Anything you could ever need for training is not only affordable, but also easily obtainable and compact enough to fit in most garages. (I bought most of what I now own as a college kid working part time.)
Being able to train in my garage fits my recluse personality, and have been a huge reason for my own success. I hate public gyms. Too much social pressure. With my own space, I can be free with my own thoughts and my time. Also, I only own what I need, which means my attention isn’t torn between dozens of toys.
What I’m recommending below is probably more than you need for starters, but at some point in time you should consider the investment. For example, I used an I-beam for chin-ups for about six years before I bought gymnastics rings.
Overall, building your own gym is a small investment. The equipment lasts a long time, and you don’t have to worry about monthly fees or hidden charges. No car wrecks on the way to the gym, no traffic induced blood pressure spikes. No accidental purchases of sugary drinks at the gym’s shake bar. No acts of adultery with that hot chick you see every morning.
It’s good stuff.
A small note before starting: I’m using links to recommend you to retailers I trust and have used. I encourage you to scour local Craigslist listings for some things though. You can find things really cheap there, so I let you know when it’s a best practice. Also, some of the links below have unique identifiers in them, which send a few pennies my way if you click through and buy.
#1 Olympic barbell(s)
One Olympic barbell is nice, but two is better. With two, you can superset exercises and do some other cool things I’ll show you soon.
Now, choosing a bar is an important process. First, know that you should be buying and OLYMPIC bar. There are other, smaller bars out there that are called “standard” bars that you want to avoid. Although standard bars are infinitely cheaper, they are infinitely more useless.
Olympic bars weigh 45 pounds and 7 feet long. If you want to gain muscle, you have to be moving some weight, and Olympic bars will be able to sustain the load (unlike standard bars).
Standard bars might be fine as you just get started, or if you aren’t yet strong enough to move a lot of weight, but you’ll quickly outgrow them. Instead of wasting some bucks on something that’s initially cheaper, go with the long term investment in the Olympic bars.
Now, I won’t lie. Bars aren’t cheap. I have two of them. One is a higher quality bar that I bought from Glenn Pendlay’s website years ago. I do all of my heavy lifting on this one, as I don’t trust the cheaper barbell I have that came with some weights I bought at a local department store. (The bar I use no longer exists. If I had to guess, the Rogue Economy bar listed below is probably the closest thing to it.)
And trust is important. You’re going to be loading this sucker with hundreds of pounds. The last thing you want is for it to snap in half on your back or above your throat.
If you plan on doing any Olympic weightlifting, make sure you get a bar that’s designed with some whip and spin. Here are some suggestions:
If you go with one bar, make it a good one. If you go with two bars, go with one good one and one cheaper one. Good bars are on the pricier side, but it’s better than having metal shards fly in your face when your cheap bar breaks. Make sure you buy these from a trusted place. Craigslist is cool for your cheaper bar.
#2 Olympic sized plates
Although a hunk of iron weighs just as much as the next, you’ll find it beneficial to buy matching Olympic sized plates. Manufacturers might differ in diameter by a few centimeters, which can get really annoying when loading and unloading the bar.
I have two sets of Olympic sized plates. The first I got when I bought my first Olympic sized barbell at a local sporting goods store. The second I got off some guy on Craigslist, which ran me about $80 for 500 pounds.
Really, Craigslist is the way to go when it comes to plates. As I said, a hunk of iron is a hunk of iron. What you might want to consider, however, is your plate breakdown. In general, the 35 pound plates are useless.
- Enough 45’s to curb your strength level.
- 4 / 25’s
- 6 / 10’s
- 8 / 5’s
- 4 / 2.5’s
If you only have one bar, then those numbers change a bit, but I’ve never ran into problems with that plate breakdown.
What you definitely want to avoid is hex plates. They make pulling from the floor a pain. Otherwise, if it’s round, you’re on the right track.
With nothing else outside of the barbell and plates, you’re looking at the ability to do deadlifts, overhead presses (if you know how to clean the bar to your shoulders), rows, curls, and bunch of other stuff. Seems like we’re on the right track.
#3 Two inch washers
Consider this a secret weapon.
Some people recommend buying what are known as fractional weight plates. Since most domestic weight sets have a lowest plate increment of 2.5 pounds, often times you’re stuck at either adding five pounds or nil. But what if you wanted to add one, two, three, or four pounds?
You’re screwed. Unless, that is, you buy overly expensive fractional plates.
But here is a cheat code: buy two inch plumbing washers. The two inch deal represents how big the hole is in the middle, as Olympic plates have a two inch inner diameter.
You can buy these online at McMaster-Carr. Click here to see the ones I have. Each one ballparks at 10 or 11 ounces, so two combined are a hair over one pound.
