Designing My Own Gym

In the years since I’ve become a physical education major, I’ve spent hour after hour reading books and websites, listening to podcasts and interviews, traveling to seminars and conferences, and trying to learn as much as I possibly can about the human body.  The range of these resources varies tremendously, and I’ll turn to everything from basic anatomy and physiology textbooks to the programs of other trainers to learn as much as possible about creating healthy, high-powered bodies.  One of the biggest things I’ve learned in this time frame is that most people aren’t well educated on how they should be exercising, and most gyms are geared towards a business model instead of a self-improvement model.  The gyms compound their members absence of education, and are more concerned with their margin of profit than they are with creating positive results.  You all know that I could be talking about Planet Fitness right now, but I’m actually referring to just about every commercial gym.

A lack of education generally leads people to machine circuits and high rep ‘toning’ sets, and they clamor to their treadmills with a religious fervor.  Haven’t any of these people wondered why they’re seeing marginal results at best?

While fitness and health are multifaceted, how and where you exercise contributes to your physical health, but the degree of this depends on how and where you exercise.  Do you think you’re going to see tremendous results going to Curves for 30 minutes 3 days a week?  What about walking on the treadmill while watching American Idol?  You’re going to have to be on that machine for a very long time.

I see these same mistakes from people all around me in my every day life.  When a male classmate tells me that they’ve worked out for the first time, I can usually correctly assume that they benched.  Or did curls.  With my female peers, it’s almost always some form of aerobic work and then 15 minutes spent writhing on the floor like a snake training their abs.  And no, those aren’t their words, those are mine.

By now, you may be thinking “Harold, we get it already, we all suck!  What are you trying to say?!”  No, no, dear reader!  I don’t mean to imply that at all; it’s your gym that sucks!  Without a proper education you won’t know how to exercise, and without proper equipment, you won’t see the best results you can.  I’ve been running into this problem at my own gym.  After a good deal of time spent waiting, the JCC finally replaced their treadmills and ellipticals with updated units to allow members to reach their greatest fitness potential.  Except that’s not going to happen on those machines, and I’ve been saying that all along.  I’ve been trying to drum up some support for more useful strength training equipment, but it’s very much an uphill battle.  You know I love hill sprints, but this is more like a march; not as much fun.

I have dreams for what can be done with the facility, to allow for as many members as possible to exercise in the best ways possible.  That requires unfeasible financial investment, so I’m going to have to take the route of educating fellow members as to what they could be doing; eventually someone will ask: “Well, why don’t we have the good stuff?”

Let’s get to the good stuff.

The following collection of exercise equipment is my personal list of what I could purchase if I could personally outfit my own gym.  To keep things basic, let’s pretend it would be a garage gym, and I’d just have one of each item I mention.  If it were ever to become a reality, there would be multiples of some of these items, but that might get confusing.  I’ve started with the most important piece of equipment you can possibly have, then I’m going to get to some ‘fancy’ things.  You’ll notice that they all have two things in common:  They can be used for a huge variety of exercises, and they don’t plug in.  The only thing that’s electric in my gym is the iPod dock.  Instead of reading this as a list of ‘Stuff Harold Wants in a Gym”, I want you to instead think, “If this stuff is so important, maybe I should be using more of it.”  There are few exercises that I suggest that uses equipment other than this, and so you should find it relatively easy to explore all of these variations.  If it’s confusing, then certainly ask me.  If your gym doesn’t have the equipment, then ask them.  You deserve to get the most out of your exercise routine, and if they don’t help you, you deserve a better gym.  Make sure they include items from this list.

And now, the good stuff:

A power rack is the single most important piece of equipment you need in a gym.  The one above is from EliteFTS, and starts at $1,500, with options taking it just over $6,000.  The model that I outfitted for my needs weighs in at $2,590, and includes an extra set of spot pins and J hooks, a dip attachment, a monkey chin bar, band bags at the top and bottom, and an adjustable bench for pressing exercises.  Assuming I add a barbell with an appreciable amount of weight, I could train my squat, deadlift, bench, chin, press, and row all from the comfort of that steel cage, and  I have no doubts in my mind that I could come up with endless variations of these lifts, as well as many others. (Did you read my Atypical Barbell Exercises post?)  The power rack allows you to train heavy and safely with a barbell, and can provide a base of support for numerous attachments and  bands, including the next device:

The TRX is an incredibly versatile piece of equipment, and I’m the first person to encourage or discourage it’s use…depending on what you’re already doing.  If you’ve learned the basic barbell exercises, then have at it.  If you haven’t, well then you should learn how to squat with a barbell before you squat with one foot in the TRX.  With the basics covered though, I think the TRX is a fantastic device.  I already have one, and I’ll admit that I had three exercises in mind when I first considered it:  The body weight row, the RFESS, and the Atomic Push-Up.  Thanks to following many well educated trainers and coaches, I’ve learned a host of other exercises that can provide a variety in training in the gym, and can allow for a full-body workout anywhere you go.  (The original website was Fitness Anywhere.)  In a weight room setting, I think that the TRX is a great piece of equipment to use for core training, and the demands it puts on the core are awesome.  It allows you for versatility and creativity, and the difficulty of the movement depends entirely on the angle of your body, allowing beginners and advanced trainees to cater exercises to their skill level.  Due to it’s versatility and compact size, the TRX is definitely on my list.

