How To Build A World-Class Home Gym

You want to get stronger.

You want to get started with a proven training program that delivers awesome results.

But you’re not sure that joining a commercial gym is really for you.

Whether it’s the crowds, the poseurs, or just the gym vibe in general that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable.

Then there’s the hassle of actually getting there in the first place – that could easily end up doubling the total time your workout takes.

So you’re thinking about turning the spare bedroom, basement or garage into a home gym.

After all, the upside is beyond huge.

  • The more convenient something is, the easier it is to do on a habitual basis
  • You’ll save money on gym fees and the cost of running your car
  • You could start training there with a buddy (making yourself accountable to someone else will help supercharge your progress)
  • You’ll never be frustrated by equipment being unavailable
  • Your family can get into exercise or training, too

You know that life is a strength sport, and as long as you want to be winning at life, you’ll be wanting to train.

And get this – a world-class home gym will pay for itself pretty damn quickly.

Over 5 years it’ll work out as something like $26/month.

Keep in mind that a world-class home gym will last a lifetime and, even if you decide to up sticks and move across the world someday, you can always sell it on Craigslist for not much less than you paid for it.

So, if you have the space and the funds available, building a home gym makes perfect sense.

But how do you know what’s worth buying and what isn’t?

After all, every company claims that their products are more effective/unique/cutting edge than all the others.

Unfortunately, hot air and BS are the mainstays of the health & fitness industry.

I learned this the hard way – spending many thousands of dollars on equipment that failed to live up to the marketing hype.

But here’s the good news, I’ve made the mistakes already which means you don’t have to!

Ultimately, a world-class home gym isn’t that expensive to set up and you don’t actually need much equipment.

Just a power rack, a bench, an Olympic barbell, and some plates.

That’s all.

Of course, you can always add stuff like dumbells, kettlebells, a TRX suspension trainer, and a training sled – but these aren’t essential when you’re starting out.

So let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need.

Power Rack

A correctly set up power rack is essential for squatting and bench pressing safely on your own, and will also allow you to perform standing presses, and chin-ups.

Now, power racks may all look kind of similar (the same way a Hyundai Genesis kind of looks like a BMW M6), but there are some significant differences in the design, quality and ease of use.

For example, this is the Powertec power rack that I own.

OK, this looks pretty solid, right?

And while it can handle more weight than I’ll ever be able to use (over 1000 lbs), it’s not a well-designed rack – even though it cost close to $850.

Now these are all first-world problems, but they tend to grate after a while.

  • The safety bars are awkward to adjust
  • The hooks (where the barbell sits) aren’t very well designed and tend to “catch” the barbell when re-racking
  • The rack is a bit too wide, which means you have to be careful re-racking the bar (not what you need after a heavy set of squats)
  • The chin-up bar has a silly shape and is plastic coated instead of being a straight, knurled steel bar

It’s better to make chin-ups harder by adding weight around your waist using a dipping belt or chain/carabiner, not by using awkward-shaped bars that aren’t friendly to wrists, elbows and shoulders.

So I wouldn’t recommend the Powertec to anyone.

The best power rack I’ve ever used is Rogue Fitness’s RML-390F.

The attention to detail is amazing – look how closely the holes are spaced for maximum adjustability, especially for bench pressing.

This rack has obviously been designed and built by people who train seriously, for people who train seriously.

I used this rack for squats, standing presses, and bench presses when I was over in Los Angeles for a coaching event, and I really wanted to bring it back home to Japan with me!

It felt like jumping out of a Mazda and into a Maserati.

And the kicker? At $795, it’s actually cheaper than my Powertec rack!

The quality is outstanding and you can even get attachments that allow you to do parallel dips and store plates.

Just make sure you have enough height in your basement/garage/spare room as this power rack is 92” high.

In addition, be sure to check that the ceiling is high enough for you to perform standing presses and chin-ups – it’s best to do this before you start assembling your power rack.

Now, the obvious question is why don’t I get hold of one?

Simply because Rogue doesn’t have a distributor here in Japan, and shipping from the U.S. would cost more than the rack itself.

Dammit.

Bench

OK, benches are used primarily for bench pressing (duh) – the king of the upper-body strength exercises.

Now, the main choice is between a fixed flat bench, and a bench that can be inclined to different angles.

I own the Powertec incline bench that you can see in the photograph with the power rack, and it cost me close to $500.

And while it’s not a bad bench, it would be better if the pad was a constant width rather than tapered.

Another first-world problem, right?

But things like that can be distracting when you’re bench pressing, and that’s the last thing you need when you’re lifting a challenging weight.

Perhaps more importantly, after several years of ownership I’ve only ever used it set up as a flat bench.

In reality, having an incline bench isn’t really necessary unless you have bodybuilding aspirations, which I don’t.

That’s why my favorite bench is Rogue’s Flat Utility Bench 2.0

When I bench pressed with this in Los Angeles, it felt like my body was bolted directly to the floor.

No looseness, no slop – exactly the feeling you need when you’re bench pressing.

To say it felt bombproof would be the understatement of the century, and it’s a steal at $175!

Now Rogue also sell incline benches (costing over $350 more) but my preference would be the flat bench.

It’s better to have a single piece of equipment that’s outstanding at one job, instead of just “ok” at many.