#4 Power rack
One of the biggest decisions you have to make is with the kind of rack you want. You can go with just the uprights, which are known as squat stands. I bought one of those initially before coming to terms (just like with a quality bar) that in the rare event that I misread my abilities and get stuck at the bottom of a squat, the last thing I want is to ditch the bar behind me and create two cavities in my garage floor.
(Funny story: About four years ago, I put a huge hole in my parents back porch because I lost a snatch behind me. Oops.)
Most people that have a home gym are best off investing in a sumo or half power rack as opposed to squat stands. Half racks are not only sturdier, but also safer because they have the safety pins.
If you know how to use the pins correctly, you’ll never need a spotter. There is a way to adjust the pins to always prevent the bar from crashing on them before you.
Here’s what I’d recommend.
I have the sumo rack, and I have zero complaints. It’s a tad small for me (I’m 6’4”), but it’s solid. I had smaller ceilings when I bought it, so it was my only choice.
If you have limited space, you can go with a squat stand.
I went with a squat stand for a few years until I got the sumo rack. It works, but you have to be careful. Also, it’s probably not best to cheat out on the squat stand insofar as price is concerned. I have a TDS squat stand, but it was a bit on the shakier side with 315 pounds on top of it.
#5 Incline capable bench
I’m a big fan of the incline press over the flat bench press, even though I rarely do much barbell pressing these days. (I caught gymnastics ring fever. And it’s severe.) So it should be no surprise that I prefer a bench with the potential to incline to 30 and 45 degrees.
Luckily, those suckers exist. I found mine at a local sporting goods store for around $100. It’s not super grade, but I was never putting up three plates or anything like that, so it served my purposes. If you’re a heavy bencher, perhaps should consider something sturdier.
The adjustable bench selection online isn’t that great. Here’s one on Amazon that looks decent enough.
One thing to consider is that, if possible, buy one without the leg curl and extension attachment. Mine had one of those and there a metal piece of something that’s a nuisance.
#6 Chin and dip station
If you have a sumo or power rack and two bars, you have a shady but operable chin and dip station.
For chin-ups, put the J hooks to the highest setting. Put the barbell in the hooks and throw a 45 or two on each side for security. Grab the barbell, tuck the knees to the chest, and you’re on your way to chins! (The only downside to this is that you can’t really do weighted chins.)
For dips, put the safety pins at a decent enough height so that your legs don’t hit the ground on the descent. Throw both of your barbells on top of the pins, slide them to the outside as far as they go, and then slide them back (or forward) so they “lock” in place.
If you don’t do this, they’ll slide. This means if you have a wide rack opening, you’ll be doing some wide grip dips. You can play around with this, if you want a narrow grip, by draping some rugs over the pins — something that will give them some friction.
#7 Gymnastics rings
Not everyone is ready to hop on gymnastics rings, and they take some prep work, but they are worth looking into long-term.
You don’t really need a chin and dip station if you have these guys, and you can do a bunch of exercises on them. I’ve never met anyone that regrets having gymnastics rings, and I think that says it all.
Per recommendation of my friends over at Gold Medal Bodies, I have Rogue’s wooden rings.
But whenever I was first asking around, just about everyone recommended the set below.
I went with the wooden ones because RingTraining.com didn’t have wooden ones, and I don’t regret it. Since I’ve bought mine, RingTraining.com has added their own pair of wooden rings. You also get a nifty eBook it seems, and some other cool things. I don’t think you can go wrong with either set.
A good friend of mine does have the non-wooden pair from RingTraining that he takes outside and stuff. If you take yours outside, be careful of wood in the weather.
I lof my rings. Lof.
#8 Dip belt and chain
I don’t know why weight belts are often called “dip” belts, but they are. Dip belts (or weight belts or whatever you want to call them) allow you to attach weight around your waist for exercises like chin-ups and dips.
Funnily enough, I use a tree climbing belt. It’s less than comfortable, but it was a free gift. There are much friendlier options out there.
As for the chain, just go to any local hardware store and get one that supports a decent amount of weight.
Rather bland and not very eye catchy, collars are necessary at times. You don’t want plates to scatter from the bar as you attempt a maximal squat, so they’re worth the investment. Again, a back injury isn’t worth cheaping out on $20.
Collars come in many shapes, but I suggest avoiding being a cheap butt here.
Cheap collars get bent out of shape easily, which then are a pain to put on and take off. You squeeze with all your might to no avail.
This isn’t to say you have to go pro-grade and spend a billion dollars, but don’t go for a $2 pair.
#10 A notebook (or two)
Please allow a moment of reflection, as my first training journal — the same companion that has logged every one of my training sessions since 2007! — has since run out of pages. It’s a sad day when this happens, but it’s the natural course of life.
