Find Your Gym Training Space
This will be the first post in a series dedicated to finding or creating the most conducive space to meet your training goals.
It’s not meant to go super in-depth into all of the unique variables of finding a good training space, but just kind of cover all bases and give an overview of the different options you have.
Stay tuned for more in-depth articles on barbells, weight plates, dumbbells, and other training related stuff in the near future.
Several questions often arise when one is beginning their fitness journey, or when one is looking to take their training to the next level:
Should I join a gym (or a choose a different gym)?
If so how do I find the right gym?
Should I work out at home? If so, what equipment will I need?
Will using body-weight only exercises be sufficient to make gains?
With so much information out there, it’s no wonder people get overwhelmed.
What often happens next is paralysis by analysis, with no action taken, and the goal of getting fit and healthy unrealized.
Well I’m here to break through the clutter and give it to you straight.
We’ll go over every option, in detail, to help you make the best choice based on budget, time, and space constraints.
Let’s get to it!
Option #1: Join a gym
This is by far the most popular option, as tons of gyms have sprouted up all over the place.
In the old days gyms were mainly for hardcore bodybuilders, powerlifters, and other athletes looking to bring up their muscle mass and build huge strength. Beginners and those just interested in general fitness were relegated to workout tapes and outdoor sports for their fitness.
Not so today.
Gyms that cater to every crowd are out there.
You can walk into any gym and see some mass monster benching 500 lbs next to a soccer mom lunging with 5’s.
Senior fitness, women’s fitness, Pilates, Cross-fit, Zumba, Cardio Kickboxing… you get the idea.
So how do you choose the right gym?
Well that’s really based on your goals.
If you’re looking for something hardcore, to compete in physique or strength contests, and you want something that supports that, you want to find a gym that caters to this crowd.
Same goes for the person who just wants to lift light weights and stay in shape by walking the treadmill.
It also depends on amenities. Do you want to swim? Do you need a sauna? How important are locker rooms and showers?
Distance is also a factor. How far away is your perfect gym? Will you compromise for a closer one?
These are all great questions that can help you make the best decision.
Bodybuilding/Powerlifting/Independent Gyms (Dinosaur Gyms)
These gyms usually, but not always, fly under the radar, because they are usually small, independently owned gyms with a tiny marketing budget.
Others just don’t care about marketing but have an extremely loyal client base.
These types of gyms are a must if you are hardcore into the lifestyle and you want to connect with other like-minded individuals.
Yelling, screaming, grunting, chalk, and dropping the weights is usually okay.
I have a special place in my heart for these kinds of gyms.
I know when I stumbled across Los Campeones Gym in Minneapolis that I found something special.
I had never even heard of the place, I just so happened to spot it while driving by.
I had to check it out.
After one workout there and I was hooked.
The environment motivated you, from the loud music to the equipment to the color of the walls.
It’s literally like an adult playground.
Gyms like these can range from austere, to elaborate, but the mission remains the same: cater to the crowd that competes in bodybuilding, powerlifting, or strongman.
Crossfit gyms (boxes)
These gyms cater to the crowd who partake in a sport aptly called Crossfit.
Crossfit is basically using lots of different modes of activity very intensely, usually for time, to get fit and strong.
Crossfit usually incorporates Olympic lifting, powerlifting, bodyweight training, kettlebell and dumbbell training, running, rowing, swimming, and skipping rope.
Keep in mind that Crossfit is no walk in the park.
The workouts (They call them by certain names, and they list them on their website) I’ve all tried were brutal.
Therefore, this style of gym may not be ideal for just anyone.
Another con to Crossfit boxes is the price.
These type of gyms can run into the hundreds per month, and even more for specialized classes and instruction.
Small Chain Gyms
Small chain gyms include the likes of Anytime Fitness or Snap Fitness.
These can be a great option for busy people who want a gym on the cheap.
There are hundreds of locations, and you can go to any one of them, at any time.
Access is easy, you usually just swipe an access fob and the door clicks open.
These gyms aren’t staffed all of the time, which keeps their costs low, so if customer service and interaction are big to you, look elsewhere.
Gyms like these will usually offer cheap personal training and classes as well.
The downside is that they don’t have big amenities like bigger gyms, and the crowd may be hit or miss depending when you go.
