Building a Home Gym? Start here!

full home gym setup front view

So you’re home because of Covid. You don’t quite feel ready to hit up the gym but you’re also not proud of the extra weight you’re putting on. You remember a time you loved mirrors – stopping to pose or catch a glimpse of those gains every time you passed by. Now you hate mirrors. You hate scales and you hate the thought of what you’ve become.

During one rainy day, you start putting away your seasonal items and you discover some new found space and with it, new dreams. You will build a home gym.

Well hate to break it to you, you are slow to the game. We’ve all been there. If you are anything like me, building a home gym is cyclical. You think you’ll save a bunch of money by working out at home, so you buy all the equipment you need only to find yourself not motivated to workout. You then sell off your equipment on Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace (at a loss) and sign up for a discount gym, only to find yourself back at the premium club a few months later because the cheap ones suck. To be honest, I go through this cycle every 5 years or so. Until now.

I think I finally figured out why home gyms never worked for me. It comes down to comfort, mindset and equipment.

home gym wide view

For anyone looking to start out building a home gym, these are my tips for where to start and what to buy so that you get it right the first time. With any gym equipment, you can buy new or used. Most equipment online will be in great shape, as the person selling is simply going through the cycle mentioned above and likely didn’t use it. If you are buying used:

  • Take your time accumulating your pieces as deals can be had if you watch closely!
  • For weights and barbells, don’t be afraid of the ones that look old and ugly. Rust is actually quite easy to restore! I will share a DIY on how I cleaned and restored some old plates and barbells soon.

I will share my purchases as we go.

Home Gym Essentials

If you are just starting out and only have room for a few pieces, this is where you start:

Flooring – Doesn’t have to be high end gym quality. There are plenty of horse stall mats available online for great prices that can be used as gym flooring. I went with something a bit more professional looking simply for aesthetics. The cost difference was negligible since I bought it in a roll of 4ft x 25ft (100ft), which came out to about $250 CAD ($2.50 sq/ft). I would recommend buying new here if possible as the savings may not be worth walking or training on a mat that has someone else’s sweat fused in it.

home gym power rack

Power Rack – There are a ton of power racks available online and on the resale market. If you are in the market and have the space, I suggest looking for a traditional full rack / half rack (depending on your space), versus one of the all in one racks with every extension available. Cost wise, the all in ones can run you up into the thousands. Bare racks can be quite cheap (few hundred) new, and even cheaper used (I’ve seen some for as low as $100). What you are looking for here is stability to prevent rattle, safety spotters and ease of adjustments. The power rack will immediately become the core of your home gym, and it unlocks the most essential compound workouts such as squats, bench press, shoulder press, deadlifts and pull ups. If it rattles or takes effort to change the hooks and safeties on them, you will find yourself self sabotaging over time until you end up quitting on your home gym. I also like the idea of splitting the essential power rack from your secondary equipment so that supersetting / drop sets become more efficient to perform. You want workouts to be as easy as they can be, yet feel professional and sturdy as well!

home gym barbell
Rogue Ohio Bar

Quality Barbell – This may not be for everybody. If you are just starting off, you can buy any barbell and not really notice the difference. If you are rebuilding your gym for the third or fourth time, try changing your barbell. This was a game changer for me when I finally stepped up to pick up a Rogue Ohio barbell. While not the best in their lineup, it surely was the best I ever used at home. These retail for $380+ CAD, but I was able to find a beat up one on Kijiji for $150. It was in horrid shape, but 2 hours of cleaning really made it look close to brand new.

home gym olympic weights

Olympic Weights – Many start off with dumbells, but you cant attach a dumbell to your olympic bar. So your first set of weights need to be plates. You don’t need to buy more than you need, just get enough for you to get started and challenge yourself. If you wait online, these pop up on clearance all the time with gyms closing down, or people giving up on their home gym. Aim for about $0.75-$1.50/lb as that is a great resale price for lower to high end weights. I ended up with higher end Ivanko weights as I found someone who bought an entire gyms worth of equipment to resell, and had to start moving pieces from his garage. They were quite rusty, but I simply did a rust clean and spray paint refinish to clean them up. I won’t link to any of the Amazon listings since they are outrageously priced. If you want to buy new, head to a local fitness depot.

