With gyms now closing on account of coronavirus — L.A. Fitness officially shut down for at least the next two weeks yesterday — plenty of panicked bro buddies have hit me up, asking me how they should handle this crisis of body confidence. How was a “swole” and “brolic” guy like yours truly managing, they wondered? Should they brave infection by going to whatever dicey gym was still open to squeeze in a quick “back and biceps” or “push-pull” routine?
The answer to those questions is a firm no. (Part of the reason I haven’t set foot in a public gym for the better part of a half-decade is because of how many gym bros I’ve witnessed licking precious protein powder off the tops of urinals and all but blowing their noses on the mats and benches.)
Instead, I’d recommend beginning to put together your own garage or basement setup. I’ve spent years assembling my own, with the equipment tucked away deep in my basement or spread across strategic locations throughout the first floor of my home. Obviously, you don’t have the same amount of lead time I did — and rumor has it certain locations of chains like Dick’s are completely out of weights at the moment — but there’s still a lot you can do to squeeze an at-home workout in amongst the hours of boredom and anxiety.
Let’s start with the essentials, simple things you can buy and store anywhere in your dwelling. I’ve got sets of 65-, 80-, 90- and 100-pound dumbbells in my office, which are sold by the pound and can usually be found relatively cheaply on Craigslist (the heavier sizes are less common, and usually sourced when a gym is closing and selling off its inventory). They’re in my work area because my basement ceiling is too low for pressing movements. Still, you can do tons of stuff with a few sets of dumbbells: thrusters, strict shoulder presses, push presses, curls, dumbbell front squats, lunges, shrugs and Kroc rows. The challenge, of course, is linear progression, because you’re stuck with the sizes you’ve got and the weight jumps can be pretty extreme. But that’s why I have barbells and free weights in the basement.
I’ve also got an ab mat, an item that sells for $20 or so on Amazon and is critical for doing sit-ups with proper form. Wrist wraps are essential for protection when pressing heavy weights, and Chinese-style knee sleeves offer decent support and warmth when I’m doing squatting movements (and, given my extremely large elbows, they also double as elbow sleeves).
An inexpensive pull-up bar is mounted across the door frame in my dining room. It’s secured to the wall, but I use it for greasing the groove with strict, full-extension pull-ups. I don’t really care for kipping pull-ups, although I’ve strung together dozens of them, and I won’t do them on anything but the most secure rig. I also don’t use this bar for bar-ups, because the door frame is in the way. Usually I’ll do five sets of 10 strict chin-ups or 10 sets of five strict pull-ups over the course of a day, often completing sets whenever I wander into this room.
While profiling American Ninja Warrior Mike Shuck, I learned how to use macebells and Indian clubs. Shuck explained how I could loosen up my shoulder girdle with macebell swings, as well as how the Indian clubs could be used for a variety of stretching movements. I purchased a 20-pound mace, a 40-pound mace and a pair of 10-pound Indian clubs relatively cheaply off Amazon, although Onnit, the gold standard as far as this product goes, will sell them to you for a lot more. I usually swing the maces and clubs several times a week, and the results have been superior to any deep-tissue massage I’ve ever received.
Heavy-duty hand grippers are unlike those cheap, crappy grippers you’d see people closing back in high school to improve their tennis swing. Grip is a highly competitive (albeit niche) sport, and I’ve always had an incredibly strong crushing and pinching grip. There’s a big split between people who favor the Captains of Crush, the first such item of its kind, and the Gillingham High Performance gripper, created by a competitor who mastered the Captains of Crush before launching his own product line. But getting a couple of them on Amazon will only set you back $80 or so (if you’re buying the Captains of Crush, I’d urge you to get a “trainer” and a “1” difficulty to start, unless you’re a rock climber or someone used to working with your hands — I started with a “2” before working up to a “2.5” and, occasionally, a “3”). I typically train with these once a week, as a legitimate close of the “GHP 7,” which I can only perform with my left hand, offers a pretty grueling challenge. I put these skills to use around the house, crushing apples and ripping sealed boxes open with my bare hands.
These items occupy more space and cost more money, but they’re worth their weight in gold. They’re also the core pieces of any true garage or basement gym.
The Concept2 rower is the perfect piece of equipment for both sprint and endurance work. It goes as fast as you can pull it, and it’s an unbeatable workout once you’ve mastered proper rowing form (the row is a squat with a finish, not a pull from the shoulders finished by the legs as seen at most health clubs). Because it splits in the middle for storage, it fit perfectly in my old studio apartment, which is why it’s the first piece of garage gym equipment I ever purchased. I bought it off Craigslist back in 2009 for a couple hundred bucks, and a friend on the University of Pittsburgh’s rowing team taught me how to use it. Early on, I focused on 2,000-meter and 5,000-meter rows, posting decent personal bests. These days, I use it mainly for pure sprint work, such as 10 rounds of 100-meter rows or a few 500-meter pulls. In any case, it’s an easy piece of equipment to store and use, maintenance consists mainly of oiling the chain, and the only drawback is the somewhat steep price, even for used models. But if you’re only going to buy one piece of cardio equipment and space is limited, get one of these.
