This is definitely an incomplete list, since there are a lot of things that could make it and I only have so much space, but I’ll be highlighting a few of my favorite, most versatile pieces of workout equipment for working out at home or basically anywhere that isn’t a gym. My criteria are basically that something is durable, can be used for multiple exercises (ideally), and is effective. Being affordable, or something that can be found used, is always a plus.
- Kettlebells – I think kettlebells are great. They’re more versatile than a dumbell and they are good for movements that hit multiple joints and require stabilization across different planes. Often, a single kettlebell can be enough to do a whole workout, which makes them way more cost effective than a whole set of dumbells. Adding a second kettlebell really ups your options as far as training at home goes. They’re also pretty fun to use in my opinion, and an enjoyable workout is always a plus. I personally like Rogue Kettlebells as they are high quality and were the cheapest when I ordered mine. There are other brands that are just as good, so shop around and remember to include shipping in the cost (some brands do and some don’t!) You can get these used, but try to find high quality ones. Lower quality kettlebells (ala Walmart) often have a seam in the handle which will tear up your hands in a hurry. The solution to this? File down the seam, which works well sometimes and not so well other times. Worth a shot if you already have one and are wondering what to do about your palms.
- Resistance Bands – These are great. I started using these for rehab from a hip injury, and they worked their way into my normal workouts. They’re available in a variety of strengths, from super easy to super hard, and you can do so much with them. I like these for going from no resistance or just bodyweight to light resistance, adding resistance to a pushup, strengthening smaller muscle groups that are weak, warm-ups, there’s so many uses for these. For example, when I was swimming a lot, I used these as a warmup (with a very light band) and for strength work (with a much heavier band). Plus, they’re cheap and normally sold in sets, so you can have different levels of resistance for different movements. Here‘s an example on Amazon. I personally use a much cheaper set, but those look really nice (let me know how those are if you try them!)
- Dumbbell Set – Its a little more expensive than the other equipment on the list, but its still one of the best bang for your buck items you could get, given you have the space. The absolute best way to buy dumbbells is by getting them used on something like Craigslist or Facebook marketplace. So many people use them for a little bit, give up, then sell their equipment at a steep discount just to get rid of it. Adjustable dumbbells aren’t quite there yet, from what I’ve seen – I remember trying to use a Bowflex adjustable dumbbell that fell apart on me mid-rep, which is obviously terrible to workout with and also not safe. The only ‘adjustable’ dumbbells I would consider are the plate loaded ones where you add or take off a plate like a barbell, but those lose a lot of the convenience of dumbells and are usually low-quality. Something like this offering from Rogue might be good, especially with their dumbbell bumper plate set, but then we’re talking pretty serious cash compared to a craigslist deal (2 dumbbells, full set of their weight plates and collars will run about $900). The thing with the plate loaded dumbbells is that they require a really good collar to make them work well, and they usually come with one that doesn’t hold the plates on very well or is a pain to get on. The one designed for the Rogue dumbbells looks nice, but there are a lot of options out there that you could save some money on.
- Pull Up Bar – They make them so they mount on door frames and install in seconds, so these definitely make the list. Pull ups are one of my favorite exercises and one of the best back exercises there is, so being able to add them into your routine at home is excellent. Even if you can’t do a full pull up, you can get assistance from a resistance band (another reason to have a set of them) by looping one end around the bar and the other end around your foot, or doing forced negatives where you jump up to the bar and lower yourself in a controlled manner. Soon you’ll be on your way to a full pull up! This is another one where used is often available, but even new they aren’t too expensive. One of my favorite variations on this is hangboards for rock climbing, giving different hand and finger positions and some have individual hanging holds for each hand, like gymnastic rings.
- Cold Weather Gear – Not exactly workout ‘equipment’ but I am putting it in here anyway. I absolutely hate having to do cardio indoors and will only do so on the worst days. Luckily, in Colorado we have pretty mild winters, and that means I can still run and bike outdoors in the winter. It just requires a little more planning. A synthetic base layer, fleece or light jacket or vest, tights (yes, even for guys!), warm socks, gloves, a hat and buff will get you through most any workout unless its brutally cold outside. If you’re sick of the treadmill, try going outside on a cold day – its not that bad.
- Medicine Ball – These are great. There’s a ton of core and dynamic work you can do with these, especially if you have some space. Another plus is that they’re great for partner work, which is perfect since most people don’t live alone. Sharing a home gym is much more fun and motivating compared to being alone the whole time. This is another item that you can often find being sold used for cheap, especially this time of year.
- Yoga Mat – there are a bunch of exercises that require you to be on the floor, especially working out at home. There’s two possible issues with this. First, your floor might not be the cleanest – its the floor. Second, if your floor is clean, laying your sweaty body on it is probably about to ruin that. Its also probably pretty hard and unforgiving (unless you workout on the carpet, which I don’t recommend). A cheap yoga mat thrown on the floor fixes all of these. Its easy to clean up, its soft, and its keeps you and your floor clean. The best part is you don’t have to spend $80 on the top-of-the-line yoga mat and just get a cheap one, since nobody will see it but you (and I doubt there is much difference between them).
