Forgo the Gym for No-Gym Workouts
In 1995 Mike Tyson left prison on parole. The once rippling physique of the baddest man on the planet was still somehow rippling. The three-year sentence that Tyson served didn’t drain the life from his muscles despite the lack of adequate training facilities. Even pre-incarceration Iron Mike didn’t touch free-weights until much later.
This is only one entry in the never-ending saga of people doing more with less, putting the effort into mastering the simple and foregoing the complex in favor of sheer effort. If Tyson could retain his fitness locked in prison, then certainly you could stay in shape while stuck at home.
The philosophy of foregoing the gym in favor of simpler no-gym workouts has a massive appeal. I myself have been inspired by minimalist equipment workouts and have once survived on a restrictive diet of pushups, squats, and sit-ups.
From first-hand experience, I can attest to the deficiencies and downsides of trying to workout with no more than a floor and four walls. Tight, injury-prone shoulders and a Quasimodo style posture await those that neglect pulling exercises, especially when your pressing strength starts to outrun some already sub-par pull-up numbers.
Don’t be fooled by the naturalist appeal of a calisthenics-only routine. There’s nothing natural about neglecting the traps, lats, grip, biceps, and hamstrings. This leads to a quite lopsided physique that’s only fit to do a handful of exercises in mundane workouts. The solution to these incomplete workouts is going to take far more than a few pushup variations or Charles Atlas style muscle-flexing; it’s going to involve buying some home gym equipment. Collective groans noted.
The goal of this article isn’t to help transform people’s limited space into a complete homemade Planet Fitness; that’s not practical for most people. Rather, the idea is still to do more with less, though you’ll be doing a heck of a lot more once you’ve accumulated the right tools for the job.
The key here is picking the right equipment, not the huge, trendy machines that cost a fortune and only do one thing, two if you count using them as a coat hanger. You don’t want to crowd your home or apartment with clutter, yet you’ll still have to buy something. Just what that something will be is the million-dollar question. Read on and find out.
The Search for Stability
Doing chin-ups, pullups, dips and other exercises will work almost all the muscles left out of the typical gymless routine. Biceps, back, grip, abs and more will benefit the mighty pull-up bar. It may seem like a no-brainer to opt for one of the small, convenient doorway pull-up bars, but I have a major issue with those things. It’s a matter of safety and practicality. These small form, doorway-mounted bars may look like a sweet deal for the gym-less athlete, but there are some serious issues with the two major models of doorway bars on the market.
The first would be a type that relies on installing two adjacent brackets to hold a bar in your doorframe. Even if these are sturdy enough to hold your body weight, you’ll still be drilling holes in your doorframe, worse yet if you’re renting and plan on getting that security deposit back. Alternatively, there’s the larger model of pullup bar that’s partially supported by the upper door trim.
Even with this zero-screw installation, there’s still the possibility to dent this upper trim or leave marks around the door frame. There’s a third model that uses outward tension like a sideways car jack to hold itself in place. All three of these will work fine if used properly, but they still limit the user to the space of a doorway, not to mention, forgetting about the doorway pullup bar could result in accidentally clotheslining yourself. There has to be a better way.
Alternatively, you could take the pull-up portion of your workout outside. The guerilla-style workouts have taken the internet by storm. The muscular guys in those videos make it all look so practical and convenient. What these outdoor programs fail to mention is the fact that planning your workouts around trips to the local playground is pretty suspicious.
Furthermore, parents may be wary of the fully grown adult doing chin-ups alongside their playing children. You could test a few workouts at the jungle gym, though I cannot guarantee you won't become an unintentional Tiktok celebrity in the process. Certain cities and jurisdictions actually forbid adults from visiting playgrounds without a minor, so be sure to check where you live. Remember, the goal is still to workout at home.
