Building a Home Gym

With so many excellent, well-equipped commercial gyms around it’s a wonder why anyone would want to train at home these days. But for many professionals in the fitness industry, having your own training haven so you can bring your work home with you – so to speak – can prove very handy indeed. I love training in different gyms. The change of scenery is refreshing, and we are all aware of the benefits of using different equipment to keep the body responsive and prevent plateaus. That’s why when I decided to build a home gym last year I knew it would be a smart move. Not necessarily as a replacement for training at my local gym, but as an alternative that’s time saving, practical and also fun.

Planning Ahead

One of the main questions is where can you build one? First thoughts usually centre in and around the home. Perhaps a converted spare room, basement or garage? Well, for a small gym a spare room is certainly viable, although you’ll need to consider the strength of the floor in relation to the weight it will need to support. Wooden floors in houses are generally not strong enough to support the use of heavy gym equipment, and neighbours may complain about the noise. Plus, the last thing you want is plaster falling off the lounge ceiling every time you perform deadlifts upstairs! Garages and basements with solid concrete floors are a much better alternative, giving you a firm base to begin with.

For those who own property with a decent plot of land, another option is to erect an outbuilding or build a property extension to house the gym. It might seem a bit extravagant, but in investment terms it could add significant value to your property. Of course, the real bonus of building from scratch is that you get to design the gym to your exact requirements, with all the bells and whistles, rather than working to physical constraints imposed by the reuse of an existing room.

The Log Cabin

If you like the idea of building from scratch, but are frightened by the spiralling costs and complexities of a bricks and mortar construction, then you could opt for a log cabin. Log cabins are becoming evermore popular as versatile garden ‘rooms’, that can be used for a variety of purposes ranging from offices and workshops, to games rooms and yes, even home gyms. Out of all the available options, and after much deliberation this is what I opted for, and I have to say it worked a treat.

Most log cabins are conveniently delivered flat-pack in kit form, which you either assemble yourself or get the supplier to assemble for you for an arranged fee. I shopped around and got the biggest one I could comfortably fit in the space available, measuring in at 5m x 5m. Planning permission will not usually be required so long as your cabin is under 30m2 in size, is less than 4m high and takes up no more than 50% of the size of the land surrounding the property. It should also have a clearance of at least 1m from any adjoining property or boundary, which is good practice anyway as it makes for easy assembly and maintenance. These are general guidelines but local conditions prevail, so it pays to contact your local Planning Office for clarification. Restrictions aside, the golden rule is build as big as you can, as gym equipment takes up a lot of space. It would be prudent as this stage to also draw up some rough plans to ensure the gym will be big enough to contain all the kit you are thinking of installing.

There is the log cabin in flat pack form. As you can see, quite a bit of timber!

Before you go ahead and build your log cabin, a solid sub-base needs to be laid to support the weight of the structure and all the heavy equipment it will contain. Preparation is key, and the first stage is to clear, level off and thoroughly compact the plot, so you have a firm grounding on which to work. The manufacturers of my cabin recommended a base of flagstones laid on a bed of sharp sand. While this would suffice for an everyday-use cabin, I opted for a studier bespoke method of laying a series of large, concrete ‘sleepers’ in parallel across the width of the plot, made by pouring wet concrete into carefully aligned and levelled timber formwork frames set into the ground. A few days later after the concrete had set, I removed the formwork and was left with a rock-solid and perfectly level foundation onto which I could build the gym.

My cabin came supplied with wooden floorboards, so to make sure it could take the weight of the equipment I supported it underneath by installing thick floor joists at close, regular intervals. The joists themselves were supported at right-angles by the array of huge concrete sleepers, giving them plenty of ground clearance to prevent moisture from rising up and penetrating the wood. This multi-layered, crisscross design of sleepers, joists and floorboards would serve to spread the load of the gym evenly over the entire base.

Laying down the first row of logs over the floor joists. Note the supporting concrete sleepers underneath.

With the foundation complete I could begin assembling the cabin, which was a straightforward process as the logs simply slotted into each other using their tongue and groove profile, with the corner joints interlocking and serving to bind the whole structure together. Incredibly, all four walls went up without a single nail or screw. The roof was made from more timber boards, supported by three giant purlins spanning the entire length of the cabin, and overhanging to the front to form a canopy. The windows and doors were fitted in next, and secured into place with screws. Roof shingles were nailed to the roof to complete the job and protect the cabin from the elements.

Beware: lifting the heavy timber purlins onto the roof is strictly a 2-man job, even for bodybuilders.

I got help lifting the purlins into position. Once they are securly in place the roof can be fitted.

Installing the windows. Here my Maximuscle bum-bag came in handy for carrying nails and screws!

