Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Garage Gyms

As some of my recent workouts have shown, my garage has been transformed into a gym of sorts. This is by no means novel, but I’ve received enough feedback regarding the pluses and minuses of such an endeavor that I thought it worth going into. I’ve compiled a series of top 5 lists that, in my opinion, should guide anyone’s pursuit of a garage gym. They are in order of importance. Please feel free to raise points I may have missed or question what I’ve written. This is an open forum and I’m all about learning.

5 things you need:

1. Space

Without a doubt the biggest problem with most garage gyms is that people over do it. The most vital component to your home gym is that it allows you space to move. That means height, area, and lack of clutter. A clean, simple, efficient box is what you’re looking for, not a room filled with equipment that you imagine you might one day use. Guard free space with your life.

2. Pullup Bar

Can’t get around this one… you need it. Aside from the fact that pullups themselves are the quintessential upper body strength builder, the bar offers so many more uses that it cannot be omitted. From hanging rings to doing toes to bar, this is a staple. Because it is so important, you can’t just throw up some piece of crap and expect it to do what you want it to do. You need a bar that is secure, mounted far enough from the wall that you can kip, and ideally will allow you not to waste the valuable commodity that is #1. For affordable high quality ideas on this, look here.

3. Sandbag

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t write “barbell” here. That’s because I think sandbags are better, more versatile, and cost less—therefore, they’re higher on my list. This is something that you make out of an old army sack and some double thick plastic trash bags. You can use an old couch cushion. You can use an old punching bag you find at a flea market. These are all things I have actually done in the past. Once made, this tool can be lifted, carried, thrown, swung, and slammed. Then it can be emptied. It’s adjustable in size, weight, and thickness. Don’t argue, just get one.

4. Barbell and Bumpers

Notice these go together, because a bar without bumpers is useless and vice versa. Don’t waste money on metal weights because you can’t drop them. If you go on craigslist and find a great deal on Gold’s Gym hex plates, do yourself a favor and skip it. Look for used weights at competitive events or when places go out of business, but if that doesn’t work start scouring CrossFit outfitters like this. It’s not too difficult to find affordable deals and get what you need. Barbells are necessary if you intend to build real strength. You can only get so far before you have to deadlift and squat to improve.

5. Rubber flooring

You need this stuff to protect your floor while dropping all those newly bought bumper plates mentioned above. You don’t need it wall to wall, just enough for the width of the bar and a few feet to the front and back. A 3x5 stretch of ¾ inch thickness will do the trick. That will allow you to deadlift, clean and jerk, snatch, whatever. When you’re done you can slide it into the corner. Best place to find this stuff is either at pet supply stores or trucker supply stores. It can get pricey, but it will last forever.

5a) A rack

Without someplace to rack your bar you can’t do heavy squats. If you can’t do heavy squats you can’t get strong. This will also help when training jerks, thrusters, and overhead presses. You don’t need a cage, that just gets in the way. I’m simply referring to some way to load a secure bar at shoulder height. Portable metal racks, cinder blocks, whatever. I put this as 5a) because it isn’t as important as the flooring, but it still belongs on this list.

5 things you don’t need:

1. A treadmill

If I have to explain this one I’ve failed in everything I've written to this point. It’s huge, it takes up space, and it’s not real running. GO OUTSIDE!!!

2. A bench

It’s good for one exercise and otherwise it is always in the way. Hopefully if you’re reading this blog you won’t be looking for ways to do seated exercises, so one of those multiple angle bench seats, while more versatile, is completely useless. If you need to bench press, do it from the floor. Or find a couple 2x6’s and lie on them if you really want to retract your shoulders. It’s not an important enough movement to sacrifice the space or the money for a proper bench.

3. Plyo Boxes

Just the other day I was in a pitched battle with a set of 5 plyo boxes that I acquired from a friend. I was trying to find a smart way to stack them so that I could get to the smaller, more frequently used boxes without going through the huge awkward ones one top. I ended up inverting the whole pyramid, but still remain unsatisfied. These things just don’t get used enough to justify the inevitable headache they create. They are space vacuums and shin destroyers. Not to mention that a couple cinder blocks from your backyard or a small ledge will work just as well.

4. A platform

I write this even though I just finished building one, so disqualify what I say if you like. Bottom line, it’s a luxury not a necessity. I decided to build one to see if I could, how much it would cost, and to personalize my gym. It worked great and I love the thing, but if I hadn’t done it the gym would still function just as well. The rubber flooring will serve as your platform if you don’t have the time or space to build a proper wooden one. If you do it will require 5 sheets of plywood, 2 2x8 sheets of ¾ inch rubber, a screw gun and screws, a shit ton of gorilla glue, and at least 3 cans of verathane. That’s if you do it without any stencil or paint on the face. All in all, I made mine for about 300 bucks and I enjoyed the process immensely. But I also had the time to do it and the space to put it. Not everyone has those luxuries.

5. Medicine Balls

Now, I really have nothing against medicine balls. They can be incredibly useful tools and I like the potential they offer for creativity. The problem is twofold. First, they wind up all over the place—stacked on weights, in corners, or right out in the open—and second, the vast majority of Crossfitters only use them for one exercise—wallball. If a piece of equipment is only going to be used for one movement out of a hundred and it has a tendency to encroach upon my most valued commodity, it’s not going to be on my “must have” list. That being said, they are reasonably easy to come by and if used correctly can be quite valuable.

