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Setting Up a Home Gym
By Gary Zeolla
As with most powerlifters, I had a hard time finding a gym that is supportive of powerlifters (see the chapter on "Gym Problems" in my powerlifting book). I changed gyms five times from May of 2001 (when I first started lifting weights again) to July of 2004. But from then until August 2005 I was working out at the Iron Pit in Leechburg, PA. This was a great gym, and the owner was very supportive of my powerlifting. However, it was about a 25-minute drive each way. So with the increasing cost of gas and for other reasons, at the end of August 2005, I decided to set-up a home gym.
Unfortunately, I ran into a lot of problems setting up the gym. And these problems hurt my training enough that I had to forgo entering IPA Nationals in November 2005 as I had planned on doing. But since I finally got things set-up, my training has gone very well. So it was the right decision.
But in case any readers of this article are also thinking of setting up a home gym, in this three-part article I am going to detail some of the mistakes I made, along with the things I actually did right. Hopefully, this information will enable the reader to avoid the problems I ran into and give you ideas on how to best set up your home gym. This article will mainly focus on the needs of a powerlifter, but the same basic principles and equipment would apply to setting up a home gym for more general fitness purposes.
For pictures of all of the equipment discussed in this article, see Setting Up a Home Gym: Pictures.
I had been thinking of setting up a home gym since my last contest in April of 2005. So I started checking the classified ads in my local paper. And in May I came across an ad for someone who was selling off a home gym. But I wasn't quite sure yet if wanted to set up a home gym or not. So I never followed up with the ad. And that was my first mistake. If you can find used equipment that would be a great money saver. And if it is someone in your area that is selling the equipment, there is the added advantage of being able to actually see the equipment and try it out before purchasing it. The importance of this will become apparent later in this article.
One reason for my hesitancy was that I really did not have much room for the gym. The area I would have to put it was only six feet wide and about 8-10 feet long. It would feel like I was "working out in a closet" as someone put it to me. But in reality, that was all the room I needed. The way I envisioned things, I would build some kind of platform, 6'x8', place a power rack in the middle of it, and a bench (without uprights) in the middle of the power rack. I would then use the hooks on the power rack for the uprights of the bench and move the bench out of the way when I needed to squat and deadlift. So 6'x8' was all the room I needed to do the three powerlifts. So I could manage with such a small place.
But be that as it may, my hesitancy was the first mistake I made. Since I had entered a contest in April and was not planning on entering another contest until November, the spring was the time to start setting up the home gym. I should have at least started by mid-summer. But by waiting until the end of the summer, this left me with only a little over two months before the contest, which just wasn't enough time to work out the problems, get used to my new set-up, and be ready for Nationals. So the moral is obvious. If you're a powerlifter be sure to allot plenty of time until your next contest for when to start setting up the gym. In my case, if I had just started a month earlier, I might have been ready.
Once Hurricane Katrina hit at the end of August 2005, and the price of gas was predicted to escalate, that was when I decided for sure I would set up the gym. But at that point, there were no ad for used equipment I could find. I even checked eBay, but could not find what I was looking for. So I would have to buy the equipment new, but where?
My first thought was York Barbell Company, located in eastern Pennsylvania. IPA Nationals were actually being held there. So I Googled "york barbell company" to find their Web site. And the first link that came up was a site for a company named "York Barbell Company." So I assumed that was the site. But there wasn't much on it, so I got the impression that they only dealt with commercial interests, not individuals. It wasn't until much later, after I already had my gym mostly set up, that I discovered I had found the wrong site! The URL for that site was "store.yorkbarbell.com" while the URL for the real York Barbell Web site is simply www.YorkBarbell.com. So apparently there was another company masquerading as the real company, but that site is no longer in existence. When I checked "yorkbarbell.com" let me tell you, I really felt sick. I then saw that York Barbell did in fact have everything I would have needed. But as it was, it was too late.
Elite Fitness runs ads in Powerlifting USA magazine. When I first checked their site out, it had some equipment on it, but not much. They have since redesigned the site and added much equipment to it. But at the time I was setting up my gym, they were not advertising everything I would need. New York Barbell also runs ads regularly in Powerlifting USA. And its Web site had everything on it I would need. However, the shipping prices were extremely expensive. The freight charges are based on weight, so for heavy stuff like weights, the cost seemed prohibitive. This was even more so for one last place I considered, Crain.ws. That is where I get most of my powerlifting gear from. Stuff like a squat suit, bench shirt, and wraps are very light and inexpensive to ship, but gym equipment is very heavy. And in addition to weight, distance can also figure into shipping costs. And with Crain being in Oklahoma and me in Pennsylvania, the shipping costs would be way too much.
