The Garage Gym

The Garage Gym

By: Travis Rask

            A good CrossFit/Strength and Conditioning gym is worth its weight in gold.  Well-run gyms provide the right mixture of community, coaching, programming and equipment. 

Unfortunately, many CrossFit gyms are expensive, some charge around two hundred dollars per month for unlimited participation.  While some gyms provide service discounts, the costs are hard to justify when you examine the aggregate amount spent over the course of a few years and are even more maddening when the cost of a good burrito keeps going up simultaneously (priorities, man!).

Furthermore, many gyms don’t provide the flexibility to explore and experiment with different ways of doing things.  If you’re the pig-headed type like me, and you like the freedom of doing your own thing, with your own gear and on your own terms…this is the article for you. 

Today we’re going to cover the basics of assembling a garage gym.  We will split it up into three basic sections of gear: Core, Conditioning, and Ancillary.

Introduction

            When I first started CrossFitting over four years ago, I was fortunate receive guidance and test the patience of some of the O.G. affiliate owners.  While I loved it, I began planning my “exit strategy” into assembling a home gym immediately.  Spending two thousand dollars a year on a gym membership seemed absurd, so I went right to work haggling old ladies and distracted suburban desk jockeys out of their apt-used workout gear.  Today I have a garage gym I can be proud of, and I haven’t paid a dime to prance around in Lulu pants or puke in any other bucket but my own for several years.

Before we start, I have two words for you:  Craigslist.  It is the modern day Bazaar for all things home workout! If you’re willing to withstand some epic flaking and descend into the depths of the craziest cat lady’s basement, there are deals to be had!

Core Gear

Rack/Cage:  A good rack or cage is the foundation of any strength and conditioning program.  It facilitates most of the major lifts, and in many cases provides safety components for folks who like to get swole by their lonesome.  There are essentially two types of setups I would suggest looking into: Full cage or indy/racks. 

A full cage usually has a pull-up bar and adjustable safety spotter bars.  This is what I have, and what I suggest.  It provides a little more flexibility and options in terms of what you can do at home.  The safety bars and more sturdy construction provide a greater “confidence factor” when doing barbell lifts, especially squats.  You can adjust these bars so a failed lift can be dumped safely and individually.  When looking at these, I would pay close attention to the gauge of the steel and the construction relative to foot placement.  The thicker the steel, the more sturdy the rack will be.  This is an important consideration, especially if you plan on using these for pull-ups.  My first rack was flimsy and wobbled badly when I kipped on it.  Buy nice, don’t buy twice! Racks with bottom cross-members that don’t allow you to get underneath the bar for a back squat should be avoided.

Squat racks are often what you see in gyms were Olympic lifts are used.  They usually come in two configurations: independent (free standing on both sides) or linked together.  These are great if you have space or ceiling limitations.

Barbell(s):  You can usually get a barbell for pretty cheap on Craigslist; however, this is one of the few items where I suggest shopping at a reputable vendor such as Rogue, Again Faster, or York.  A well built bar is a worthy investment. 

I have three barbells: One for slow lifts, one for Olympic lifts, and one for fending off Jehovah’s Witnesses.  While I obviously didn’t spend much money on the third one, the first two were fairly expensive. 

When looking at bars, consider your intended uses.  If you do a lot of basic barbell training, I would suggest a bar with a center knurl and powerlifting/Olympic marks.  This will provide good traction points for squats, and allow flexibility for hand placement of Olympic lifts.  Your “junk” bar should be one that you don’t mind giving a beating.  Those can be found on Craigslist fairly cheaply.

Weights:  There are two basic types of plates – steel and bumper.  Your preference is largely a factor of philosophy and programming.  If you’re going to be doing a lot of metabolic conditioning, bumpers are great to have.  There are many varieties.  The set I have were a steal on Craigslist at $1/pound.  There are more and more local vendors getting in on the action, keep your eyes peeled and you will find some deals.  Steel plates are great as well.  I prefer them for the slow lifts.  One advantage of steel is they tend to be more consistent in weight, and less vulnerable to damage and scraping.  Plus when they “clap” on a heavy lift, you feel like Conan the Barbarian.  That should be reason alone to buy some.

Conditioning

            For the sake of today’s discussion, I’m going to review three conditioning tools: Ergometers, kettlebells and a jump rope.

Ergometers measure the amount of work performed, typically in meters, calories, and watts.  The two primary ergs in the CrossFit community are the Concept 2 Rower and the Schwinn Airdyne.

The Concept 2 Rower is an outstanding piece of equipment, with a wide variety of uses for programming.  They come in five basic models: A thru E.  Anything after B has relatively modern display and measurement functions. When shopping for one of these, be sure all the measurement components, and the fan are in good working order.  If you hawk the sporting goods section on Craigslist, you should be able to find one for anywhere from $250 to $750.  They are expensive, but are extremely durable, and tend to hold their value. 

The Schwinn Airdyne is the dark horse of the conditioning community.  It is an absolutely BRUTAL piece of conditioning equipment.  The original “300” workout (look up “300 FY” on YouTube) was created using the Airdyne.  Like the C2, they can be expensive, but are durable and tend to hold their value.  You can find MUCH better deals on Airdynes on Craigslist; I bought mine for $150.  A cautionary note on the Airdyne:  Don’t buy cheap imitations, and when you’re buying an older model (typically the gold ones), be aware they don’t have capability to measure watts and calories.

Kettlebells are extremely versatile; they have a wide variety of weights and functions.  Furthermore, they are extremely portable.  You can do a lot with a pair of 35’s and a 53lb bell. 

Finally, a good jump rope is a great option for those who are really on the go; you can literally bring it with you just about anywhere, and throw together a great bodyweight workout.

Ancillary Gear

You could spend a lot of time and blow a lot of cash on various, below are a few options to consider.

A good weightlifting belt will last you your entire career.  I prefer a 4” belt with a single prong.  It makes a difference on my heavy lifts. Inzer, Rogue, and Elite FTS make some great leather belts.  A 4” nylon belt from your local sporting goods store would be a great start for those on more limited budgets.

Weightlifting shoes are another great buy, and will go a long way to help your lifts progress.  I develop a strong urge to break things when I see people doing squats in running shoes.  I liken it to raising an aerial without the outriggers.   There are a variety of options out there, from specific weightlifting shoes to Converse Chuck Taylors.  Anything with a flat/hard sole works well, but if you have the scrilla…fork it out and get some weightlifting shoes.  They’re worth it. Trust me.

Core stability equipment is another thing to consider.  For starters, an abmat is a cheap piece of equipment, and will provide you with the appropriate lumbar arch when you’re doing sit ups on the ground.  If you’re looking for something more advanced with a little more posterior chain and core capability, then a Glute Ham Developer (GHD) is well worth the investment.

  Mobility/rehab equipment is a must, and will become a godsend once you start utilizing it on a regular basis.  A good 4” foam roller and a lacrosse ball can be snatched up for $25.  Buy them and use them.  They will make a world of difference in your recovery, mobility, and strength.

Summary

I hope this article provided a good overview and some helpful suggestions for procuring your own garage gym.  If you’ve got an eye for good deals and a knack for dickering, you should be able to find all of these items for $1500, maybe less. 

If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments section and I will help however I can.

BIO:    Travis Rask works for Snohomish County Fire District 7 in Clearview, WA.  He is a fourth generation firefighter and a member of the Puget Sound FOOLS.

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