How to Choose Your Best Home Gym Equipment

How to Set Up a Multi-Gym at Home

Young woman exercising at home with fitness ball
A young woman exercising at home. Johner Images/Getty Images

A home gym is a compact unit of equipment designed to allow you to perform many exercises at the one station. These are also called multi-gyms or multis. These workstations are designed to fit into a spare room, basement or garage so that you can do weight training at home.

Exercising at home as many advantages. If you decide home is the best place (as opposed to the gym) for you, the next step is to decide what equipment you need.

Before you head out to the nearest shop, here are a few things to consider first.

The ​most-popular, mid-range multi-gyms usually include the following:

  • Adjustable bench for sitting or reclining
  • Stacked metal weights with pin selection for load
  • Pulldown bars mainly for the lat pulldown back exercise
  • Press bars for pushing and pulling, for shoulders, arms and back
  • Leg extension system for quadricep muscles of the thigh
  • Leg curl system for exercising the hamstrings at back of the thigh
  • Seated cable row system for back and arms exercise

Types of Home Gym Setups

You have many options in setting up a home gym, but the choices for weight training mostly fall into the categories below. Aerobic exercise equipment such as treadmills, rowers and stationary bikes are always options; but for now I’ll concentrate on strength training equipment.

  1. Combinations of portable equipment. Dumbbells, bench, balls, steps, bands, mats, ab workers etc. Nothing too complex here, just basic but extensible equipment. The Reebok Weight Bench with included dumbbell set is a popular starter.
  1. Free weight stations. Adjustable benches, power racks for holding barbells, dumbbells, barbells and plates (round weights). Mostly movable equipment for more heavy duty use.
  2. Multi-gyms based on steel or composite bands and cords. The flexing band creates the resistance. Bowflex brand is best known, Weider Advantage is an example.
  1. Total Gym concept. This idea uses an adjustable height, inclined bench and sliding seat platform that uses your own body weight to increase resistance. Example: Total Gym 1500.
  2. Multi-gyms based on stacked weights. This most popular configuration uses a cable and pulley mechanism with stacked weights. You move the peg to select the weight. Example: Body Solid EXM series.
  3. Multi-gyms with provision for free weight plates. The round weights are manually fitted to the barbell extensions. Example: Powertec Workbench. (Note: weights are extra.)
  4. Smith machine multi combinations. The standard Smith machine uses a mechanism that constrains the bar in one vertical plane, unlike free-weight benches and racks. These home gym multis add additional attachments to achieve a versatile workstation. Example: Mega Smith System.

What Do I Want to Achieve?

To help you decide which way to go with gym equipment, you should consider what your goals and commitment are. If you're starting out with weight training, unless you're really sure of your requirements and commitment, I would recommend you try option '1' in the gym type list because there's a lot of unused, expensive equipment languishing in spare rooms because people got bored with it and went down to the gym instead.

Now I didn't say 'because people gave up' -- that's not going to be you, right?

Here are a few ideas to consider if you decide to fit out the home gym.

Beginners and Light Exercisers

If your goals are general fitness, weight management, muscle tone and flexibility, then a minimum could be an aerobic step (like a Reebok step), several sets of dumbbells -- a heavier set for squats and lunges and a lighter set for overhead and side lifts -- an adjustable bench, a fitness ball and an exercise mat. You could add resistance bands and tubes for variety and you will have a neat setup that will give you variety and flexibility for several hundred dollars.

Some might prefer multi-gyms where everything is compact and available on the one machine and a guide book describes exercises you can do. These range from under $500 up to $4000 so a wide range of choice, quality, flexibility and cost is available. Units around $500 to $1000 suit many exercisers but you can get organized for under $500 with basic but useful equipment. The Body Solid EXM S for under $1000 and the Weider Advantage for around $500 are examples.

Intermediate Trainers

Into more serious fitness, muscle development and strength training? One option you should consider is a more complete set of dumbbells and barbells and plates and an exercise bench and barbell rack of good quality -- for under $1000.