- Jump Rope – A super cheap and easy to use piece of cardio equipment. There’s a reason boxers use these to warm up – it works! It also has the advantage of increasing awareness of body position and developing leg speed and rhythm. There are a lot of ‘high end’ jump ropes out there, but the difference between a decent one and a top of the line jump rope is minimal. Just avoid the kids toy jump ropes.
- TRX Straps – The first time I used these was 2011 when I was deployed in the Marines. We didn’t have much equipment to work with, so we made things (there were some absolutely ridiculous implements that we came up with, but they were heavy and that’s what was important). The only ‘real’ piece of workout equipment we had was a set of TRX straps, and they were super popular. There is just so much you can do on these. Its one of the few items that sells itself as a total body workout that you can actually get a total body workout with. It often requires some additional weight (Inverted rows are great at first, but after a few weeks, you will need some more resistance), but if you can figure that out, it can be super effective. With access to a modern gym I don’t use these much anymore, but are great when space is very limited.
- Wireless Headphones – I originally wasn’t sold on the idea. Is it really worth plugging them in every time and all that hassle? When they first came out, the connections weren’t great and would drop out, while the sound quality was ok but still not equal to wired headphones. We’ve finally gotten to the point where I can say that it is worth it. Sound quality is better, connections are more reliable and losing the wire is just so nice. I don’t have a wire running through my shirt that gets snagged on everything, my phone doesn’t rip out of my pocket every time I accidently snag the cord, they just sit on my head and my phone sits in my pocket, or on the bench or floor or…its freeing, really. Take deadlifts – if your pockets have the phone sit in front of your leg, that’s an issue. If the phone is behind the platform, its not. I use bone conduction headphones, which are great, but primarily because I listen to them when cycling and like to be able to hear as well (its important).
- Fitness Watch – I use an older model but it still does the job. It uploads my runs and bike rides, tracks my heart rate through my chest strap, connects to my speed sensor on my bike or a running footpod…it does a lot, basically. Now they do even more, but a lot of it isn’t super useful (the popular Garmin Fenix 5 has a jumpmaster mode for skydiving…cool, but not something I ever see myself needing or paying for) , so I haven’t felt a need to upgrade. There’s a big jump between the lower level ‘activity trackers’ and actual fitness watches. Activity trackers are usually meant to count steps and track heart rate through the day (read on HERE for why I’m not a fan of that feature). They often don’t do that very well even.
- Lacrosse Ball or Foam Roller – Myofascial Release has gotten extremely popular lately, and foam rollers are a great tool for that. A cheap foam one can be had for about $15, where something a little more intense like a Rumble Roller can give a more intense session, though at about 3 times the price. The other option is a lacrosse ball (or other hard rubber ball). These are only a few bucks at a sporting goods store, but provide a MUCH more intense sensation than foam rolling and are great for hitting areas a foam roller can’t do well (the back, in particular). Ease into it though, and if you’re not sure on what you’re doing, get some guidance (though its what 90% of people use the foam roller for, you won’t help your IT band by rolling directly on it).
One of the things I did not put in here is a power rack/squat rack, bench, and barbell. This is the ideal set up, but its also very space and cost ineffective. If there is enough space and money for it, that would be #1, but for most people, the home gym is a limited space endeavour and telling you to go out and buy the biggest pieces of equipment doesn’t make any sense. If you do go that route, and I suggest it, as a barbell and power rack really equalizes the home gym to a commercial gym, don’t get the cheapest stuff you can find. Read reviews, try things out. A weight is not necessarily a weight. Often, cheap weights will be off of the advertised weight by a significant amount, where the accuracy of a higher quality weight set is going to be higher. Tolerances may seem fine at first on lower quality weight sets, but if there’s too much space between the hole and the bar, the weights will rattle constantly which is incredibly annoying and, if bad enough, unsteady. Check the max weight of the bar you’re looking at – some are incredibly low. And for benches, make sure that it is steady. Many cheap benches, especially adjustable ones, are wobbly, which is the exact opposite thing that you want when you’re using your bench. On that note, the adjustable benches are usually either significantly more expensive or lower quality and will not work as well. I recommend a flat, non adjustable bench for most people.
There’s lots of different options for home fitness gear, but this list is a good starting point. It includes different kinds of weights, tools, and equipment to help you meet your fitness goals. If you know how to use them, you could most certainly get very fit from just these things alone, but as time changes, there are always new and interesting tools coming out that we can add to our toolbox.
Got a favorite item that wasn’t included on here or a review of something listed above? Send me a message and I’ll try to add it in to a part 2 of this article!