At-Home Workouts: 5 Essential Items for a Home Gym

Last Editorial Review: 1/29/2008

Experts name their picks for the fitness equipment you need to build a home gym.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

You love the idea of at-home workouts: being able to exercise on your own time, without even leaving the house. And you've finally made the commitment to build a home gym. But if you're like most folks, that's where the easy part ends.

It's easy to get overwhelmed with the amazing array of fitness equipment available today, experts say. You could end up not only blowing your budget, but moving your bedroom into the kitchen just to make room for your new gear.

"The biggest mistake folks make when putting together a home gym is buying too much fitness equipment or things that are too complicated to use," says personal trainer Jessica M. Bottesch, MA, LAT, CSCS, co-owner of Empower Personal Training in Durham, N.C.

The second biggest mistake, she says, is "buying all the same type of equipment, like all cardio or all strength training, and not realizing how that limits what you can accomplish."

So, while buying an exercise bike, treadmill, and ski machine may seem like you're covering all your bases, you're really only preparing for one type of workout, says Bottesch. Choosing a variety of types of equipment will give you a healthier, more balanced at-home workout overall.

Experts from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) advise anyone thinking about creating a home gym to consider not only your particular fitness needs, but also your available space, your budget, and how much time you're able to devote to at-home workouts.

So, what do you really need for your at-home workouts, and how much space and money is it going to take? Bottesch, along with personal trainer and physical therapist Ben Quist, DpH, owner of Form & Fitness Health Club and Rehabilitation Center in Milwaukee, Wis., and experts from the American Council on Exercise and American College of Sports Medicine, helped WebMD put together the following guide.

Top 5 Items You Need for At-Home Workouts

At-Home Workout Item 1: Cardio Training Equipment
What It Is: Any type of equipment that helps you sustain smooth and continuous movement and an elevated heart rate for at least 20 minutes.
Benefits: Heart health, overall body conditioning; cardiovascular conditioning, some muscle toning, weight loss.
Choices -- $500 and over: Electric treadmill; stationary bike; rowing machine; ski machine. Keep in mind that these machines require 25-30 square feet per unit.
Choices -- $100 and under: A jump rope; stepping machine; a step-block; aerobic exercise videos and DVDs; or cable TV exercise on-demand channel. (You'll need about 10 square feet for these options.)
Trainer's Recommendations: "My personal choice is a treadmill because it's easy to do and easy to stick with," Bottesch says. "If you can afford it, an electronic one is best. But that said, the best piece of equipment is the one you're going to use -- so always choose the activity that you at least think you'll like, let alone love." If space allows, you can choose more than one of these options for variety. But remember that they will all offer pretty much the same type of benefits.

At-Home Workout Item 2: Strength Training Gear
What Is It: Equipment designed to strengthen muscles.
Benefits: Body shaping; weight loss; functional fitness, including the strength to do everyday tasks with greater ease; for women, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
Choices -- $500 and over: All-in-one multi-gym; adjustable weight training bench; adjustable barbells; suspension resistance trainer. (Allow 35-50 square feet per item).
Choices: $100 and under: Hand weights (free weights); low end bench; resistance bands. (Allow 20 to 30 square feet).
Trainers' Recommendations: ACE experts recommend "all-in-one" gyms because they reduce the risk of injury in an unsupervised setting. But Quist believes resistance bands are also a safe and economical way to build muscle strength. "By purchasing a few different resistances, from easier to harder, you can get a total body workout for under $50," he says. If you have a few more dollars to spend, his choice is a suspension trainer - sort of super resistance bands that allow you to use your own body weight to condition muscles. Quist and Bottesch also recommend hand weights in three graduating sizes, like 5, 8, and 10 pounds. To increase their effectiveness, Quist recommends using them while sitting on a stability ball (see next item).