With that, don’t be anal with your training journal. I suggest immediately throwing it against the wall, bending it and half, and curling the corners. This guy will be around for a long time, and it won’t stay pristine. Might as well introduce it to reality sooner rather than later.
You also might want to have two notebooks. One to track the hard facts, and another to jot down some notes on a particular lift of maneuver. If you don’t, it’s easy for the tips to get lost at sea.
#11 Magnesium carbonate
Magnesium carbonate goes by the street drug dealing name of “chalk.”
You need chalk.
Go watch the Olympics. Olympic weightlifters bathe in chalk before they lift. Gymnasts bathe in chalk before their routine.
You need to bathe.
But a box of chalk blocks. That’s all. Don’t worry about a grandiose chalk stand. Just take the bars and rub them over your hands.
The purpose of chalk, if you’re wondering, is to dry out your hands. This isn’t like steroids or anything. You’re simply revealing your true grip potential, sans sweat and other air factors. And since we grip things a lot, this is important.
The link above is a link for eight blocks. I bought eight blocks about five years ago. I still have five unopened. And I think I even gave half a block away. This stuff will last you a long time.
#12 Good shoes
Hi ho silver, I could talk about shoes forever.
The type of shoe you need depends on what you plan on doing. In general, if you aren’t a professional powerlifer or Olympic weightlifter, you simply want to look for a shoe with minimal bottom cushioning and a flat sole.
The classic example here is that of a bed mattress. The more padding you have on the bottom of your shoe, the more unstable you are. Being unstable with hundreds of pounds loaded on your spine sounds as safe as a game of Russian roulette.
Chuck Taylors are a common cheap option. I have the first generation New Balance Minimus Trail shoe, and I love it.
I link to Amazon here and not New Balance for a couple of reasons. First, the shoe I have is no longer sold by New Balance. Second, New Balance now makes a bunch of Minimus shoes. Going by number, if you want a pair like mine, look for anything with the number 10 in the name. I think?
Some people opt to lift in very minimal footwear, like Vibram Five Fingers, but I’ve since opted out of that after breaking my foot. I don’t care about barefoot benefits when a fluke accident with a 2.5 pound plate can easily cause broken toes, and when a 5 pound plate can easily cause broken feetsies. Want barefoot benefits? Go out in grass and frolic around. Trick.
If you’re of a more serious mindset, you can buy Olympic weightlifting shoes.
I have a pair of the Nike Romaleos II, but they don’t agree well with my foot neuroma. They’re solid though, and I recommend them.
All in all, footwear is a rabbit hole. Many different brands, many different options, and I’m only one rather frugal dude. Just know that you don’t want to be wearing most marshmallowy soled tennis shoes.
Jam away. I highly recommend getting an AUX cable, too. That way, you can listen to anything that’s on your phone, including lectures or audio books. Also, look online (not in store) for an AUX cable. I got mine off Amazon for like $0.99. You just have to make sure whatever you have has AUX cable compatibility.
For some reason, my radios have a terribly short shelf life in my garage. (Maybe two or three years, I think? Maybe less? And this is in regards to CD function, by the way.) It might be because of the weather conditions, getting both cold in the winter and hot in the summer, or because there’s probably chalk dust all over its innards. Whatever. Don’t break the bank. Just get something that works good enough.
#14 Puzzle mats and old rugs
True story: before my parents throw away any rugs, they ask me if I want them.
Mats or rugs aren’t necessary, but they’re extremely useful — certainly nice to line the floor with for a cushioned surface (don’t lift on puzzle mats though, stand on a hard surface; see shoe section).
Also you can put puzzle mats under each end of the barbell to give your garage floor some protection when doing deadlifts.
Half of my garage is a gymnastics space where I do rolls, handstands, and other like movements. That half is lined with these puzzle mats and rugs, and trust me: it helps. Even though the rugs are undoubtedly dirty, it beats the cold floor.
When I’m flailing around miserably with the gymnastics flu (and failing to keep locked out elbows), I’m glad I have my parallettes. Once again, I listened to Gold Medal Bodies and went with a wooden pair.
Useful for gymnastics exercises, elevated handstand or push-up shenanigans and that whole bag of tricks.
If you want to try to get this done on the cheap, you can opt for cinder blocks. I used them for a good while before switching over. The problem with cinder blocks is that they offer you little advantage in the wrist health department, which tends to be a big issue if you’re doing other gymnastics movements on flat ground.
Not only will you be useless if you have a wrist injury, but you’re also adding to the wrist stress you’re already exposing yourself too. I’m glad I don’t use the cinder blocks anymore, hah.
#16 Fat gripz
Back in the day (like six months ago), I used Fat Gripz for just about every upper body lift. Incline presses, overhead presses, and curls were my primary targets. Even to this day, if I ever do any of these exercises, I use them. If you barbell curl, you better be using them.