So a flat bench is the one to go for.

Barbell & Plates

OK, now you have your power rack and bench, you’re almost ready to rock n’ roll.

You just need some weights to use with them.

First off, the bar itself.

Barbell

Now it may be really tempting to get hold of a cheap Olympic bar, but bars are not the place to save money.

Buying a cheap bar is like buying cheap tires or brake pads – it’s both risky and a false economy.

If your budget is tight, it’s better to go for a cheap power rack than a cheap barbell (or maybe just cancel your cable TV subscription instead).

Cheap bars tend to bend easily, the knurling is often poor (which means they’re hard to grip), and the sleeves don’t spin very well.

I learned this the hard way, spending $150 on a cheapo bar that’s now bent, has sleeves that don’t spin at all, and knurling that’s non-existent in places.

That’s why I set my sights on a Burgener & Rippetoe men’s bar after using one in L.A.

This bar is a work of art and worth every penny of the $295 price (I actually paid close to $500 for mine as shipping to Japan was almost $200!)

The knurling is incredible and the bar feels like it’s welded to your hands.

Make no mistake, this is the only bar you’ll ever need to buy and it really will last a lifetime.

I actually went a little OTT and cable tied some high-density foam to the hooks to keep the bar looking its best.

Plates

First off, two important things about plates:

They’ll need to have a 50-mm (2”) hole so they fit onto your lovely new Burgener & Rippetoe bar.

The 45-lb plates will need to be 450 mm (17.7”) diameter – that’s important for getting the bar height correct when you deadlift.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter where you get your plates from as they’re just a way to add load to the bar.

Craigslist can have some real bargains or you could go for something like Rogue’s old school cast iron set.

Forget the smell of napalm in the morning – I just love the sound that cast iron 45s make on a bar.

Now when you start out, something like 280 lbs of plates should be enough to last you a while:

4 x 45 lbs
2 x 25 lbs
2 x 10 lbs
4 x 5 lbs
4 x 2½ lbs

It’s also worth weighing and marking the plates when you get them since regular plates won’t be 100 % accurate.

After all, accuracy is expensive – that’s why a pair of competition spec. 45-lb plates can cost over $600!

Conversely, a standard “45-lb plate” could be out by a pound (or more), so weighing and marking the plates means you’ll always know exactly how much weight you have on the bar.

That alone will add consistency to your training that is pretty much impossible in a commercial gym.

Fractional Plates

Fractional plates really punch above their weight (see what I did there?)

Remember how continued long-term strength increases come from adding small increments of weight to the bar?

And, as you get stronger, that could mean as little as 1 or even ½ lb at a time – obviously, that’s impossible if your lightest plates are 2½ lbs each.

That’s where fractional plates come in as these are available in ¼-lb increments.

When you’re doing an effective strength-training program, exercises like the bench press and standing press may require micro loading with fractional plates after a relatively short time.

Without them, progress can come to a grinding halt, so they really are essential for continued strength gain.

Now, you may decide to use large washers or pieces of chain as a cheaper alternative – that’s fine, too.

The bottom line is that you need to be able to micro load your lifts.

That’s a necessity, not a luxury.

Rower & Sled

These aren’t essential when you’re just starting out but if your budget has room, why not treat yourself?

I love using a rower for warming up as the range of motion of the hips, knees and ankles is much greater than you’d get with a stationary bicycle, running machine or elliptical trainer.

It’s also a great way to burn a few extra calories while listening to a podcast or audio book.

The Concept 2 Model D rower is the standard by which all others are judged and costs a cool $900.

It folds for easy storage and really deserves its place in any world-class home gym.

And if you want simply the best conditioning tool in existence, go for a training sled.

Elite Fitness’s Prowler and Rogue Fitness’s Butcher are two of the most popular sleds out there.

They can be pushed on grass, asphalt or astroturf and are incrementally loadable with the same plates you’ll use with your Burgener & Rippetoe bar.

It’s impossible to explain how hard pushing a weighted sled is to folks that haven’t experienced it (check out this video).

And, at well under $300, they’re an absolute steal.

I actually paid something like $400 for one to be custom made locally as shipping a Butcher or Prowler to Japan was something like $700!

(I’m pushing my custom sled in the linked video)

The Bottom Line

For under $1,700 you can have a world-class home gym that would put almost any commercial gym to shame.

Power rack $795
Flat bench $175
B&R men’s bar $295
Weights $400

This equipment will allow you to get stronger than you would believe possible and it will last forever.

Think of it as an investment in yourself, and keep in mind that it will actually save you money in the long run.

Plus it will save a huge amount of the most precious resource you have – your time.

Not to mention making it way easier to stick with your training program.

That’s three huge wins for building yourself a home gym!

Now at this point, I’ve got to admit to being a little envious.

Why? Because my very mediocre Powertec bench and power rack cost $1,350, with another $600 on top of that for a crappy barbell and set of plates that have a ton of slop and aren’t even the correct diameter.

If I was living in the U.S., this is exactly what I’d buy.

No question.

– Tim

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Images: Bigstock, Powertec, Rogue Fitness

Full disclosure: I’m an affiliate of Rogue Fitness – I’ve bought and used a ton of their stuff, and I think it’s fricking awesome!

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