Garage Gym: Training at Home

Introduction: Why I Left Commercial Gyms (For Now)

My wife and I moved to a new city about three months ago. We had spent the previous three years training at a nearby commercial gym that we really loved. We anticipated finding a similar gym near our new home and started looking not long after the move.

Unfortunately our search for a new gym was not altogether successful. We did find a really good one that was just a few minutes from the house we rent. The facilities looked great and it seemed like a place were we’d really enjoy working out. But there was a problem: the price. It was a lot more expensive than our former gym. To make matters worse, the manager would not negotiate with me at all. I offered to pay him several months in advance in cash if he would offer me a discount (and waive some of the ridiculous sign-up fees). It seemed like a no-brainer to me: he would make money even if we never set foot in the place again. But he wouldn’t budge.

I did a little more research and it looked like I’d run into similar issues at other local gyms.

Garage/Home Gym: Advantages

That’s when I decided to do something I’ve thought about for years: build a garage gym. I’ll explain how I’m going about it, but first let me share the advantages of training at home.

Money: Needless to say, there are start-up costs involved with having a gym in your home or garage. But basic equipment isn’t terribly expensive, and it shouldn’t take long for it to pay for itself. Once you have your weights/equipment set up you never have to pay any kind of gym fee again if you don’t want to. As I mentioned before, this was my main motivation for setting up a garage gym: money is tight right now and I just couldn’t see paying over a thousand dollars a year (plus registration fees) just so my wife and I could have a decent place to train.

Maximize Your Rent/Mortgage: This is another aspect of the money issue, but it’s kind of a category to itself. Here’s what I mean when I talk about making the most of your rental/mortgage: our house has a small garage, and I have a big car. My vehicle would probably fit, but just barely. I just park it in the driveway (which is covered by a shelter). I might as well put a gym in there and make use of the space I’m already paying for. It’s something to consider, especially if you have a garage, basement, or other space that isn’t being used for anything.

No Line, No Waiting: One of the biggest disadvantages of a commercial gym is sharing equipment with other people. This can be especially annoying if you end up working out during “peak” hours (like 5-7 p.m.). I’ve found that other gym patrons are usually considerate and try not to monopolize a piece of equipment for too long (usually, but not always). That still doesn’t change the fact that you inevitably end up waiting for someone else to finish training if you use a commercial gym.

Your Gym, Your Equipment: Another issue I’ve had with some commercial gyms is the equipment. Barbells that have been used hundreds of times start to get warped and beat up. They aren’t cheap, so gym owners don’t always replace them quickly enough for my taste.   You may end up with only one or two good barbells in your gym (and as mentioned before, they may be in use when you come in to train). Obviously you don’t have this problem with your own garage gym–your barbell should last a lot longer and you can replace it whenever you decide it has seen better days.

Here’s something else to consider: you can buy/use equipment that you may not find in a typical commercial gym. I plan, for example, to buy a trap bar eventually. I don’t think any gym I’ve ever been a member of a gym that had one. I’m looking forward to training with it and even teaching my wife how to use it.

Privacy: Sometimes my wife would feel self-conscious about working out with men around.   My training has been delayed or slowed more than once because someone wanted to talk to me. I actually enjoy talking to people in the gym, but some people have a way of completely monopolizing your time to the point of interfering with your next set. Neither of these issues are a problem now that we train at home.

Convenience: Last but not least is the convenience issue. We’ve both enjoyed just walking into the garage when we want to work out.

Building Your Garage Gym: Recommendations

Craigslist is Your Friend: Get on Craiglist and search for terms like “weight set,” “Olympic weights,” etc. You may be surprised at what you find: people are always selling exercise equipment and you can save a lot of money if you’re patient.   I bought a power rack, bench, Olympic barbell, and 160 lb. of weights for around 400 bucks (pictured below–with some extra plates I picked up at Walmart). Is this a top-of-the-line squat rack? Nope. But it is more than adequate for us.

