Building a great home gym, what do you really need?

In Guides, Plan Your Gym by Tim Steward

Last updated on March 16th, 2021 at 01:40 pm

Ask ten home gym owners what you need to build a great home gym and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll get ten different answers. That’s because each of those ten people has different needs and enjoys different types of training.

This makes it hard for someone trying to build their own home gym to figure out what they should and shouldn’t get. Should they get free weights or a machine? Should they get a treadmill or a rower? Should they make room for a squat rack or power rack?

I took a shot at answering this question with specific gear advice in an article that you can see here. But I think maybe the answer is simpler than that. And a simpler answer is going to be helpful to more people. 

So what do you really need to build a great home gym?

A great home gym consists of space to train, resistance to train with, and a way to train your cardiovascular health. Resistance can range from bodyweight to a full weight set. Cardio training can range from jumping rope to running on a treadmill. Combining cardio and resistance training together results in an ideal home gym.

It’s really that simple. I think too many people get bogged down in the minutiae of which gear is the best or what type of training is most effective.

The simple fact of the matter is that the most effective training and gear is the training and gear that you will actually use consistently.

The Importance of resistance AND cardio

There’s a huge debate within the fitness community of what’s more important, especially when it comes to weight loss (a common goal among many people putting together home gyms). One side says that cardio is the key. The other says that strength training is king.

Both sides will even go so far as to say that you should use their method of training exclusively. The cardio camp says to spend all your time on the treadmill or doing HIIT workouts and to stay away from the weight room. The strength training camp says stick to the barbell and avoid the treadmill at all costs.

They are both wrong. The right answer, as with most things, lies in the middle. 

Strength training is critically important to ALL fitness pursuits. From aging well to hormonal improvements to looking good in a mirror. Cardio is important for heart health, endurance, and work capacity among many other things.

With this in mind, it’s important to build a home gym that can accommodate both training modalities. You want to be able to build strength and cardiovascular health at home!

The big three

With that in mind, all great home gyms can be broken down into 3 key components:

  • Space to train
  • Resistance
  • Cardio

What you decide to do for each of those things will be determined first and foremost by your goals. Are you after weight loss? Endurance? Sports specific training? Healthy aging? Knowing this will help you build the ideal gym for you.

So let’s take a quick look at each of these three along with some general guidelines of how you might fill each one in your home.

Remember, you aren’t building a gym for anyone else but you. What works for me may not work for you. And that’s fine!

Space to Train

The first thing you’ll need for a great home gym is space. I think everyone realizes this. What I think many people miss is figuring out how much and what type of space is needed.

One of the things that holds people back from beginning to work out at home is the excuse that they don’t have the space. A lot of people seem to think that you need an empty garage or basement if you want to have a home gym.

If they don’t have a ton of room, they simply don’t do anything at all. This is where I think it’s critical to point out that you don’t need much space at all.

My first two home gyms took up almost no room in my home. The first consisted of me moving my coffee table to the side and training with a single kettlebell. I did that for months! And I had all three needed things in one.

My first home gym

That tiny square of carpet allowed me to do both resistance training and cardio with that single kettlebell. Was it a traditional “home gym”? Nope. But is was my home gym nonetheless and I used it every day!

When I decided to change things up, I went to a pullup bar hung in the doorway of my home office. Combined with a set of gymnastics rings, I had everything I needed in the space of a doorway. That’s it, just a doorway.

I still use this bar every day!

So, don’t think you have the space for a home gym? Check again. Do you have a living room floor? Do you have a doorway? Then you have the room! And if you have that empty garage or basement, that’s awesome!

As long as you have a dedicated space, you are good to go! And that’s my last pointer on space. If you can, make it a dedicated space. As much as I used that kettlebell on my living room floor, there were days when I didn’t train simply because I didn’t want to move the table and some other things out of the way.

If you can not only find a space, however small, but find one that is strictly reserved for working out, you’ll be that much better off.

Resistance

Resistance

Got your space all figured out? Know where you are going to train each day? Great! Now it’s time to add resistance.

