Home Gyms: Yaaaay!! or Nahhhh!

Perhaps you have had trouble getting to the gym. You know, that big room with fluorescent overhead lighting and Taylor Swift on full blast, where big, sweaty guys and thin, sweaty gals move back and forth between various machines and bars and platforms, huffing and puffing and blowing away bodyfat like a big bad wolf with a sixpack? Where everyone is dressed in neato fitness clothes and sporting wearables, smartwatches, sick headphones, and even tablets for timing Tabatas (whatever a Tabata is)?

Without getting into the question of why you have trouble getting to the gym (although I may have touched on one or two of the reasons in my description above), let’s discuss a commonly conceived alternative: home gyms.

There are myriad mass-market fitness items on sale, from sporting goods stores large and small, from Amazon, from Craigslist, and from late-night infomercials.

Now, if you’ve read this blog before, you know perfectly well my opinion on a lot of these items, like Perfect Pullups, Perfect Pushups, P90X, and Bowflex: they may have a place in a fitness-oriented lifestyle, they may perform some important functions, they may fill a gap or a specific need. But they will not do the job for you. They will not MAKE your life a “fitness life.” Nine times out of ten, they will not serve all of your fitness needs.

For a fitness lifestyle is more than “20 minutes a day” or what-have-you. A fitness lifestyle persists for 24 hours a day. By that, I mean that the majority of your decisions pertaining to your health have fitness—not sensual enjoyment, but fitness (although you CAN get both at the same time)—as its guiding factor. And this fitness product or another may serve you for some of that time, but it will not get you there; it cannot substitute for full engagement in the activities and habits that make you and keep you healthy: exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress management, and self-confidence.

So, where does that leave home gyms? Let’s say you kept it very simple. A padded floor, a pair of adjustable dumbbells, a nice little adjustable weight bench, and a pullup bar of some kind. So, you buy all of this stuff. Floor pads: $50. Adjustable dumbbells: $300. Weight bench: $100. Pullup Bar: $50. So you just spent $500, not including the amount in property taxes or rent you’re paying for the space in your home to store these items.

What does this new home gym provide you? It provides you with just above the minimum amount of stuff required to work out your entire body. And that’s great. No doubts there.

On the other hand, what are these items NOT providing you with? A few things: the knowledge of how to use them effectively and safely. The knowledge of how to design a workout. The sustained interest and drive to use them habitually and to see the good results upon which the maintenance of all good habits is dependent. They’re not providing you with balanced nutrition. They don’t provide you with the energy, or the amount of time required in a day, to use them. They don’t make you dislike simple things and relish challenges. In other words,

THEY DON’T CHANGE YOUR LIFE.

I hate to start another sentence with “So…” but I’m going to anyway. So, what happens now?

You’re really jazzed about your new home gym (or workout product) and you make it happen for a few days, a few weeks, maybe even a few months. And then what? It gets old. It gets repetitive, uninteresting, unstimulating, unfulfilling. This illustrates a central benefit of going to a gym that’s outside of your home: variety and access to a lot more gear and space than you can reasonably fit in your home.

Continuing on the downward spiral, the early results you see start to diminish, or cease entirely. You wake up early and decide you didn’t get enough sleep in order to make your workout effective, so you go back to sleep. Or, you get home from work that night and decide your day was too stressful, and you need to “relax and unwind.” Both of which are perfectly natural and understandable things to want to do.

Suddenly, you have $500 worth of gear sitting idle, gathering dust, and even becoming the hook upon which you hang tomorrow’s outfit. How does that make you feel?

Not too good. You see, in general (meaning for most people), a home gym is not going to make you a fitness person. Only after all of the above challenges have been overcome or are starting to be overcome (poor nutrition, poor stress management, poor time management, a distaste for challenge or adversity, a fear of failure, a lack of commitment), can a home gym come anywhere near satisfying your needs. It can only serve to fill one area, maybe two, of your overall fitness lifestyle, and that area generally is: if you can’t get to the gym that day, you can always work out at home. And you certainly don’t need $500 worth of gear to do this type of workout. Bodyweight works fine.

Another good use for a home gym is to work out with someone else in privacy. In other words, for fun.

Additionally, if you’re a little under the weather but still want to get your workout in, you can work out at home without having to worry about getting other exercisers sick.

Owning some fitness gear is great when you’re traveling so you don’t have to miss a workout.

And yet another good use for a home gym is to re-acclimate yourself to the gym if you haven’t worked out in a while, so that when you’re back in the “real gym,” you can really make the most of it. Without getting into a huge thing about exercise lapses, they happen to us all. Don’t overthink it or over-judge it. Just get back on the horse. That’s all I’ll say.

Notice how all of these excellent uses for home gym equipment involve already being a “gym person” or “fitness person”? Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for a home gym to change your life and make you the fitness-person you’ve always known yourself to be. I’m really just saying that it’s not a given. Why? Because fitness is not about owning things. It’s about doing things. It’s about eating the right things. It’s about feeling certain things: a sense of achievement, self-esteem, patience, belief in yourself, and having a firm understanding of what constitutes realistic expectations. If any of these things are lacking, no amount of mats, -bells, plates, weights, benches, racks, bars, elastics, bands, balls, or boxes is going to do much good.

So if you decide to spring for some home gym equipment, be ready to tackle these challenges too. Be ready to change your life, not just the contents of one room, or your garage, or your basement. But your life.