Large Chain Gyms
Large chain gyms offer pretty much anything under the sun in terms of fitness.
Large chain gyms would include a Lifetime Fitness, or an LA Fitness.
They’ll usually have a huge cardio machine area, some free-weights, a swimming pool, basketball court, squash courts, studios, saunas, huge locker rooms, smoothie bars, etc.
These gyms are often more expensive, and are often a lot busier, especially in the evenings (5-9 pm)
This is a no-brainer, but if you go to university or a college, use the gym!
I got my start in my high school weight room, and then my community college weight room, so these are great options for young, broke students.
Also, if you live near a university or college you can probably get a cheap membership there.
The only problem with these facilities is that when the athletic teams come in to lift, it can get packed real quick.
YMCA’s are usually a great, cheap option.
The quality of the workout space can vary considerably, so check it out before you sign up.
You might brush shoulders with seniors, kids, and the less hardcore, but it’s a good option for those on a tight budget.
Fitness studios are usually small spaces designed for fitness or boot camp style classes and one on one or group training.
They’re a good option for someone looking for classes or training, but not for someone that wants to train on their own.
These operations can be quite expensive, but they usually also have very good instructors and a very good sense of community and camaraderie.
Specialty Fitness (Yoga, Pilates, etc.)
These are worth mentioning as they can be a great addition or supplement to your regular training, helping with mobility, flexibility, coordination, and balance. If you want to bring any of these areas to the next level, you should really look into these if you have the dough, although they’re totally optional.
The Pros and Cons of Each Type of Gym
Hardcore Bodybuilding/Powerlifting/Strongman Gyms
Good environment for hardcore lifters
Cost can be reasonable
Events and classes aimed at your particular interests
Big sense of camaraderie among members
They’re usually small businesses, not large corporations, so you’re supporting your community
Often smaller than other gyms
Often lack certain amenities, such as saunas, pools, and basketball courts
Can be intimidating for those that are not as hardcore or in shape
Big sense of community
Easy to meet new people and bond over fitness
Crossfit workouts will whip you into shape, fast
Can be expensive
Intimidating for first timers and those not as fit
Extremely difficult workouts are not for everyone
Set programs don’t really give you much freedom
Injury risk can be high
Small Chain Gyms
Access is easy
You can go to any club in the U.S.
You can usually go at any time of the day
Workout space is usually small
May be crowded at certain times
Lack amenities that big chain gyms have
Amateur hour. The crowd may not be conducive to hardcore training as a lot of people don’t know what the hell they’re doing, not wearing workout gear (I’ve seen people wearing jeans, shades, winter gloves, unitards, leotards, etc.), and in general they just may not be serious.
Large Chain Gyms
Lots of Amenities
Big free weight area
Lots of cardio machines
Can be expensive and may require a contract
Can get quite crowded
Amateur hour (see above)
“Meat Market” vibe (may be a pro for the single crowd, and/or creeps)
Usually very good free weight area and power racks
Also usually lots of amenities (freely spent tuition dollars)
Usually dead, as most college kids don’t take advantage of the gym
The sports teams get priority at certain times, so know those times
You may be older than everyone in there, depending on your age
YMCA’s (and similar gyms)
Usually very cheap
May have good equipment and free weight areas
Usually good amenities
You really don’t know what the crowd will be like
Amateur hour (see above)
Usually good classes and/or personal training options
Nice workout area
Quaint, cozy feel
Not usually packed
Good sense of community
Usually very small
Not much freedom to train on your own
As you can see, you have many options when choosing a gym.
When looking for the right fit, you must consider your budget, your training goals, how many times a week you want to go, and the time of day you want to go.
There is no right answer.
Find what’s best for you, and the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is that you stick to it long enough to see results.
Option #2: Build a Home/Garage gym
This option is becoming more and more popular these days as people are shunning the cost of joining a gym and doing it themselves. A nice setup can have a formidable upfront cost, but once you get everything you need, you are good to go, and don’t have to deal with monthly dues, big crowds, or even leaving the house.
Scooby built a great physique working out mostly at home. Rich Froning (Crossfit) has a garage gym he trains in (as do a lot of Crossfit athletes). I built a nice little gym in a garage stall out back.
Just about everyone has some kind of fitness equipment in their home (whether they use it or use it for hanging clothes is another story), so the motivation is there, you just need some equipment and the will to succeed.