Might seem like a steep investment for some rubber, but there is good at work. With the thicker grip, you “complete the chain” as it makes you squeeze the bar harder — there’s a more solid connection between the your body and the bar.
This, crazily enough, tends to fix elbow and shoulder pain from pressing. In other words: seemingly expensive piece of rubber becomes an essential life saver.
You can also wrap towels around the bar if you want to go thick grip on the cheap. But . . . srlsy bro . . . ?
#17 Dr. Sapolsky
Yes. Buy Dr. Sapolsky. Kidnap him. Hrmmmmmmrmrmm!
I personally don’t use kettlebells. That’s not to say I have anything against them, but it’s just another hunk of iron to consider. My gymnastics flu is severe enough to not pay them attention, whether that’s a good or bad thing — not so sure.
I buy kettlebells for my girlfriend. She usually pops, locks, and drops it here and there, and they are convenient enough for her to enjoy using them.
Now, kettlebells are usually expensive. Mondo expensive. But there’s a retailer on Amazon that sells them rather cheap.
Bought my girlfriend one and they seem alright. The catch, I think, is that the handle is slightly off center. If you’re a kettlebell zealot, I’m sure that matters. If you aren’t, I’m not sure it does.
Kettlebells are cool though. One of these days, I’m going to take them to a park and just throw them. I don’t know why, but it seems like fun.
#19 Space heater
If you live in a place that gets cold, a space heater is a nice thing to have. Don’t come to me when the electric bill is high, but come to me whenever your hands thank you for grabbing only a freezing bar instead of a below freezing bar.
While were here, let’s talk cold gear.
Wearing a hoodie is generally a no-no, as it makes squatting tough. The hood messes with me with handstands, too. I’ve found the best type of cold gear is a nice sweatshirt. Underneath, wear some long johns so that whenever your body temperature rises, you still have something warm on underneath when you take off the sweatshirt (if you decide to).
Since the head gets cold too, I like wearing a toque or beanie. Combined with that, I use those thick cloth headbands things, but I put them around my neck. It’s a nice little scarf contraption that doesn’t go anywhere.
Bands come in handy at times. I stretch with them sometimes. I make my little cousin do endless repetitions of band pull aparts, too.
Whenever I’m doing weighted dips, the weight belt hits the floor. Instead, I’m an idiot and loop weights around the bad and then loop the band around my neck. It’s not a safe practice, but the only place the weight can go is down. Not bad considering I’m up.
Seriously though, get bands of varying strength. The colors are your guide there.
As for where to buy, they are available lots of places these days. Mine are from JumpStretch, but they are on EliteFTS as well as IronWoody.
I’m of the opinion that everyone with a soul should snatch grip deadlift. I credit wide grip pulling for a lot of things, and that’s really not a possible long term feat without straps (unless you want your fingers to mangle into mush).
When moving into more advanced exercises, straps come in handy. At the beginner level, they are more of an accessory, and not meant to be used in place of developing appropriate grip strength. But you will need these down the line.
Buy good cloth kind, not the cheap loop-through kind. I bought mind from Glenn Pendlay’s website, but I don’t see them up there anymore.
Word on the street is that you can also use the same cloth seat belts are made out of to craft your own.
#18 Klean Kanteen
It’s a good water holder that isn’t made of plastic. I have three of these, and I love them.
The only downside is that they don’t take well to violence. All of mine have fallen seemingly the day after I got them. All are dented. The good news is that they all still function, and that’s good enough for me.
I like the sport top, myself. That’s the spout thingamagic that’s in the picture above.
#19 Things that sit in the corner, never to be used
What kind of a garage would it be without them? Here you see standard plates, adjustable dumbbells, medicine balls, and a foam roller. Some other things are underneath of the junk, but I had ambition with all of these at some point.
#20 Open field of grass
Blame my tricking roots, but I always have my eye open for a quality open field of grass. Bonus points if it’s secluded, as it’s not very enjoyable to have people gawk at you while you flip upside down.
The last inkling of benefits: introverts, unite
So if you don’t mind going to the gym and having people watch you, then you might not need a home gym. If you don’t mind playing, “I need that piece of equipment but someone’s using it” roulette, or “I’m using this piece of equipment and someone is stalking me for it” roulette, then maybe you don’t need a garage gym either.
But, for me, having a shrine to train in within walking distance is convenient.
If you’re the type of person that’s ready to get after it, chances are you’re going benefit hugely from a home garage gym. Likewise, if you hate the public or crowds (introverts unite!), a home garage gym is another huge advantage.
Chalk one up (holy pun master) to those of us that’d rather listen to our own music as loud as we want, chalk up our hands like there’s no tomorrow, and generally not deal with society and crowded places.