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A guide to essential home gym equipment
Creating your own home gym can be a more accessible and time-saving alternative to attending a corporate gym. The investment in one-time equipment purchases may even save you money in the long run, compared to increasingly high gym membership costs. Your home gym essentials should enable a well-rounded fitness routine that includes cardiovascular activity, strength training, and balance and flexibility exercises.
The rise of the home gym
Home fitness has provided people with a more cost-effective and accessible alternative to a gym membership for years. While the concept is not new, it's taken on a whole new role since the multiple gym closures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 2021 survey of UK home workout trends since the start of the pandemic found that since March 2020:
- 52.2% of people had exercised from home.
- 53.3% had bought home workout products.
- 31.7% of those who had been exercising said they had not exercised regularly before.
- 76% of those who had been exercising said they would continue to do so post-pandemic.
Whether our gyms remain open or not, the COVID-19 lockdowns have shown many more of us the long-term benefits of setting up a home gym. The two primary motivations for home workouts are ease of access and time saved from travel to and from a gym.
"Home workouts make exercise more accessible, letting you find a balance and fit exercise around your life," says Josh Piercy, online director at Core Balance.
Of course, there are cost considerations, but the good thing about a home gym is that you decide your budget. According to Innermost personal trainer Hajnalka Balázs, while creating a home gym might seem like a huge expense, there are many cheap but functional pieces of kit you can invest in.
What are home gym essentials?
Whether you're interested in weight loss, building muscle, or taking up mind and body practices like yoga, there's an abundance of home gym equipment to suit every fitness goal. With this in mind, assembling the 'essentials' is all about investing in equipment that allows you to engage effectively in all types of exercise.
Both the UK chief Medical Officers' physical activity guidelines and the US Department of Health & Human Services highlight the importance of the following forms of exercise for overall health:
- Cardiovascular exercise. Also referred to as aerobic exercise, cardio improves your endurance which helps you to perform everyday tasks. It can help to manage weight gain, reducing your risk of conditions related to excess weight, such as type 2 diabetes. Cardio also gives your heart a workout, keeping the muscle healthy and decreasing your risk of developing heart problems like heart disease. As if that weren't enough, it strengthens your lungs too.
- Strength training. Keeping your muscles strong has a range of benefits including helping with balance, preventing falls, and maintaining healthy joints and bones.
- Balance and flexibility exercise. These exercises are increasingly important as you age and your joints and bones undergo natural wear and tear. They are integral to carrying out daily tasks, can prevent fall-related injuries, and help to avoid sprains and strains.
You will also want to consider how to create a home gym within your budget and within the space you have available. The good news is it's possible to purchase home gym essentials on a tight budget, and these kit pieces are often also smaller and more versatile if space is also limited.
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Budget and space-saving exercise equipment
The best budget home gym purchases are versatile pieces that can be used for a number of different exercises. If space is a concern, invest in kit that is relatively small, portable and lightweight so you can store them easily between workout sessions.
Fitness expert Laura Williams also recommends looking at what you've already got: "steps, stairs, and benches make fine, ready-made fitness additions that can be used on their own or with equipment, for everything from push-up variations to cardio step-ups.
"Fixed surfaces can be used to attach resistance equipment to, saving you the expenditure of a multi-gym when you're just starting out."
A yoga mat (or exercise mat) is an essential purchase if you don't plan on splashing out on large, expensive gym apparatus. Instead, you can perform various exercises either equipment-free or with smaller gadgets, a lot of which may involve floor work. A yoga mat cushions the parts of your body in contact with the floor during stretches and exercises, while also preventing ground scuff marks from weights.
Weights are a great way to build muscle strength. Free weights can be used in a variety of movements and are easy to store. Choose to use one or more of the following in your home gym:
Balázs describes dumbbells as an obvious pick for your first free weight purchase: "They're cheap, they're usually adjustable so you can change the weight, and they can be used for a huge variety of exercises for the entire body, from bicep curls to lunges."
Investing in a set of 3-5 different weights will accommodate for different exercises as well as for increasing strength. Piercy advises bone dumbbells to add resistance to cardio workouts which incorporate squat to overhead raises, lateral lunges, rotational kickbacks, and renegade rows.
Hex dumbbells can be used for compound weight-training movements such as squats, overhead press, and deadlifts, as well as isolated exercises like lateral raises and tricep extensions.
You can perform many of the same moves with kettlebells and dumbbells. This said, the kettlebell weight sits directly beneath your hands which makes it ideal for full-body exercises such as kettlebell swings, cleans, and snatches. Again, investing in a set can add variety and increase difficulty.
Medicine balls can be used to improve core strength and balance. Unlike kettlebells and dumbbells, they can be thrown and caught. This can be used to increase difficulty in movements like sit-ups, overhead throws, or wall ball slams.
"In my opinion, this is a key purchase when kitting out your home workout space. Resistance bands are versatile, cheap, and very effective at building strength and improving mobility," says Balázs.
You may wish to invest in various strengths to perform a range of exercises. Piercy advises using them in squats, hip thrusts, bicep curls and extensions, and also as an aid for stretching. Experts advise that the benefits of added resistance can only be felt when the bands are pulled taught.
Many high-intensity cardio exercises - like HIIT routines, star jumps, or jump squats - require no equipment. However, jump ropes are a budget-friendly option that can aid cardio training.
Research shows that using a jumping rope can greatly improve your cardiorespiratory fitness. This refers to the ability of your circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to your muscles during physical activity.
Exercising regularly from home can sometimes lead to muscle tightness or pain, particularly if you haven't sufficiently warmed up your muscles before a workout session. Investing in a foam roller means you can practise self-myofascial release - 'myo' meaning muscle and 'fascial' meaning fascia, the connective tissue wrapped around muscles - to relieve muscle tightness. During this self-massage technique, the foam roller can be rolled along the area to remove knots and trigger points.
Equipment for a generous space and budget
If you have the space and cash for bulkier gym apparatus in your own home, the following will enable you to partake in heavy weight strength training and high-intensity cardio sessions.
Barbell and weight plates
For strength training, a barbell which can stack weight plates of various sizes is a pricier free weight. Unlike dumbbells and kettlebells, barbells can evenly distribute weight across your shoulders. This allows you to lift heavier weights during squats while providing good stability.
A squat rack is probably the biggest piece of equipment you can buy to aid muscle building. While you can make use of a barbell without this large frame, it enables you to carry out a wider range of manoeuvres, helps you to lift your barbell from safe positions, and can catch the barbell if you fail. This is particularly useful if you're training with very heavy weights.
In gyms, treadmills are a popular choice for cardio workouts if you wish to simulate walking or running at various inclines. Now, treadmills are becoming a more common fixture in people's homes. They provide an alternative to overground running - especially useful when bad weather makes outdoor activities tricky.
Spin and exercise bikes
Both these machines offer low-impact cardio session alternatives when compared to high-impact treadmill running. Mimicking bicycling, both spin and exercise bikes provide resistance as you pedal, which you can set to different degrees of difficulty. The main difference is that spin bikes more closely mimic the body posture of regular outdoor bikes.