A Framework for Success
Now that I’ve outlined why doorway and playground workouts are simply sub-par, it’s time to reveal the true intentions of this article and how you should spend your money. Yes, like all things in life, exercise involves investing a little capital to go along with the blood, sweat and tears. These expenses aren’t vain or frivolous though, as buying versatile, quality equipment means providing value for years or even decades, not to mention that strength and fitness that we’re all after. This will mean buying a relatively large unassembled pull-up station or rack to do your exercises on. Just which setup is right for you will vary based on your limitations and goals.
First, the bare minimum for home workouts is going to be the humble pull-up and dipping station. You get the option to do pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, and leg raises. The most basic model will be enough for people that are tired of blocking doorways and being accosted at public playgrounds. Even without additional equipment, the pursuit of high rep pull-ups and chins is one that can take ages. Beyond that point, there’s always the one-armed variations that make for superhuman strength, if not a cool party trick. With plates and a dipping belt there’s the option to start loading these exercises with more weight, but that goes for all the different options here. We’re not done shopping yet.
The Humble Half-Rack
So maybe you’re planning to get a barbell, or perhaps already have one and no place to rack the thing. There are some pretty compact little squat-stands that could do the trick, but you could kill a flock of geese with one stone and buy a half-rack. It’s bigger than a pull-up station, though smaller than a full power cage. You can install J-cups to rack your bar on, do pull-ups on the included top-bar, and attach a fair number of compatible add-ons meant for power cages, not to mention it’s a stable platform to attach things like resistance bands and even a home cable-stack. What you’ll lose is the integrated dip station, though you can buy one separately and attach it to your half-rack. As you’d guess, these cost a lot more than a pull-up station, though it opens a world of possibilities.
The Full Power Cage
Now the full power cage is a contradiction to my own minimalist home-gym philosophy, though it’s still worth a mention. The full power cage is the most robust of the three options here. It’s got four heavy-duty posts closed off with yet more pull-up bars and ample room J-hooks, dipping bars, cable stacks, landmine attachments, Olympic rings and most importantly an Olympic barbell. That’s the biggest draw of the cumbersome power cage, it’ll let you do rack pulls, heavy squats and benches with no spotter thanks to safety pins and spotting arms. The squat rack or half-rack can do this too, but not as well. The premium home lifting experience requires a full power cage, not to mention enough room to house the thing.
Choosing one of the three options comes down to budget, space and just what kind of training route you’re going to take. Every workout program should have some kind of pulling movement, so even the most basic pull-up/dip station will do wonders to complete your home-made physique. Just keep adding reps or switch to harder variations for chins and pull-ups. This will keep your back strength on par with the pressing strength that will eventually progress to one-arm pushups and handstand work. It’s all about balance and pulling will get you there.
Choosing one of these three options comes down to a few factors. Things like cost, space, and whether or not you plan on doing any heavy barbell work. If racking a heavy barbell isn’t part of your future plans, then a basic pull-up and dip stand combo will do fine, it’s also the cheapest option of the three as long as you buy a basic model that isn’t bogged down with bells and whistles. Remember that it’s the pull-ups and dips that you’re after, not the kitchen sink.
Once you’ve chosen one of the three apparatuses, you’ll want to add as little equipment as possible. The theme of getting the most value out of the least clutter continues here. There are two main categories of equipment to cover: free weights and everything else. Buying free weights is a hugely personal choice, one that can result in heaps of heavy equipment that you seldom use. This isn’t to say that free weights are bad, but not all are equal. There’s a type or redundancy that comes with buying dumbbells, kettlebells and even weight plates if you’re not careful. If your goal is to get the most bang for your buck, then I recommend the Olympic barbell and plates.
The power cage and to a lesser degree the half-rack will make some barbell lifts safe enough to do at home. Even without a way to rack the barbell, there’s still a variety of exercises you can do should you choose to buy one. What bears explaining is just why you’d choose an Olympic-style barbell over the standard bars and plates. The reason is simple enough, your run-of-the-mill standard bars are often too short to rack properly in a power cage, they’re simply not meant to be racked at all. Furthermore, the standard barbells are only rated to 300 or so pounds. This is fine for a beginner, though as you get stronger it’s only a matter of time before you’ve collected hundreds of pounds of weight that your bar cannot handle. Worse yet, standard plates won’t fit on an Olympic barbell. Don't make my mistake, buy Olympic from the start.
