Designing a home gym

A home gym contains essential equipment for productive workouts. Due to space, this excludes all machines, which aren't necessary for most people anyway. Home gym workouts focus on free-weight (barbells and dumbbells) and bodyweight exercises.

The basic equipment

Power Rack

Not all power racks have a pull-up bar across the top of the frame, or they may have poorly shaped pegs for pull-up exercises that will constrain your hand positions. The ideal rack has a straight, knurled pull-up bar built into the frame. It's nice to also have pull-up pegs for the neutral hand position.

You'll use the squat rack for benching so its best to have a rack whose peg holes have a narrower spacing in the range you bench at, to be able to adjust the height optimally. Otherwise, the mounted bar can sit too high or too low.

Dips require an attachment, which may not be available for every power rack. If you can't get dip attachments, you can get standalone dip bars, but I don't trust them to be stable for weighted dips.

The safety bars in the rack should be able to support the weight you squat at.

Some racks have a pushdown cable attachment, which is the only thing that might break on your rack if you have one. I find this function nonessential. However, the alternative is buying a separate cable machine, which will use up about as much space as the power rack, and cost more.

A landmine attachment is useful if you do T-Bar rows, which can be useful to perform.

Bench

The bench must be rated to support the weights you will ever want to bench press plus your body weight. Many cheap benches are unsuitable for adult male bench pressing.

The height of the bench should suit you. Bench heights vary between 16 and 18” and usually in the 17-17.5” range. This can be a little high for short people or short-legged people, however, you can use plates under your feet to adjust. It is difficult to find a good bench under 17”.

The bench may have contours which can be annoying. Avoid them if you are unsure. The sides of the bench should be straight, not curved.

The ideal bench has a very small gap between the seat and the back when flat so that the butt doesn't sink into it. The problem depends on the length of the bench and your height.

Leg attachments on the end of the bench are in the way and unnecessary, avoid them if they can't be removed.

The bench should be adjustable from flat through multiple incline positions to vertical. A decline is not necessary because decline benching is typically unnecessary, but if you want to do that, reconsider the previous statement about the leg attachment, which will help hold you in place.

Barbell

The barbell must be an “Olympic” barbell meaning it has a 2” diameter on the end sleeves.

If you are doing Olympic lifts you will want a more expensive bar designed for Olympic lifts. It will have better bearing inside of the sleeves, allowing it to spin smoothly. A bar labeled “Olympic” only means that it has 2” diameter sleeves. Read more closely about the bearings used in the sleeves. If the bearings aren't mentioned at all then the barbell is not meant for this.

Make sure the bar is rated to handle as much weight as you use. Some bars aren't meant to exceed 300lbs/136kg.

The rough sections on a barbell are called knurls. The degree of knurling is how rough it is. This is a personal preference. If you don't know your preference, you probably won't like heavy/deep knurling. Some bars are too smooth and will affect your grip.

For squatting, I prefer the bar to have center knurling. The bar stays in place on the shoulders better.

Plates

Iron plates are the cheapest and are good to buy unless you are worried about damaging the floor (see flooring), making too much noise. The weights are inaccurate so try to pair them so that their inaccuracies match.

Urethane coated plates are another option if you want to pay more. They won't make as much noise as iron plates do. The coating may break after a while. Cheap ones leave a black residue on your hands that may not wash off.

Bumper plates are significantly more expensive but required if you want to do Olympic lifts. They'll make less noise and do less damage to the floor.

Buy enough plates for lifting what you are capable of. Have 1 pair each of the lower weights, then however many pairs are needed of the heaviest weight to reach your limit.

Microplates are sold separately from plate sets and are useful for progressing on certain lifts.

Make sure the plates have 2” (“Olympic”) holes, not 1” (“Standard”). All bumper plates are “Olympic”.

Dumbbells

A full dumbbell set for a home gym takes too much space and is quite expensive if you need heavy dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells are a better option.

There are four types of adjustable dumbbells available. For weights over 50lbs, the best option is Ironmaster Dumbbells, and the second-best option is Powerblocks. For speed, Bowflex-style is the best option.

One drawback with adjustable dumbbells is that none of them are meant to be dropped and you risk damaging them, but some more than others.