As such, I figured the best approach would be to purchase locally what I could, and order from New York Barbell (NYB) what I couldn't get locally. There are two sporting goods stores in my area that sell weightlifting equipment, Dunham's and Dick's, the latter being in the newly opened Pittsburgh Mills Mall in my area.
As indicated, I had already measured out the area I had available. I also measured the height from the floor of the basement to the rafters, and it was only 86". So I would have to get a power rack that was less than that. I would also have to allot for the height of the platform underneath.
In addition to the platform, power rack, and bench, I would also need a power bar and lots of weights. These were what I called the essentials. Other items I figured I would need would be some kind of dumbbells, some kind of cardio equipment, and various other minor items. For the rest of this article, I will go through each of these pieces of equipment and describe what I did.
The place to begin is with the floor. It needs to be protected somehow. Floor mats are the normal way to do so. The Iron Pit had 4'x6' mats over most of the floor. So I figured two of these beside each other would give me my 6'x8' area. But to be sure the floor was fully protected, at first I thought of using two layers of mats. But I was afraid that would be too ‘bouncy" when deadlifting. I had this problem at one gym I worked out at. The bar would bounce considerably, and I would have to hold it down on each rep. So I figured a better approach would be to put wood down first, then mats on top. This is the basic design of a deadlift platform. In fact, both York Barbell and NYB have pre-made deadlift platforms available. They are very nice and available in various sizes, including 6'x8'. But they are rather expensive. They are also very heavy, so freight charges would be expensive as well.
So instead I figured I would build my own. I borrowed my neighbor's pick-up and went to the local lumbar yard. I got three planks, 4'x8'. With the help of my dad, we cut one of the planks in half lengthwise. We then placed one 4'x8' plank and one of the now 2'x8' planks on the floor. The other two pieces were placed on top, staggering them so the 2'x8' plank was on top of the 4'x8' plank, and vice-a-versa. We then nailed this all altogether.
For the mats, NYB has the same type of 4'x'6 mats the Iron Pit had. The mats themselves are not that expensive, but they are very heavy. The freight actually cost as much as the mats! So to try to save some money, I bought mats from Dick's. They carry interlocking mats that are marked for weightlifting that are 2'x2', six in a package, so one package would cover the same area as a 4'x6' mat. So I got two packages and nailed those down on top of the wood.
But as soon as I tried lifting on them, I knew there was a problem. When I squatted, I felt like I was falling backwards. And then when I tried deadlifting, I could see why; I could see my heels sinking into the mats. Also, my feet were slipping. And indentations were left in the mats under where the weights hit the mats after just one workout. So I knew those mats would not work out and would not last long. They simply were not strong enough. They might have been marked for weightlifting, but they obviously didn't have powerlifters in mind.
So I went ahead and ordered the mats from NYB. But at this point, I already had the power rack, bench, bar, and almost 700 pounds of weights on top of the platform. So once again recruiting my dad's help, we had to move everything out of the way, rip up the Dick's mats, nail the new mats down, and move everything back on the platform. Needless to say, this was a lot of work that could have been avoided if I hadn't been so cheap and had gotten the better mats in the first place. Since the Dick's mats were all marked up and had holes in them from the nails, I couldn't return them. So in my effort to save money, I actually spent more than I had to and created extra work for myself.
In any case, once we nailed the new mats down, I now had a very nice platform. It is sturdy, the floor is well protected, the bar doesn't bounce too much, the wood deadens the sound while deadlifting, and the mats grip my feet well with no slippage. But one point to note: I would probably have to take it apart to move it given how heavy the whole thing is. So be sure you know exactly where you want the platform before setting it up.
As for the Dick's mats, I put two layers, three mats long on each side of the platform, extending my workout area to 6'x12'. I use this extra area on one side to put a bench on when I am not using it, and the other side to put various other equipment on when I'm working out that I store within the rack when I am not. This wasn't necessary, but since I couldn't return them, I figured I might as well make use of them.
Neither of the local sporting goods stores had power racks available. But NYB, York Barbell, and Elite Fitness all do. I also Googled "power rack" and checked eBay to get an idea what else was out there. With the cost of shipping, I knew I wouldn't be able to return the power rack, so I wanted to be sure I got what I really wanted in the first place.
