Training Articles

Home Bodies

Build your own home gym for $400 or less

By Chris Baker

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Don’t tell Dena Bourlier, a mom of three from Council Bluffs, Iowa, that spending a lot of cash on gym memberships and equipment is the only way to get in shape. Bourlier lost 30 pounds and has maintained her new physique for a year with the help of her back-to-basics home gym. "I worked out either before my kids got up in the mornings, or when the two oldest ones were in school and the baby was sleeping," says Bourlier.

For Shelly Cole, of Tomahawk, Wis., a home gym was a necessity because her small town lacked adequate fitness facilities. For both Cole and Bourlier and other women like them, home gyms have a lot of appeal. A home gym is open any time you want to use it, there are never any lines to use the equipment or hefty membership fees, and you’re in control of the volume on the stereo system and the channel on the TV. And even if you’re not quite ready to give up your gym membership, a home gym can be incredibly convenient on days when getting up early to beat the weight-room traffic just isn’t an option.

Are you worried, though, how building your own home gym will affect your checkbook balance? If so, you should know that building a home gym can be both easy and inexpensive.

"A good home gym includes equipment and space for a complete fitness routine," says Liz Neporent, Director of Special Projects for Plus One Fitness in New York City and co-author of Fitness for Dummies and Weight Training for Dummies. "You need something for cardio, something for strength, and at least a mat and some space for stretching."

Cardio for cheap

Since you’ll probably be doing three to six sessions per week of cardio, you’ll want to make sure that variety and convenience are built into your aerobic program.

Walking and running are excellent for aerobic conditioning, and your only cost is a good pair of shoes. "I also like jump rope, step and exercise videos as low-cost alternatives to the fancier stuff," says Neporent. "They’re just as effective." Bourlier agrees: She uses a regimen of mall walking, walking with running intervals and videos. Her favorite cardio tape is Denise Austin’s Ultimate Fat Burner. "But be warned, it is not for beginners," Bourlier says.

Joe Franco, an ACE- and ACSM-certified personal trainer from Warminster, Pa., who runs Franco Individualized Training (F.I.T.), often works with clients in their home gyms. When it comes to purchasing cardio equipment, says Franco, space should be your first consideration. "Think about space and whether you really have the room for the equipment," Franco says. Comfort and ease of use are also important considerations when it comes to purchasing cardio equipment like treadmills, stair steppers, stationery bikes and elliptical trainers. "The biggest tip I can give is to jump on the machine and try it out for five to 10 minutes—play with the buttons and make sure you’re comfortable with it," says Franco.

Quality is also an important consideration when it comes to cardio equipment. "It is always a wise decision to pay a little more for a better-designed and put- together product," Neporent says. Look for sturdy construction and smooth, quiet operation.

"Warranties are also important," Neporent cautions. "All things being equal, take the product with the more complete warranty." Richard Miller, president of Gym Source, a company that designs fitness centers and home gyms for clients such as Madonna and Demi Moore, also emphasizes the importance of quality. "The better the piece of equipment, the longer you’ll stay on it," says Miller. "If the equipment is of poor quality, it will affect the quality of your workout, and you’ll tire yourself without getting the full benefit of the exercise."

Try to think ahead when it comes to your cardio investment. "Buy what you’ll actually use," says Neporent. "So if you really prefer to work out on a treadmill but a bike is cheaper, ask yourself: `Will I ever really use the bike?’" It’s best to pick a piece of equipment that’s fitted to you and your lifestyle—make sure it’s adjustable to your height, size and level of fitness.

Finally, beware of bells and whistles. If you never use a treadmill’s computer-integrated running workout, is it worth it to spend the extra cash? If you’re buying a piece of cardio equipment, do your research and take your time. Ask fitness professionals, workout-oriented friends and sales people as many questions as possible about your intended purchase.

Hard body without a hefty price tag

"If you want to start out, get yourself a comfortable, adjustable bench with leg attachments and a pair of adjustable dumbbells," says Franco. "You can spend under $200, and you’ll be able to exercise your entire body." An incline/decline bench will allow you to perform upper body exercises like dumbbell presses and flyes, as well as ab work such as decline sit-ups. But be sure that the bench is sturdily constructed. "I love the adjustable incline bench because there’s so much you can do with it—it’s very versatile," says Elizabeth Martin, a marathon runner who works out at home in Reamstown, Pa.

If space is tight, consider your dumbbell purchase carefully. "I like dumbbells that are solid blocks of weight as opposed to weight sets where you have to keep adding weighted discs to a short bar to change the amount of weight; the discs always rattle around and sometimes fall off," says Neporent. One brand of space-saving dumbbells is PowerBlocks, which has a special "selector pin" that allows you to change weight quickly and replaces up to 37 pairs of dumbbell free weights.

