Exercise Essentials: the 5 must-haves for a home gym that can fit in a closet

Our house is pretty small, and when the kids and dogs really get going it feels VERY small — in fact when it gets cluttered up and everyone gets nutty, it will drain the sanity right out of you. But whether your house is tiny or huge, clutter is never nice. And as any perusal of Craig’s List will show you, there is a lot of exercise equipment out there cluttering up our homes. This has started me thinking — if I had to really narrow it down, with a ruthless emphasis on versatility, efficacy, and space, what would I include in the perfect compact home gym?

For starters, I would leave the big equipment in the actual gym. Gym memberships are generally pretty affordable (particularly since many health insurance companies now cover at least part of the cost), and in return you get camaraderie, motivation, access to a huge variety of equipment and, typically, guidance in best practices for using that equipment. I’d suggest that if you are going to use something less than three times a week, or if it can only be used for a very specific purpose (weird contortionist abdominal exercise machines, I am talking about you), then it should stay in the nice big gym and out of your house. That said, there are certainly benefits to having exercise options availability at home; adherence is very importance for fitness gains, and the fewer obstacles the better the adherence is going to be. Most of us have time constraints that make it difficult to travel to a gym every time we want to work out, we don’t want our fitness to be subject to the whims of the weather half of the year, and sometimes it’s just plain nice to stay home.

With that said here are my top 5 for the perfect not-a-gym, and I’ll be following up with posts on workouts utilizing this equipment at home.

1) Resistance Bands. No question in my mind about this one. You can use resistance bands to exercise every muscle in the body, you can adjust spacing to get nearly unlimited variations of resistance, they can be used to build muscle size or endurance, and are excellent for both strength workouts and getting in some cardio. As an added bonus, they are tiny and cheap. If you get one piece of exercise equipment in your house, it should be these. You can go with the handled ones, like these, or stay even simpler and stick with the theraband type, because while the handles are nice they really aren’t necessary.

2) TRX Suspension Training System. This is the priciest thing I’ll suggest, but it is incredibly versatile, and it travels beautifully. Like the resistance bands, the TRX system can be used to train virtually every muscle system, and can be used to develop stabilization, strength, and power. It can be mounted in a doorway or around any fixed object, which means you can easily take your full workout outside on nice days.

3) Foam Roller. Many of us would love to deny it, but flexibility matters. There’s nothing glamorous about rolling out tight muscles, but if we want to keep doing the things we want to do, those muscle adhesions need to be addressed, and foam rollers are an effective and easy (if highly uncomfortable) way to do so.

4) Yoga mat. I wavered on this one making the cut, because you really don’t need a yoga mat, even for yoga. And while I do think everyone should be doing some form of yoga some of the time, if it’s not something you practice then the practicality becomes even more tenuous. That said, there is something decisive about rolling out your mat. Every time you do, it is a decision for fitness. And it is really, really nice to have a good surface to train barefoot on, which is excellent for foot and ankle strength and for balance. Since yoga mats are so compact and can be very inexpensive, I’m keeping it on the list. (Although the nicer yoga mats, like Jade mats, are indeed so very nice.)

5) Medicine Ball. Just one firm one that is 5-10% of your body weight, and really only if you have a basement or garage surface to throw it against. It’s really nice to have a wide variety of medicine balls, both hard and soft, all different weights. When I’m working with clients in the gym, I take full advantage of the selection. But for home use, just one firm one at a moderate weight will give you tons of options without taking up much space. Then when you go to the gym you can use all the different varieties.

Home Gym, the deluxe version.
I tried to be pretty ruthless on the above list. My idea was to enable everything to fit on a closet shelf, and be able to pull it out and put it away with minimal effort — the goal is to actually use everything you have! With a little more space and money, I’d add the following. These don’t necessarily fill in missing gaps, but they are nice to have and they offer you a bit more variety.

6) BOSU trainer. Okay, I’m biased. The BOSU is not quite as versatile as the other things I’ve mentioned, but I think they are really, really fun. SO FUN, guys! You get to jump on something bouncy! They are also extremely effective at developing stability, and as a trail runner I’m a fan of anything I can use to make myself more resilient on the trails, but we can all benefit from a little balance work. Get the more compact BOSU sport version for home. Nothing you’re doing is so fancy you need the full version.

7) One moderate weight kettlebell. Much like the BOSU, you don’t really need this for a good home workout, but they are fun. And just like the med ball, get one about 5-10% of your body weight and save the complex kettlebell workouts for the gym.

8) 1 indoor piece of cardio equipment. If space is a major concern, get a trainer for your road or mountain bike. If you have the space for something big and bulky, get whatever is least likely to collect dust, whether a treadmill, elliptical, or bike and being realistic about the three or more times a week guideline. Remember, the gym has *lots* of cardio equipment and most pieces are big, heavy, and require a special electrical connection.

9) TRX Riptrainer. This is a total extra, but it is a functional, fun, and generally awesome extra. The only reason we don’t have one at home is I fear my boys don’t need any more encouragement to act like ninjas, particularly not with substantial metal weaponry.