First and foremost, you really don’t need that much to get in a good workout at home.
I’d start with the space.
You definitely want something big enough to allow you the freedom to move around in.
This means ceilings higher than nine to ten feet, and a total area of at least 200 square feet.
You really don’t want to be too crowded, but you also don’t want to turn your whole house into a gym.
Most people go with basements or spare bedrooms, others with garages, or even sheds on the property.
Imagination is key when finding the ideal space.
Equipment can also vary.
Based on your goals, you might not need much, or you might need almost all of the accommodations of a commercial gym.
For someone who just wants to maintain strength and keep up their general fitness, I would suggest just a cheap set of adjustable dumbbells.
You can get in a good workout with just dumbbells, and it won’t break the bank.
If you’re a little more into lifting and need something that’s going to progress with you, I would look into getting a power rack, bench, barbell with plates, and a set of dumbbells. This should get you a nice variety that you can progress through.
You can also look into kettlebells, resistance bands, hammers and tires, sleds, cardio equipment, and just about anything else you can blow money on if you have deep pockets, but for us regular folk, the basics will do fine.
Rigs, Power racks, Half Racks, and Squat Stands
When choosing a rack, you want something that’s built well and holds the weight you want to work with. Look at weight limits and make sure they match your goals.
Example: if you’re a competitive power lifter (or you want to be) don’t get a cheaper rack that’s only rated for 300 lbs, because power lifters need to use heavy ass weights to reach their goals.
Also, there are several different variations of power racks, from the full versions, to half racks, to wall mounted rigs to squat stands.
Plate storage is also something to consider, as some power racks come with it, and some don’t, otherwise you will need some kind of weight tree.
Power racks are a full cage make them the safest option. You can pretty much do any lift with these things, and set the safety pins to your liking. You can also get add-on attachments for power racks.
Half racks are like power racks but not fully enclosed, therefore not as safe (but still pretty damn safe). I actually prefer half racks, as they take up less space and are usually cheaper.
Recommendations for racks
Rogue Monster Lite – 3 $755.00
Rogue makes great power racks that will last a lifetime. This is a good priced rack.
Perform Better Extreme Half Rack (no pricing given, range probably $700-$1000)
Same with Perform Better. These are solid racks. I actually prefer the half rack design to the full rack as it takes up less space and is more open.
A squat stand, like this one, would be a good, cheaper alternative to a full power rack or a half rack, but not as safe for heavier weights.
Rep Power Rack [affiliate link] $469.99
If you don’t want to spend almost a grand for Rogue or PB, this rack would do just fine for the beginner or intermediate lifter.
I really wouldn’t go any cheaper than this.
A power rack is an investment. Some of the more expensive ones will last forever, so If you plan on making lifting a lifetime activity (which you really should), think of it in terms of a lifetime ROI.
Going cheap may cost less in the short term, but in the long run a well-built rack will pay you many times over.
Again, don’t be afraid to check Craigslist or second-hand sporting goods stores for gently used racks for discounts.
Do You Need a Rack?
For the longest time I lifted with no power rack, and I can say they make a huge difference, not only in the movements you can do, but the weight you can lift because of the safety features. You can go with just a bench, or with just a barbell and dumbbells, but racks bring your training sessions to the next level, especially in squatting movements.
If quality and craftsmanship go over well for power racks, that goes double for barbells. The last thing you want to be caught with is a cheap barbell that bends when you throw 315 on it.
A barbell is also an investment, and a good barbell will last you a lifetime.
For our purposes I’ll only be going into 7′ “power” barbells and “true” Olympic barbells for traditional strength training and weightlifting, and not variations such as cambered barbells, safety bars, or trap bars, which are all nice additions but unnecessary for most of the lifting population. For more information on the different types of bars, see this article at builtlean.com.
Bars I Recommend
Rogue Ohio Bar (or really any bar by Rogue)
This is the bar I use and I absolutely love it.
The XMark Fitness LUMBERJACK 7′ Olympic Bar [affiliate link] is also a good budget bar available on Amazon.
Once again, look for lifetime ROI when looking for a bar.
You can go cheaper and keep replacing it year after year, or get a good solid bar that will last you forever.