Sand is rough, coarse and it gets everywhere. That's both the strength and weakness of the powdery stuff. No matter the size or shape of a sandbag, the same sand can be loaded from one to another. It’s a versatile kind of weight that allows for a bunch of oddball exercises, the kind of stuff that a barbell routine lacks. Sandbags can be lifted, carried, thrown and even punched like a heavy bag. There's an odd kind of unstable quality that a bag of sand emulates, something that I've noticed traditional barbell exercises lack. The sandbag is a classic.
Adding weight pull-ups and dips is simpler than you’d think. There’s no need for a weighted vest or jerry-rigged weight plates, the dipping belt has you covered. These are relatively inexpensive and let you load plates or kettlebells to add incremental resistance to those pull-ups, chin-ups, dips and even belt squats. Normally, buying a piece of equipment just for a few exercises is a waste of money, but these exercises are hugely important to building crazy back and grip strength, so a dipping belt is definitely worth it.
You should have a place to do pull-ups and ideally one major lifting implement, be it a sandbag, barbell or both. Granted, there are still quite a few decent pieces of workout equipment that will add further variety to your workouts. Here’s a quick list of the most useful ones that won’t use up the rest of your living space.
These are the classic V-shaped grip tools that can be found in most sports equipment stores but don’t fall for the cheap plastic ones. The coveted Captain of Crush grippers can be found on Amazon and they’re all rated by their Captain of Crush rating and pounds of resistance. Even the off-brand grippers that you can find online are far superior to the department store fodder that offer no more resistance than the spring on a clothespin.
I don’t count these as primary workout equipment for the simple reason that they are so awkward to use. Getting 100’s of lbs. of resistance with these will be impractical for most people, though that’s not the strength of exercise bands. Elastics can be used for both high rep isolation exercises and adding resistance to others. Bands can be used to make pushups, sit-ups, neck curls, and other exercises harder. The combination of utility and portability make these a good buy.
The barbell landmine attachment is yet another small device that adds more exercise functionality to your barbell, essentially turning it into a giant lever. Exercises like landmine rows and presses add further variety to the ever functional barbell. Its additional core and upper back work from a device small enough to store anywhere.
A Word of Caution on Dumbbells and Kettlebells
There’s a cult of kettlebells that has taken the west by storm over the past 20 or so years. Whether or not they’re really superior to dumbbells, each of these training tools has a propensity to accumulate and gain dust as one gains strength. As one set of kettlebells or dumbbells becomes obsolete, it’s time to buy more. If you’re dead set on dumbbells, opt for the adjustable ones. If it’s kettlebells you’re after, buy as few as possible to avoid forming a huge collection.
Closing Thoughts and Beyond the Home Gym.
After buying something to do pull-ups on and something to lift, you should have enough equipment to do a variety of workouts. Other exercise equipment will accumulate with time, as it’s tempting to buy into the latest and greatest trends. What’s not a trend or passing fad are the high-quality exercises that the barbell and pull-up bar have to offer. Even the sandbag, trendy as it may seem, is based on a tried and true method of hauling heavy objects for distance, brutally simple. Once all the pieces are in place, it’s just a question of putting together a solid program, though that’s a topic for another article.
- Mike Tyson and His History
- Olympic vs Standard Weights and Bars
- Park Playground Ban on Adults Unaccompanied by Children—Law Review— Parks and Recreation Magazine—NRPA
- Sandbag Misconceptions- The Truth About Effective Sandbag Training—Breaking Muscle
- Why Athletes Should Pull Twice as Often as They Push Inside the Weight Room—Stack
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.