Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Ben Nadel at NCDevCon 2011 (Raleigh, NC) with:

Ask Ben: How To Build A Home Gym

By Ben Nadel on

I also like to go to the gym. But, I just got a .NET development contract that allows me to work at home full time. I am kicking around the the idea of putting some gym equipment in my basement so that I don't have to commute to the gym and can spend more time at home with my kids. I don't want to go crazy and spend a ton of money. just keep it simple. What would you suggest if anything?

Building a home gym is something that I have spent more than enough time fantasizing about. I live in a small, dark, hot, just-over-the-boiler-room basement apartment in New York City and often think about what I would do when I have a real house with a real basement or garage. Of course, my fantasy also consists of flat screen TVs on each wall, all playing different motivational videos to help me get in the right "joy and fierceness" mindset. I imagine hearing Schwarzenegger talking about give the "wrong advices" as I bench or hearing Dorian Yates scream "Business as usual" as I lift ungodly amounts of weight off the ground.

Oh how the iron would fly.

Now, before we get into the details, I just wanted to take a step back and give some perspective. As much as getting to and from the gym can seem like a hassle, there is something nice to be said about it. For starters, there are no distractions at the gym (other than the gym bunnies running around in their spandex pants and sports bras); when you're at the gym, you're at the gym. There's no stopping to answer phone calls; no interruptions from other family members; no BlackBerrys alerting you that new emails have come in. When you're there, you're focused. Without that focus, one can quickly fall off the wagon.

Additionally, there is a very nice social aspect of gym going that you certainly cannot get at home. Obviously, this will be more important to some and less important to others. And, if you have friends at the gym, this can be scheduled "friend time" which can often be used to kill two birds with one stone (gym and socializing).

Of course, I don't have a family, I don't have a girlfriend, and I certainly don't have kids. So for me, leaving my dungeon apartment is something I hardly need an excuse to do. Everyone will have their own priorities and their own compromises to make - I just wanted to give you some perspective and make sure that you're thinking it all through; there's nothing more depressing that seeing dust covered gym machinery in a house.

That being said, let's get onto the good stuff: building a home gym. Assuming that both your space and money are in short supply, what we want to do is get the most bang for your buck. In my opinion, that problem is most easily solved by a deluxe power rack with adjustable bench:


 
 
 

 
Power Rack And Smith Machine Combination - The Perfect Home Gym Equipment  
 
 
 

This is one piece of equipment that allows you to do a tremendous number of highly effective exercises. To augment this, you might consider getting an EZ-Curl bar for arm exercises (although I think you would be more than well off just concentrating on large, compound movements, especially if you want to keep your workouts on the shorter side).

The price and complexity / extendibility of a machine like this will vary. The one above is very simple and will do most of what you need it to do. On Google, I found that one for $649.00 with free shipping. Granted there are no weights included, so you would need to buy the plates (probably another $150-$300 at your local sporting goods store, depending on how much you need).

If you want to spend a little bit more money, you can get something like this:


 
 
 

 
Power Rack And Smith Machine Combo - Excellent Home Gym Equipment  
 
 
 

I found this one for $999 (plus shipping). It looks similar, but has nicities like weight racking bars (for weight storage) and more standard power-rack design that allows you to add attachments like a dip bar. Even at $999, you are getting a lot of mileage for your money.

Depending on what you are used to, using a machine like this might be a big departure for the norm. If so, you are going to want to start off light before you gain confidence in the movements. I would also suggest hiring an on-site personal trainer to come over to your house for a few sessions just to walk you through how to safely use the equipment. Weight lifting is extremely good for you, but like anything, if done incorrectly, it can lead to injury.

If you are not convinced that this machine is versatile, here is a list of exercises I can come up with just off the top of my head:

  • Bench Press (push)
  • Deadlift (pull)
  • Squat (legs)

These are, of course, the cornerstones of every fitness program. Almost all other exercises are variations on these three movements (push, pull, legs).

Then, there are all the variations that can be done:

Push

  • Incline Bench Press
  • Decline Bench Press
  • Narrow Grip Bench Press
  • Wide Grip Bench Press
  • Reverse Grip Bench Press
  • Dips (with machine attachment)
  • Shoulder Press
  • Skull Crusher (more comfortable with EZ-Bar)
  • Pronated Tricep Extensions
  • Bench Dips (behind back)

Pull

  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Parallel Grip Pull Ups
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Bent Over Suppinated Row
  • T-Bar Row (improved with machine attachment)
  • Barbell Curls
  • Deadlifts (works legs also)
  • Sumo-Style Deadlifts (works legs also)
  • Romainian Deadlifts (works legs also)
  • Good Morning (works legs also)
  • Stiff Leg Deadlifts (works legs also)

Legs

  • Squats
  • Smith Machine Squats
  • Front Squats
  • Split Squats
  • Step Ups
  • Lunges
  • Walking Lunges

And that's what I could come up with in a few minutes. Crack open a fitness book or search the web and you will find a seemingly infinite number of exercises and exercise variations. Throw some elastic bands and maybe a stability ball in there (if that's your thing) and forget about it - you'll have more exercises than you can shake a stick at.