Stick with the Basics: I’d recommend starting with a power rack. I would have considered buying something like this Body-Solid Pro Power Rack if I hadn’t found such a good deal on Craigslist. The nice thing about a rack is the versatility: you can use it for squats, bench press, rack pulls, pull-ups, and the list goes on. Add an Olympic barbell, a good bench, and some weights and you’re good to go. You could buy this whole set (rack, bench and weights) for the sake of convenience if you have the money.

If your budget is really tight you may want to start with a “half rack” or even some adjustable squat stands instead of a full power rack.

Think of Inexpensive Additions: Trying to duplicate what you’d find in a commercial gym will get costly. But there are a lot of things you can buy that don’t really cost much. As I mentioned earlier, I plan to buy this trap bar. I also plan to buy more plates and maybe even some heavier kettlebells. But some things are even less expensive: an ab wheel and an exercise ball are both extremely effective ways to train your “core” (abdominal and oblique muscles) that hardly cost anything.

Keep Adding Over Time: We’ll keep building our gym according to our budget. The simple things we have go a long way, so there’s really no rush.

Closing Thoughts

Just so you know, I have nothing against commercial gyms: they’ve been responsible for the muscle and strength I have today. But I’ve decided to go a different direction and I thought I’d share some advice and observations for those who are considering doing the same.

Weightlifting Belts: A Guide to Choosing and Using

Introduction

One of the first pieces of equipment a trainee will want to consider is a weightlifting belt.  I recently bought a new one (more on that later), so I thought this would be a good time to write about this topic.

The “Weaken Your Abs” Myth:

Some believe wearing a belt weakens your abdominal muscles.  This is not true–a belt gives your abs something to push against, so they are very much involved in a belted lift.  I would, however, advise you to only wear a belt during: squats, deadlifts, and military/overhead press.  Putting one on as soon as you walk in the gym is counterproductive.

Let me add something else here: I would also advise you to train “beltless” for your first few months.  Just work on your form and start building your foundation before using any equipment.  After that you may want to consider using one (more on how to use it later).

Why Use a Belt?

As I’ve mentioned, wearing a weightlifting belt while training gives your abs something to push against, which raises your intra-abdominal pressure during the lift.  This increased pressure adds stiffness to your trunk and gives you more stability.1 There’s also some evidence to suggest a belt can reduce compression on your spine when used properly (when you inhale in order to push your abs against it).2

Here’s the bottom line: most people find they can lift more with a belt than without.  All things being equal, pushing or pulling more weight will accelerate your gains in size and strength.

There are two more benefits I’ll mention before moving on:

Awareness:  having a belt on may help you be more aware of your posture and body positioning while training.  This is kind of hard to explain, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you experience it–you simply have a better “feel” for your stance, position, etc.

Back Warmth: I like to wear a lose belt even during my warm-up sets for the squat and deadlift.  It helps get my back warmed up (and keeps it that way).

Types of Belts and Buckles

Width

Weightlifting-Belt1
Not the style I recommend.

Start training in a typical gym and chances are you’ll see a belt that looks something like this: wide in the back and narrow in the front.  This is a very common style, but it’s not what I would recommend if you are wanting to get the maximum benefit.  I would encourage you to invest your money in a powerlifting style belt–one that is a uniform 4-inch width all the way around (you’ll see pictures of this style below).  Remember something I said earlier: a belt gives your abs something to push against.  A powerlifting belt is perfect for this purpose.

Thickness

You’ll see two thicknesses available if you start shopping around: 13 mm and 10 mm.  The thicker (13 mm) belts are going to be stiffer and take longer to break in.  Most lifters (including yours truly) go with the thinner 10 mm belts–13 mm is overkill for the needs of most trainees.

Buckles

Now let’s talk about the most commonly available types of buckles: lever, single prong, and double prong.

Lever Belts

Lever Belt
Lever Belt

Pictured here is the first powerlifting belt I ever owned, and as you can see, it a lever belt. I bought this one almost twenty years ago and it’s still holding up nicely (the site I bought it from no longer exists).