A more advanced multi-gym may also hit the spot, perhaps in the $1000-$1500 range, or else you could go for the free weights option as above and add a cheaper multi-gym like the Weider or Bowflex band system or a Total Gym (items 3 and 4 in the gym types list). This combination of free weights and cheaper multi is still in the under $1500 range.

Advanced Trainers

Home equipment for the serious weight trainer and bodybuilder is often supplementary to gym sessions. Naturally, most regular gym trainers don’t attempt to replicate what they use in regular sessions at their downtown gyms, but some have free-weight bench setups or opt for a heavy-duty multi to use at home. The Powertec Workbench is an example in this class where free weights are used, and which you need to buy as extras.

How Much Can I Afford?

Note my earlier warning about spending up big unless you're rock solid in commitment and knowledge about your goals and requirements.

To summarize cost (in US dollars):

  • A few dumbbells, step, adjustable bench, fitness ball, exercise mat and bands should cost less than $400.
  • A more professional set of dumbbells, free weights and bench and rack should come in at under $1000 but you can pay much more for high-end equipment.
  • The Total Gym 1500 inclined bench sliding system is about $300.
  • A Weider Advantage or Bowflex Sport are around $500 and $700.
  • A budget weight stack home gym multi like the Body Solid EXM 1500S will cost you up to $800.
  • The better equipped Body Solid G41 or Body Craft Galena are around $1500.
  • A quality free-weight multi like the Powertec Workbench Leverage for around $800 and a few hundred dollars more for the next model.
  • A multi-station, multi-gym like the Body Craft Family Xpress, which can accommodate several users at once, is about $3000.
  • And for good measure, a Smith type multi for less than $1500 -- an example being the Mega Smith which combines Smith machine type action with additional exercise attachments.

How Much Space do I Need?

This is an important one. I’ve heard of people buying equipment unseen, or at least unmeasured, only to find it will not fit in the space or room provided. Be sure to check this out. You need to figure on the exact external dimensions of the assembled unit, with all possible attachments, and then add any extension that occurs during exercise. If a leg extension or chest fly adds to the room required, it needs to be factored in when you’re working out the space you require. Some Body Craft models are designed to fit into a corner. This can help with space issues.

How Many Users?

Always fighting with the partner, the kids, the cat, for access to the home gym? Get a multi-station machine so that more than one person can exercise at the same time. These tend to be expensive at over $2000. Examples are the Body Craft Family Express and the Body Solid EXM-3000LPS.

Can I Install it Myself?

Another important consideration is delivery and assembly. For example, the Total Gym type systems with the inclined platform are virtually one-piece and you just walk them in the door and 'start them up'. Some other types only require a few bits bolted on but others can take hours to assemble. Ask about this before you buy if this is important to you. Clearly, many multi-gyms, fully assembled, will not fit through a doorway, so expect some setting up time and expertise.

How do I Know If the Equipment is Safe?

First, dumbbells and barbells and plates are heavy. Be careful lugging them around. If you worked with this stuff the OH&S people would insist you wear steel-capped boots!

However, beyond that, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission publishes all instances of recalls due to faulty or dangerous equipment at its website. I note that some Bowflex units underwent a very large recall and Nautilus Bowflex were fined for not complying with notification regulations. Even so, that does not mean that all Bowflex equipment is unreliable, particularly newer models.

Second-Hand Home Gym Equipment

If you’re considering buying second-hand equipment check first to see if it was recalled. Several Nautilus Bowflex units and the Total Gym XL system were subject to recall in past years. In countries other than the US, check with local consumer authorities or the agents or distributors for further information. Models differ from country to country for some products.

Home Gym Recommendations

After an extensive review, I can recommend seven home gym workstations over a range of price and functional requirements. This is not to say that there aren't other models that will provide similar value, but these stand out for me.

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