A question I’m often asked is whether you can maintain an efficient exercise regime without having access to a gym. I believe it is completely possible to achieve your fitness goals, whether that be muscle gain, fat loss or improved strength, by training at home with minimal equipment.
At the most basic level, you can train many parts of your body using simple bodyweight exercises. These include push ups (which have a number of variations so you don’t get bored!), pistol squats, split squats, single leg hip thrusts, tricep dips and handstand holds/push ups, not to mention cardio-based exercises like burpees, jump lunges, pop squats and many more.
The back is the most difficult body part to train without any equipment. However, you can buy a few reasonably-priced items which will get the job done.
If you are serious about training at home, these are the items I recommend you invest in as a bare minimum:
- Olympic barbell with pairs of plates between 1.25kg (2.5lb) and 20kg (45lbs).
- Dumbbells between 5kg (11lbs) and 20kg (45lbs): Rather than buying 10+ sets of dumbbells, adjustable dumbbells are a great investment and much easier to transport if you move a lot like me! At first glance it may seem expensive, but the Bowflex adjustable set will still be cheaper than buying individual weights.
- Swiss ball: This can be a great, cheap substitute for a bench when you are initially getting set up. You can perform a variety of exercises such as presses, hip thrusts and leg curls with a swiss ball.
- Pull-up bar: The Iron Gym is cheap and it doesn’t require any installation – perfect for people who are renting! An alternative is a dip station, which allows you to perform inverted rows. These are good for people who are not yet strong enough to do a full unassisted chin-up.
- Resistance band: These are cheap and are available in various levels of resistance. I use bands in my warm-up routine (lateral band walks and band pull-aparts) but also for chin-ups, band-assisted push ups and deadlifts. You can also jam these in a door and use them for rows, face pulls and pulldowns. If you are using bands for resistance exercises, make sure they are strong enough to create a training effect (the ‘light’ bands generally do nothing!).
- Yoga mat: You need something comfortable to lie on for floor exercises. I skipped the expensive Lululemon mats and picked mine up for £7 at Sports Direct.
The equipment above will allow you to perform basic exercises such as squats, deadlifts, chest presses, overhead presses and chin-ups/pull-ups, as well as a number of free weight-based accessory exercises.
Once you established a foundation of equipment, you can look at adding in extras such as:
- Squat rack: If you only have a barbell, you will have to press the weight over your head and on to your back for barbell back squats. You will therefore quickly reach a point where your shoulder strength will limit progress in your squats. Investing in a squat rack will allow you to increase the weight without dislocating your shoulder in the process! A squat rack doesn’t have to be expensive. One of my clients, Steph, made her own rack for less than $50! She inspired Alexandra to make a tutorial here. You can use the rack for other exercises such as inverted rows, overhead presses, lunges and good mornings.
- Bench press: If you buy a full power rack, you can also use this to bench; however, if you make your own budget squat rack you will also need a rack to bench in. Thankfully, these are cheaper than squat racks and a good investment as you can use the bench itself for countless other exercises.
- Landmine: You can use these to perform T bar rows and side-on rows. I’m currently also using them to perform an action which mimics lifting an atlas stone.
- Cable machine: This is a little expensive, and not completely necessary, but you will get good use out of one of these machines. I typically use cable machines for pull-throughs, chest flyes, woodchops, tricep pushdowns, bar curls, face pulls, and rotator cuff work.
- Box/aerobics step: This is good for plyometric work (e.g. box jumps) and strength exercises requiring height, such as step-ups, front-foot elevated lunges and deficit lunges.
- Valslides: You can perform a wide variety of exercises with Valslides such as lunges, walking push ups, leg curls and mountain climbers. A cheaper option is buying basic furniture sliders.
- Kettlebells: Investing in one or two different-sized kettlebells is a great idea. You can use them for swings, snatches, turkish get-ups and farmers walks.
- Sandbags: Sandbags are an easily transportable piece of equipment that can easily be made more challenging by increasing the weight in the bag. You can use these for front squats, overhead presses and carries. Sandbags are similar to kettlebells in that the weight is not evenly dispersed, so it is slightly more challenging than a regular dumbbell or plate.
- TRX: I don’t agree with people who are completely gaga about TRX equipment and use it to the exclusion of everything else, but I do think they can add value to your training program. You can get a great workout from these using only your bodyweight. Here is a post with my favourite TRX exercises.
- Strongman equipment: I couldn’t not mention my favourite type of equipment! Of course, this depends on how much space you have, but the beauty of training at home is that you can furnish your gym however you want. In the UK, junkyards often give tyres away for free as they want to get rid of them (but note that you have to pay someone to take them if you don’t want them anymore!). This weekend I’ll be harassing the local pubs to give me their empty beer kegs so I can practice my throwing. You can also use kegs for any exercise you would use a sandbag for. Other pieces of equipment to consider investing in are a sled, prowler and battle ropes.
*I don’t think you need to invest in cardio equipment for a home gym. Treadmills, ellipticals and stepmills are usually very expensive, and not my preferred form of cardio anyway. As long as you do some kind of resistance-based conditioning work, your cardio level will be fine. When the weather is nice enough, use the great outdoors!
**Don’t waste your money on any equipment you see on infomercials, such as shake weights, ab circles or thigh masters! As long as you’re performing the main lifts, you do not need any of this. In fact, even if you weren’t doing the main lifts, I’d still say they are a complete waste of time!
If you are training alone at home, be careful about the weights you are lifting. I usually recommend training the squat, deadlift and bench press at a rep range of 5 or below, but don’t go for maximal weights unless you have a spotter. I have heard stories of people actually dying by getting crushed underneath a barbell. And you don’t want to end up like this guy:
Invest in heavy dumbbells and bumper plates. Don’t think that because you’re training at home, you have to lift 3lb weights. Keep to the principle of lifting heavy for the compound exercises, and in a more moderate range (6-15 reps) for the accessory lifts.
When I first started lifting, I was very dependent on machines such as the lat pulldown, leg extension, leg curl, leg press, shoulder press, and chest press machine. I would not have been able to train at home because of it! Over the past year, I’ve cut back on machines a lot – I was using maybe one per week? Now that I’ve started strongman training, I do not use a single machine. I believe that free weights are completely adequate to fulfilling a gym program.
Do you train at home? Do you have any other equipment I haven’t mentioned?
PS. None of these are affiliate links; they are products I recommend from either personal use or client feedback.