How to Build a Home Gym on the Fly

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
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How to Build a Home Gym on the Fly

With many gyms across the world closed for the foreseeable future, people who never exercised at home are scrambling for the right equipment and tools to get an effective workout from their living room. Bodyweight workouts are a solid option, but having some equipment (DIYed or otherwise) at your disposal can help mix things up and make workouts more challenging.

Here, suggestions from fitness pros — whether you want to spend a couple hundred dollars or nothing at all.

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ANY HEAVY CONTAINER

With so many people suddenly finding themselves temporarily out of work, buying new fitness equipment may not be in the cards, points out Margie Clegg, a certified personal trainer. If you’re looking to create a home gym with no cash investment, Clegg recommends searching your home for the following items to use in place of weights:

Other heavy household items that can work as weights include laundry detergent bottles with handles, large water cooler jugs and large bags of pet food.

SUITCASE OR BACKPACK

If you’re searching for a heavier weight to replace a barbell or kettlebell, try this. “Grab a suitcase, and fill it with as many books as you need to create enough weight for a challenging squat,” recommends Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. “You can do squats, lunges, glute bridges and side squats with your suitcase, holding it close to your chest.”

A backpack filled with books, cans and other heavy items is also a great option. Wear it on your back for squats or hold it by the straps for deadlifts.

WASHCLOTHS, PAPER PLATES OR FURNITURE SLIDERS

Lots of online workouts use gliders to intensify common bodyweight moves, but you can use any of these household items in their place. “On a hard floor, you can do reverse lunges and side lunges,” explains Pam Sherman, a certified personal trainer. You can also create a substitute for an ab-roller by coming onto all fours, placing your hands on the gliders and sliding your hands forward and back. “You can also do this one-handed, lying on your side, to target your obliques,” Sherman says.

STAIRS AND CHAIRS

Don’t underestimate the potential of furniture and staircases as workout equipment. “Use a chair for pushups and triceps dips, and use stairs for cardio and stepups and lunge variations,” suggests Michael Cummings, a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

LACROSSE OR TENNIS BALLS

These can be used for self myofascial release, which is a fancy term for rolling your muscles, finding knots and working them out, says Nicolle Harwood-Nash, a fitness coach. And you might just have them around the house already. A lacrosse ball provides firmer pressure, while a tennis ball is slightly softer. Rolling tight areas helps speed up recovery, prevent injury and sometimes just feels good to do, Harwood-Nash adds.

BROOM OR MOP

If you don’t have a mobility dowel on hand, Rocky Snyder, a strength and conditioning coach, recommends grabbing a broomstick for stretching. In fact, any household item in a similar shape will work.

A DECK OF CARDS

This can be used to create a bit of variety in your workouts. “Each number or face signifies reps while the suit is an exercise,” explains Meg Julian, a certified personal trainer and a Precision Nutrition-certified coach.

Sample workout: For example, spades are pushups, diamonds are squats, hearts are crunches, and clubs are lunges. Draw 10–20 cards from the deck and complete the designated movements, resting 30–60 seconds in between.

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LONG RESISTANCE BANDS

You can work your entire body with these bands, says Michelle Miller, a certified personal trainer. There are two kinds: long bands with handles and long continuous loops without handles. They both work well and come in various levels of resistance.

“Loop the band around a solid object and do chest presses, rows, triceps kickbacks, standing twists or upright rows,” Miller suggests. “Place it underneath both feet and do squats, biceps curls, front raises, side bends or overhead presses. Bands can work inner and outer thigh as well as the hamstrings if you loop the band around your ankle and also around a solid object.” To adjust the level of resistance, move closer or farther away from the object.

MINI RESISTANCE LOOPS

Also known as “booty bands,” these smaller resistance bands can come in handy, especially for working your hips and glutes. Loop one above or below the knees for lateral band walks and fire hydrants or under one foot for single-leg deadlifts, Julian recommends.

JUMP ROPE

If you no longer have access to cardio equipment and don’t necessarily want to head outside to run or bike, the jump rope is a great tool to keep your cardio up while working out in your home, according to Steve Stonehouse, a certified run coach and director of education for STRIDE. “Spending a few minutes during your workout jump roping will keep your heart rate up and can be a fun way to mix your training up, too.”

FOAM ROLLER

Cummings recommends a foam roller for mobility and recovery work. He advises using it during your workout warmups and cool-downs to both activate and relax muscles. It’s also a great option for dealing with a stiff back from sitting more than usual. (While there are pricier foam roller options out there, a less expensive version will definitely work for those on a budget, and household items like rolling pins can also work as substitutes.)

DOORWAY PULLUP BAR

“This is such a versatile piece,” Miller says. “Not only can you work the entire upper body with pullups, but also the core with knee-ups and leg raises.” You can also take the bar off the door to use it on the ground as a base for pushups, triceps dips or mountain climbers.

KETTLEBELL

Investing in a kettlebell (or ideally, 2–3 kettlebells) is a good idea, according to Lisa Reed, a strength and conditioning specialist. She recommends 8–12 kilograms for an average woman, and 16–20 kilograms for an average man. “With only a few kettlebells, you can perform all of your strength exercises and get a great cardio workout simultaneously,” Reed adds.

LIGHT AND HEAVY SETS OF DUMBBELLS

Experts recommend grabbing a couple of sets of dumbbells if you can swing it. “Light dumbbells are good for when you’re doing high reps and sets,” explains Jill Brown, a certified personal trainer. “Have heavy ones for short sets that you can build up from.”

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ADJUSTABLE DUMBBELLS OR KETTLEBELL

These tend to be a bit pricier but if they’re in your budget, they can be a huge space saver, Roser says. Instead of having multiple dumbbells or kettlebells to deal with, you have access to lots of different weights for a variety of exercises and levels of difficulty.

BOSU TRAINER

“The Bosu ball can be used in place of a bench for exercises such as the chest press, where it’s essential to have your head and neck supported,” Miller says. “Flip over on your belly and do reverse flys or lower back extensions.” You can also sit on it to do biceps curls, triceps extensions and overhead presses, or lie down on it for crunches or glute bridges.

A big advantage of the Bosu-style trainers is the flat bottom means they don’t take up much space. But for a lower cost option, try a stability ball, which is typically less than $25. A stability ball can also be used for exercises like stir-the-pot (making small circles with your forearms in a plank position on top of the ball) and ab rollouts.

TRX SYSTEM

“For $150, a TRX is a great investment for a full-body workout,” Julian says. There are tons of videos and workouts available online to help you use it to its fullest potential. “I recommend this to all my online clients because it also travels well and is easily adjustable to all fitness levels.”

About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.

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