About a year ago I decided to switch from using commercial gyms to my own garage gym. As I mentioned in that original post, the unreasonably high cost of the local gym membership is what made me switch. But I had always kind of dreamed of building my own gym, so the economic issue was more of a catalyst than anything else.
I decided to write this follow-up post because . . . well, because the mood has hit me. Maybe it’s because I recently found a sweet deal on a really nice elliptical machine. Or maybe it’s the used weights I bought for about half price and restored a couple of weeks ago.
Whatever the reason, now is as good a time as any to make an assessment.
A a couple of things that I miss about commercial gyms:
Comradery: I’ve always gone to the gym to train, not to socialize. But I must say I’ve met some really cool people and made good friends at places I’ve trained. I even landed a good job (back in the 90’s) through a direct result of networking at a gym.
Having said that, things have changed significantly over the years. It’s very common for trainees to put their earphones in and tune everyone out, making even short conversations much less common. I’m not sure how many new friends I would really make if I was still training at a commercial gym. But I still miss that aspect of commercial gyms.
Equipment: I’m pretty happy with what I’ve put together in my garage gym so far. But it was nice to have access to pieces of equipment like a high-end leg press, seated calf machine, etc. I may add some of these to my garage gym in time, but it just isn’t very practical for now. I’ve spent as much as I’m comfortable with for the time being.
These are the only two things I really miss. I’ve heard more than one person say he just doesn’t feel the energy or motivation when training at home. This was an adjustment for me as well, but I’ve never really had much trouble getting motivated to work out.
One Year of Garage Gym Training
Here’s my assessment after about a year of training at home: it’s pretty awesome! Every advantage I shared in the original post has been a big plus for me. And I think I’ll be more consistent with cardio training now that I have an elliptical machine in my garage (I used to have a really hard time getting motivated to go to the gym just for cardio). Getting my cardio in has become more important to me as I get older.
Below is a video I shot a few days ago. But before that, let me share some of the things I’ve added to the gym since I started:
Inexpensive Garage Gym Upgrades/Additions:
Trap Bar: This has been a great investment. I’ve always wanted to train with one of these–great for some variation in deadlifting and for farmer’s walks.
Kettlebell: It’s not always easy to find these used. But a 40-pounder is a pretty good deal on Amazon, especially if you are a prime member (free shipping).
EZ Curl Bar: I prefer this to a straight bar for curls and “skull crushers.”
Clamp Collars: These are much easier to use than the old wire versions.
Weight Rack: I spent a few bucks to get some of the weights off the floor.
Used Plates: I bought (and restored) 300 lb. of used plates for about half of what they would cost new.
Elliptical Machine: I found a really nice, fully functional Precor machine (on Craigslist) for a fraction of what it would cost new (or even refurbished).
I wrote about making the switch to a garage gym in a previous post–a move which has been great for both my physique and my wallet.
I mentioned the importance of looking for good deals on Craigslist if you are on a budget (which most of us are). Another place to find good deals is on Facebook “buy and sell” type groups. That’s where I found my latest prize: 300 lb. of plates. These were just sitting around in some guy’s back yard and he decided to clean things up and get rid of them.
You’ll find that you can buy used plates like this for about half of what they would cost new. New plates usually cost around a dollar a pound. I bought mine for 55 cents a pound. You may get lucky and find weights for much less than that–there are people out there who just want to get rid of them and will sell them for pennies per lb. (or even give them away). But I was pleased with the price, especially since the guy selling them lives just minutes away from me. I was also really looking forward to having a set of 35 lb. plates.
The new additions to my gym needed a little TLC, so I began researching how to restore/refinish them. I discovered there’s more than one way to do it, so I’ll share both what I learned and what I did.
Restoring weight plates is a pretty simple process:
Clean them and remove the rust
Getting rid of the dirt and/or rust
The way you choose do step 1 (removing the rust) will depend on the condition of the plates. My plates were in pretty decent shape once I rinsed them off, so I chose to physically remove the rust spots. You can use a hand-held wire brush for this, but I decided to buy a couple of wire wheels for my drill. I’d highly recommend this if you have a drill (or can borrow one). A 2-inch wire disk attachment will work really well on the hole in the center of the weight. A drill with the wire brush attachment will make quick work of rust spots. I’d advise you to wear safety glasses and a construction mask while doing this (better safe than sorry).
I just took a rag and wiped the plates off after hitting them with the wire wheel. I’ve seen some mention using mineral spirits to clean, but I was a little concerned about damaging the existing paint surface (which wasn’t all that bad). I’m not sure it matters that much either way.
Let’s say your plates are covered in rust and you need to start over with bare metal (or as close to it as you can get). It seems a lot of guys have success with soaking the plates in vinegar overnight. That seems to eat away the rust–anything that doesn’t dissolve can be cleaned off the plate pretty easily (based on the YouTube videos I’ve watched).
The first thing you’ll need to do is put the weights on some old cardboard (either outside or in a well-ventilated garage).
I used spray paint: Rust-Oleum Universal All Surface Paint and Primer. I used the black satin for the 35’s and the hammered black for the others. The hammered color has a really nice texture to it, and I wanted to make the 35’s a slightly different color (so I won’t accidentally pick up the wrong plate). There are other paint brands that may be just as good or better.
Coat one side, let it dry for a while, then put on a second coat if you want. Check and see if you missed any spots, and don’t forget to get the hole in the center of the plate.
Make sure the one side is 100% dry before you flip it and paint the other side–otherwise you’ll end up with cardboard stuck to the plate and you’ll have to brush and paint again. I made this mistake, and I would have let one side dry for a day (or at least overnight) if I had it to do over.
A couple of coats of paint and your plates will look good as new–or at least very functional. There may be a few tiny rust spots that I missed on these plates, but I’m not too worried about that. I just want to train without getting rust all over everything.
Here’s a before/after picture.
You can buy a Sharpie paint pen and paint the logo/numbers if you want. I painted the numbers just for the heck of it (put I didn’t bother with the brand/logo).
Now it’s time to put these treasures to good use . . .
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. I’d also advise you to see if there are any buy/sale (or yard sale) Facebook groups for your city. 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.
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 buythis trap bar. (update–I bought it and love it). 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.
Here’s a quick video tour I made with my iPhone.
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.