Now that I’ve gotten all of the caveats out of the way, what are some good things to get for a home gym setup? What I mentioned earlier—pads, dumbbells, a bench, and a pullup bar—is the most solid set of gear you can get. But, it’s not the most versatile, and it’s hard to travel with weights. So what could you supplement—or even possibly replace—this outfit with?

A quick sidenote: why would you want to supplement your home gym with other stuff? Variety. Again, one item is probably not going to do it. As I mentioned earlier, variety is one of the main appeals of a gym that you leave home and walk, bike, or drive to. Variety makes exercise more fun and enjoyable. So having some variety at home makes working out at home so much more enjoyable that it can’t even really be quantified. Imagine if your home gym was a cafeteria. How would you feel about eating there everyday if it only served one thing? Get the picture? Good. Now, continuing on….

So what could you supplement—or even possibly replace—this pads/dumbbells/bench/pullup bar outfit with? Elastics.

There are two types of elastics: bands (which are like rubber bands, a closed loop of elastic material), and tubing (which is the kind of elastic that you can attach handles to). They are both excellent for things like squats, curls, resistance runs, rows, and also advanced stretching techniques. Tubing is probably more versatile, but bands are cheaper and just as good in a lot of ways. Also, bands can be used to add assistance to certain movements like pullups, or resistance to movements like barbell hip thrusts. Whereas tubing isn’t as good for that. However, they are both great. I use Spri bands and Bodylastics tubing.

A suspension trainer is a solid at-home item, and also very portable (assuming there’s a pullup bar or sturdy tree-branch wherever you’re going.) Suspension trainers require knowledge and practice, like any other training method, but they are also extremely versatile. There are expensive models, like the original TRX Suspension Trainer, and there are cheaper ones that are just as good on Amazon. Also, you can even make your own suspension trainer for the price of dinner at Applebee’s (and is a much better way to spend that money than on said dinner, I might add).

Doorway pullup bars like the Perfect Pullup are fine, and good for traveling. I have one myself, and I like using it for dips as well. But even better is a fixed pullup bar or a standing pullup bar station. Why? Because they make you want to use them a lot more. The Perfect Pullup and its various clones have a tendency to bend slightly while using them, or to not sit solidly in their spot against the doorframe. Also, they can damage doorframes. What will inspire you to do pullups more? A forty-dollar piece of shit that’s bendy and fucks up your doorway? Or something solid that is MADE to do the specific thing that it does, and well? If you’re keen on doing a lot of pullups, save your money and buy a better item. Trust me.

Without getting too “spending more money is better”-y, it is a good rule of thumb when it comes to workout gear. Poorly-made equipment feels dangerous and is not inspiring. Additionally, just because something is sturdy and well-made doesn’t mean you have to buy it new. There are plenty of folks on Craigslist and eBay that are selling decent-quality used gear for a fraction of the price. I mean, don’t buy a cheap piece of shit there either. Search and research. Check out a few things. Try them out before you buy them out. And get something that you WILL want to use multiple times. Because that’s why you’re buying it; not for the good feeling you get from buying a “fitness”-y thing. No. For the actual use you’ll get out of it.

Okay, so what else is good for home gyms? Kettlebells are generally well-made and indestructible, and are versatile as hell if you know how to use them. They can work your entire body, especially when coupled with bodyweight training. They are pretty portable, and you only really need to own two of them: one heavy, and one light.

If you are interested in kettlebells, do yourself a favor: go to a gym that has kettlebells in it and ask the staff if anyone who works there is super-knowledgable about kettlebells (make sure you say “kettlebells” and not “kettleballs”) and could that person show you a thing or two. They will probably give you a personal training sales pitch.

Now let me ask you this: is using the kettlebell safely and effectively worth the $70 or $100 it costs for one personal training session (assuming the person teaching you is qualified)? It might be. But that’s up to you. There is always YouTube. Make sure you have a strong, mobile rotator cuffs. That’s all I’ll say for now.

In terms of buying kettlebells, avoid shiny or colorful finishes. Avoid the ones with the unscrewable bases. The simpler, the better. It should be a spherical chunk of smooth metal with a big, round handle. A small handle is stupid, as is a square-shaped handle design. That’s stupid too. When in doubt, go big handle. Or if the price is right, that’s a good criterion too. Just be ready for sore distal bones on your wrist when using KBs with small or square handles.

Oh yeah, and get some wrist protection. I use these. They are cheap.

So what else? The Ultimate Body Press is an item I own. It is made to serve as a dip station and inverted row bar. It can also be used for suspension pushups. The one I have is an earlier-generation model, beaten up but still kicking. The newer models look better-made. A good item. Try to find one on eBay. (I was not paid to say this).

Here’s the takeaway from all of this. Home gym equipment should be well-made, affordable, portable, useful, versatile, safe, and effective. Don’t start with something that only does one thing, like the Shakeweight or Perfect Pushup (avoid the Shakeweight entirely). Be ready to try and buy different things, and to jettison an item or two on Craigslist or eBay if an item you bought doesn’t work for you. Or if you don’t feel compelled to work with it.

And that’s all I can think of to say about home gyms. They are nice to have, they can’t replace willpower, and a well-assembled one being used to propel you towards your fitness goals is a thing of beauty.

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