Ask Stew: Recommendations for Building a Home Gym

Working out at home during the COVID-19 pandemic
Class of 2021 Cadet Lane Peters, an Army West Point wrestler, and his sister, Class of 2023 Cadet Sage Peters, an Army West Point softball player, challenge each other during a first to 100 burpees competition at their home in Uhrichsville, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Class of 2021 Cadet Lane Peters)

Home gyms are going to be a common approach to training at least for the near future. I hope fitness center businesses can hang on, as there seem to be many people who have quit going to the gym.

Here is a question from a young man who liked to train at his local gym, but is now looking for home gym ideas:

I was hitting the gym quite regularly, but due to the coronavirus situation, I'd rather stay home. I don't have any equipment, so I do only variations of push-ups, sit-ups and triceps dips. I want to buy some weights to exercise at home. Do you have any basic recommendations? I am thinking I would like to combine weightlifting or some bench press exercise with some pull-ups, push-ups and calisthenics? With regard, Michael

Michael, it sounds like you did what I did. I went outside and started running and doing calisthenics. Calisthenics and cardio are a great way to train during the spring and summer. The days are long and the weather is nice, depending where you live.

I have found that six months is plenty for higher-volume calisthenics programs and longer-distance running programs. As the weather gets cooler, it's a good time to change things up by increasing the weight and by reducing the repetitions and overall running miles.

Consider this next phase a time to focus more on strength, speed and agility. You can do it with minimal equipment.

The Less Equipment Option

If you are short on space and funds to buy more equipment, consider investing in a few items that will make your calisthenics harder and reduce the repetitions by increasing the weight of the exercise. My personal favorites: Add a weight vest or a suspension trainer like the TRX.

Weight Vest Review

You cannot go wrong by adding 20-40 pounds to your calisthenics exercises and cutting your repetitions by 50%. This effectively will mimic any strength training program you can do with dumbbells or barbells. Weight vest push-ups will feel like bench presses and will save you money and space in your home.

You also can make sandbags if you want to change it up and add more variety of lifting to your home gym. A great weight vest accessory is a homemade sandbag. We call them sandbabies. Make a sandbaby and do the Sandbaby Murph.

TRX -- Fitness in a Bag

TRX -- If you are not familiar with the TRX, or suspension training, check out the TRX website or just go to YouTube and search "TRX exercises." You will find a huge number of ideas of how to use the TRX, ranging from workouts for beginners to advanced-level exercises. This device will give you countless options for training and make calisthenics harder if you are more advanced. The TRX also can make calisthenics easier, depending on how you use the system. All exercises are scalable to a person's level of fitness.

The More Equipment Option

I have a basic squat rack with adjustable clamps that make it ideal for bench press or squats. When I remove the barbell, I have a pull-up bar at the top. If you want a minimal amount of equipment with the most impact, try that set-up, along with a few plates of various weights.

If you shop around, you can get the rack for under $200 and may find some used barbells, dumbbells and plates in your area (especially if gyms are closing). A bench will enable you to do barbell and dumbbell bench presses, as well as other exercises like bent-over rows and step-ups.

The only additional things I have are a few kettlebells that I add to my circuits with farmer walks, swings, snatches, squats and lunges. You also can do most of these with a variety of dumbbell weights.

If you put it all together and include a used stationary bike that a neighbor was getting rid of, I have spent less than $600 for what's pretty much a full gym in my garage. "Full" means that I have everything that I need.

Adding more variety to your training is recommended, but you do not need a full gym to do so. A good balance of calisthenics, weighted calisthenics, suspension training, sandbags and weights will cover you for just about any training you want to add to your lift cycle.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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