Last updated on March 9th, 2021 at 01:39 pm
While my current home gym is located in my garage, that wasn’t always the case. I’m very fortunate to have a two-car garage and only one car. That has allowed me the room to build a home gym I could only fantasize about previously.
Apartment Gym Challenges
For many years, I lived in an apartment. No garage. No extra space. No squat rack, barbell, or bumper plates. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t work out at home, it just means that I had severely limited options outside of going to a commercial gym.
Keys to a great apartment gym:
- Alter your training to suit what you can fit in your space
- Look for smaller more compact equipment
- Use highly versatile gear like kettlebells and adjustable dumbbells
If you currently live in an apartment, you are presented with a unique set of obstacles that most homeowners don’t face. For those living in a small space, working out at home can seem like an impossibility. Luckily, with a little thought and planning, this isn’t the case!
Roadblocks to training in an apartment:
- Limited to no extra space
- Landlords that don’t allow heavy weights or other equipment
- Roommates and/or spouses
- Less than ideal setting (flooring, lighting, and ventilation)
- Having to move eventually (or regularly)
Having lived and trained in an apartment for as long as I did, I have quite a few suggestions to help you get the most from training in that environment. I’ll be honest in that I cycled between training at home, training at a big box type gym, and not training at all.
Over time, however, I accrued enough time training in cramped apartment spaces to compile a pretty large list of tips and tricks I have to be both effective and useful in the real world.
While that list is extensive, and I’ll make sure to cover it below, I want to start by cutting to what I would do if I moved back into an apartment tomorrow. Sure there are lots of things I could do, but at this point I know exactly what I would do so I’ll share that first.
One of the lessons I’ve learned over the last 20+ years buying and using (or not using in too many cases) gym equipment for my home is that the basics are always the best. For those trying to carve out a great gym in an apartment, this rule holds especially true.
The perfect 3 piece apartment gym
If I found myself in an apartment again (and with the prices of homes these days, it’s not an impossibility), I would buy three primary pieces of equipment. Sure, there’s probably some other things I might accumulate over time, but three core pieces is all I would need.
With the following 3 pieces, you can train effectively for a lifetime. There is no movement you can’t do and almost no exercise you can’t perform. These 3 pieces will take up almost no room and are ideal for apartment training.
The perfect 3 piece apartment gym would have a collapsable FID bench, adjustable dumbbells, and a pullup bar.
Collapsable FID bench
At the time I’m writing this article, this is still the bench I use. It’s served me well for a very long time. It is exactly what I would buy if I was putting together a gym in my apartment.
FID stands for flat, incline, and decline. It’s one bench that can accommodate any position you require. They are easily adjustable and you can change them on the fly. Having a single bench that does all 3 is perfect for the apartment setting.
There’s one problem with most benches of this type. They are big, take up a lot of space, and typically don’t match the furnishings that you so carefully picked out to make your apartment look nice. In other words, they stick out like a sore thumb in your tiny apartment!
That’s why I recommend a collapsable FID bench. Specifically one that can fold down flat and be stored under your bed. This is the ideal solution for an apartment! When you want to train, pull it out. When you are done, collapse it and stow it out of sight and out of mind.
I’ve tried several versions of these and for my money, there is no better choice in this category than the Body Solid GFID-225. I wrote a full review of this bench that you can read by clicking here. You can also check other user reviews as well as its price by clicking here to see it over on Amazon.
Have room for more than one bench? Don’t need a bench that stores under your bed? Click here to check out my recommended benches page for my other tried and tested bench recommendations!
For most apartments, a traditional barbell is too much. For everyone that can’t consider a barbell and set of weights, dumbbells are the natural choice. (For those that do have room for a barbell, make sure you read my article on selecting the perfect barbell here!)
With dumbbells, you only have a few choices. There is the traditional giant rack of fixed weight dumbbells. There is the old school mini barbell type with a small bar and removable plates. And there is the much more usable and modern option of today’s adjustable dumbbell sets.