Bench – Like barbells, you may want to start off cheap here, but you’ll inevitably find something more sturdy and more expensive. The difference from a cheap new one ($100) to a professional one on the aftermarket ($200) is worth it in my opinion. When you start lifting heavy, the last thing you want is your support bench to rattle or lean. You will only ever need one bench at home, might as well get something of better rated quality.

Mirrors – Get a mirror. Doesn’t have to be nice – we all start off with something from our bathroom. You have to see your progress to find your motivation and nothing helps more than mirrors.

Lighting – Lastly, to round off your essentials, it is known (bro) science that bright lights increase your strength by 10%. I had pot lights originally, but eventually added some track lighting.

Home Gym Upgrades

Now that you have the core, you really have all you need. The rest of the equipment is nice to have, but if you were to build out, this is where I’d focus my next purchases.

home gym dumbells

Dumbbells – the next upgrade that unlocks the most workouts are dumbbells. You can triple your quantity of workouts just by having these. Just keep in mind none of these should be replacing your barbell compounds over extended periods of time. I opted for individual dumbbells versus an all in one adjustable set since I have the space. I also like the different weights being readily accessible for different workouts right away. If space is limited, I have used both the powerblock and bowflex adjustable sets and I personally liked the power blocks more. They are much more compact and have better weight distribution.

home gym functional trainer

Functional Trainer – This machine is probably my favorite, although non essential to your home gym. I would recommend it for anyone who has the space as it opens up an unlimited amount of exercises. While I don’t believe you can overload solely with this machine, you can definitely complement your compound workouts in a safe manner. The main drawback to these trainers are price. The one in this picture is over $10,000 CAD, however I was able to scoop it up for less than $500 when a local physiotherapy clinic was closing shop and needed it gone by end of day. This was freaking heavy!

home gym smith machine

Smith Machine – Often referred to as the poor mans rack, smith machines don’t add much value to your home gym other than safety. The restricted movement of the barbell limits range of motion and hence your gains. I grabbed this for two reasons: 1. I found it on sale from a gym closure with free delivery, and 2. Calves. I have small calves and this machine’s sole purpose to me is calf raises.

Cardio Machine – Last but not least, cardio. Everyone has a different preference for cardio, whether it is an elliptical, stationary bike or treadmill. To be honest if you are tight in space – simply doing burpees, working out at a greater intensity or taking a jog outside should suffice. I have a treadmill that was gifted to me which is set up for show. Personally, I enjoy doing my cardio outdoors and playing sports.

Accessorizing your gym?

The list never ends. There are so many new toys and gadgets coming out all the time, so it’s important to separate your wants from needs (where have you heard this before?). I would suggest staying away from the cool accessories to start and slowly adding them as you uncover new exercises and ideas that work for you. I have bought and sold so many over the years, here is a quick list to get your imagination going:

Lifting Accessories: Landmine attachments, different barbell grips and sizes, calf stepper, battle ropes, rubber cables, etc.

Gym Gear: Lifting shoes, gloves, wrist straps, lifting belt, weighted belt, etc.

Media: TV, Sound System, Wall Decal

If you have the time, I definitely recommend buying your accessories on AliExpress. Most local shops order their products from manufacturers directly in bulk, so they can turn your local orders around quickly. That being said, if you have the time you might as well go straight to the source! Shipping times can be in the weeks to the months but it can easily be worth it when it all adds up.

Whatever you decide, building out a home gym requires you to start big then fill in the blanks over time. Don’t rush to accumulate everything and buying used is often the way to go when it comes to equipment. The best thing about buying used? You can always resell it in 5 years without losing any money!

Good luck as we head into the winter months of the year, and hopefully by this time next year you will have a home gym you can be proud of!

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