Note that it’s best to go with an Olympic barbell. An Olympic barbell is just about 45 pounds and has 2″ diameter sleeves that fit with Olympic weight plates.
These are usually the barbells you see in commercial gyms. These are not the same as standard barbells, which are usually shorter and lighter, don’t have rotating sleeves, and have 1″ diameter sleeves for 1″ diameter hole plates.
Here you have your “power” Olympic barbells for less dynamic lifts such as bench pressing, deadlifting, and squatting, and more dynamic “true” Olympic barbells for dynamic lifts like the snatch and clean and jerk. The difference here is in the sleeves, as an Olympic barbell will have more “whip” (free rotation of the sleeves, usually provided by ball bearings) so the inertia of the weight will be even throughout the lift lessening the chance of injury. Also, the knurling (the rough area of the bar that you grip) will be more pronounced in a power bar as opposed to more smooth in a true bar.
If you feel like you are going to add in Olympic lifts to your program, go “true” Olympic. If not, a “power” barbell should do. Note that there are also specialized bars for deadlifting, squatting, and bench pressing, but for 95% of us these are unnecessary, but if you want to specialize your training, or again if you have very deep pockets, go for it.
Weight plates are going to be less important, because they’re all pretty much made the same.
However, you want to watch out for cheap plates as these might be far off the rated weight (example: 45 lb plate is + or- 10% of it’s rated weight, means the plate could actually be closer to 50 lbs!) This usually happens when you buy cheap, mass produced weight plates.
Here you’ll also want to go with Olympic plates to match your bar.
Olympic plates have a 2″ (Olympic) diameter hole, instead of a 1″ diameter hole (standard).
Important: Always make sure you are buying the right plates for your bar! You can get these online just about anywhere, but you’re best bet here is Craigslist or a second-hand sporting goods store. Don’t pay more than $1 per pound, look around, there are deals to be had.
Different Types of Weight Plates
Iron Olympic Plates – These are usually iron or some other metal, and may be painted, coated with rubber, or have some other protective covering. These are probably the best option for 95% of people setting up a home/garage gym, that is if Olympic style lifting is not a huge part of your routine.
Bumper plates – These are rubber plates designed to be dropped directly onto the ground after completing an Olympic lift. If you are going to include Olympic lifting or plan on dropping the weights, these will be your best option, as dropping iron plates will rupture your ear drums and tear up your floor, and may even break the plates.
Look for weight plates used. You should be able to get good deals on them as most people buy them, never use them, and just want to get rid of them.
A good bench should last you a hell of a long time, adjust to multiple angles for hitting different muscles, be easy to move, and have enough support so you can lift some serious weight. A quality bench is important, and be sure to check weight ratings. The last thing you want while doing a heavy bench press set is to have the bench collapse. Note: be sure to add your bodyweight to your max lifts when considering bench weight ratings! Example: if your 200 lbs, a bench rated at 500 lbs means the max weight you can use on this particular bench is 300 lbs. Also note that some adjustable benches have a lower weight rating when in an inclined or upright position. Benches usually come in adjustable, or flat. I suggest an adjustable bench as it offers more variability and is much more versatile.
Here are some good benches to look into:
This is a high end model adjustable bench for those who are going to move some serious weight and want a bench that will last forever.
Rep Adjustable Bench [affiliate link]
This is a bench has a 1000 lb weight limit, and it would be good for those who weigh more and/or are using heavier weights, but want a more mid-priced option. I actually use this bench, and it has served me very well.
CAP Barbell Weight Bench [affiliate link]
This is a value priced utility bench good for beginners or those who use lighter weights.
EZ Curl Bars
EZ curl bars are barbells that have a curved shape at the grips and are shorter, lighter, and are made for curling and other arm movements. They aren’t really mandatory, but are nice because they take some stress off of your wrists when doing curls. You can find a good EZ curl bar for cheap on Craigslist or a second-hand sports store. The reason you can go cheaper on an EZ curl bar is because you won’t be using as much weight and you won’t be doing much dynamic lifts with it. Also a reminder to be sure to make sure you get a bar with the circumference that matches your weight plates (1″ or 2″ plate holes).
I use the XMark Fitness Olympic EZ Curl Bar [affiliate link] pictured below, and it has served me well thus far.