Other low-cost weight-training alternatives include medicine balls and resistance bands. Medicine balls, which are available in a variety of weights from 2.5 to 11 pounds, are a great way to build arm strength and endurance, and range in price from $50 to $150. You can toss and pass the ball back and forth with a partner, or practice lifting and pressing exercises to build strength. If space is a premium or you travel often and need to take your home gym on the road, resistance bands are your best bet. A band workout uses your own body weight to help you tone and build muscle. As you progress, purchase heavier and thicker bands to increase your resistance.

Another basic buy that gives a lot of bang for your buck is a pull-up bar set. For under $25, you can find a sturdy bar that will hang in a doorframe. A pull-up bar isn’t just great for upper-body strengthening—you can also use it to do abdominal exercises, such as hanging leg raises. And speaking of abdominals, try a stability ball. "I love the inflatable physical therapy balls," says Franco. "They can be used for a number of exercises and you can do a ton of abdominal exercises." For $30 to $85, you’ll be able to do exercises like abdominal curls, oblique curls and sidebends. The American Council on Exercise recently rated the stability ball as one of the best ways to work your abs.

Finally, don’t overlook safety considerations when you’re setting up your home gym. A few sessions with a personal trainer will be well worth it as you learn correct form, breathing and posture. "Hire a trainer for a session or two, read a book, work out with a knowledgeable friend—do whatever it takes to learn the ropes," says Neporent. Franco also suggests you purchase a full-length mirror for your workout space so you can monitor your form, too. Furthermore, lifting gloves will help you get a better grip on weights and bars and most versions cost less than $15.

Shopping strategies on a shoestring

Are you daunted by the cost of cardio equipment and weights? Don’t lose heart, try these cheapskate strategies:

  • Build your gym gradually. Once you’ve defined and refined your workout program, purchase equipment slowly so you don’t end up buying unnecessary pieces.

  • Shop during slow season. Is there a better time of year to get good deals on fitness equipment? "Summertime is usually the best time since most people think about working out outdoors and most equipment is used indoors," says Neporent. Franco also recommends shopping before Christmas for stellar sales.

  • Ask around. Although Elizabeth Martin prefers to run outdoors, she rescued an unused treadmill from her parents’ basement, and uses it on days when it’s too dark, cold or wet outside. Your friends and family members may have buried home-gym treasure gathering dust in their attics, garages and basements, so put out the word that you’re looking for free or cheap equipment.

  • Trade up. Bourlier keeps costs down by regularly trading her too-light dumbbells at her local used sporting goods shop for credit toward a heavier pair. Try this trick with videotapes by organizing a video swap among your friends and family members. If you’re sick to death of Tae-Bo, you may find just what you need in your best friend’s Pilates video and vice versa.

  • Take up garage sailing. Garage sales can be a treasure trove of gently used workout equipment. Suit up in your workout clothes, and make sure to try all equipment before purchase. Don’t forget to get the instruction manual from the owner, if possible. And if you’re examining weight machines with cables, make sure the cables are in good condition and not worn. Check the classified ads regularly and watch for going-out-of-business sales at local gyms for bargain buys on high-end equipment.

  • Go online for deal. "Commercial stores often mark down and sell items on eBay. They’ll deliver it so you don’t have to pick up a large item," says Franco.

Cheap thrills

If you have a little extra cash to throw around, gadgets and accessories can help you track how your home gym is working out. Heart rate monitors can help you control the intensity of your workouts while allowing you to train more efficiently. Expect to spend $60 to $300 for popular brands.

If you’ve ever tried to do ab work on a cold floor, you know that an exercise mat can be your saving grace. Exercise mats are also great if you do yoga or tai chi at home—look for a version that can be rolled up for easy toting. A cushioned mat will soften your floor space and will set you back only about $35.

What else should you consider when designing your home gym? "Measure the room to make sure your equipment fits—include ceiling heights and the door frame," Neporent stresses. "Make your home gym happy and comfortable. Putting your exercise equipment in a dark basement full of cobwebs isn’t going to be very inspiring."

"I think most people think the only way to get in shape is to join a gym, but that is just not true," says Bourlier. "It is easier and more cost-effective to work out at home. Plus you don’t have any excuses—your equipment is right there waiting for you whenever you are ready."

Home gym for cheap. What you can get for $400 or less.

Looking for a bare-bones gym that fits in a corner? No problem—we’ve crunched the numbers for you. Of course, if you’re an especially savvy shopper, you could spend even less, but on the average, here’s what you can expect to get for about $400:

Cardio
Jump rope–$15 to $20
Workout videos–$45 to $60
Walking and running–free

Strength Training
Incline/decline bench–$60 to $100
Dumbbells–$25 to $75
Stability ball–$30 to $85

Stretching/Flexibility
Resistance bands–$15 to $25
Floor mat–$35

Total home gym cost–$225 to $400