At-Home Workout Item 3: Balance Equipment
What Is It: Equipment that challenges your balance while you perform other activities, such as lifting weights or doing crunches.
Benefits: Improves balance, strength in the "core" muscles of the trunk, muscle stamina, and posture. Also encourages better interaction between all muscle groups.
Choices -- $50-$150: Burst-resistant stability balls, soft foam exercise pads; wobble boards; gel-based balance beams. (Balls are sold by the height of the intended user, and range in size from 45 to 75 cm. Foam pads come in a variety of lengths, but are generally about the size of an exercise mat -- about 5 feet x 3 feet. Wobble boards and balance beams require about 20 square feet of space. )
Choices -- Under $30:Non-burst-resistant stability balls; disc pillows; balance dome.
Trainers' Recommendations: "I like stability balls and the foam pads. They are inexpensive, don't take a whole lot of room, and can provide a variety of workout options," says Bottesch. While she says both work best when used along with free weights or dumbbells, they can also be used to help increase the effectiveness of simple exercises such as crunches.

At-Home Workout Item 4: Flexibility Training Gear
What Is It: Equipment designed to help increase muscle flexibility, which in turn may help you to use other pieces of equipment more easily and safely.
Benefits: Better muscle tone; better functional fitness; reduced risk of injury.
Choices -- $200 and over: Pilates machine; stretch machine. (You'll need 35 to 50 square feet).
Choices -- $50 and under: Slant board; stretching bands; foam rollers; mat and towel (10 to 20 square feet).
Trainers' Recommendations: "I personally love the foam rollers -- 4- to 6-foot-long rolls of extremely dense foam that you can lie on or use under your legs or arms to help break up adhesions and allow underlying muscles tissue to stretch ... to a greater degree without hurting yourself," says Bottesch


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At-Home Workout Item No. 5: Guidance
What Is It: Whether it comes from a personal trainer or a how-to DVD, instruction is an essential part of any beginner's home gym.
Benefits: Reduces the risk of injury; increases effectiveness of workouts; ensures better results.
Choices -- $100 per hour and up: While several sessions work best, experts say even just one hour with a personal trainer in your home gym can go a long way.
Choices -- $50 an hour and under: Many trainers run their own, fully equipped fitness studios, and charge less if you go to them. While they can't always duplicate the equipment you have at home, they can approximate. Another option: Ask several friends to chip in and offer to host the session at your home gym. Everyone can learn something -- even if they don't have a home gym.
Trainers' Recommendations: "Not only can a personal trainer help ensure you are doing your workouts correctly, they can also motivate you, help keep it interesting, [and] teach you new things to do with the equipment that you already own, which can ultimately help you stay with your program," says Bottesch.

6 More Tips for Creating the Perfect Home Gym

Here are few extra tips from Bottesch and ACE that can help you get the biggest bang for your fitness buck while creating your home gym.

  1. Quality matters. While you may not be able to afford the "top of the line" in gym equipment, buy the best you can afford.
  2. Prioritize your purchases. You're better off buying the best of a less expensive piece of equipment (like resistance bands) then buying a lower-end version of a pricey piece of equipment (like a multi-gym).
  3. Test it first. Test out each piece of equipment before you buy. Things to look for include not only quality, but also ease of use, adjustability, and ease of assembly.
  4. Inspect it. Check it out before you buy and after it arrives at your home. Factors to look for include safety, stability, service/warranty, overall design, and appropriate features. If weight or height is consideration, be certain to check whether there are any limitations.
  5. Consider others. Are you the only one using this equipment? If not, check to see how well the item can accommodate others of different heights, weights, and strength levels.
  6. Get a checkup. Before you plunk down your hard earned dollars for any equipment, see your doctor and get his or her OK on your new fitness program. Mention the type of equipment you want to purchase and discuss any medical precautions. If you have a chronic condition, such as heart disease or an orthopaedic concern, be certain to get your doctor's suggestions on the best and safest workouts for you.

Published January 29, 2008.

SOURCES: Jessica M. Bottesch MA,LAT, CSCS, co-owner, Empower Personal Training, Durham, N.C. Ben Quist, DPT, director, Form and Fitness Health Club and Rehabilitation Center, Milwaukee, Wis. American Council on Exercise web site: "Fit Facts: Hot To Design Your Own Home Gym." American College of Sports Medicine web site: "Selecting and Effectively Using A Personal Trainer."

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