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Build A Budget Gym: How You Can Workout At Home For Under $150

By Russ Klettke

Whether you do it for reasons of convenience or economics, establishing a home gym can also mean adding new dimensions to your fitness routine. A serious bodybuilder might only be able to do it with an extensive amount of equipment, but for most of us there can actually be an improvement to one's fitness levels with a small number of inexpensive items.

"You can get a great workout with no equipment at all," says Harris Sophocleous, MS, CSCS, a fitness trainer who works exclusively with home- and office-based clients in Chicago. Like many other trainers, he notes that home exercise beats gym workouts on both the time factor and for privacy. "Some people find the health club intimidating." As an example, the culture of a traditional weightlifting club might discourage more functional exercises using balls, elastic bands and bodyweight floor exercises.

Sophocleous warns that only a motivated minority maintains an at-home fitness regimen without the support of a trainer. His advice is to purchase equipment conservatively, one small piece at a time. That avoids the common problem of the treadmill-dry rack, where a 500 dollar exercise apparatus sits unused or draped with towels and socks, at best.

But can a home workout be as good as at a commercial gym? To be sure, devising ways of exercising at home will not be the same experience. With a plan, a few smart, modest equipment purchases, and the right attitude, an at-home workout setup can be versatile, productive, and possibly recharge your exercise routine in ways you never thought possible.

Home Exercise on Four Budgets
Did you ever hear the advice to "dance like nobody is watching?" The home workout allows as much. For example, your warm-up might be an interpretive dance, an unrestrained physical expression that stretches muscles and opens up joints and increases your heart rate. Summon your inner Baryshnikov and waltz with a chair if you wish. You might not have a treadmill or elliptical machine, but there's nothing to stop you from skipping around the house, chasing up and down staircases or doing military calisthenics you learned in grade school. All raise the heart rate and put you in a workout frame of mind.

Below are approaches for four budget levels: zero dollars, 25 dollars, 75 dollars, and 150 dollars. Recommendations are based on the following criteria: workout quality, versatility and ease of placement (i.e., won't take up space like a baby grand piano). None of the familiar infomercial products are included because all exceed this price point, and most wouldn't meet the other criteria as well.

With each program, you are fighting several barriers: lack of knowledge, lack of versatility (i.e., a rut), lack of motivation and lack of intensity. This is why becoming educated through books, DVDs, online resources and occasionally hiring a personal trainer can go a long way toward making this equipment work for you.

Zero Dollars
There are many online resources requiring no fees. You already own the most important equipment: your body. Push-ups, lunges, squats—all of these exercises can be done for free. To put them into a program, try out the RealJock/Diakadi San Francisco Bootcamp Workouts, or visit Mike Clausen's outdoor circuit.

Other items, probably already present in your home and requiring no new expenditure, can intensify a workout as well:

  1. One bath towel: Grab a corner and twist it into a rope, then grasp it at both ends with opposite hands. Stretch your arms out straight, pull in opposite directions for 20 seconds. Rest for ten seconds, then pull "apart" again but rotate from the shoulders to hold the towel rope over your head and allow the left arm to pull it to that side, then to the right, taking at least ten seconds to complete the cycle. These are isometric exercises, able to build strength and muscle size just as effectively as moving against kinetic resistance.
  2. Two sturdy kitchen chairs: Face down use them for push-ups, and face up for tricep dips.
  3. Stairway steps or sturdy boxes (12" to 36" in height): Use a step for calf raises and step-ups. Grasp dumbbells in each hand to increase difficulty.

Twenty-five Dollars or Less
If you care to spend just a little money, you can give yourself a lot of versatility in your workouts.
  1. Dumbbells: If you buy one thing only, get a set of dumbbells (about 25 dollars). Select a weight at which you can perform ten bicep curls before fatigue (muscle failure), perhaps 20 or 25 pounds. You may choose to upgrade this weight in the future, but the degree of strenuousness and intensity is more a function of form than pounds. Do ten repetitions with a familiar weight with a five-second lift and ten second drop (i.e., very slow motion) and you'll see why.
  2. Clothes/shoes: Otherwise, be sure to have outdoor clothing and shoes for all seasons because you absolutely should run, walk or bike outside twelve months out of the year. This can restore the social component to your workout life, and feed your psyche with fresh air and sunshine.
  3. Pedometer: A digital pedometer would help you identify if you achieve the 10,000 steps recommended by health and fitness professionals.
Note that prices vary by location and store. Consult Craigslist or online barter/trade websites where you can purchase someone else's dust-collecting equipment for a fraction of retail.

Seventy-five Dollars or Less
Everything from the previous lists can be supplemented with the following—which cost less than most health club's monthly fees:
  1. A good book: If you are going to embark on a home fitness program, it will do you a world of good to understand the actual body mechanics involved. For example, when you see the three layers of core muscles (abdominals, etc.), you begin to understand why working this area is so complex and ripe with opportunity. So think of supplementing your equipment with an affordable and reputable book, such as Anatomy for Strength and Fitness Training by Mark Vella.
  2. Body bands: Bodylastics elastic bandsand other brands provide distinct advantages for home-based exercise. As you stretch them further from the anchor (doorknob, hinge or wall hook, for example) the resistance is progressive, a dynamic not found in gravity-based weight training. Add that to unlimited planes of movement, low expense, and ease of storage and transport (various packages available for 50 dollars to 100 dollars, including online and DVD instruction).
  3. Jump rope: There is no better cardio than jumping rope, if your home has high ceilings. To up the ante, you can find Weighted jump ropes retailing for 50 dollars or more at online stores. You will discover with weighted ropes how much your upper body gets involved in this classic exercise.
  4. Medicine ball: A medicine ball, approximately 10 pounds or more, can be purchased for 15 dollars or more. Joined with the medicine ball's larger cousin, the stability ball, variously priced from 16 dollars to 60 dollars, you roughly double the exercise options available to you. And, if you need a workout, try Mike Clausen's brutal medicine ball core workout.
  5. Chin-up bar: The Door Gym, a variant on the door chin-up bar and dangerously close to looking like an infomercial product, it is a bit more versatile and retails for under 50 dollars (more for a deluxe model).
  6. Kettlebells: Kettlebells, which might be substituted for dumbbells, run about 35 dollars or more for single sets. Trainer Sophocleous swears by them, instructing his at-home clients to buy them in lieu of dumbbells. DVDs, e-books and other learning materials will cost more, and are highly recommended; to get started with your kettlebells, try the RealJock Kettlebell Workout.

One Hundred Fifty Dollars or Less
Do you need to spend this much money? Not really. We scanned the home all-in-one gyms and discovered there is almost an inverse relationship between price and actual versatility. With proper instruction—via a fitness trainer, knowledgeable friends, online resources or books—you should never lack new and productive ways to exercise with the equipment cited above.

About Russ Klettke: Russ is a Chicago-based business writer, certified fitness trainer and author of A Guy's Gotta Eat, the regular guy's guide to eating smart with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004). His blog explores the connections between exercise and energy conservation.