Home gym on a shoestring

You can set up an effective home gym for under $100.

Keeping fit on a budget

Strength training is vital for physical health. The government Physical Activity Guidelines specifically recommend at least two sessions of strength training per week, with a session that works all major muscle groups typically taking between 20 and 30 minutes. But that doesn't necessarily mean you need to join a gym. With a little shopping around, some creativity and just $100, you can establish your own home gym based on resistance bands and/or free weights for your basic workout, and some optional extras for added benefit.

Resistance bands and tubes

Resistance tubes are heavy-duty elastic cords designed for strengthening muscles. They often come with padded handles and in a variety of forms, such as single strands, multiple strands, figure-8s and loops. Resistance bands are a similar concept, but are flat, wide sheets of latex, often used for physiotherapy, yoga and Pilates.

Tubes can cost as little as a few dollars, while a kit with several tubes in a range of resistance levels, a door attachment and ankle cuff can be found for around $30. Another kind of kit has several tubes and detachable handles – use one or more tubes at a time to alter resistance. Or, get a couple of tubes with different levels of resistance.

Fit balls with attached resistance bands are also available – just make sure you can replace the bands when the original bands get too easy.

Free weights: barbell or dumbbells

A barbell is a long, weighted bar with 'plates' attached, which is held with two hands; dumbbells are for one hand. Dumbbells are often recommended for beginners because they allow you to focus on particular muscles, one side at a time, to develop good technique. They offer a greater range of motion and require greater use of stabiliser muscles to keep balanced. They're extremely versatile and can exercise just about every muscle group. However, barbells are much more convenient when you want to work with heavy weights, such as when you do squats and deadlifts.

If you're just beginning strength training, you could start with dumbbells (from $30 for a 20kg set) and buy a barbell later. You need different weights for different exercises, so it's worth looking for collars that allow an easy change of plates: lever locks and spin-lock collars (where the collar screws on from the end of the bar) are recommended.

Are free weights for you?

  • You can add plates to your set as you progress.
  • Can be used for exercising all muscles.
  • Relatively easy to store.
  • Plates can be used on their own to increase difficulty of squats, sit-ups, etc.
  • Dangerous – you'll need to keep them out of reach of children.
  • Easy to injure yourself with poor technique and heavy weights.

Functional resistance training

The latest trend in strength training is a move away from exercising muscles in isolation to exercising lots of muscles simultaneously with practical actions and natural movements – so-called functional training. Movements take place in three planes: front-to-back, side-to-side and rotational. Such exercises develop strength, balance, flexibility and coordination, training not only the muscles but the brain as well.As an example, instead of building leg strength by lying down on a gym machine and pushing up weights with your feet, you do squats – as if you were sitting on and rising up from a chair. As you get better, you can increase the challenge by holding weights. This not only builds strength but helps develop balance and coordination – and it's important as we get older, and find sitting and rising more challenging.
  • Value for money.
  • If done properly, you will give yourself an excellent full-body workout that's novel and fun.
  • Provides practical skills and strength that are useful for everyday activities.
  • Can be done solo or with other people.
  • Technique is everything – if you don't get it right it could be useless or harmful. Seek advice from a qualified personal trainer before you start.
  • Some of the homemade equipment is pretty bulky, making storage and workout space an issue.
Although you can do functional training with conventional equipment at a gym, many people use items lying around the house.

Make a home gym from your odds and ends

A sledgehammer, old truck tyre, bricks, sand, sacks and duffle bags, shovel and rope are some of the many everyday objects that can be used for a functional workout.
  • Whacking a truck tyre with a sledgehammer involves full-body movement, exercises just about every muscle and can be a great stress-buster! Shovelling dirt or gravel is another full-body rotational exercise.
  • Home-made sandbags can be used for lifting and carrying.
  • Shopping bags filled with large bottles of water, sandbags or bricks are used for the farmer's carry, a traditional strongman event.
  • Sled dragging is popular, where a smooth sled (or similar) is filled with something heavy and pulled along grass.
  • An old basketball or soccer ball filled with sand and sealed up becomes a medicine ball for throwing and catching - or simply held to create extra weight when doing crunches, squats and lunges.
  • You could get a few friends together for tug-of-war and "wheelbarrow" races (the "wheelbarrow" walks on their hands while the operator holds their feet).
Although this equipment lacks the glamour of a shiny, expensive set of chrome and steel, it's cheap, effective, novel and fun! If you're interested in this type of workout, your best bet is to find information on the internet and use care and common sense, or find a personal trainer who can guide you.

What not to buy

You might be tempted to buy a set of attractively packaged, reasonably priced non-adjustable dumbbells with varying weights up to one or two kilos. However, you'll outgrow lighter weights very quickly and will inevitably need to buy (more expensive) heavier ones. Set-weight dumbbells have their place, particularly among serious weightlifters who like being able to change weights quickly. For most people though, a set of adjustable dumbbells, to which you can add more weights if necessary, is a better long-term investment.

Abdominal exercise devices can make doing sit-ups and crunches easier – and perhaps too easy. They're bulky, useful only for one type of exercise and you'll probably outgrow them quickly. And don't even bother with the electronic ab-toning belts!

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