Getting Started. The Six Best Home Gym Equipment
2020 was an… interesting… year. Across the globe we all had to get used to living differently, working differently, socialising differently and exercising differently. Closing of commercial gyms was a necessary evil, but it made for an extremely challenging time for many of us to stick to our normal routines, maintain physical and mental health or achieve our sport, exercise and body image goals.
For a population that had become used to training in a state of the art, fully equipped fitness and wellbeing centre or your favourite “spit and sawdust” weight shack with more 20s than an ATM machine, having to now work out in the back garden, the garage or the spare room with the leftovers on eBay, Amazon or Craigslist represented an unenviable challenge.
For some, the barriers actually represented an opportunity. Many avid gym goers realised that their expensive monthly gym membership payments were an over-priced luxury they could do without. They could simultaneously leave their wallet bulging whilst taking the strain off their waistband. With the right equipment, training at home can be just as effective as visiting your local fitness centre and with a little bit of an outlay upfront it can save you money in the long term.
So, what do you need in your home gym to achieve your health, fitness or sporting goals? Below is a list of items that are essential to my home gym set-up and are strongly recommended to each of you looking to be well prepared to hunker down at home the next time the zombie apocalypse strikes.
Whilst this list is in no particular order, the first two items are non-negotiables and would be top of my list for anyone looking to construct an effective home workout plan. Whether you are a sportsperson, a strength athlete, a bodybuilder or average Joe looking to stay in shape, the barbell (and the associated weight plates of course) is an essential piece of kit that allows you training basically every muscle group and movement pattern. And crucially, easily allows progressive overload to stimulate adaptation an ensure that you are getting bang for your workout buck.
From Le Bron James to Phil Heath, Rory McIlroy to Joe Bloggs, every training programme worth its time invested, includes the “big 3”. The “big 3” powerlifting exercises: squat, deadlift, bench press require a barbell to effectively, or maximally, load these movements. Yes, they can be performed other ways, with other bits of equipment, but nothing beats a good heavily loaded barbell for getting maximum benefit from these movements. Between the 3 you have covered most muscle groups for whole body strength development. Throw in some pulling movements and you’ve ticked all your boxes. And its not just the big 3 with barbells. You can shoulder press, row, lunge, RDL, good morning, suitcase carry, javelin press.
2. Power / Squat Rack
If we accept that a barbell is a key piece of equipment and that many of the powerlifting exercises or their derivatives are effective training exercises that provide a powerful stimulus for building muscle, strength or functional fitness, then to load some of these exercises appropriately to drive adaptation we require additional bits of equipment. You could, perhaps, power clean the barbell up to your shoulders for a front squat, shoulder press or lunge. But many exercises can be more effectively loaded when you are able to lift unrack the bar from a squat rack or power rack. Pairing a barbell with a squat/power rack multiplies your training options and your ability to overload many key training exercises.
Combining your barbell and squat rack with a bench gives you the option to bench press. Purchasing a fully adjustable bench now gives you the opportunity to press at various angles, which can be advantageous for some carry injuries or vulnerabilities. An adjustable bench also opens up the opportunity for chest supported rows and various other pulling and assistance exercises.
4. Chin Up Bar (+ Dip Handles)
A barbell, a power rack and a bench has you ticking just about every muscle group and movement pattern training box. The one major omission that would remain in your potential training tool box would be an effective vertical pulling exercise. Kelvin Giles, a world-renowned coach from Australia, identifies the fundamental – or foundational - movement patterns as: Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge and Bend. With the first 3 items on this list you can effectively address pretty much all of these patterns; you can squat, lunge, hinge (deadlift, RDL), push (bench press), pull (row). However, upper body pushing and pulling can be further broken down into the relative direction of movement vertical and horizontal.
Pushing can be divided into horizontal: bench press, chest press etc, and vertical: shoulder press, behind the neck press etc. Horizontal pulling movements might include a bent over row or chest supported row. As of yet, we have not addressed vertical pulling movements. This is where the chin up bar comes in. Ideally, the power rack you purchase would come equipped with handles to permit chin up and pull up variations. A nice little extra would be if it also included handles to perform dips.
So far, we have identified the essentials if you want a home gym fully equipped to meet your bodybuilding, strength and conditioning or whole-body toning needs. These remaining items sit somewhere between essential and nice to have, depending on your own personal philosophy. For me, my own personal home gym would still feel like a work in progress without a set of adjustable dumbbells. A pair of dumbbells opens up a whole new catalogue of exercises that are either impossible or just down right tricky with a barbell. A pair of dumbbells permits more effective unilateral training and allows you to ensure that you aren’t always allowing the dominant limb to do the lion’s share of the work and limits any imbalances and asymmetries. Some trainees may be more comfortable loading a lunge or a step up with dumbbells rather than a heavy bar on the back. Dumbbells allow bodybuilders to perform a whole litany of assistance exercises from flys to curls and a myriad of tricep isolation exercises. The versatility achieved by bringing a pair of adjustable dumbbells into your training arsenal now means that there are very few exercises and movement patterns you cannot perform.
6. Resistance Bands
We are now very much getting into the nice to haves and moving away from the essentials. But if you have the money and the space, including a range of resistance bands in your home gym kit bag can prove an invaluable investment. Resistance bands can form part of your warm up assisting mobility and activation exercises. For athletes learning an exercise they can be a great training tool in themselves providing resistance for the trainee to overcome or used to teach a correct movement pattern or to teach the athlete where and in what direction they should be applying force. For more advanced trainees, resistance bands may be used as accommodating resistance; to drive greater gains in strength and power or overcome sticking points. Much like the dumbbell, a resistance band has enormous versatility and can multiply your available training options enormously.
Of course, for the person who has no constraints, no concerns over cost or space, there are many other bells and whistles you could add to this list. Where money and available training space is no issue, I would always find space for a glute ham developer GHD. Posterior chain development options are limited to exercises like the deadlift, RDL and good morning. The GHD provides a whole new way of attacking the posterior chain. Specialist lifting bars are critical for certain populations and if you have a need and can justify it safety bars, swiss bars and others may make your essential list. A landmine attachment brings a whole spectrum of alternative possibilities for the barbell and could arguably make the dumbbell superfluous for some. For the Olympic weightlifting enthusiast, a lifting platform is every bit as essential as the barbell with a range of options from the expensively purchased, to the more economically assembled DIY options.
However, you choose to stock your home gym, as long as you tick the essential items in the above list you will be well covered next time the zombie apocalypse or your country’s government decree the commercial gym is a no go, germ ridden, zone. Who knows, a few weeks of not having to wait for the gym bros to finish curling in the squat rack, not having to scour the gym for plates and dumbbells that ignorant members haven’t replaced, or having to slide around on a bench soaked in the sweat of that fat hairy dude who never wipes equipment down and you may be wondering why you should even go back to sharing gym space and equipment.