As a kid, I would make fun of my mom for doing jazzercise videos with soup cans and wine bottles for added weight resistance. But after working out from home for almost a full year, I have to admit old booze-arms was onto something. Strength training lowers inflammation and chronic disease risk, boosts metabolism and improves posture, sleep and overall immunity, research shows, but by far the best part about lifting weights for a newbie is that you don’t have to buy (or rent) expensive dumbbells to get started — you just have to look around for heavy shit.
“Using a couple random objects in your home will keep your workouts interesting so you’ll never get bored each time you work out,” explains Mikey Newson, a certified personal trainer and coach at the Row House. Not only is this the most budget friendly option, but “another great benefit of doing this is that you’ll be able to target some of those smaller muscle groups more when using all types of objects for resistance,” he tells me.
Personal trainer Ben Yates agrees: “My number one suggestion to a client to take their workout up a notch is to use items that they have lying around the home.”
For guys who want to spice up their fitness routine at home with something a little stronger than a can of soup, weights, dumbbells and other equipment are hiding on your shelves, in your closet and buried in the recycling bin. At the same time, there are also a number of DIY fitness equipment hacks that aren’t safe and risk injury. Yates, Newson and other experts explain what to look out for before your next home workout.
For people looking for a more traditional dumbbell look, there are many tutorials on how to make simple molds for concrete dumbbells at a low cost. But if you’re simply trying to increase the difficulty of your upper-body workout, there are much easier ways. The most obvious of these are filling water bottles or milk jugs with sand, kitty litter or just water.
If you don’t have any empty bottles lying around, keep looking around the kitchen. “You could tie together a handful of cutlery to make a single dumbbell,” Yates says. “The more you tie together, the heavier the weight.”
From there, start with basic dumbbell exercises like bicep curls, forward raises, overhead tricep extensions and bent-over rows, to make sure you have the right amount of resistance and a good grip. “Unlike dumbbells, where you have to switch them or buy new ones to get a new weight, homemade milk or water jug weights are much easier to change and adjust on the fly,” says fitness blogger David McHugh. In other words, you may need to bring more knives to the gun show.
Kettlebells are similar to dumbbells except that the weight sits below the handle and the handle is big enough for two hands, which helps for developing grip and core strength. For that reason, filling a flat basketball with concrete and putting a PVC pipe handle on it is a popular but messy way to do this at home. One of the upsides to going this route is that PVC pipe is handy to have around in itself for squats, stretching and barre exercises. However, Yates warns that because so many kettlebell exercises involve swinging motions and overhead moves, “the danger is that if the handle fails, the weight will come crashing down or be catapulted across the room,” he says. “To make a safe kettlebell, I’d expect that you’d need some form of welding skills.”
As such, when choosing between DIY kettlebells and dumbbells, it’s smarter to go with the dumb option.
A Big Ass Bag of Dog Food
Instead of upping your squat game with a precarious cement kettlebell, Yates recommends holding a big bag of dog food or kitty litter for added weight. Bags of pet food and kitty litter can also be great for bench presses, or “you could bend over and pull the bag into your chest in a rowing motion,” Yates says. “You could also press the bag overhead or carry it in a farmer’s walk.”
While most other DIY weights require people to guess what’s heavy enough for them or use a scale, big bags of dog food usually have the weight on the packaging. Likewise, they often serve as a lower cost alternative to sandbags. Be forewarned, though — not all bags are created equal. “The workout really depends on the strength of the bag,” Yates adds. And so, try to gauge the durability of the bag before getting too into your workout, or your cool down will be clean-up.
“During a time like this, you have to get creative, and other objects you can use to simulate weights are chairs, stools, toolboxes, small end tables or old computer monitors,” Newson says. But perhaps the most ironic piece of equipment in a pandemic is his final suggestion: a suitcase.
As much as it may hurt to think about traveling, the suitcase is one of the more versatile pieces of weightlifting equipment because you can add and subtract so much weight from it, depending on your goals. First, fill it with gallons of water, protein powder, books or really anything heavy. Once you have the desired weight, sumo deadlifts, goblet squats and standing overhead presses are all good exercises to try.
Backpack Full of Books
You might feel like you’re walking to school again, but by wearing a backpack full of books during your workout, you’re not learning about anything other than how to get efficiently jacked. “One of the best ways to simulate heavier weights is a backpack loaded with books to add resistance while doing squats, lunges and push-ups,” Newson tells me. Similar to the variety of exercises a person can do with a weighted vest, the range of exercises you can do with a book-filled backpack are vast. “If you want to kick it up a notch, you can add compound movements to an exercise,” Newson continues. “For example, you can go into a reverse lunge followed by a knee raise.”
This is my favorite strength-training tool, not just because of the versatility, but because I missed wearing a backpack. Dusting it off for a workout reminded me of when I’d wear my backpack for the sweet and simple utility of being on the go all day — from work to the gym and then to a bar. But until I can do that again safely, it’s still nice to exercise with my old friend Jansport.