In another article I spent a good amount of time going over why I would select a great set of today’s adjustable dumbbells over the other types. Once you introduce the size constraint of a small apartment space, it becomes an easy choice.
For those tight on room (and budget, for that matter), there is no better choice than a great set of adjustables. I’ve been using my set of adjustable dumbbells for years and I’ve never had a second thought about them. They are one of my most used pieces of gear!
The key is to get a set that works well, provides a good amount of potential resistance, and is well built. For my money, there’s only one way to go here. The original adjustable dumbbells, Power Blocks.
Power Blocks are not technically the first people to make adjustables. But they were, in my opinion, the first ones to do it right. Many years later, I still feel they are the best overall choice in this category!
Adding a set of 90 lb Power blocks to your hideaway adjustable bench is a natural combination. It gives you the ability to do just about any kind of weight training movement you can think of. They are the perfect choice for your apartment gym.
No, they aren’t a barbell and 300-500 lbs of plates. But as far as getting a solid workout in, they are ideal. When looking at the number of things that can be done with a great set of dumbbells vs. the number of things that can’t, it becomes clear just how how great a choice they are.
One of their many positive qualities is that they can easily be stored under your bed next to your fold away bench! That means that you have almost everything you need to work out at home and haven’t taken any extra space to do so!
If you’d like to see the different options Power Blocks has, make sure to check out my recommended dumbbells page here!
Pull up bar
Your apartment has doorways. Those doorways can support a pull up bar. ‘Nuff said.
A pull up bar is one of the single most versatile pieces of equipment that you can own. It’s also another one that can be stored away out of site when not in use.
What’s really great about the pull up bar is that it allows you to perform movements under load that can’t really be done with dumbbells. As complete an implement as dumbbells are, they don’t allow for vertical pulling.
This is where the pull up bar comes in. Adding pull ups to your programming is one of the single best things you can do for both back and arm strength. It’s also a functional movement that is highly useful in real life!
A nice pull up bar is inexpensive. For just a few $, you can have one at your doorstep in a day or two. You can see my preferred basic apartment bar here on Amazon. It’s the perfect piece to round out your space saving apartment gym.
If you are a bigger or taller (or both) individual, I would strongly recommending stepping up to this model by Iron Age. It puts the bar 6″ higher than standard doorway models and can support over 400 lbs. It’s more than worth the few extra $ you’ll spend over a basic model!
That completes the ideal 3 piece apartment gym. Other than maybe some bands and a foam roller, that’s what I’d go to immediately if I found myself living in an apartment tomorrow.
More apartment gym ideas
Not everyone needs to hide things under their bed. Not everyone is on a budget. And not everyone has the same training goals that I do. For that reason, I’ve put together a list of a bunch of other things I tried and liked back in my apartment days.
My entire home gym grew from one kettlebell. In fact, I trained for almost an entire year with just a few of them combined with a great book and some empty floor space. They are one of the single most versatile and challenging implements around.
They are also perfect for an apartment. In fact, they take up even less room than the bench, dumbbells, and pull up bar I already recommended. I would even venture to say they are equally as effective if not more so.
There are a lot of kettlebell options out there. Honestly, most of them are a waste of money for a variety of reasons. I know because I’ve tried or owned a lot of them. To see what kettlebells I recommend, check out my recommended kettlebell page here.
If you want more information on kettlebells, go to the company that makes the best kettlebells in the world, Kettlebell Kings. If I was to buy a new kettlebell today, this is where I’d go without a second thought!
I wrote an extensive comparison of the TRX suspension training system and a set of Gymnastic rings that you can see by clicking here. In that article, I said that I felt that in most applications rings were the better choice.
I don’t think that’s the case when building an apartment gym.
For apartment use, I think the TRX system is the clear winner. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even consider rings in an apartment for the simple element of having a place to set them up.
A TRX can attach to your doorway and from there provide an entire workout. From your legs to your core to your upper body, the TRX and a door could easily serve as you sole apartment workout apparatus.
