Essential home training equipment

Pictured – my dream home gym setup

Although the main focus of Everyday Exercise is not on hardcore strength training, I do feel very strongly that having a solid strength regime you go to 3-4 times a week is a Very Good Thing for everybody to implement.

Strength training has a ton of great benefits, including helping people to build muscle and lose fat (a.k.a. what 90% of people want out of training–and this is no bad thing) as well as grow confidence and trust in your body that can make a real difference in other areas of your life. I know that for me strength training helped me to develop better willpower and self-belief that I might otherwise lack. You learn a lot about yourself and your capabilities when you push your body, and, to paraphrase Henry Rollins, “the iron never lies.” You can’t fake strength increases–not to yourself, at any rate.

Of course, gym memberships are expensive and I know that gyms can be daunting to the uninitiated, or anyone who doesn’t like being sized up by huge dudes in ill-fitting vest-type garments (just kidding–an important thing to realise is that everyone else in the gym cares far, far more about themselves than anything you’re doing). Having a good stable of home exercise equipment can be a great way to get your confidence up for the gym or even replace it altogether, depending on how you like to train. Also, for days when time is too short for the gym commute or you feel like a quick workout without all the gym hassle, it’s great to have the tools to hand to give yourself a full body session.

It doesn’t have to cost the earth, either. I’ve arranged the list by tiers – tier one being the absolute essentials and getting less necessary from there on. After tier one, you don’t really need anything more–and in the spirit of Everyday Exercise I want to keep this list to the realm of the realistic–but obviously the more equipment you have, the more you can do, and the more possible it is to completely replace a gym membership.

Tier One

Thanks to the miracle of bodyweight training, or calisthenics, the only piece of equipment that makes it into the list of absolute, non-negotiable home exercise equipment to my mind is a… (drum roll) pull-up bar.

With a pull-up bar and a patch of empty floor you can get a complete training session in. Do some push-ups, pull-ups and some lunges, squats, jumps or sprints (sprinting is even better if you have a hill to do it up) and boom, you’ve just worked your whole body better than most do even in a gym. If you have a bit of free wall-space or exceptional inverted balance you can throw some handstand work into the mix to really round out the day’s work.

When it comes to home pull-up bars, I lean towards the type that use leverage to hook onto your door frame securely and allow for easy setup and teardown in a matter of seconds, rather than any kind of screw-in semi-permanent fixture. As a bonus, for those in rented accommodation, you won’t have to ask the landlady or lord’s permission.

A doorway pull-up bar

One of these bars can be bought in Argos or online for less than €30, and it’s honestly worth every penny.

Tier Two

I might be showing my calisthenics bias here, but for me the next best bit of equipment to get is a set of gymnastic rings (preferably) or a TRX-type system. The reason is that, although I love pull-ups, most people would get a lot of benefit from more horizontal pulling (quiet down the back!) to really work the back of the shoulders and upper back in general in the right way and balance out all the hunching over desks we all do. The beauty of these “suspension training systems” is that you can easily hang them off your shiny new pull-up bar. Yay, modularity!

Quick note – I prefer gymnastic rings to TRXes or similar because the two straps are independent and not coming from one central point. This means they are way more versatile (can be used one at a time or in more awkward hanging situations like off trees more easily) as well as being more comfortable for any movements in which you are above the rings, e.g. when doing dips or push-ups the straps are not painfully rubbing off your upper arms and shoulders as much as they do with a fixed-width strap system.

If you’re looking for a set of rings, I have found the best place to get them is on eBay usually, or from D8Fitness, and I highly recommend getting a set with wooden handles. They feel so much better in-hand.

A lady demonstrates one of my favourite bodyweight exercises, the ring row

A lady demonstrates one of my favourite bodyweight exercises – the ring row

For those who prefer a more weights-based approach (or want to add to the equipment so far), this would be a good level at which to grab a set of dumbbells, with all of the various uses they can be put to. Inexpensive sets can be gotten from Argos or similar places, though bear in mind that if you’re very strong it’s going to be hard to find a set that allows you to load both dumbbells heavily enough. I recommend actual metal weights rather than the vinyl, sand-filled variety–they’re far more durable and something about them tends to feel better overall.

Why dumbbells instead of kettlebells? Mainly cost. I love kettlebells, and agree that they can do used for as much and more than dumbbells, but there’s no getting around the fact that getting yourself set up with a decent collection of kettlebells in various weights is going to set you back a lot more than a set of dumbbells, entail far more research, and be a lot less than ideal if they’re your only weighted training tool (hard to scale up in small increments to progressively overload smaller muscles, like, say, your shoulders).

That said, if you can swing them (no pun intended. Alright, I intended it a little bit…) a set of kettlebells is a great investment. I got my dad a set for Christmas a few years ago and it completely transformed his approach to training for the better. Not to mention when I’m home I get to use them. Bit of a bowling ball with my name on it? How dare you accuse me of such a thing…

When it comes to getting a good set of bells, go for the cast iron variety. Don’t faff about with the vinyl ones as they won’t be able to take the punishment. Plus, half the fun of kettlebells is feeling like a Russian badass as you hurl around heavy cannonball-shaped implements. The other half is referring to their weight in “poods”.

These "Primal" kettlebells from Onnit take the whole badass angle to new heights. Or maybe lows. I can't decide.

These “Primal” kettlebells from Onnit take the whole badass angle to new heights. Or maybe lows. I can’t decide.

The only other things I’d throw into tier two are a set of exercise bands which provide some great training options as well as being fantastic travel exercise tools, and some sort of hard ball you can use to dig into tight and sore muscle groups and massage them out. Personally, I ordered some lacrosse balls on eBay from Germany and they are incredibly effective at making you cry while loosening your bad tissues. Unless you’re made of granite, one or two balls (or order three, keep one solo and tape the other two together) should last a lifetime.

Tier Three

If you’ve gotten this far then you are clearly hardcore and/or flush with cash. At this point, the world is your oyster. Fit your place out with a power rack, good quality Olympic bar and some bumper plates (the rubber-coated, all-the-same-diameter type of weight plate that can be safely dropped without shattering and also provide a consistent height no matter how loaded the bar is for movements like deadlifts).

An adjustable lifting bench is another good investment at this tier, and ties in nicely with your power rack. Don’t skimp on this, or the rack. You don’t want either part collapsing on you, ever.

You can also grab some sort of sled/prowler that you can load up with your bumper plates and push or pull around the place to turn you into a ripped, lean quadzilla.

Sled pushing and pulling is guaranteed to turn you into the most fearsome dinosaur of them all

Sled pushing and pulling is guaranteed to turn you into the most fearsome dinosaur of them all

I actually made my own sled out of a tractor tyre (you can get one for free at any country tyre depot), some scrap metal (get a friend to fashion you something to hook the rope onto), rope and the straps off an old backpack and it works pretty much just as well and costs a fraction of the price, if you’re up for a bit of DIY.

The bottom line is that your home gym can scale with you, consisting of as much or (nearly) as little equipment as you want. I do believe it’s a good idea for everyone to have the bare minimum lying around just in case circumstances transpire to keep you out of the gym, and if you have the space, cash and inclination, you really can replace a gym membership for a lot less than you’d think, if you don’t miss the camaraderie and atmosphere.

Happy training!