I really, truly believe that you can get an awesome workout using absolutely ZERO equipment.
You’ll see these types of workouts appear regularly on 12 Minute Athlete, and can find examples of them here, here, and here. But if you’re really set on ditching your gym membership and want to do the home workout thing, you’ll probably want to slowly build up your equipment and set up a space that keeps you feeling motivated and ready to work as hard as you can.
Now, unless you don’t live in a tiny apartment or in a city, you probably don’t have a dedicated space you can carve out solely for your home gym. I definitely didn’t until I got lucky and was able to claim a space in my garage in my latest home. But you can still create an awesome home gym even if you have to put everything away every time you use it.
Here are what I consider to be the essential items, nice to have items, and recovery gear every home gym should have:
Essential home gym items
These are the items I consider absolutely essential for every home gym. Now I’m not saying you have to buy them all right this second—it’s perfectly fine to build up your supply of equipment as time goes on and as you want to challenge yourself more in your workouts (this is what I did).
The good news is that for most of the items below, once you buy them, they’ll last you at least a few years, if not a lifetime.
A good jump rope
Hands down, a jump rope is one of the most useful pieces of workout equipment you can ever own, and it’ll only set you back $5-10. Jump rope exercises are great to add to nearly any workout to get your heart rate up quickly and make a particularly awesome (and quick!) tabata workout.
Plus, jump ropes are crazy portable so you can take yours with you to the park, the gym, or even stick it in your suitcase for a ready-to-go workout wherever you travel to.
If you haven’t already noticed, I use jump ropes a lot in both the workouts on the site and iPhone and Android apps, because jump ropes are just so damn awesome. Seriously, if you buy one piece of equipment for your home gym, make it a jump rope!
What to buy: There are several different types of jump ropes available, ranging from everything from weighted ropes to speed ropes. I used to use a normal black jump rope but now prefer speed ropes since they work well for practicing double unders.
A pull up bar
While you can certainly get a good back and arm workout from using only your own bodyweight, there’s really nothing quite like having a pull up bar around for building your upper body strength. And while you can certainly get creative and do pull ups on the back of a doorframe, an actual pull up bar is a safer, more reliable option and something I think every single person should have in their home.
Don’t think pull up bars are limited to just doing pull ups either—you can do everything from regular pull ups to leg raises to crazy advanced calisthenics exercises using a simple pull up bar. The $20-80 you invest in a bar for your home will be well worth it, trust me.
What to buy: There are a few different options for pull up bars, depending on your current set up. A doorframe one will cost about $30, and are great because they’re convenient, cheap, and are easy to remove and store in a closet or wherever.
There are a few main downsides to doorway pull up bars though: one, that they don’t fit all door frames (especially older ones), and two, that they can be pretty annoying for taller people since they require you to really fold your legs under you when you do pull ups and make exercises like leg raises much more awkward. Still, they’re a great option if you’re in an apartment or just don’t want to put a bar on your ceiling.
Another option is to get a ceiling pull up bar (about $130) or a bar that attaches to the wall (about $60). These are ideal since they allow for a greater range of motion (making it less easy to cheat on your pull ups), but of course they don’t work for everyone since not every person can put a pull up bar on their wall.
A third option is to get a standalone bar (about $80-$100), but these can be a little annoying since they take up a lot of space and also don’t allow for full extension.
At least one kettlebell
There are two main reasons why everyone should have at least one kettlebell in their home gym:
Reason #1: They’re affordable. Yes, a good kettlebell will run you anywhere from about $20-$100 depending on what weight you buy, but once you get one, you have your kettlebell forever. Kettlebells are insanely sturdy things, and will survive a lifetime of kettlebell swings, turkish get ups, and kettlebell front squats. Once you get one, you won’t ever need to get another one (unless, of course, you want to move up in weight).
Reason #2: They’re versatile. Yes, of course you can use kettlebells for kettlebell swings, but you can also use them in place of just about any other piece of equipment including sandbags and dumbbells.
What to buy: You can find kettlebells in just about any sporting goods store these days, or you can get them online at a place like Amazon (i.e. free shipping!). I tend to use the CAP kettlebells because they’re good, sturdy kettlebells with wide enough handles to grip the bell and no annoying seams that will cut up your hands.
Tip: If you’re buying a kettlebell for the first time and don’t know what weight to buy, I’d recommend starting anywhere from 15 to 35 lbs for women and 25 to 50 lbs for men, depending on your current fitness level. If you’ve never used one before, you’re better off starting off with a lighter weight to get the movements down before moving up to a heavier kettlebell.
A plyo Box
Again, I was hesitant to put this one under essential equipment since technically you can jump onto any sort of sturdy surface—a set of stairs, a high bench, etc. when doing box jumps or other exercises requiring an elevated platform. I actually didn’t get my plyo box until about a year and a half ago, so it’s definitely not something you need right away.
Yet I can’t tell you how much I absolutely love having a good, sturdy plyo box around. Box jumps are one of the best conditioning exercises you can do, and will definitely help you reach your fitness goals, whether they’re to get better at your favorite sport or to lose weight.
If you’re anything like me, having a dedicated box around specifically for box jumps and other similar exercises will just make you more motivated to do them, and is a lot safer than trying to jump onto a chair.
What to buy: I use a Rogue box because their equipment is really high quality, but if I had the tools I would have just made my own. Here’s a cool tutorial on how to make a plyo box if you’re good with that sort of thing. Oh, and you can also get the medal plyo platforms—they serve the same purpose as the wooden boxes.