One consideration I already mentioned was the height I had available, 86". The platform I built is 2-1/4" thick. So this left me just under 84" to work with. Most racks are higher than this. But both Elite Fitness and NYB said they would customize the height of their racks, at a cost of course.
Another consideration was the hole spacing. The power rack I used at the Iron Pit had holes every 2-1/2". This is important when benching alone in a power rack. For safety sake, the ideal is to be able to set the safety bars at such a height that you can touch your chest without hitting the safety bars. But then if you miss a rep, the safety bars are just high enough that you can flatten yourself out, set the bar on the safeties, and squeeze out. Since I normally lifted alone at the Iron Pit, this is how I benched all the time. For a video of what is being explained here, click here (this example is with chain benches, but regular benches would be the same).
Having plenty of choices for hole spacing is also important for setting the safety bars and hooks at the appropriate places for one's height while squatting and for setting up various powerlift assistance exercises.
Most of the power racks I looked at on eBay and elsewhere had what looked like 3-4" hole spacing. So those would not have worked that well. But Elite Fitness's power rack has the closest hole spacing of any power rack I have seen, a mere 1" between holes. But their power rack is more expensive than most. Also, most power racks have braces at the floor on three sides, the left and right sides and the back, and are then open in the front. But Elite Fitness's power rack only has braces on the left and right sides. This means the rack would have to be bolted down to be stable. With the wood in my platform, I could have done this. But I preferred to do what I had done at the Iron Pit; simply hold the rack down with extra weights. York Barbell has a nice power rack that is only 80" high. So it would have worked, but as I said, I didn't find their real Web site until after I had my gym set up. So that left NYB.
NYB has several different power racks, each with different pricing, heights and widths, and size of tubing. Tubing size is important as the wider it is the sturdier the power rack. Since I'm a lightweight squatting 400-something, a rack with 2"x2" tubing would do just fine. But if you're a heavyweight squatting over a grand, then I would recommend getting a rack with 3"x3" tubing. NYB's least expensive rack has 2"x2" tubing. It is rated at 1000 pounds. This is more than study enough for me. Its hole spacing is 2". This was more than Elite Fitness's but closer than what I had been using at the Iron Pit and what I had seen elsewhere.
The rack is 84" high. With my platform, this would be just a little bit too high. But the measurement included parts of the tubing that stuck above the support bars that went across the top of the rack. I figured as long as I could put these in-between the rafters, the main support bars would fit under the rafters. So I didn't bother having it shortened. As it turned out, the rack really was only 82" high. So it fit with room to spare.
The rack has weight holders attached to the back base that stick up eight inches. I also liked NYB's rack as you can buy various attachments for it. I later purchased four weight holders that fit on the sides of the rack, which are also eight inches long. These six bar holders are sufficed to store all of my weights. And they have the added advantage of helping to hold the rack in place.
And this is another consideration; you need to have some place to store your weights. Separate weight trees are available, but with my set-up, the weights are on the power rack and thus help to hold it down and in place. This is important when racking a heavy weight as the force can sometime move or even tip a power rack. So you either need to bolt it down or have enough weights to always have some on the rack holding it down.
I also purchased dip bars that hook onto the power rack. I've found I can use these not only for dips, but also for chin-ups and even for ab work. Instead of hanging leg raises, I position myself on the bars like at the start of a dip. I find holding this position to be easier than hanging onto a chin-up bar, which by the way, the rack has at the top.
So overall, I am very satisfied with the rack I purchased from NYB.
September 2014 Update
By way of update, it is now September 2014, and my platform has held up just fine. The mats show no signs of wear, and I have not noticed indentations on them. So I assume the wood and thus the concrete floor underneath are still just fine. But I have not moved the platform since I set it up, so I cannot say for sure.
The power rack has also has held up just fine. Some of the paint is stretched off from hitting it with weights or the bar, but otherwise, it shows no signs of wear. I has saved me many times when missing a rep on squats or benches, and the safety bars have not bent at all. I eventually bolted down the power rack to make doubly-sure it doesn't move. But when I did, I just eye-balled centering it on my platform and got it just slightly off from being exactly centered. This is a little disconcerting as it means the line down the middle of my rack between the two mats is not in the exact center, so I have to mentally adjust for that when setting up my feet for squats and deadlifts. So use a measuring tape to be sure you get the power rack exactly where it needs to be before bolting it down.
This article is continued at Setting Up a Home Gym - Part Two.
Setting Up a Home Gym - Part One. Copyright © 2005, 2014 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above article first appeared in the free FitTips
for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site December 1, 2005.
It was updated September 7, 2014.
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