Let’s talk dumbbells. Personally, I love to work with dumbbells even more than with a barbell. Dumbbells are great for evening out muscle imbalances (or for preventing muscle imbalances from happening in the first place), forging a mind-muscle connection, and building balance and coordination through the small synergistic muscles. Dumbbells are certainly a must for any trainee, and should be very prominent in your training program.
The big downside as it pertains to dumbbells for the home gym is cost. You can expect to pay anywhere from 50 cents to $1.20 a pound, and this adds up quickly seeing that you need two of each dumbbell and a wide range of weight, a good set of (non-adjustable) dumbbells could end up being hundreds of dollars, if not in the thousands.
Another option is standard adjustable spin-lock dumbbells. Adjustable Dumbbells come with a bar and plates that are interchangeable, and therefore you can adjust the weight how you want, with a spin-lock at the ends will keep the plates on. The downside of adjustable dumbbells is that they won’t work with your Olympic plates (unless you get adjustable Olympic dumbbells, more on that below), and it can be kind of a pain in the ass adjusting the weight between sets. If you’re on a budget, this is the way to go, however.
Adjustable Olympic dumbbells are similar to standard adjustable spin-lock dumbbells, but they are designed to work with Olympic plates. Usually they come with some kind of collar at the end, but since it doesn’t screw lock, these might not be the safest with heavier weights, especially for movements over the head and face. Another downside is that you will need lots of smaller plates (2.5, 5, 10) as these dumbbells are pretty much impractical with any plate over 25 lbs due to the circumference of the plates limiting the range of motion.
Kettlebells have recently caught on in America, and they can be used to really step up your gym game and provide some variation. As with dumbbells, outfitting your gym with a range of kettlebells will get quite costly. One good option is to substitute dumbbells for kettlebells, as this will work with most movements. Kettlebells are pretty much everywhere these days so checking Craigslist and second-hand stores would be quite prudent to keep costs low.
Primal Swoldier Eric Leija on the kettlebells:
As you can see kettlebells can help you get into mad shape.
Power rack add-on attachments
When looking into power racks, be aware that some companies sell add-ons that attach right to the rack, these add-ons can be super useful and can save tons of space. Popular add-ons include dip bar attachments, band attachments, glute-ham attachments, and so on. If you go with a higher end power rack, you’ll most likely have the option of buying these add-ons, while cheaper racks may not be sturdy enough for them. Just another thing to consider when looking into a power rack.
Bands are a great tool for building functional strength throughout the entire range of motion for a certain movement. Bands can be used to add variation to certain lifts (i.e. squat, bench press, etc.) by attaching to the rack, but can also be used alone for any movement from the shoulder press to bicep curls. An upside of bands is that they are very easy on the joints. The downside is that tension on the muscle is not even throughout the movement, with it being much easier in the beginning, when there is very little stretch, and more difficult at the end, when it is almost fully stretched and therefore they should only be used as a supplement to regular weigh training. Bands can be purchased in many different tension levels, and can be bought in sets, which is better for your wallet.
Chains, like bands, are almost unnecessary but can provide a novel stimulus and help bust plateaus in seasoned weight lifters. The goal of chains is to bust through plateaus in certain lifts (example: bench press) by providing little resistance at the bottom of the lift, enabling the trainee to achieve higher velocities while using more weight, generating more explosive power and hopefully in turn strength. Again, look for used chains on the cheap.
Hammers and Tires
Beating a tire with a sledge hammer is a primal form of conditioning that is as fun as it is a good workout. It’s also cheap. You can get a sledge hammer for around $30, and an old tire for free. Read my full post on this here.
Yokes, Logs, Atlas Stones, and Other Assorted Strongman Stuff
Strongman equipment is fun, but strongman training should not be taken lightly, as the chance of injury is extremely high for beginners. Only those with years of weight room experience and a mentor or trainer in the art of strongman should undertake training in this discipline.
Heat, AC, fans, etc. (if using garage or shed)
Another thing that comes up when talking about gyms in garages or outside in any capacity, and especially in extreme climates of heat and cold, is heating and cooling. I won’t go into too much detail on this, but it’s worth noting. If you have any questions beyond this post, you should speak with an HVAC company.