The biggest advantage of a lever belt is the quickness with which you can tighten and loosen it.  One quick motion and you’re either ready to lift or ready to rest after your set.

The biggest disadvantage of a lever belt is the fact that you need a screwdriver to adjust it.  This may not be a big deal, but it’s something to consider.

One more thing: I’ve heard people expressing concern over the lever breaking (due to metal fatigue, etc.), but I’ve never had this problem. You could always buy a replacement if this happened.

Single-Prong Belts

Single Prong Belt
Single Prong Belt

I recently ordered this single prong belt from bestbelts.net, and so far I’m really happy with it.

The advantage of a single-prong buckle is the relative ease with which you can adjust the waist size.  Right now, for example, I’m at my “winter weight”–about ten pounds heavier than I usually am during warmer months.  I can just pull the belt a little tighter as I get leaner.

There may be times that you need to adjust the belt tightness more frequently than seasonal weight differences.  You may, for example, want to experiment with what feels right for a particular lift or even a particular day.  This is what I’m enjoying about a single prong belt.

Needless to say, the disadvantage of a prong belt is that it’s a little more difficult to tighten or loosen it (compared to a lever belt).  But so far this hasn’t been a big deal at all for me.

Double-Prong Belts

Two prongs theoretically increase stability and add to the life of the belt (since the stress is distributed over two holes).  But the extra prong makes these belts more difficult to use/adjust, and I doubt it it is worth the extra hassle for most trainees.  But if you if you just have to look like “the Wolverine” when you train . . .

HT_hugh_jackman_working_out_weight_lifting_thg_130802_16x9_992

Using a Belt

As I mentioned earlier, I would recommend you only use a belt for lifts that put compression of the spine: squats (including front squats), deadlifts, and overhead/military press.

How heavy should you go before putting it on?  There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this, and you can experiment and see what works for you.  I usually put mine on loosely even for warm-up and lighter sets on the before-mentioned exercises.  This doesn’t give any real support, but it does help get my back warmed up.  I wait and tighten it up for heavier sets.  As a general rule, for example, I tighten up my belt when squatting over 300 lb (maybe a little heavier for deadlift).

The tightness and positioning of your belt is something you’ll also need to experiment with.  I’d recommend you tighten your belt snugly, but not so much that you can’t inhale and brace hard against it with your abs.   I tend to wear mine a little lower on my waist for squats and a little higher for deadlifts (a subtle difference, but one I can feel when training).

Final Thoughts:

A solid powerlifting belt is a great investment.  It will help you lift heavier weights and should last for years (if not decades).  Hopeful this article has helped those who are thinking about buying and using one.

References:

1. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1999 Feb;14(2):79-87. Effects of abdominal belts on intraabdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles.

2. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2006 Oct 15;31(22):E833-9. Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting.

Riviera Fitness Center (RivFit) Center Point, AL

RivFitCenterpointFront

It’s time for me to give another shout-out to a great gym: Riviera Fitness (RivFit) of Center Point, AL.KevinShannon

I learned about this gym a few years ago when I was still living overseas.  A pastor friend recommended I check it out because I was looking for a place to train while visiting here in the States.  He told me to talk to Shannon (one of the staff/trainers–pictured here with the blue sweatshirt).

I was really impressed with everything: the trainers, the equipment, the atmosphere, etc.  I’ve worked out in quite a few gyms around here and this place has been one of my favorites.

Here are a few pictures of the current facilities and equipment (with my description underneath):

Free weights: squat rack, bench press, dumbbells, etc.
Free Weights: squat rack, bench press, dumbbells, etc.
RivFitCenterPointWeightMachines
Resistance Machines: leg press, hack squat, cable machines, etc.
RivFitCenterpointCardio
Cardio Training Equipment.
Torque Training Station
Torque Training Station
Fitness on Demand Room
Fitness on Demand Room

I haven’t taken a picture of everything, but this should give you a pretty good idea of what’s there.  Check it out if you live near the northeastern section of Birmingham (Centerpoint, Pinson, etc.) and are looking for a great gym.