into the project.

But no, it’s not necessary.

It is fun though. It’s also convenient and could make you a healthier and happier person. It’ll also last a really long time and not need much maintenance. A properly researched and selected home gym can outlive the purchaser by decades.

However, if it turns out you need to get rid of it all, then you can sell standard gym equipment used. Barbells, plates, cages, dumbbells and more keep a lot their value on the resale market. You’ll probably come out close to even.

It’s not like you won’t have the latest model, these things don’t change too often. We’re basically still using the same equipment as Ancient Greeks.

Ancient greek statue of man holding a decapitated head.
Alright, so kettle balls were different.

Machines, however, aren’t so lucky. If you can’t sell it, you might have yourself a new place to hang coats or laundry.

Overall, at least you aren’t going to waste your time. A happier and healthier life is always worth the investment.

Go ahead and get some ideas over at Amazon. Try pretending you have a budget of $1,000 and seeing what you can get. Then try $500 or less. Be sure to post in the comments below what your dream gym looked like at that price and we can all compare!

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