Ironmaster Dumbbells

These are specially made cast iron plates on a steel handle with good knurling. The plates are held in place by a large, stable screw. The weight can be extended to 120lbs with an add-on kit. It can also be extended to 165lbs but requires a custom order. The speed of changing plates is slower than others, which can be an issue if you have very short rest times. It takes about 60 seconds to do a significant plate change and 30 seconds to do a minor plate change. Fairly durable against dropping, but plates can crack.

Spinlock dumbbells

These are like mini barbells with a screwcap on the end. They can be unstable. They can't fit a lot of plates on them, and you can't use any of the big plates because they have too large of a diameter. Fairly durable against dropping.

Powerblocks dumbbells

They can be quicker to adjust than Ironmaster but not as quick as Bowflex. Small increments require more time to adjust and are comparable to Ironmaster. The weight increments have gaps in them at higher weights; it increments by 7.5lbs at some levels. Finding the add-on extension to heavier weights for sale can be difficult. The shape is odd but most don't seem to mind, although the shape makes it awkward to use them when doing weighted dips and pull-ups. Not durable against dropping.

Bowflex-style dumbbells

These max out at 52.5lbs. Their weight can be changed rapidly by spinning a dial. They are very long at any weight and bulky at the heavier weights. They have a risk of failure where the plates may fall off while using them, but this seems rare. They can be adjusted at 2.5lb increments below 25lbs and 5lb increments above 25lbs.

These are a good option for people looking to spend the least money and will never need more than 52.5lbs in a dumbbell. Not durable against dropping.

Accessories

EZ-Curl Bar

If you get the Ironmaster dumbbells you can get an EZ-curl bar that uses the same plates. Otherwise, find an Olympic EZ-curl bar.

An EZ-curl bar is essential for skullcrushers and useful for curls.

Dip belt

A dip belt will let you add weight to dips, pull-ups, and chin-ups. Adding weight is essential to progression.

Exercise bands

These are useful for stability exercises and minor things like face pulls. These minor exercises tend to be essential at some point.

Ab straps

These hang from the pull-up bar and make hanging leg raises easier to perform but is not essential. You can do hanging leg raises without them.

Flooring

No matter what kind of floor is underneath your home gym, you'll want it to be flat, stable and able to have weights dropped on it.

If your floor has a subfloor, consider that you may damage it by repeatedly dropping a heavy weight. If you are not deadlifting or Olympic lifting then it doesn't matter.

At the very least, put down rubber gym floor tiles. A cheaper option is to get horse barn mats. The horse barn mats smell very bad and are best a well-ventilated area. However, all rubber mats will outgas some smell which may be toxic and you may need to let them wait until they stop smelling.

Underneath the rubber mats, you can put plywood sheets.

If you intend to do Olympic lifts you'll need an Olympic platform in addition to this.

Maintenance

The barbell needs to be scrubbed with a dry brush and oiled regularly, especially if exposed to outdoor air. Similarly for iron plates. Wipe down everything else.

Other Equipment

This equipment takes up extra space and extra cost for exercises that may not be essential but may be very useful.

GHD

A GHD (glute-ham developer) will cost as much as a cheap to a mid-price power rack.

Cable machine

If you want cables and only care about a single pushdown pulley, then find a power rack with those in it. If you want cable-crossover functionality you'll need to buy a cable crossover machine. This will use as much space as a power rack or more and cost more. It at least provides a variety of exercises and is not single-purpose.

Preacher Curl

A separate preacher curl bench, or a bench with a preacher curl attachment such as the Ironmaster bench.

Olympic lifting platform

This will take up a lot of space but is needed if you intend to do Olympic lifts. The flooring guide above is not designed for dropping the weight from overhead repeatedly.

This platform could be reused for deadlifts and barbell rows as extra protection, but if it is too bouncy it is annoying to use for those exercises. You'll lose your position after every rep.

Power tower

A power tower is a combination of a pull-up bar and a captain's chair, which is used for leg raises. This is not needed if you have a pull-up bar built into your rack. You can perform leg raises from the rack's pull-up bar with or without ab straps, although using a captain's chair is a bit easier because you aren't as limited by your hang time. I haven't used a power tower that was both stable and inexpensive. They're also too short for anyone over 5'8”.