The final phase of the task was to hammer down the floorboards and paint them with two to three coats of varnish. Another coat was applied to the internal walls, ceiling, doors and window frames to seal them. The outer shell was treated with a couple of coats of quality timber preservative to protect it from the weather as well giving it an attractive finish. Of course, no gym would be complete without heating, lighting and sockets for that all-important hi-fi system, so I had electrics installed from a separate fuse box, which ran underground from the house right up inside the cabin.

Properly maintained, a structure like this should last in excess of 50 years, so for a modest investment it offers excellent value for money. It’s certainly a project that can be undertaken by any competent DIY enthusiast, and although strictly speaking it’s a two-man job, I got away with building most of it myself, even though some of the lifts pushed me to my physical limits – even as a bodybuilder! But even if you have to pay for the work to be done it’s still a lot cheaper, faster and less stressful than a bricks and mortar construction, and in my opinion looks just as good, if not better.

So, with the gym finally built, it’s time to think about kitting it out.

The finished log cabin gym. A labour of love but well worth the effort.

Choosing Equipment

Unless you have a very large gym, space is usually at a premium and there will inevitably be limits as to how much equipment you can squeeze in. Your budget will also dictate how much you can afford to buy, as well as its build quality and condition.

Probably the best way to decide on kit is to make a list of all the essential items you need, alongside all the desirable, but non-essentials, and prioritise according to available space and budget. Don’t be tempted to buy equipment just because you think you ought to have it. I resisted buying a power-rack, simply because I hardly ever use them. Yet this is often regarded as a cornerstone piece for any home gym. In fact, my initial purchase consisted of a 45-degree leg press, a seated leg curl, a leg extension, a lat pulldown, a flat-to-incline bench, 300 kilos of Olympic weights, a weight tree, an EZ bar and some adjustable dumbbells. Oh, and a few pieces of CV that I moved over from the spare room in my house. Hardly a ‘Gold’s Gym’ but nevertheless I can comfortably train my whole body with that set-up. Although admittedly I did leave a little room to add a few more bits if I need to in time. Better to under-buy and add later, rather than over-buy and run out of space…

Ok, so now you have your wish list. Stand in the gym and get a feel for where everything could go. Remember to leave room to climb in and out of the machines, and consider the space that moving parts take up. To get a more accurate representation, use a sheet of graph paper to draw a floor plan including all walls, windows and doors. Then make scaled cut-outs of the machines, based on their maximum width and length dimensions, and experiment with different layouts. This will give you a good approximation of the best floor plan. If you need to claw back more space, then go for machines with a smaller footprint, or choose those that combine two or more exercises in one, such as lat pulldowns with a low row, combined leg curl/extension stations, or the recent range of functional trainers which accommodate a whole host of upper and lower body exercises. Multigyms probably offer the greatest versatility of all machines, and can be quite compact, but beware that most do not offer the same quality movement or correct biomechanics that can be achieved using specific stations designed to do one job properly. For me it was an easy decision. I’ve spent over 15 years training in gyms that had at least one or two pieces of sub-par equipment, and so for my home gym there had to be no compromises whatsoever. It was individual stations all the way!

Arrange your kit around the edges of the room to make maximum use of space.

Once you have decided on the equipment, you then need to think about the brand. I personally think that if you go to all the time, effort and expense to build a quality home gym then it’s a mistake to fill it with inferior kit. In time you will only become increasingly frustrated if the movement feels wrong, it wears prematurely, or even breaks. That’s why I made the decision to buy only the best commercial grade equipment I could afford. Of course, brand new kit can cost the earth, and it can be difficult to justify that sort of expenditure for a personal project, so the route I recommend is refurbished. There are quite a few companies in the UK specialising in selling pre-owned gym equipment, but I went to one who I consider to be the biggest and best – Amazon Leisure in Norfolk. I toured their warehouses and hand picked a terrific range of Cybex resistance kit, which they refurbished to match up and look like new, and all for a very reasonable price. Not only that but they delivered and installed it too. Just as well, as it weighed well over a ton and took four men to move it. I also had a few bespoke pieces made too, like the portable squats stands (below), made by Custom Gym, and also the thick bar and space-saving dipping station that hooks onto my leg press (above).

Whatever route you take when buying your kit, remember that it’s got to fit in the space provided, and also – obvious as it may seem – through the front door. Most light-commercial equipment comes apart and so will fit through the smallest of openings, but full commercial kit is often welded together, making it heavy and difficult to manoeuvre.

Making it Work

So you’ve built your home gym and kitted it out. Now what? Well, the rest is down to you to make sure you actually use it. Many people set out with the best of intentions to workout on a regular basis, but give up, usually due to a lack of discipline. But if you make your gym environment as spacious, welcoming and inspiring as you can, and you invest in professional, good quality kit that you know you will use – and enjoy using – then home training can be just as rewarding as working out in the most luxurious of commercial gyms. Of course, you’ll never be able replicate that unique social atmosphere, but then again, you wont ever have to queue to use the equipment either!

Choose your equipment wisely and it will reward you with a lifetime's worth of enjoyable training.