You may be wondering what these guys are, and they’re PowerBlock adjustable dumbbells.  The PowerBlock is a quick adjust dumbbell that allows users to change the weight they’re lifting by simply sliding a pin between color coded layers.  The set I’ve included in the picture allows weight to be adjusted from 5lbs to 130lbs.  Yes, you read that correctly, and no, your gym doesn’t have weights that heavy.  (Mine doesn’t either.)  I wasn’t very fond of the idea of PowerBlocks until I saw some coaches using them to create stations, and I immediately loved the idea.  In a garage, or any setting with limited space, a set of 130lb PowerBlocks “equals/replaces 37 pairs of dumbbells, or 4820 lbs of free weights while taking up the space of just 1 pair.”  Those free weights would cost $4771 (at 99¢ per pound), while the 130lb PowerBlocks cost 19¢ per pound, totaling $887.  Between the cost effectiveness and room saved, you can bet this is a set of dumbbells I’d include in a home gym.

The ‘station’ idea that I mentioned before provided a set of power blocks at every power rack in a gym.  I saw this idea in THIS episode of Strength Coach TV, in which Anthony Renna interviews Boston University strength coach Glenn Harris.  Including dumbbells at a power rack station allows the athlete(s) at that station to remain at that station during training, which saves them the trouble of having to lug dumbbells to where they’re training at, and can prevent injury to the user or anybody that they might collide with.  In a smaller commercial gym, having a set next to each Power Rack would help keep the space uncluttered, and free room up for equipment such as…

I wouldn’t consider an entire set of kettlebells a necessity, but I think that they’re an extremely important tool to consider during training.  Kettlebells are one of the greatest conditioning tools you can use, and in a few square feet of space you can swing and snatch your way to greatness.  A small collection of maybe 3 or 4 bells can provide you with some variety to allow you to train multiple exercises comfortably.

Along the same lines as the TRX’s versatility is that of resistance bands.  Resistance bands are fantastic because they can provide a ton of resistance and weigh fractions of a pound.  (No, resistance bands won’t actually give you 2,000lbs of resistance.)  They can be used on barbell lifts such as squats and bench presses, to make body weight exercises easier or harder (band assisted chin-up, band resisted push-up) or for exercises on their own, such as face pulls and band pull-aparts.  Bands offer a lot of uses for minimal space taken up and a miniscule investment, which makes them great for home gyms and smart training on a budget.

Miscellaneous Equipment can make this list very long, but I wanted to focus on the basics.  In my perfect world, I’d include a combination of strong man and ‘functional’ training modalities, and I’d also have a Prowler, a slide board, sand bags, farmers walk handles, and other related goodies.  (If you can think of anything else, let me know in the comments below.)

That’s going to wrap things up for my list, folks.  It’s short and sweet, and the pieces of equipment I listed are truly the best for reaching your fitness goals.  As you can see, I’d include basic equipment that used gravity (free weights, body weight) as resistance, or elastic resistance from the bands.  I truly think that these are the best ways to exercise and train, and that using this simple equipment in a variety of ways can allow you to create a strong, healthy physique.  I won’t be designing my own gym any time soon, but the above items will definitely be on the list, and I’d make a point of inviting anyone who wanted to train come by.  If I can share the little knowledge I have with others as I learn more and begin my career, then I’m excited about that.  Thank you for reading my blog.

7 Replies to “Designing My Own Gym”

  1. Huge ‘like’ for this post, Harold! You covered all my home-gym-wish-list-must-haves, an added a few that I had not considered. The only other thing I would be a med ball or two. Keep up the good work mate!

  2. Would you even need a rack? Clean + front squat can be had with a barbell alone rather than the barbell + rack required for back squat, and doing deadlifts and other pulls would balance up the posterior chain. Then so long as you have a chinup bar somewhere…

    I mean, I like back squats, but if we’re going to be minimalist about things… 🙂

    1. Kyle, that’s going really minimalist! I know that Dan John has written about that, because you’re forced to clean for each set of front squats, which adds volume to the posterior chain. However, what about front squatting heavier loads; we can squat more than we can clean. One of my key considerations with the rack was the use of the safety pins, keeping lifters safe even without a spotter. We could always dumb squat and press bars when a lift is missed, but that could beat the bar up quickly, and the rack would let you rack pull, pin press, and bench safely without a spot. Without the consideration of the pins, a regular Olympic squat rack would only be a third of the price, and would work well, but I like the multiple attachments Elite offers for those racks. For true minimalism, you’re definitely right. For minimalism AND variety, I’d keep the rack…but make sure I had a platform for cleans, snatches, and deads.

      (I’ve thought about this for a while, and I’m going to experiment with the idea of not using a rack and see what type of clean combo lifts I can think of.)

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