Resistance training has almost too many benefits to list. But here’s a short one:

  • Mobility
  • Strength
  • Hormone optimization
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduces depression
  • Faster metabolism
  • Bone health
  • Joint health
  • Reduced pain
  • Higher work capacity
  • Stability
  • Improved cognition and brain function
  • Improved libido
  • Resistance to infection and illness

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Resistance training has too many benefits to skip. It should be a regular part of everyone’s lives.

But what does “resistance training” mean? Too many people hear that phrase and assume they’ll need to squat, deadlift, and bench press. While I truly believe everyone should do those things, I’m also smart enough to know that a large number of people simply won’t.

“Resistance training” does NOT have to mean barbells and weight plates. It simply means moving your muscles in a natural range of motion with something resisting that motion. That’s it.

Don’t want to lift weights? Great! Here’s a quick list of a lot of your other options:

  • Bodyweight
  • Calisthenics
  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Clubs
  • Maces
  • Sand bells
  • Everyday objects

The key is to pick one that matches your fitness goals and is something that you will enjoy using. Hate dumbbells? Try a kettlebell. Hate kettlebells? Try using a suspension trainer. Find something that you like using and will stick with.

If you only have a small space, you may only be able to use your bodyweight. With a large space, you have room for a full weight room. Most of you will be somewhere between those two extremes.

The key is to find a way to integrate resistance training into your home gym. Once you’ve done that, it’s on to the last component.

Cardiovascular training

Cardio

Just like some people will never lift weights, others will never regularly run on a treadmill. And that’s fine! I hate to run. Even if someone was chasing me, I’d have to stop and ask myself if running was really worth it.

That said, cardio training is a regular part of my daily and weekly regimen. And it should be part of yours too. Why? Here’s a short list of the benefits:

  • Increased lung capacity
  • Burns calories
  • Heart health
  • Lowers stress
  • Better sleep
  • Reduces depression
  • Lowers some cancer risks
  • Appetite control
  • Controls blood sugar

This isn’t a complete list, but it should provide enough reasons to explain why I recommend having some type of cardiovascular training as part of your home training routine.

But what does that mean? Can’t you just go outside and run or bike or walk or play a sport? Yes to all of those!!! If you can do any of those, get out there and have fun!

For those of us that don’t live in a climate that allows us to go outside and exercise any day we want, we need other options. That means having some type of indoor cardio option available as part of your home gym.

The most common, by far, is having a treadmill. Treadmills are great and one of the more versatile pieces of cardio equipment. But they are not, by any means, the only option.

Can’t or don’t want to get a treadmill? How about one of these instead…

  • Elliptical
  • Rower
  • Assault bike
  • Peloton
  • Jump rope
  • Boxing heavy bag
  • Battle ropes
  • Plyo box
  • Kettlebell (swings)
  • Suspension trainer

Of course, that’s not even close to a complete list, but it should get your started. The point of this article is to give you a reference. To give you a clear picture that you only need three things in your home gym and that those three things can and should be tailored to suit you.

Adding complexity

At this point you might be asking why I don’t still work out with a single kettlebell on a patch of floor in my living room. The honest answer has two parts.

First, I got bored. Part of maintaining a consistent training schedule is avoiding boredom. If it’s boring, you’re less likely to do it. So I started adding things.

Second, I really started to enjoy training. It’s one of the best and favorite parts of my day. I used to hate working out, but now I couldn’t imagine life without it. So it’s worth the investment for me to have a bigger and more well-equipped gym in my garage.

My current gym… A long way from that single kettlebell!

I hope that’s the point you get to. But if you are just starting out, start with the basics. A place to train, some form of resistance, and a way to train cardio. If you need help, that’s why I built this site.

Additional Resources

As I mentioned, I did write an article outlining the specific pieces of equipment I think should be in every home gym. You can read that here.

I put a lot of time into my recommended gear pages and you can see those here.

For detailed guides in how to pick out equipment that is perfect for you, see my “equipping your gym” category page here.

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