How to Build a Garage (Home) Gym, Phase One

Bottom Line Up Front: I have had a garage gym for more than five years. I have spent more than $5,000 on equipment. This is the first post in a series that explains how I would create an ideal garage (home) gym taking into consideration all my lessons learned over the years.

MISSION: Capable Garage Gym July 2019

Planning Assumptions

The assumptions I am making with the type, order, and quantity of equipment are as follows:

  • The gym will be used for so-called “functional” training, which is to say to be healthy and physically capable of performing a variety of useful physical skills.
  • Primary user is a physically fit man with experience training of at least five years without major physical limitations. It would require tweaks in the weights or amounts of certain items if you were a small woman, a novice, or a former athlete who hasn’t trained in a long time. The order and types of equipment would be the same. For example, if the gym is for a 100-pound woman, maybe 400+ pounds of bumper plates is overkill. Still would buy bumpers, just not as many.
  • It is not for specializing in any discipline (Olympic lifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc.). If I were to develop a gym for a competitive powerlifter, for example, I would have different priorities and types of equipment.
  • My recommendations would be applicable to someone who didn’t have a large amount of space and to someone who had unlimited space (full garage or barn) equally. In other words, if you had only a small area to store everything, I would still tell you to buy the same items first. You would just have to stop buying as you have run out of space!
  • Quality equipment trumps cheap alternatives every time. We will not purchase a cheap item to save money. These are lifetime purchases. Spend the right amount of money or don’t spend any. Almost everything I will recommend is from Rogue because it’s bombproof. I will not recommend something I haven’t actually used myself so I can speak to its durability and quality of workmanship.
  • This gym will be set-up in a garage or basement with a concrete floor. While you could set up a lot of this in a spare bedroom, the ideal scenario is a hard durable concrete floor with dirt beneath it, not on a second floor with wood below it. I’d make different recommendations if you were into converting an upstairs spare room into a gym.

The First Five Purchases: The Basics

* I make zero money from any purchases of these items. I recommend them because they are good. My motivation is to make you mission capable.
** All prices are without shipping or tax as of date of publication

The first purchase is a 35lb kettlebell from Rogue Fitness ($48.82).

No single item is more useful than a kettlebell. If you had $125,000 or $125 to spend, KB is still the first buy. The most versatile KB overall is the 35 pounder. This is also called a “one pood” KB since a pood is a Russian measurement of weight which equals about 35 pounds. I subscribe to somewhat of a KB traditionalist view, which is we buy in poods (.5, 1, 1.5, 2, etc.) not pounds. I would never recommend a 20lb, 30lb, 40lb, etc. KB. You get 35lb (1 pood), 53lb (1.5 pood), 72 (2 pood), etc. When you “own” the 35lb (i.e. you outgrow it for a movement), you move up to the 53lb. It’s not like dumbbells where you jump 5 or 10 pounds.

You can use a KB to get stronger and more explosive. You can use it to improve mobility. You can use it to increase your stamina. You can use it to increase your cardiovascular endurance. It is much more versatile than a dumbbell or a barbell. Rogue kettlebells are a more tacky iron with a powder-coat finish and not the glossy health club kind that chip (those suck). Quality is top notch.

The second purchase is a 53lb KB from Rogue ($63.75).

Let’s discuss the rationale behind the weights. With the 35- and 53-pounders even someone who is in good shape can swing these (Russian or American style) and lift these in a number of ways for different effects. You can do high volume swings. You can combine swings (or snatches) with bodyweight movements for a conditioning session. You can do 1-5 reps of high speed explosive one arm snatches (or cleans) to develop power. You can press them overhead, row them, and press them off the floor for strength work. There are 100+ more uses so I will stop listing them.

If you are new to training, a smaller male or female, try maybe 18lbs and 35lbs for your first two.

The third purchase is a pull-up bar, the Rogue P-4 Pullup System ($145).

Obviously useful for pull-ups, you can also now hang from the bar and do a variety of abdominal exercises. You can attach things to it like a TRX or rings. You can hook up bands to it and do flyes, pressdowns or pulldowns in addition to a ton of other things.

The Rogue P-4 specifically can be attached to a wall or to a ceiling. I have used it on both. Put three lag bolts in each into a stud and it holds 200+ pound people doing kipping pull-ups without an issue. Very easy to set-up and very low maintenance. You need just the base system (2 brackets and 1 bar). You will have to go buy six serious lag bolts at a hardware store. I think mine are 1/2 inch by 4 inches like these.

The fourth purchase is a 70lb kettlebell from Rogue ($86.19).

You are seeing a pattern here (I guess ZAP likes kettlebells). Once you get the 70lb, you can now lift a lot heavier (duh…). For me, the jump from 53 to 70 means a lot higher intensity during swings and strength work. 70lbs in the floor press is challenging for fit people. So is a 70lb Turkish get-up. You would be OK if you didn’t have the space or cash to get more than a 35lb or 53lb, but the 70lb really spices it up. These three make a complete set. I have 18, 26, 35, 53, 70, 88, and 103 pound kettlebells. I use the 35, 53, and 70 infinitely more than the others. My next KB recommendation will be to get another 35, 53 and 70 before I tell you to get any other weight (but that’s in a different phase). You can do a lot with unilateral lifts (one arm/side at a time) and you only need one to do swings, the mother of all garage gym movements.

Fifth and final purchase in this phase is 4 ft x 6 ft x 3/4 inch thick horse stall mats from Tractor Supply ($44.99).

You now have enough equipment to outfit a small space in a garage, but you still are exercising on concrete. I hesitated to get flooring in my first garage gym because I was still storing the equipment in a storage cut-out so I could park my car inside during the winter. Once I moved my gym into a basement, I decided to try some flooring and it had a drastic impact. These mats from Tractor Supply are made for actual horse stalls, but they are so popular in gyms because they are extraordinarily durable and cheap.

You would be OK with just one honestly because you can put your whole body on it for floor movements or improved footing during lifts, but if you have the room, get as many as you can fit in your space. I have six that take up half my garage. You could get one and drag it in and out of a dual-use space as well.

Do not confuse these mats with any variation of gym flooring you can buy such as the ones with interlocking teeth. These are not nearly as durable and are much more expensive. Find a Tractor Supply or equivalent and get the horse stall mats.

Pro Tip: You can cut these down to make them more maneuverable. I was shocked at how hard it is to move one of these full mats. Heavy and awkward. It kicked my ass loading them, unloading them, and dragging them into my basement. When I had to move, I was just dreading moving these. Then I decided to try to cut them, which appears to be very hard but is, in fact, very easy with just a utility knife or box cutter! I cut mine all in half to 4ft x 3ft and it is so easy to move them now. See this video for a quick tutorial.

Phase One Summary

At this point you have spent around $500. You can use what we already have to accomplish every physical fitness goal except maximal strength and hypertrophy for which you will need a rack and a barbell (Phase 2!). You can easily stop here, not buy anything else again, and spend a few days a week in a gym where you can find the big weights. My initial goal in developing my garage gym was have just enough equipment that I could sustain myself for a short time or do workouts at home when the gym was closed. Over time, I enjoyed it so much I started to expand.

With three kettlebells and a pull-up bar, you have a deadly efficient home set-up. Good programming and some hard work are all that are in your way! In phase two we will expand into the barbell and rack system plus a few more staples. Stay tuned.

Any thoughts on your first five purchases for a garage/home gym set-up? Did I get these right? Post feedback to comments.