How to Build a Home Gym When You’re Short on Space

According to a trainer.
By Brianna Lapolla
October 31, 2023

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Most of the time, the hardest part about working out is simply making it to the gym. Once you’re there, the motivation kicks in, and you usually wind up staying longer and doing more than you planned. But as Hone’s Community can attest, with zero commute time, your 30-minute sweat session can actually be done in half an hour. Plus, when your gym is physically in your home, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to talk yourself into going more often.

The biggest hurdles: not everyone has tons of space for fitness equipment, and it can get expensive if you’re starting from scratch. So we asked Ben Walker, founder, and certified personal trainer at Anywhere Fitness to run through how to build a home gym that leads to real gains without going broke.

How to Choose Gym Equipment

“Every man needs equipment that is multi-purpose and can be used to train the entire body functionally (i.e. building strength for everyday activities),” says Walker. He recommends looking for pieces that work both the upper and lower body through all planes of movement. “This targets all of the primary and secondary muscle groups while improving your body’s ability to move and perform better.” Square footage is one of the main considerations when building a home gym, so it’s crucial to choose equipment that gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of versatility and space. All of the gym equipment below can help you get in an effective full-body workout in a relatively small footprint.

How Much Does a Basic Home Gym Cost?

“Depending on your budget, you can expect to spend anywhere from $500-$2,500 on a home gym,” says Walker. A cable machine will probably be your biggest ticket item; models can run from $800-$2,500. But if you’re thrifty, scouring places like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace can score you a setup for much less. And if having a gym in your garage will motivate you to get in a few more sweat sessions every week, the initial investment is easier to stomach. Here, the four most versatile and cost-effective pieces of equipment worth dropping cash on.

1. Adjustable Dumbbells

Adjustable dumbbells typically offer a series of 10 to 15 weight ranges that you can change with the click of a button. “Unlike a dumbbell rack, adjustable dumbbells won’t take up much space in your home gym,” notes Walker. But the real draw comes from their ability to adapt to whatever muscle group you’re working: Use heavy weight for larger muscle groups, then adjust the load down to target smaller muscle groups.  “Some of the most common workout moves can maximize strength and target the most muscles within a specific muscle group, such as squats and lunges,” Walker adds. Adding free weights to these movements, “can help to promote balance and flexibility while targeting the muscles,” he says. Adjustable dumbbells are also versatile. “They can be used to perform the same routines as kettlebells. However, because the weight is evenly distributed in dumbbells, it is easier to perform more exercises in the anterior and lateral plane of movement [due to more precise control and grip],” says Walker. “Dumbbells can be used with other essential equipment (such as a stepper and bench) to do a complete workout for targeting major muscle groups like your back, legs, and chest.”

Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbells

Lifepro Adjustable Dumbbell Set

Powerblock Elite EXP Adjustable Dumbbell

2. Adjustable Weight Bench

To take full advantage of adjustable dumbbells and use them to target big muscle groups like your back, chest, and legs, you need a bench for stability. It can also function as an aerobic stepper and can be used for modifications to many leg exercises. For example: elevating your back leg on a bench while in a lunge position will better target and isolate the muscles in the standing leg. Investing in an adjustable weight bench is key, as you can lay it flat or position it on an incline to target different muscle fibers. Do a basic dumbbell chest press on a flat bench and you target the whole pectoral muscle; add an incline and you’re isolating the upper pecs and anterior deltoid muscles instead. A bench is not only a cost-effective addition to your home gym, but it’s also extremely easy to move around when you need more space for traveling lunges or cardio bursts. Plus, Walker adds, you can pair a bench with larger equipment like a cable machine to give your exercise library a bigger boost.

FLYBIRD Adjustable Bench

DERACY Adjustable Weight Bench

Flybird Weight Bench

Bowflex 5.1S Stowable Bench

3. Cable Machine

If you have the space, a cable machine is a great addition to your home gym. “The cable machine is the most versatile piece of equipment you can buy,” says Walker. “Use it in a standing position, with a bench, or on the floor with the assistance of a mat to perform any weight training exercise.” “The cables can be raised and lowered in a vertical position, providing resistance in many planes of movement for weight training,” Walker adds. Depending on what attachments you buy (ropes, handles, bars, etc.), you can perform an endless range of exercises to target muscle groups in a variety of ways. And because you can perform exercises with a single or double cable, you can target both sides of the body at once, focus on one side at a time, or even train simultaneously with a partner. Better yet, a cable machine is often a safer alternative to free weights in terms of form and function. “It prepares you for a lot of functional lifts that you would do manually with a barbell, such as a deadlift or a back row,” says Walker.

XMARK Functional Trainer Cable Machine

Mikolo Multi-Function Power Cage

Valor Fitness BD-61 Cable Crossover Station

Tonal Home Gym

4. Compact Cardio Equipment

Agility Ladder If cardio is part of your fitness regimen, Walker suggests investing in an agility ladder to maximize a small space. “It improves agility and strengthens muscles from every angle due to all the movement patterns. You can also perform most exercises with resistance bands to add difficulty and make the drills more strength-based,” he says.  

Jump Rope

A jump rope is a great alternative to a treadmill or stationary bike and has been found to have positive effects on heart rate and cardiovascular health, burning a similar total number of calories compared to running. While a regular no-frills jump rope works well, a smart jump rope could help increase your energy output and track your progress for added motivation and self-competition.  

Rowing Machine

If you prefer a traditional cardio machine, Walker recommends a rower, which provides a full-body workout and can be used in places with low ceilings, like a basement. “Within one repetition, you use every muscle group from your back, triceps, biceps, legs, and core. This burns an enormous amount of calories due to the sheer amount of energy needed,” he adds. Compact, foldable designs can be tucked in a corner when not in use.

Yes4All Ultimate Agility Ladder

Tangram Factory Smart Rope

ECHANFIT Magnetic Rowing Machine

Eegatta The Ergatta Rower

RENPHO Smart Jump Rope

Other Equipment to Consider

Walker encourages laying down shock-absorbing floor mats to protect your back and wrists while performing load-bearing exercises like pushups and squats. “You should also consider adding mirrors to judge proper form while doing a workout on your own,” he says.

GXMMAT Large Exercise Mat

ProsourceFit Puzzle Exercise Mat

Fab Glass and Mirror HD Tempered Wall Mirror Kit

Murrey Home Gym Mirrors