Most of my reviews talk about a product’s versatility. For basement and garage gym owners, versatility is one of the most important traits to look for in your gear.
The same goes for “one trick pony” products. Things I bought that only do one thing. The less I can do with a particular item, the less I like (and use) it!
Why Versatility is Critical in Home Gyms
When most people build their first home gym, they attempt to recreate the commercial gyms they’ve been to. That means buying things like leg press machines, Smith machines, or specialty rack attachments. All are items with minimal applications.
Those pieces of equipment take up a lot of space (funny how some of the least versatile items are also the largest!). They take money out of our budget. And they end up collecting dust in most cases!
When space and money are constrained, making the most of both is essential. And the more versatile your gear, the better you can live within your specific constraints.
It’s also critical to understand that you don’t need to recreate a commercial gym! And most home gym owners don’t have unlimited time, space, and budget to do that.
The goal is to be able to train effectively at home. That’s it!
What Makes a Piece of Gym Equipment Versatile?
One of the most critical things I’ve ever learned about training was from Dr. John Rusin. Dr. Rusin is one of the world’s most respected coaches and trainers, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him directly for several years.
While Dr. Rusin didn’t come up with training foundational human movement patterns, he’s one of the loudest voices supporting this type of training.
Essentially, we shouldn’t go to the gym to do “leg day.” We shouldn’t be designing our workouts based on our favorite exercises. Instead, we must regularly train the six fundamental human movement patterns.
Fundamental Human Movement Patterns
In simplest terms, the more of those patterns that can be trained with a particular implement, the more versatile that implement is. If a single tool can train all six movement patterns, you just hit the jackpot of garage gym fitness equipment.
My goal in writing this article is to give you a well-researched and tested list of single items that could constitute a complete home gym. In other words, you could buy just one thing and effectively train your entire body!
The Top Six Most Versatile Items You Can Buy For Your Home Gym
- Adjustable Dumbbells
- A Kettlebell
- Suspension Trainer
- Open Trap Bar (w/ bumper plates)
- Resistance Bands
Notice what these have in common. They don’t require an expensive rack to use. You don’t need a bench, either. All you need is the listed item and some room to train.
Adjustable dumbbells were one of the hottest items during the pandemic. Used sets, originally purchased for a few hundred dollars, were selling for multiple thousands!
People stuck in their homes with no way to get to the gym bought adjustable dumbbells until the entire world literally ran out of stock. And that’s due directly to how versatile they are.
Even a novice in the gym can figure out how to train all six movement patterns with a set of dumbbells. And the adjustable part means they can be tailored to each individual’s training needs.
I prefer the PowerBlocks adjustable dumbbells in their 90 lb variety. I’ve owned my set for almost 20 years and still use them daily. If you are on a budget, make sure to check out the Nordic Track 55lb adjustables. You can read my review of those here.
In my opinion, every home gym should have a set of dumbbells!
That’s right… ONE kettlebell.
In less than a year, I’ll be traveling the country with a small pop-up camper. I’ve been planning this for literally my entire adult life. And a primary consideration is how I’m going to be able to bring a gym with me so I can continue to train.
The answer is a single kettlebell. I spent almost a year training like this and loved it (see Pavel Tsatsouline’s book “Simple and Sinister” for the exact programming I used).
You can not only train all six movement patterns in a variety of ways, but you can also use the kettlebell for conditioning. This makes it, in my mind, the single MOST versatile piece of fitness gear ever invented!
Strong statement, I know. Now prove me wrong!😉
I wholeheartedly recommend taking at least one kettlebell lesson if you go this route. While dumbbells are pretty intuitive, kettlebells require some refined technique and skill. I took one years ago, which shaved a ton of time off my learning curve.
As far as my kettlebells of choice, I prefer the competition kettlebells from the KettleBell Kings, and that’s what I’ll be bringing with me when I travel. For those on a tighter budget, the Rep Fitness kettlebells have served me well for years, and I highly recommend them!
I also want to give a quick nod to the KB4A (kettlebells for aesthetics) program by the guys over at Mind Pump. While most kettlebell programs focus on strength and conditioning, they don’t address aesthetics. This program does, and it does it well!