Similar to a TRX, a great set of bands can combine with a doorway to give you a terrific full body workout. They pack down just as small and are something you can use for years to come.
Another benefit of bands is that they are very safe as compared to most other gear. Your risk of injury when working with bands is quite low. This is always a nice feature when you will most likely be working out alone.
I don’t want to make it sound like bands are a substitute for weights. They are not. But depending on your goals, they may be perfect for you. They are also an amazing compliment other gear you may be using.
Cheap bands can break easily. If that happens while you are using them, it’s painful and no fun at all! I highly recommend going with a set by the Rubber Banditz. Check out their assortment and buying options here.
All in one home gyms
As the previous owner of not one, but two Bowflex home gyms, I have a few things to say on this category. I even wrote a full length article outlining everything you need to know about Bowflex home gyms.
If you have a little floor space, an all in one gym may be a good solution for you. No, they are not free weights. Yes, I think dumbbells are better in most respects. A barbell and free weights would be even better.
But there are good reasons for a set up like this. All in one home gyms can be an ideal solution for some people.
All in one units like those by Bowflex are typically very safe. There is no risk of dropping a weight or hurting yourself that way. They also provide progressive resistance much like bands do. That, by nature, is protective from injury.
They are also very versatile. They are built to allow you to perform a ton of different movements with one piece of gear. One compact form factor provides a ton of function.
Personally, I didn’t end up using either of my BowFlex units, but that wasn’t because they didn’t provide a good work out. It was simply that at that time in my life I wouldn’t have used anything. I just didn’t have the discipline.
If you decide to go this route, I would definitely recommend something like a BowFlex and not something with stacks of weights and some cables and pulleys. (See this Life Fitness unit as an example of the type I am talking about)
This is simply for space saving reasons. If you are tight on space, a BowFlex type unit can fold up into a rather small footprint. Those other types of all in one gym cannot. And if you have room for a larger footprint, you have room for free weights.
Free weights are almost always going to be the better option.
Whether it’s the aforementioned bench, dumbbell, pull up bar combination or a squat rack and barbell, weights are better in almost every respect.
If you want something that’s easy to use, takes up only moderate space, and is a safe training alternative, an all in one home gym might be ideal for your apartment application. If not, and you have room for more gear, read on…
A barbell option for apartments
I won’t mince words. If you have room for a barbell and weights, that’s a better gym. It just is. They are more versatile, can produce better results, and will grow with you as long as you care to train at home.
So, if you have the room, this is a better option. You may have to modify things slightly for apartment use, but it’s still the better option.
By following a few simple guidelines you can have a really nice barbell set up in your apartment.
Second floor and above units
I wrote a full description and guide for building a gym on the second floor that you can see by clicking here. If your landlord has issues with using weights on a second floor, this article may help.
Your property manager may have one of two issues. The first is safety and damage control. They might assume that you and your weights are going to come crashing through the floor into the unit below.
Even if their vision isn’t this extreme, they may still picture significant damage to your floor. This is where a couple of precautions will come into play. Start by sharing the above mentioned article with them.
Precaution number one is a polite conversation. Let them know you won’t be dropping weights on the floor. You will be using a rack (see below) and not doing anything crazy. Get yourself a set of these silencer pads from Titan Fitness (they are ideal for this application!!!). Make sure your landlord knows that you will not be causing damage.
The second is another polite conversation. This time with your neighbors. Talk to them before you talk to your landlord. Make sure you get their buy in up front. Working things out with the neighbors gives you some great ammunition when it comes time to speak with your landlord.
In my experience, getting my neighbors buy in was head and shoulders more important than getting it from the property managers. In fact, I don’t know that I ever asked permission to set up weights in my apartment. I simply talked to the folks downstairs and didn’t work out when they were home.
Apartment sized gear
The biggest issue I had with getting a squat rack set up in my apartment was size. There just wasn’t any way I could fit a full sized cage. If you can, make sure to read my complete guide to selecting a squat rack here. If you can’t, there is still hope!