What you might notice is that there are no dumbbell exercises in this list which would require a large, expensive set of dumbbells. There are also very few single-joint exercises (exercises that involve moving around just a single joint, ex. Arm Curls). There's nothing at all wrong with those type of exercises. They are just not as effective as big, compound movements. When in doubt, I always err on the side of cutting down a workout to include only multi-joint movements; they are great for building strength, size, and promoting fat loss.

One of the things that I like about this type of machine is that it has both a free bar and a guided bar (often referred to a "Smith Machine"). While many people in the fitness world poo-poo the Smith Machine as an inferior product for many reasons (most of which are valid), I think if you are working out at home and alone, using a guided bar for heavy sets can be very comforting.

Of course, I don't recommend that you work with weight that is so heavy you cannot handle it well. Even when training in a gym with a certified trainer, such "maxing out" is avoided as the risk-to-benefit ratio is too large to be suited for most casual gym goers.

So, that's my quick advice for creating a home gym. I hope that you have found some of this helpful. Please feel free to hit me up with any additional questions that you can think of. After machine purchase, shipping, and weights, I bet you could build a really awesome home gym for easily under $2000. Considering that an ab machine alone (don't waste your time) could cost as much as $400, you can start to see how a more diverse machine like the ones above really deliver value.

Tweet This Deep thoughts by @BenNadel - Ask Ben: How To Build A Home Gym Thanks my man — you rock the party that rocks the body!


Reader Comments

Great advice Ben!

I got onto the book "Starting Strength" a couple years ago and it really taught me the importance of the compounds lifts. The home gym you suggested is really all someone needs to get started, and is a great base to build off.

With that said, there are some amazing exercise programs that require little or no weights at all, such as those at the trainforstrength.com website. These types of body weight workouts are especially good for developers on the road often.

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As someone who works from home full-time, I find that getting out of the house to go to the gym every day helps keep me sane. The 10 minute trip each way is well worth the effort for just being able to step away for a bit during the day.

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@Dan,

Good point. Body weight exercises can be very difficult and quite effective. Ian King, Australian Olympic strength coach, is a huge proponent of body weight exercises especially the single leg deadlift. It is amazing how hard you can work without weights.

@Bob,

I agree wholeheartedly. If nothing else, the change of scenery will help keep you sane.

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Good advice, Ben. I'd agree that a Smith Machine offers the best bang for the buck and would add that it's an infinitely better solution than your typical all-in-one Universal machine/Soloflex/Bowflex option.

Personally, though, I prefer to go to the gym. I work outside of the house, but I still find that the process of leaving the house provides a level of motivation and focus that I just don't have if the computer/tv/dog/dishes are nearby. I also enjoy the interaction, albeit minimal at my early morning hour, with other like-minded folks.

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@Rob,

Agreed. I love being able to walk into the gym and greet the people I know whether it's Tasha at the front desk or Big Steve the trainer (etc.). There's a sort of community that I would be sorry to give up.

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I also work at home and have found going to the gym has advantages, but have also entertained the idea of getting something at home.

What are your thoughts on Bow Flex and other universal type deals? Although the racks you mention look like a small footprint, I think I may have a hard time fitting it, a bench, weight rack, etc. I already have a treadmill too, so that comes into play also.

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@Matt,

I have never tried a boflex or soloflex machine, so I can't say from personal experience. However, from the looks of it, I'd say you are paying WAY too much to get very little. The bowflex is like close 3,000 dollars and doesn't come close to versatility of the power rack. You get more ease of user, perhaps and more comfort, and definitely more safety (you can just let go of the cables if you are in trouble). So, there are some benefits; but, you can not get the kind of well-rounded workout you can get with the power rack / smith combo.

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@John,

Nothing wrong with adding a jump rope. An excellent and intense piece of fitness equipment (and one that I happen to suck at :)).

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@Mike,

That TITAN looks like a beast! If that were to mysteriously show up in my apartment, I wouldn't be afraid :)

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@Matt,

Interesting. First, let me say that one should realize that muscles only get strong in the Range of Motion (ROM) in which they are trained. This is the biggest problem with Isometric exercises (pushing against an immovable object). In that case, you are only getting stronger in the position you are pushing / pulling, give or take a few degrees of motion. Not to say these aren't good exercises, but just realize that you have to practice them in different angles and degrees to really work through a fuller range of motion.

Of course, that was only part of the description. I think the idea of working one limb against the other is quite interesting. Talk about neural confusion! This would be very different than standard exercises and could have some great benefits in variety.

I would be very interested to know how people have felt after having tried this kind of a routine for a while.

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I prefer a home gym over the health club mainly because the health club is a 25 minute commute each way I dont really have time for it.

I have a free weight set up with power rack and bench press. Thats really all I need and it will last a lifetime.

I looked into the Bowflex but I thought it was clearly a rip off...lots of marketing. Plus for the $2500 price tag on the Bowflex I knew I could save a lot and get better quality. I got my whole set up for $1250.