A Suspension Trainer / Olympic Rings
A set of Olympic rings (I prefer those to suspension trainers, you can see why here) and a pull-up bar was my very first home gym. I could easily return to that and sell every piece of gear in my garage.
Rings and suspension trainers allow you to train all six fundamental movement patterns and provide an infinite range of resistance by adjusting the angles you use.
A set of rings is also the single least expensive item on this list (followed closely by a good set of resistance bands). They provide even the most budget-conscious person with a way to train at home.
If you aren’t sure how to work out with only a suspension trainer, make sure and pick up the MAPS Suspension program. It’s one of the most well-thought-out and complete suspension trainer programs I’ve ever done!
More specifically, I mean a Torque magnetic resistance tank sled. Not that there is anything wrong with the much less expensive traditional sleds, but when it comes to versatility, the Torque models cannot be beaten!
If you aren’t familiar with this piece of gear, check out my full description here. They make several models; the least expensive of the three is an ideal addition to any home, garage, or basement gym!
I wrote an article listing 16 reasons a sled belongs in your garage gym, but to me, the most important of those 16 is versatility.
The Torque tank sleds can give you a brutal full-body workout in various ways. It’s engaging training and highly effective. Add just a few key tank sled accessories, and there’s no body part or type of training you can’t do with this single implement!
I use my Torque M1 sled every single day. Most days, it’s for conditioning, but anytime I’m in a hurry, I can knock out a fantastic full-body session in under thirty minutes!
An Open Back Trap Bar
Here again, I have a specific model in mind. The Rep Fitness open trap bar is not only a stunningly good specialty barbell (read my full review here), but it’s more versatile than virtually every other open trap bar on the market (see my complete comparison to its competition here).
For this “single” implement, you’ll also need bumper plates (not sure which ones to buy? See our plate recommendations here!). So, I guess it’s technically not a single item.
But if you’re going to have only one barbell with your weight plates, this is the one it should be. And yes, I mean before a straight barbell!
The reason is that you can do so much more with an open-back trap bar than you can with a traditional barbell. Try doing heavy-loaded carries with a straight bar, for example. Ain’t happening!
One more benefit of this particular barbell is that it’s the closest thing on this list to traditional weight training. So, if you’re a meathead at heart, you’ll love using this barbell.
With an open-back trap bar, you can train your entire body in many different ways. Your training won’t get old, and you’ll be in great shape!
A Good Set of Resistance Bands
I firmly believe that everyone should own a set of quality resistance bands, even if they aren’t gym enthusiasts. They can be used for so many things; it’s crazy not to have them.
Using only your body weight and bands, you can do anything from light physical therapy movements all the way through heavily resisted traditional movements like squats, presses, and deadlifts.
I use them for both warm-ups and cool-downs too. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t use a band or two at least once!
I think of all the things on this list, resistance bands are the most underrated. A lot of people I know turn their noses up at them. Surely you aren’t suggesting I can make gains with pieces of rubber, right?!?!
Yes! You can! Not sure how? Pair your bands with the MAPS Bands program, and you’ll have a challenging workout that produces results that might surprise you.
When I start traveling the country with my single kettlebell, my set of bands is the only other fitness gear I’ll be bringing.
And, as I highlighted, make sure it’s a high-quality set of bands. There’s a lot of cheap crap out there. There’s also a lot of expensive crap out there. The bands I use and recommend are these, made by Rubber Banditz.
Whether you are on a budget and need to keep things simple or are building your gym a piece at a time and want to know what to start with, versatility is king.
You simply can’t go wrong with any and all of the above tools. I own and use all of them regularly. But if I had to sell off my gym and keep only one thing, I could do that with any of these six.
Of course, my personal favorite and choice would be a kettlebell. Let me know in the comments which one you would pick.
Why isn’t a barbell on this list? It seems like you can do everything with just that.
A barbell requires several other things to use it. You need plates, a bench, a rack, and collars at a minimum. The trap bar I recommend does need plates, but no bench or rack is needed, making it much more versatile than a straight barbell.
How can you train your upper body with a sled? I always thought that was a lower body only thing.
What about body weight only training? Calisthenics requires no equipment, and you can train all six movement patterns!
I totally agree and love body weight only training. There are two tools above that work fantastically with bodyweight training. Bands and suspension trainers will help you get more out of calisthenics without them.