The first option a lot of people consider is a squat stand. While it’s better than nothing, it’s not the best choice. They are kind of a pain to set up and take down. They aren’t really the most stable implement (especially if you are working on carpet). And they aren’t very versatile at all.
I’ve used my share of squat stands and I’d be perfectly happy if I never had to use one again. That sentiment comes from a mix of not really liking the one dimensionality of them and knowing that there are much, much better options out there.
Squat stands can be a cost saving option. That is one of their better qualities. If you are tight on both space and money, this may be important. If this isn’t the case and it’s just space you are short on, then I’d look further.
The compact rack
A new category of rack has popped up over the last few years. Designed for limited space applications, compact racks have solved the sizing needs of many rack owners and home gym enthusiast.
Like any other first generation product category, though, they have some significant design flaws. They are time consuming to set up. They are cumbersome to fold away. They don’t provide other needed space saving solutions for the gear that goes around them.
These reasons, among many others, are why I am a huge fan of a company called PRX. You might have seen them on Shark Tank. You might have seen them in your FaceBook feed. Or you might have heard them sponsoring one of your favorite podcasts. Or, this might be the first time you are hearing of them.
Regardless of how you found them, if you are an apartment dweller who wants to train at home with a rack and barbell, you’ll be happy you did!
Hands down PRX makes the best compact rack systems around. They are extremely well built. They are strong and functional. They set up and fold away in a matter of minutes. They are everything you would want and more for a constrained space set up.
They also offer fold away compact options for your bench, barbell storage, and weight storage. It’s a one stop shop for weight training using a compact rack and barbell system. If this is something that sounds ideal for your apartment gym set up, you can see their product line on Amazon by clicking here.
Join a club… For free?
In my early 20’s, I remember looking for apartments in Champaign, IL. I had decided to discontinue my education at the University of Illinois and enter the workforce instead. It was my first exposure to large apartment complexes.
As many of you know, all the apartments were basically the same. Sure, they might have been located in different sections of town, but the same nonetheless. There were subtle differences in layout, but nothing earth shattering.
That’s why the different complexes all competed for rental dollars in other ways. One of those ways was with perks and amenities.
Some places had pools. Some had indoor parking available. Some had doormen. Some had fitness centers. All nice things that factored into my decision of where to live.
One, however, stands out in my mind. This particular complex had worked out deals with quite a few surrounding businesses. Kind of like Groupon, but before Groupon was a thing.
They had food discounts. They had discounts at the local golf course. They even had deals at some of the stores in the local mall. And, you guessed it, they had a group rate at the local Bally’s health club.
This, I found out later, was a lot easier to facilitate than many people might think. So if all else fails and you simply can’t find a way to set up a passable training space in your apartment, start checking in with local gyms.
Go in and ask for the general manager. Explain to them that you live in a multi unit apartment complex made up of apartments too small to set up a home gym in. Then ask for a group discount.
I can all but guarantee that you will quickly find interested parties. Gyms are on a constant quest for new members. They go to great lengths to bring them in. Discounts are par for the course in their world.
Now I want you to go one step further. Ask them if they will trade you a free membership for bringing them a certain number of new members. Combine that with the negotiated discount for the tenants of your complex and away you go!
This, in my mind, is definitely a last resort. I love training at home. I’m guessing if you are on this site, you do too. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, right?
Putting in a little leg work to get free access to your local gym is something that I not only recommend in this type of situation, it’s something I’ve done.
In the end, I don’t really think it matters what your solution is as long as you find one. “I live in an apartment” can be an excuse. Just another in a long line of excuses that people use to get themselves out of training.
Like all excuses, it’s powerful because it’s real. Living in an apartment presents very real challenges to building a home gym. But like all challenges, these can be overcome.
Whether it’s by using my ideal 3 piece apartment gym set up, getting a TRX, or installing a PRX rack for some serious lifting, there’s always a way! Now it’s just a matter of figuring out what’s right for you!