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Building a Gym at Home
Start small and work your way up to your own workout center
Maybe the local health club isn't really all that local. Or maybe you're tired of paying dues to stand in line to pump iron. For about the cost of a one-year club membership, you can buy the basic equipment for a good workout in the privacy of your own home. Doug Garfield, who heads Motioneering Inc., a company that develops high-end exercise equipment for professional athletes, says that your best bet is to build gradually so you don't buy unnecessary equipment. Here, Garfield lays out three stages, beginning at $500 for a basic set-up and climbing to $5,000 for a complete circuit. Let budget and space be your guide, but remember: The most expensive equipment in the world won't do you any good unless you use it.
Stage I: $500-$1,000
Requirements for a basic gym:
- Hand weights: Hand weights (dumbbells) are the only weights you will need. They are less dangerous than barbells because there is no bar to slash across your throat or to fall on your back when you're doing squats. They also give your postural muscles more of a workout because you have to balance them. Individually weighted dumbbells are generally better than the adjustable type, and a lot more convenient. $50-$200
- Flat bench: You can't do a bench press without a bench. A combo-bench that can be adjusted to an incline will give you the most flexibility, but if you're on a tight budget, a plain old flat bench is fine. You will be putting a lot of stress on it, though, so make sure it is solidly built. $50-$150
- Exercise mat: Floor exercise can be particularly hard on the hips, so you will want to use some kind of pad. The most useful one will be flexible so that you can scrunch it up to form a pad for your neck or lower back. $20-$50
- Ankle weights: These help strengthen one of the most underdeveloped muscle groups: the abductors, or hip muscles. Working them increases overall leg strength and strengthens the joints at the hips, knees, and ankles. All of this will help to prevent painful injuries. $20-$30
- Mini-trampoline: They're out of fashion today, but mini-trampolines provide a great lower-body workout. They give in all directions, so they're the safest way to exercise the stabilizers in the body to develop good balance. Athletes love them. $40-$60
- Instructional material: Get a book or a video that shows you the basic lifting patterns, the proper safety techniques, and how to develop a workout circuit. Software is also available to track your progress and give you helpful hints along the way. $15-$50
Stage II: $1,000-$5,000
Include all of the above, plus:
- Stationary bike: Good ones will give you an excellent lower body and aerobic workout. Bad ones will give you a sore butt. The key to a smooth ride is the flywheel. If it's heavy enough, it will give you a sense of forward momentum, a smooth ride, and a good sense of balance. To repeat bike drills accurately, you'll also need a good set of gauges, including a workload indicator that measures the watts generated by the workout. Also important are a comfortable and adjustable seat, adjustable handlebars, and secure pedal straps. Computer gadgets are fun but they aren't really necessary. $300-$600
- Cross-country ski simulator: If you're willing to deal with a bit more complexity, these are an even better alternative because they work out the lower and upper body. This lowers the perception of effort by spreading the work between your arms and legs. Watch out for inexpensive systems that use levers for the upper body workout, though. They don't allow your arms to swing through their natural arc, which is both uncomfortable and ineffective. You want a mini-flywheel with good heft that operates smoothly and quietly. You will also want a workload indicator and to be able to select individually adjustable workloads for the upper and lower body. Finally, make sure the hip pad fits comfortably and is adjustable if need be. $300-$600
Stage III: $5,000 and up
Include all of the above, plus:
- Powered TreadMill: This will eat up your budget, but it's worth it because the motion fools your inner ear and other balance sensors into really believing that you're moving forward. The proprioceptors, or balance sensors, in your joints send similar signals to your brain, making the whole workout far more involved. Make sure that the motor is at least 1.5 hp and that the tread mechanism has self-adjusting concave rollers to prevent drifting of the belt. The platform should be wide enough for your body and long enough for your natural stride. Some controls are critical: a "dead switch" key that automatically turns the treadmill off, big switches that you can operate while you are in motion, and wheels on the bottom so you can roll it around (these things weigh a lot). The best machine will go at least 10 miles per hour and will allow you to adjust the grade to at least 10 percent. Make sure that it has enough load-bearing capacity to handle the brunt of your weight easily. Finally, buy a machine that operates quietly and smoothly. On a device this expensive, it doesn't pay to stint on quality. $2,000-$2,500
- Rowing Machine: Like the ski trainers, these work out the whole body, so you get more exercise with less perception of effort. If you don't know how to row properly, though, the workout will be close to useless—watch somebody who knows what they're doing before you buy one. Make sure it has a flywheel system, a full-range sliding seat, adjustable angles, and comfortable foot straps. Also important is an indicator that tells you how hard you are working. $600-$800
- "Total Gym": So far, only one manufacturer offers this, but there will be others on the market soon because it's such a good idea: a multi-station home gym where you yourself are the weight. Basically, it's a sled that slides up and down an adjustable incline. Through a system of pulleys you can pull yourself up and down the incline. The higher the ramp, the more the load. The advantage: You have a tremendous range of motion with no back discomfort. This makes it popular with physical therapists. $800-$1,000
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