Substitution ideas: Stairs, a high enough bench, or some type of raised concrete surface will work (just make sure to be really careful of your shins!). I’d recommend avoiding chairs.
A good mat
If you’re going to work out at home, you’ll need a comfortable surface to work out on, especially if you’re doing a lot of burpees, v ups and other exercises that require you to be on the ground a lot. If you have carpet, you probably can bypass this one since carpet tends to be pretty comfortable to do these types of exercises on, but if you have hardwood floors/tile/concrete/linoleum you’re really going to need to get some type of mat at some point (or come up with a creative alternative).
What to buy: Although some people will be fine using a simple yoga mat, I find it way too painful to do high intensity exercises on such a thin mat (my hips, for example, seem to hit the floor first when doing burpees—ouch!). For people like me, you’ll want to get a thicker mat that gives you at least an inch or two of padding but isn’t overly soft.
If you need the mat to be portable, a simple gymnastics mat ($160-$200) will work; if you have an area where you can leave the mat on the ground, a rubber mat setup is functional and fairly cheap (about $40 to cover 24 sq ft.)—this is what I have in my garage gym.
Nice to have (but not essential) home gym items
The below items are all things I’d consider a lower priority than those above, partly because they’re easier to make homemade versions of or be creative with substitution exercises.
However, they’re all still really awesome and if you’re thinking long-term, I’d highly recommend considering adding every one of these pieces of equipment to your home gym stockpile at some point.
A dip bar
A dip bar may seem like a slightly unnecessary piece of equipment if you’ve never used one much, but they’re nearly just as versatile as pull up bars, and an awesome tool to have around. They’re great for dips (what a surprise…), reverse push ups, leg raises, L-sit holds… the possibilities are endless.
And though you can certainly come up with ways to substitute exercises using a dip bar, sometimes it can be nice to have a dedicated piece of equipment, if only to get you excited and motivated to actually do the exercises.
What to buy: The dip bar I use is made by the guys at Ultimate Body Press, but you can also find it on Amazon. It’ll cost you about $100, but again, once you have it, you won’t ever need to get another one.
Substitution ideas: Two (sturdy) chairs or two benches with about a foot and a half in between can work as pretty good substitutions for most exercises using a dip bar.
Sandbags are a really cool fitness tool to have around since they can take the place of regular dumbbells or weights and add an extra element of stability to your workouts.
And while it’s perfectly acceptable to make your own sandbag out of a burlap bag, sand and string, it can get pretty messy at times, and even fall apart when you’re swinging it around.
What to buy: I use the Ultimate Sandbag bags, which have individual filler bags inside of a sturdy duffle-type bag—so they won’t break on you. I’ve never had mine leak once! You can also find them on Amazon (yay for free shipping) and they’ll cost you about $75-$130, depending on the size you get.
Substitution ideas: Substituting for sandbags is pretty easy—you can make your own or simply fill a backpack or duffel bag with some heavy stuff.
A medicine ball
Medicine balls are great for wall balls, core training, and more. You can use them in place of a kettlebell for front squats, hold onto one when you’re doing step ups or walking lunges to increase the difficulty level, and more.
What to buy: You can definitely get away with being creative and coming up with medicine ball substitution ideas, but if you do decide to get one to have around the house, I highly recommend the Dynamax brand ones. They’re really durable and are a nice, awkward size to make any exercise more difficult. If you’re unsure about what weight to buy, I’d recommend anywhere from 10-16 pounds for women, and 14 to 20 pounds for guys, depending on your strength and experience level. I have a 14 pound one (although now I wish I’d gotten a 16 pounder).
Substitution ideas: For wall balls, you can use any sort of basketball, soccer ball, etc.—it’ll be a little easier because the ball will be much lighter, but you can still get a good workout this way. For medicine ball twists and other exercises, you can use pretty much anything with a little weight to it—a kettlebell, a heavy backpack, even a heavy book.
What else will you need?
Some people go really crazy with their home gyms—heck, you can even get a power rack and have your own little lifting station at home if you have enough space.
I’m in the minimal-is-more category though, and try and add only items I absolutely know I’ll use on a regular basis to my gym space. The below items are all 100% optional, but can definitely be useful for both training and mobility.
A foam roller: Awesome for recovery and flexibility—anywhere from $10-$30, depending on size and foam density (the more dense the foam, the deeper it’ll get into your muscles).
Bands: If you’ve reached a plateau in your pull up training or just want to progress in your training more quickly, bands are an essential tool to have at home. They’re great for flexibility, too, and will cost about $10-$30 (depending on size).
Parallettes: Parallettes are a fantastic tool for working on your L-sits as well as more advanced exercises like going from an L-sit into a handstand (this is one of my longterm goals). You can try and make your own, or you can get some for about $30-$80 on Amazon.
Chalk: If you use a medal pull up bar or kettlebells a lot, chalk will be your best friend and keep your hands from tearing up. You can get it for about $4 on Amazon.
Dumbbells: Dumbbells are a great, versatile tool that can make any exercise more difficult, and can also be used for a substitute for equipment like sandbags and kettlebells. Dumbbells are easy to find at any sporting goods store or cost anywhere from $30 to $150 (depending on weight) on Amazon.
A punching bag: Ok, totally unnecessary, but really fun to have around if you have the space. The whole setup will cost about $150-$200, depending on whether you hang your bag from the ceiling or use a stand.