5 things to keep in your gym:

1. A clock

It can be a digital competition clock or one of those paper-faced ones off the classroom wall. It can be a stopwatch, a wristwatch, or a pocket watch. It can be an iphone. So long as it measures minutes and seconds it will work. Just make sure it’s in your gym. If you can’t measure time, you can’t measure progress; and if you’re not interested in progress, check yourself.

2. Tape

If I had a nickel for every time I needed athletic tape and didn’t have it I would not be writing this blog. Well, maybe I still would, but I’d be doing it on top of a huge pile of nickels. Everyone needs this stuff and it’s really cheap to buy in bulk. I’d be willing to bet I could go on ebay right now and find a case of 32 rolls for 45 dollars. I may or may not have just checked that out, so you might want to take my word for it. Certainly worth that price for all the sprained fingers, ripped callases, and tweaked wrists that seem to follow us around.

3. Chalk

Granted, people tend to overuse chalk. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still a valuable resource. Any sort of Olympic lifting demands it and when you really need that extra stick towards the end of a pullup routine, there’s no better friend. The only time chalk becomes an issue is when it makes its way out of the bucket. Then it is invariably crushed into a fine powder that is both un-useable and un-cleanable for many months. But keep it in a bucket and you’re good as gold.

4. A fan

This doesn’t have to be a huge industrial vortex contraption, in fact those might be too big and too cumbersome for the job at hand. All you need is a medium sized rotating fan to circulate air. Just the faintest breeze makes a huge difference in an otherwise stagnant space, especially when that space is saturated with sweat and exhalation. Chances are your mother has one in her attic collecting dust anyways, so go exhume it, knock off the rust, and stick it in the corner of the gym to keep things breathable.

5. A foam roll

This one is a little fluffy, I admit, but these things are usually worth the raised eyebrow. You really only need one and it stores itself in a corner very easily. It is incredibly useful before and after training to rehabilitate affected areas and to prevent excessive soreness. It is also a constant reminder of the importance of recovery to fitness. All work and no rest means vulnerable tissue and injury. These are also easily found on ebay or other discount websites.

5 things to keep out of your gym:

1. Liquid

Water, Gatorade, coffee, whatever. Don’t drink it in there. Garage gyms typically don’t come with cupholders or countertops and the inevitable end result of your morning cup of Jo is going to be a sticky mess. Clean up is something a garage is supposed to inherently avoid. It’s okay to have chalk and bumper grease all over the place down there because that’s what the space is for. Introduce other substances and you have a recipe for hybridized stains and ants. And you DON’T want ants.

2. Pets

Notwithstanding the off chance they may decide to mark their territory on your sandbag, the real issue here is hair. Dogs that shed tend to lay down more of it than you realize and before long there’s a few inches collecting in the drainage grooves of your cement floor. Nothing worse than sucking wind during a workout and having a few stray fur feathers waft into your mouth. Cats aren’t much better. Who wants to be concerned with sweeping the place out every single day to avoid this problem?

3. Spectators

Maybe they don’t stain or leave follicle traces of themselves (maybe they do), but these characters can still ruin a perfectly good garage gym. Outside its walls they may be your friends, neighbors, or even your family, but inside they are efficiency sinkholes. Whether it’s asking questions at inopportune times, unconsciously obstructing sightlines, or simply absorbing some minute bit of focus from the task at hand, they are distractions that you don’t need. Make your gym a refuge for those who want to train and coach, period. No innocent bystanders drinking Kool-Aid, no cute little babies in diapers, no armchair quarterbacks.

4. Television

Enough said.

5. Laundry

Clothing is not part of the gym. It’s something you wear in, occasionally discard, but should always take out. I’ve seen a lot of garages littered with stray t-shirts, shoes, even socks, and it’s disgusting. It makes the place smell, attracts flies, and encroaches on priority #1. My protocol is that if it’s left behind, it must be trash. So I put it where it belongs.

To review: Space is king. Stock your garage gym with things that are used frequently and effectively while taking up as little room as possible. Avoid things that tend to clutter or collect dust from infrequent usage. Do not be duped into thinking you will need a bosu ball. You won’t.

Keep your gym free of messy and distracting things, including pets and uninvolved people. They offer nothing and detract much. Keep it stocked with tools intended to measure, increase, and enhance your performance and you will more than likely do all three.


  1. Id love to be able to set my garage up like this but damn my low ceilings and my 6'3" frame. I can install a good chin-up bar but kipping will be hard to pull off. I have told the lady of the house that the garage will no longer hold cars. I keep an eye and when I can I will start to get the gear I need to fill it up. On a side mention of any sort of music. I would say a good CD player of MP3 dock would cover that.

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  3. I´m proud to see that you have a Swedish flag on your platform : )

    Nice garage gym by the way.

  4. Dude, your platform is the balls.

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  10. Great article! thanks for the insight.

    I wanted to get your opinion (or anybodys) on doing the olympic weight lifting moves with sandgags. Granted, there will come a time where the amount of weight wanted wont fit, but, is there any benefit to it for starters.


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  16. This is a well written article. You covered a lot that takes me multiple articles to cover on my blog. I write about nothing but garage gyms. If you need a resource for anything on the subject, swing by.

  17. Hi, great post! Wondering if you could help me? I've just finished building a lifting platform, but I'd like to make it look a little 'prettier'. Where did you purchase your decals from?


  18. I got my decals from a local screen printer in Sacramento. All they needed was a vector file of my images and they cranked it out.

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