Updated: Jan 29, 2020
The garage gym is where my “me” time gets cashed in. My kids can’t come in and bother me nor can my wife. It’s my office, my dude cave and my temporary vacation spot. If you’re thinking of bringing your dream gym alive, here are a few things you should consider:
Budget, Space & Location
Where you have your set up, what you can afford and how much space you have will influence one another. If you shop around and time your purchases just right, you could score a good deal on a holiday or sale event. What about space? If you have a garage with a 96” ceiling, that nice 102” tall power rack won’t fit. Basements or bonus rooms are nice since they’re usually temperature controlled, but you’ll need help carrying a treadmill up or down the stairs. Garages are always convenient for getting new stuff inside, but factor in the cooling and heating if it’s not temperature controlled or even has insulation installed.
Standing for long periods of time on concrete doesn’t feel great. If you just plan on jogging on a treadmill, you can probably get away with rubber or foam puzzle mats. They aren’t expensive and can be found at Walmart, Amazon or almost anywhere online. You may have to glue them down, so they don’t move around or come apart though. I personally have horse stall mats in my garage gym. They’re heavy duty and can get expensive but will do a great job at protecting your floor. You may only need 4 mats depending on your floor size and/or what equipment you’re putting on them.
If you’re tight on space, go with a half rack. If not, find a nice full power rack. What’s the difference? Full power racks will have either 4 or 6 upright steel posts where your movements will be executed within them. You can perform those movements on the outside if you choose to. Full power racks can handle heavier weight loads and are safer since you have the option of which safety system you’d like to use (spotter arms, pin & pipe, safety pin, straps and drop-ins). Movements are performed on the outside of half racks and you can only depend on spotter arms to save you if you fail a lift with the barbell. Once you find a rack that you like, be sure to look at the warranty info, reviews and the specs. You’ll need to know the measurements (remember to account for flooring when looking at the height), the maximum weight capacity and if it needs to be bolted down. If you buy one that requires you to bolt it down, I recommend doing so!
You can get a new or used bar just about anywhere. Depending on what you’ll be doing with the bar will determine what you should get. If you’re doing clean & jerks where spin is necessary, then you should get a bar with bearings in it. If you need it for general use or you’re a powerlifter where spin isn’t needed, then look for a bar with bushings instead. You can find new wallet-friendly bars on websites like Rep Fitness, Rogue Fitness, EliteFTS and a bunch of other places. If you want a beater bar where you don’t care what it looks like, you may score an okay bar from Facebook’s Marketplace or even Craigslist. Just make sure you get a bar with sleeves that’ll accommodate weights with a 2” hole. If you get a rusty bar, make sure you clean it up good. YouTube is always helpful if you’d like to know and see how to revive an old bar. Here's a tip though. If your space will be a garage that isn't temperature controlled 100% of the time, I recommend storing the bar indoors for two reasons. One, you won't have to worry about the constant temperature change affecting your bar. If you live near an ocean, salt is in the air and will do a number on your bar. Two, your bar will be cold if it's freezing outside. This doesn't bother me, but for some people it may be a problem.
Besides dumbbells which I will cover later, you’ve got two options for weight plates. You can buy steel/iron plates or bumper plates. Steel/iron plates sound awesome when hitting the floor on deadlifts and are usually cheaper unless they’re calibrated. Let’s say you buy 2 – 45-lb plates from Amazon. They won’t be calibrated unless it’s specified, so one may weigh exactly 46.5-lbs and the other may be 44-lbs which will feel noticeable. They do start rusting if you keep them in a garage that isn’t temperature controlled. Just don’t drop them directly on concrete or you’ll damage your floor. Bumper plates are made from a tough rubber or urethane material. You can drop them from overhead, they may bounce (depending on the bounce or durometer rating) but won’t destroy your floor. They do have 2" metal inserts to slide smoothly on your bar. If you deadlift often, make sure they have a durometer rating between 90 and 100 to minimize floor bounce. So you can drop these on the floor? You bet! You can drop a loaded bar and your floor will be fine. Keep in mind that bumper plates are more expensive than steel/iron plates but do look nicer. Not all are calibrated but they won't be 2-lbs +/- from the specified weight like iron plates. Be sure to read to reviews on the plates you'd like to get also (if buying brand new). It's rare, but some bumper plates are known to have the rubber or urethane separating from its insert.
You want a bench that’s built well, not too tall (16” to 19” from the floor to the top of the pad) and comfortable. If you can find a decent adjustable bench that’s priced well, get it! An adjustable bench is necessary unless you don't plan on doing any exercises that require that type of bench. Weight capacity is an important aspect especially if you plan on putting a good bit of weight on it. I personally only own a Rep Fitness competition flat bench with the wide pad. I don't do any exercises that require an incline or decline so it's perfect for me. Did I mention that it has a weight rating of 1500-lbs? Yes, that sucker is built like a tank too! If you experience frequent shoulder pain like I do, a wider pad gives you the extra shoulder support when laying on it. What ever bench you decide on, I wouldn’t buy a bench with commercial padding. They’re slippery and are very stiff giving you close to zero shoulder support.
Other equipment will vary based on your goals and the purpose of it. Here are a few things I have that you may be considering:
Cardio Equipment – You can get a recumbent bike, stationary bike, stair climber, treadmill or even an 18-speed bicycle with an indoor trainer to ride it in place. I own a recumbent bike since it doesn’t add a ton of impact on my client’s knees like running does. Treadmills and ellipticals are nice to have but are heavy and take up a bunch of space.
Battle Rope – You can do so much with these. They’re perfect for conditioning work where you’re getting that muscle burn while getting your heart rate up. I love using mine, but it’s a pain to carry around and you need something sturdy as an anchor point. They aren’t expensive either! Here's a tip. If you buy a battle rope and get a Rep Fitness competition flat bench with the wide pad, you can use the bench handle as an anchor point since the bench should be heavy enough.
Dumbbells – You can buy adjustable dumbbells which are generally more expensive but will save you a lot of space. You just select the weight you want then remove the weight you don’t need. Your other option is buying fixed dumbbells. I personally prefer fixed dumbbells since you can just pick up the weight you want and go. They do take up a bit of space though. If you need 5-lbs all the way up to 90-lbs, you’ll need space for all 36 weights. You can purchase fixed dumbbells which are either hex shaped or round. Save yourself the headache. The round dumbbells will roll when you set them on the floor while the hex dumbbells just stay put.
Banners – This isn’t a necessity at all. Once your set up is complete, this should be your finishing touch. I have them in my gym just to give it that decorative sprinkle without overdoing it. Being a competitive powerlifter, they’re helpful when I need the motivation to keep going or a client needs a reminder when they’re slacking off. Don’t forget to use a level so it’s straight!