The home gym : essentials.

The essential gym.

In this post i’m going to carry on talking about training during a time of pandemic , when commercial gyms are closed and why it might be better just to train at home anyway : in this segment i’m taking a look at home equipment essentials for resistance and body weight training.

Lets assume then that we are in a position of having to train at home or that we are choosing to do just that , maybe a commercial gym just isn’t an option or is too far away, or like me, that i don’t like the noise and atmosphere of most modern gyms. I want to break this piece down into 2 sections : what we can do with mainly our own body-weight and very simple , improvised equipment and then what we can do if we have a small amount of space and budget for equipment.

1.Bodyweight exercises (calisthenics). I base about half of my home exercise regime on bodyweight (calisthenics exercise) and usually during a home training session i tend to do a 5 or 6 exercise ’round’ in which just one exercise is based around free weights and the rest are based on my own bodyweight using just 3 pieces of equipment. Before talking about the equipment though i’ll just quickly detail a standard home workout and what each one needs. I tend to do this as i mentioned earlier, as a ’round’, thus one set of each exercise and then repeat for 5 or 6 rounds….sometimes i break the routine at halfway through and jog over to the football pitch and do some sprints down the long sides or similarly some hill sprints so …

1. Pull-up or chin -up to bar.
2.Barbell back squat or deadlift (depends on which day and exercise routine i am doing)
3.Decline press ups.
4.Pistol squats or lunges
5.Sitting dips.
6.Barbell overhead press.

Lets take a look at each of these and see what equipment or working space the exercise needs at minimum : the principles here being that all of the exercises are compound exercises ie involving multiple muscle groups (no isolation) and that i train in as many planes of movement as possible and involve as many muscle groups as possible in each workout. Most of these exercises , strangely enough, are the kind of thing you would find being done in the training of any military personnel where physical fitness is taken very seriously and i think where many gym-goers would be surprised at how little equipment the average military gym uses and how effective the exercise. As an example here nearly every branch of the armed forces will use press-ups as an essential exercise, no equipment required, and the same will rely heavily on the pull-up or chin-up for upper body strength using only the simplest of overhead bar to pull up to……no complex and isolating lat decks here !

1. So , lets start right there with the pull-up or chin-up ; what i’m referring to is essentially the same exercise where the whole body weight is pulled up vertically to an overhead bar, the difference between the 2 exercises is which muscle groups become more dominant…iv’e always been relatively poor at pull-ups but ok with the more bicep dominant chin-up in which the standard grip is reversed….it then looks a bit like a bicep curl except that it’s the whole body weight being lifted and far more muscle groups come into play.

Probably the single most useful and hard upper body exercises that there is, it can be a very difficult exercise to go from zero to being able to do just one because there are few intermediate exercises that help get you there (there are some !) and it’s a bit ‘all or nothing’ but totally worth the work of achieving a set of chins or pull-ups.
This is the first exercise that i have set up a permanent equipment set-up for in the form of a dedicated pull up bar strongly bolted to the front (high) roof beam of my outside utility area/deck which i use as my home gym….the same thing can be bolted or screwed to an outside wall as i did in the past. Sometimes i make it a kind of personal game that every time i pass under the bar i have to do a pull-up or a couple of chin’s. Right now i am building a new improvised squat rack/multi-use rack and that’s going to be made high enough to accommodate a high bar as a pull-up bar as well.

2.That brings me onto the first essential exercise that i think does need some free weight to work with, my option being a traditional olympic type barbell and weight plates although this is an exercise where other types of weight can be used….having said that though it can be difficult to mimic even the small amount of weight (50-60 Kg) that i routinely do my back squats with.

I can’t prove that this is the case but my experience so far suggests that barbell squats are one of the key exercises for stimulating global muscle growth and in my case for ‘hard’ training of the muscles i use when carrying a big load on a steep ascent/descent. As an exercise the squat really isn’t ‘just’ a leg exercise as yes, it does use all of the big muscle groups in the legs and hips but crucially involves the core, in stabilising that weight, and the upper body in supporting that weight.

My choice with this exercise has always been the back squat with a barbell , weight plates and a simple home made squat cage : i’m working on a new version at the moment. There are other squat variants of course and several that use a barbell and some that don’t…it is feasible here to improvise some amount of weight/resistance here with for example both a loaded backpack and/or a weight of some kind held at chest level….i have used anything from a kettlebell to a block of granite in the past .

So, my choice here is a standard 7ft and 20 Kg olympic barbell and a set of weights…i have a variety of plates from 20’s down to 5’s and that whole set-up represents my single largest investment in training equipment but the same gives me a whole load of options for the best of the major compound free weights exercise from squats, through deadlifts, overhead press, lunges with weight and so on. With my new multi-use squat rack design all i would need in addition is a bench of some kind and i could add bench press as well…although not as essential an exercise as i will describe below.

3.Press-up variants. I’m going to rate this as the best compound exercise without exception, that can be made easier or a lot harder, that needs none or minimal equipment and only as much space as you need to lie down in. Once again this exercise seems to form part of the core ‘menu’ of any military PTI and once again is surprisingly under utilised by us civiians…and i don’t know why that is the case except that paradoxically it’s a hard one to master at first and then very people ever try to make it a ‘progressive’ ie progressively harder exercise.