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Hi,
Nice Info buddy! Especially for me as I am a fitness freak and love to hit the gym.I was thinking for a home gym and I just stumble in to your blog. Thanks for the post.

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"What you might notice is that there are no dumbbell exercises in this list which would require a large, expensive set of dumbbells."

Ben, what about getting a set of adjustable dumbbells to replace the large expensive set? Are these any worse than a wall of varied dumbbell weights?

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Great blog, I'm a big fan of home gyms. Its generally not the equipment though, its the knowledge behind the dumbbells, bands, balls, bars and mats. I train people everywhere and need very little equipment. You may want to send your people to nextfit.com to check out this product. People can get a new workout every day, created specifically to them, their goals, equipment, time, history and education. $18 million invested in the technology makes it unlike anything out there.

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@Tim,

Definitely there is a lot of great stuff you can do with body weight, bands, and a few weights; but, I believe at some point, you just need a get rack and free weight set to get the complete job done.

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I only have 1 machine at home and that is the Smith machine, I know there are many who don't like it but I work out alone at home and it gives me relative peace of mind.

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Yes, I think home gyms are much more convenient, I can set it up as I want. There are some important aspects that must be considered before buying home gym fitness equipment, and these include budget, space, and requirement. I enjoyed reading your article.

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I am a long-time exerciser and someone who has worked out for pretty much my entire life. When I was in college, my freshman year, I had a weight bench in my room (it had extensions for lats, and legs. It was an all-over body machine, but the main purpose I got it for was bench pressing). My sophomore year, I had my punching bag in my room. I love a punching bag. You can get a workout like no other with a punching bag, but it is mainly a cardio workout. I had the punching bag in my room my sophomore year instead of the weight bench, because I had gotten so much more into martial arts at that time, and that was my passion.

Now, I have a universal gym. (I saw the Chuck Norris video, and I was sold :-))

I think a lot of women have a different view of 'the gym' for several reasons. Those of use who are really going there for a serious workout (and not to hook up or show off) become exasperated at all of the meatheads hogging all of the machines.

Don't get me wrong...I have had GREAT gym experiences, and then I have had gym experiences I have hated and swore I would never go back to a gym (and everywhere in between).

Also, I really don't think I have ever been to a gym in a sports bra and spandex, at least not without a baggy t-shirt over top of it. The only reason for that would be heat, besides showing off (and a lot of gyms keep the temperature in there really cold, so heat really isn't an excuse, usually, and that's one of the reasons I have dressed as I have at gyms...to keep from shivering.)

Back to the meatheads. I was commenting on the machines, because there are a few machines I do actually like and enjoy using (the only reason, sometimes, I would even put up with the meatheads). I, generally, prefer dumb bells (however they are spelled). Many of the exercises you listed above that could be done with the machines can also be done with dumb bells. Some of the exercises do require a little bit of modification, but you can workout every part of your body with dumb bell exercises. I have worked with adjustable dumb bells, too...those are pretty cool! :-)

Anyway, when you are a female, and you go to the gym to work out with the dumb bells, the meatheads in the gym know how to SPREAD OUT. They are completely inconsiderate. They are there to flex their muscles, show off, and get THEIR workout in. They don't care about anyone else. They care about the hot chicks dressed in spandex in the gym only as much as they can show off and flex for them.

They take over the entire dumb bell area, one wall all the way to the other. They have their dumb bells spread out all over the place. If there are benches for people to do workouts on, every bench is filled, and not just with people. The meatheads will lay the weight discs on the benches, the dumb bells, their "clip boards" for taking notes on the work outs, extra clothes, watches, their towels, a water bottle. Because after all, it is THEIR workout that is important, not anyone elses.

I remember going to a gym to the dumb bell area and having to hover in a corner, practically up against a machine that had been discarded to the corner with the tiniest sliver of a mirror to get my few little dumb bell exercises in. My range of motion was very limited, as I had to standin one spot, and when I had to do the lunges I was doing as a part of my workout, I had to modify my positioning so much that it is a miracle I didn't strain or pull some muscle, for the guy who was doing some weird pacing exercise with the dumb bells, going all the way across the room with it.

Anyway, needless to say, home workouts are just usually a lot less stressful for me and take up much less time.

Thank you for your article. You gave some good advice. And I like the machines you listed, as well as the exercises you listed. Thanks.

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Great list of cornerstones of every fitness program, I also like to do duck walks after I do lunges.

What helps the mindset is a stacked ipod/mp3 with the jams that get you pumped up.

Having a treadmill in the home gym makes the workout a bit more intense, and anyone serious about a home gym must look into a treadmill to compliment the home gym investment.

The Bowflex may be hyped up but it's popular for a reason, and the series 7 is worth taking a look at.

Thanks Ben for sparking the juices of a home gym, especially since it's the beginning of a new year and staying in shape is a healthy way to start off 2012.

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I'm having a light weight compact home gym which is offering me a lot of workout programs which is so effective for my shoulders. My shoulders and chest got trimmed a lot after following those chest and shoulder workout programs.

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I completely agree with your article. It's possible to know about it and it will snow me good ways of this topic. This is very nice post! I will bookmark this blog.

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