For those in harsh climates, a heater would be prudent in the winter. It’s not fun working out when it’s 5 degrees in your gym, trust me, I’ve been there. The best option here, which is also the most expensive, is to get an overhead electric or gas heater (I don’t recommend propane because of the fumes) installed by a professional. This will run you at least $2000, but you will have heat on demand. Another option that is less ideal is space heaters, but these will only take the edge off, and probably will not help if it is too cold.
AC is probably mostly impractical in a garage or shed gym. In lieu of AC, I would go with fans.
Fans are your cheapest option in hotter climates although they won’t help with humidity, and humidity is a major factor in heat related illnesses, as it doesn’t allow your body to properly cool down via perspiration. Don’t get me wrong, sweating is good, but you don’t want to suffer from heat exhaustion. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, and have a plan just in case of an emergency.
Mirrors are great for checking form, progress, and just seeing the muscle work. Mirrors are essential for any training space, and you don’t need a full wall to get a good effect. a few well placed mirrors should do fine, and they aren’t usually that expensive. Home improvement stores, and home stores such as Ikea are probably your best bet, but also shop around and look for used mirrors as well.
You have many flooring options, from cheap foam options to heavy duty horse stall mats. You really should have some type of flooring to protect your weights, and floor if you have to drop the weight or pick it up and set it back down (i.e. deadlifts). You can choose to cover the whole floor, or just the lifting areas, it’s up to you.
Stall mats are actually made for horse stalls, but make great indestructible gym flooring. These are what I chose to use, as they weren’t that expensive and they hold up very nicely. You can get them at most tractor supply stores.
Rubber mats, including mats for workstations. These can work, but may be expensive and less durable.
Foam flooring. These are the least durable option in my opinion, and should only be used for less hardcore lifters that won’t be lifting heavy weights off of the ground.
Old carpet, rugs, etc. can be used for the real budget conscious person.
Pros and Cons of a Home/Garage gym
No driving to the gym
No busy times
You can scream, grunt, use chalk, and slam the weights as you like
Lack of social aspect
May not have as money options as gym
Expensive up front cost
You must maintain your own equipment
Option 3: Forgo a gym membership and home gym entirely and make do with what you have
This is another option many consider with the rise of bodyweight and calisthenic training.
This training philosophy includes a good dose of push-ups, pull-ups, burpees, planks, sit-ups, crunches, air squats (squat thrusts), and other assorted bodyweight exercises.
It can also include gymnastic movements, playground workouts, running and jogging, and other cardiovascular means that require little to no equipment.
A lot of books and courses are aimed at those looking to try this method, including prison style bodyweight training books.
Can you make much progress with no gym?
Yes you can.
Beginners can make excellent progress with bodyweight only training.
The problem becomes progress, as there are only so many ways you can manipulate your bodyweight until you run out of proper stimulus to make adaptations.
If you are a beginner, you can start working with your bodyweight, and then as you progress you can join a gym or make your own.
If you’re a beginner and you don’t want to spring for a gym membership or home gym just yet, I would suggest the following:
Get in a good dose of push-ups, pull-ups, and squat thrusts
Do 2-3 full body workouts a week
Add-in core work 1-2 times a week
Use bodyweight core movements such as planks, crunches, leg raises (hanging or on the ground)
Cardio can be done outside such as running, walking, cycling, sprints, hills, etc.
Use your imagination. Your bodyweight can be manipulated in many ways to make gains
About 4-7 months in you will need to think about joining a gym or getting some equipment to achieve the acquired resistance to continue to make gains
This is actually the route I recommend to almost anyone. It stresses the fundamentals, and will lead to less injuries for beginners than just jumping into weights.
Pros and Cons of Going with No Gym
Dirt cheap. You literally need no equipment, just your bodyweight
Great for beginners, as learning to manipulate your bodyweight before moving on to weights is crucial
Limited to only one type of training
Hard to progress, as you get no progressive resistance through heavier weights
Summing It All Up
You have many options when it comes to finding a training space to smash your fitness and physique goals. You can join many different types of gyms, make your own, or go with no gym at all, it’s all up to you and based on your goals. When choosing a space for your training, make sure it actually makes you want to do the work, this is the most important part! A training space, much like a work space, must be conducive to getting sh*t done. Having a membership to a fancy gym or all the equipment in the world won’t get you fit, healthy and aesthetic if you don’t put in the work!
Any questions, comment or shoot me an email!