Photo: Tero Vesalainen (Shutterstock)
If you’re building out a home gym, we have suggestions on where to start and what to buy next. But what if you don’t want a ton of equipment, just the minimum for getting a decent workout at home? First, figure out if there is a specific type of workout you’d like to do. Kettlebells are often recommended for minimalist home gyms, but they’re also best used with exercise programs that have you vary sets and reps since you can’t incrementally add weight. On the other hand, dumbbells give you more flexibility with strength training, but you have to buy several pairs of different sizes just to get started—or go with a pricey adjustable set.
So, let’s get this down to the basics, so you have some options for each.
You need a way to do cardio
As much as I love strength training, cardio is probably more important, so that’s the first thing you should figure out. We should all be getting at least 150 minutes a week of some kind of cardio, even if that’s just a brisk walk every morning.
You’ll want to make sure that your chosen mode of cardio is something that you don’t hate. Which of these can you envision yourself doing for, say, 30 minutes at a time, multiple times a week?
- Dancing or aerobics videos: a pair of comfortable shoes and a space to do the videos in.
- Cycling: a spin bike or airbike.
- Rowing: a rower.
If you have another favorite cardio machine, like an elliptical or a ski-erg, you get the idea. Whatever you choose, make sure you can try it out before committing. A lot of the cheap, space saving cardio machines are flimsy and don’t give you much range of motion.
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A way to do pushing exercises
Pushups are the classic pushing exercise, and you can do them at home without equipment. Great! Do different variations, like diamond pushups or feet-elevated pushups, to make the exercise harder as you get good at it. For a different type of bodyweight push workouts, consider a place to do dips. You can buy dip bars (these tend to take up a lot of space) or a pair of rings.
But you may also want to build pushing strength in other directions, like doing overhead or incline presses. Weights really help here. A set of dumbbells will let you do bench press, overhead press, and more. You can manage vertical pushing by moving up to pike and handstand pushups, but many people prefer the convenience of pressing a nice heavy kettlebell or a pair of dumbbells.
In general, when buying weights, you’ll want something you can lift for anywhere between 3 and 10 reps. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to lift that same weight for 12 or 15 reps, but if you need to go much beyond that to feel like you’re working hard, it’s time to move on.
A way to do pulling exercises
While you can do rows with dumbbells or kettlebells, some of the best at-home pulling exercises are ones that use your body as the weight. Pullups are the classic, and if you’re not ready to do full pullups yet, you can do them with your foot on a chair for assistance. Banded pullups are another option, although I prefer the chair type.
To do pullups, you’ll need a pullup bar. There are removable bars that you can wedge into a doorway, but I strongly recommend the kind that bolt to the door frame. (Yes, even in an apartment; just patch the holes before you move out.)
Another option, if you don’t love pullups, is a suspension trainer like a TRX set. These are great for a variety of pulling exercises, including a bodyweight row that makes for a great alternative to pullups. You can use the TRX in a door frame, or you can hang it from your pullup bar. Gymnastic rings can also be hung from a pullup bar, although you might like to find a space for them outdoors so you have more room than a door frame allows.
A way to work your legs
This one is tricky, because your legs are strong. Air squats won’t keep you busy very long, and one-legged squats tend to be hard on the knees. (Maybe it’s just me, but I would hate to build an exercise program around pistols or shrimp squats.)
Heavy weights are really helpful here. You can goblet squat a large dumbbell or kettlebell, or you can use a lighter weight for unilateral exercises like Bulgarian split squats (the one where your foot is on a bench behind you), lunges, or single-legged or kickstand Romanian deadlifts. The leg exercises from our hotel gym workouts will come in handy as squat and deadlift substitutes.
The biggest mistake people make when buying home exercise equipment, in my opinion, is going too light. A pair of 10-pound or even 25-pound dumbbells may be OK for upper body workouts at first, but you’ll need to go significantly heavier to give your legs a workout. So consider saving up for a 50-pound dumbbell or more, or their kettlebell equivalents. A 24-kilogram kettlebell (53 pounds) can give you a lot of options. A 32-kilo (72 pounds) may be even better.
Another great option, if you can swing it, is a sandbag. Not everybody wants a big ol’ bag that could potentially leak sand in a corner of their apartment, but consider getting one if you have a place to put it (and/or you buy a good quality, leak-proof bag). You can lift the bag, carry the bag, even squat while bear-hugging the bag.
Everything else is optional, but may be helpful.
Resistance bands are great for band pull-aparts, a pulling exercise that shouldn’t be your only option but that is great for giving your upper back some extra work. Likewise, booty bands shouldn’t be the centerpiece of your lower body training, but they’re great for band walks (where you step sideways or in zig-zags with the band around your legs) as a warmup or an accessory move.
A bench will come in handy for those Bulgarian split squats, for foot-assisted pullups, and for dumbbell bench press. That said, you could substitute an ordinary chair for the first two in a pinch, and do your “bench” press on the floor.
A yoga mat can be a nice touch in your exercise corner. If you have a space permanently dedicated to exercise, consider getting interlocking rubber or foam mats to provide a comfortable footing and to stop your dumbbells from clonking and rolling around on the floor every time you put them down.
If you’re really into jumping rope, a jump rope can add to your cardio options. If you want to challenge yourself with core training, an ab wheel may be up your alley. And if you do a lot of yoga or stretching, you may appreciate blocks, straps, and a nice yoga mat.
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