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Which Compact Home Gym Is Actually Compact Enough Not to Overtake My Apartment?

I want to workout, but I’d also like my dining room table not to be a weight bench

There are so many fitness companies peddling compact home gyms nowadays, despite the fact that their products are assuredly not compact home gyms. In my personal view, in order for something to qualify as a compact home gym, it needs to capture the core elements of each of the words that compose its name: “compact,” “home” and “gym.”

What do I mean by this? I’m about to tell you in painstaking detail.

Because some explanations of qualifications are best exemplified by pointing out why some home gyms don’t fit neatly into the box — actually, “fitting neatly into a box” is a qualification in and of itself! — I’ll be disqualifying some of the favorites as I go. This isn’t a knock on any of those devices, all of which I’m sure are quite capable of getting someone into outstanding shape. It’s purely a matter of identifying devices that best match the spirit of what it means to be a compact home gym, while ousting others from contention.

What do you mean when you say it has to be compact?

Again, cue the box. If your “compact” home gym comes equipped with a full-blown Smith Bar, I envy you for having the space to stash that thing. Also, it isn’t compact; it’s a full-fledged gym. 

This is also true if your home gym has multiple training stations to the extent that the entire lacrosse team could go through a full rotation of resistance exercises before it goes out for an afternoon jog. Once more, kudos to you for having the room to spare in your home to accommodate what would pass for an acceptable Days Inn Hotel gym, but there isn’t a compact thing about it.

That makes sense. So if it fits in my home, it’s home-friendly, right?

Not always.

Part of the convenience of having a compact home gym is having the freedom to move the gym elsewhere in the home if necessary. A home gym should have a home-friendly element of accommodation to it; it shouldn’t cause you to feel as if you’ve permanently limited other elements of your life through its very presence. 

So now we’re going to start picking on the companies that pay gorgeous fitness models to smile while they pretend their perfect bodies come from products they’ve never even seen before, and wouldn’t be caught dead using.

Tonal is eliminated under this heading, because for all of its innovation, it’s inherently inconvenient. In this day and age of minimally-invasive pull-up bars of all shapes and sizes, and also the conceit that I should have the freedom to move my weight bench and other equipment anywhere in the house that I see fit to haul it, Tonal lost me the instant I watched one being installed on video. It’s all fun and games until you realize you might want to do something else with that living room wall one day. 

Got it. So if it fits in your home neatly and you can conveniently do exercises on it, it’s a winner? After all, they’re all gyms, right?

This is where some of the implements that failed under the “compact” category should be credited for at least having their hearts in the right place.

When you think of a traditional gym, there’s a reason your mind instinctively recalls certain exercises and certain pieces of equipment and not others. Presuming that we’re eliminating all free-weight exercises from the equation and focusing on what our expectations for machine weights should be, what comes to mind? Probably a bench/chest press machine, a pec deck/chest fly machine, a lat pulldown station, a seated curl station and hopefully a cable setup that allows you to perform assorted extensions. Also, even if they aren’t the most efficient ways to add strength to your legs, attachments that permit you to perform leg extensions and leg curls are also traditionally expected in a gym environment.

Here’s the idea: Your compact home gym should look like it’s composed of devices that belong in a gym and not a physical therapy office. For that reason, the Total Gym is disqualified. That’s not to say that someone can’t get into outstanding shape using a Total Gym; I’m sure that many people have. It simply doesn’t have enough of the requisite features that would leave me feeling secure enough to invite my friends over to train without leaving me feeling embarrassed.

While we’re at it, all of the Bowflex home gyms are excluded as well. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely adore that company’s SelectTech Dumbbells. To me, they’re one of the most life-altering home-fitness innovations of all time. Also, resistance is resistance, which is a point Eli left indelibly imprinted on my brain from the old Bowflex infomercials. If you add sufficient resistance to your training movements, you can and will gain muscle. 

That said, I want to train with real weight, and I want to have an understanding of what kind of weight I’m moving in a way that transitions to a majority of training environments. If I’m doing tricep extensions with six plates that weigh 15 pounds each, I can translate that into another training environment. Twelve power rods on the incline bench press? I have no clue what that means, and I don’t care what numbers come pre-printed or engraved on the rods.

Fine. So who wins?

An adjustable weight bench, a pull-up bar and a set of SelectTech Dumbbells.

Just kidding.

If I’m not allowed to use free weights, I’m not allowed to use pull-up bars and I have to pick just one machine that honors the spirit of the term “compact home gym,” I’m going to purchase something like the Marcy Multifunctional Home Gym Station for Total Body Training. It’s reasonably compact, it has the ability to be moved from one room to another without leaving holes in my walls and it can replicate several traditional gym-specific movements that I can’t perform with free weights alone.

That’s a win-win-win in my book.