When i started my own exercise regime back in January i determined that i was going to get back up to being able to do 100 standard press-ups a day and in good form. I think on the first day i struggled through a set of 10, the next day i got 20 (in 2 sets) the nest day 40, and so on all the way up to 100 by the end of that week. My advantage if at all is that iv’e done them before and have a good idea what they feel like….in the past i think iv’e done a single set of 35 and done more than 200 in a single day. Press-ups are a great one to set targets for : maybe 100 a day is a good start or as i did for a couple of weeks, a thousand a week. Unlike pull-ups the press-up is a much easier exercise to make both much harder once the basic exercise is mastered but also easier to get to from zero….the press-up from knees rather than toes for example hugely reduces the lever length.

Right now i tend to do decline press-ups, that’s with my feet raised on a block by a few inches and rather than standard sets of 10 i tend to do 12 or 15 and then often i will do a failure set…keep going until i can’t get any more out ! . With press-ups also there are lots of variants that change the exercise and therefore the dominance of muscle groups used…a different stance for example from narrow to wide. A key effect of the press-up is that the exercise hugely stimulates the core….back and abdominal muscles…in fact it’s also just about the only specific core exercise that i do.

Equipment….essentially none, just enough space to lie down in is all you need and secondly that they can be done anywhere and any time. All i use now to achieve my decline sets is a convenient step in the garden and as i progress i intend to make a variable ‘step’ out of scrap material.

4.Pistol squats and lunges. Iv’e included these 2 exercises together because they are essentially both a single leg , lower body dominant exercise and useful for rebuilding single leg strength and stability : essential in my example as i lost muscle mass from my operative leg. More people seem to know and use lunges, whether weighted or not, than know the simpler and static pistol squat ; in my own practice i find that i need to do lunges with a small amount of weight added (the oly barbell is about right) and the pistol squat just at body weight.

I suspect that my difficulty with pistol squats is specifically that i did lose a lot of mass and strengh from my operative leg and that when i first started them that i was also a lot heavier so i was pressing that entire mass through one (weak) leg at a time. My technique/method is a bit unusual in that i start by standing on my step-up workbench with that set next to my squat rack (used for balance) and i do the exercise by standing on a single leg and doing the ‘drop’ from one side of the bench….if it all went wrong at that point all i would have to do is straighten out the non exercising leg. Pistol squats can be done perfectly well without any equipment at all as the exercise is basically a single leg squat although i have seen it done on the edge of a swimming pool….the non exercise leg being ‘dunked’ to one side.

This is the one exercise that is ‘isolated’ rather than ‘whole body’ but is still a compound exercise ; it mainly just focuses on one leg of course which is why i use it but it does seem to need good core stability and balance too.

5. Dips/sitting dips. Forming the last exercise in my usual round and almost a break from the harder stuff i’m very conscious that my current version, done sitting, isn’t the best or ‘proper’ way to to this exercise and that it should really be done between bars or rings. At the moment it’s the best i can do in this plane so….

My technique/method is to use my step-bench and start from a seated position but with my feet raised on a convenient crate. To perform the exercise i grip the ends of the bench (crucial for proper shoulder positon apparently) and do the lower off the edge of the bench and back up. In the past, when using a gym, i used to set a weight plate in my lap for more resistance although to be honest i really need to find some way of doing the exercise in it’s harder form.

Equipment round-up.

So, here’s a quick look and list of the equipment i actually use on a daily basis, not including clothes and footwear of which the only unique thing i wear is a pair of long socks to protect my shins when i do deadlifts.
Pull-up bar. My version is a bolt to wall version, cost about £30 via Ebay. Cost of setting up….a few pounds extra for some bolts and heavy duty screws
Step-up workbench. I think mine was made by tool manufacturer ‘Stanley’ and is i think a painting and decorators tool. Cost on the internet about £35 but is something i already had for general work around the house.
Squat rack….home made, and i’m building a new one this week : the new one hasn’t cost me anything so far because i had the lengths of 2 x 4 CLS timber left over from my workshop storage project. The extra cost here will be some sand and cement…maybe less than one of cement, 2 of sand and a bucket of small rocks as ballast. Compare that to around £500 for a standard metal squat rack !.
Olympic barbell and plates….the expensive stuff. Iv’e had my barbell for about 10 years now and only slowly added the plates as i need them : a new oly bar will be expensive at around £120-£150 and a beginners set of plates will add another £100…for sure you could have several monhs membership of a ‘posh’ gym but the better types of equipment does tend to hold it’s value and lasts a lifetime of training. Given that when i did have a ‘posh’ gym membership i was paying £60 a month it would only take me 6 months or so to match that with my own essential equipment ; ok so i don’t have access to all of the other equipment that i might use once in a while , equally though i don’t use valuable time just getting to and from the gym and i never have to wait for the pretty boy to stop doing his bicep curls in the squat cage !.

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