I found my Schwinn Airdyne bike out by a dumpster, but these will usually cost you a few hundred dollars (they’re a bit cheaper than the Concept2 rower). My particular bike is pretty beat up — e.g., the main display screen is cracked — but it serves my purpose, which is fast sprints for warm-up and cool-down purposes. Supposedly the Schwinn Airdyne is even more effective than the Concept2 for sprint-type movements, but I’ve yet to take full advantage of it. All in all, another easy item to store in the house, dependent entirely on your own momentum and far better than those dumb, overpriced Peloton cycles with the view screen, virtual coach and costly monthly membership.
A Tectrix stepper was another Craigslist find, picked up for $100 after the initial purchaser (who got it from a health club that was closing down) realized he had never actually used it for anything but a doorstop in his garage. The unit I got was pretty old, and I ended up having to source OEM parts for it from a supplier in order to rebuild the motor, driver cables, brake pad and monitor circuit board. I don’t recommend that anyone else goes to such lengths to get a stepper going (the total cost of the replacement parts was around $75), but I use this once a week on a day I’m not lifting weights for 60 to 80 minutes of sustained, moderate-intensity cardio. There’s a plastic book rack on the stepper where I place my Kindle; I “borrowed” that helpful item from a gym in Texas I used to frequent.
After years of using a crappy squat rack I’d sourced off Craigslist, I eventually upgraded to the heavy-duty Rogue Monster Lite rack. It was pricey, but came with tons of pins for J-cup placement. I’ve got a cambered (curved) barbell in there that Kabuki Strength sent me that I’ve been using for squats; the design alleviates stress on my shoulder when I’m doing low-bar squats. The Monster Lite came with safety arms, which will catch the barbell when a spotter isn’t present and comes in handy when I’m attempting personal-best lifts or dangerous overload exercises (not that I do many of those anyway).
For bench press, a lift where I’ve always enjoyed serious success, I also have a pretty high-end setup. I use the Rogue-brand bench with a narrow but thick pad on it, which gives me something to dig my lats into when I’m benching with a proper arch. Again, if you’re planning to lift heavy weights and you can swing it, buy a stable bench with a thick pad on it. Your shoulders and lats will thank you later.
I’ve got a lot of specialty barbells. I have two Duffalo bars, a weird luxury to be sure but it never hurts to have a backup. The Titan safety squat bar was an older model, and though it does a nice simulation of the front squat (some safety squat bars, like Kabukis, are adjustable and simulate either front or back squat), it has horrible whip and crappy welds. I use it for lack of anything better.
The third barbell from the top was the first barbell I ever owned, along with 180 pounds of bumper plates — another Craigslist buy for my old studio apartment, but no longer in service.
The Rogue deadlift bar is essential for the “hook grip” style I use for conventional deadlifts, given that it’s thinner in diameter than my regular Rogue “Ohio bar” and lets me tuck my thumbs in even deeper (it also bends in the center much easier, meaning I’m picking the weight off the floor maybe an inch higher than I would otherwise). The Rogue axle bar I use for lighter deadlifts intended to train my grip, given its wide diameter and lack of knurling, or for the sort of axle cleans and presses done at strongman competitions.
Luxuries and Oddities
Now we’re getting into the realm of inessential things, things that are here mainly because they benefit my strength-biased approach to training, or because they’ve been sent to me over the years by different fitness companies.
I like using an inversion table after a heavy squat or deadlift session, but if my wife hadn’t found it at a flea market for a mere $25, it wouldn’t be in our basement. We have several high-quality foam rollers (not pictured) that work even better, but they’re upstairs, so I favor the inversion table when I’m down in the basement.
I inherited a cheap dip stand from my father, who was doing dips at a bodyweight of 300 pounds well into his 60s. It looks pretty unstable, but it supported him and continues to support me just fine. I’ve talked to the BaseBlocks people about getting a set of their gymnastics blocks to replace this, but they’ve been back-ordered for some time. Quick aside: Perhaps because I’m 60 pounds lighter than my father, my range of motion on the dips is way better than his. That said, the old man did teach me how to do dips, l-sits, pull-ups and headstands, and for that I thank him. Even if you don’t have a dip stand for l-sits, you can do them right on the floor — another trick my dad did well into old age.
I’ve scarred up my legs from deadlifts and don’t need any more damage down there, so I’ve always preferred using soft boxes for jumping. The particular box jump below converts to 24 inches and 20 inches depending on how it’s turned, so my wife uses it as well. We don’t jump on it for more than 10 to 20 reps at a time, given that it’s directly over the bedroom in the basement, but banging out five quick reps during a break from office drudgery is a nice change of pace. I’ve noticed that box jumping with good form, landing dead center and then standing up straight, has worked wonders for my squat and deadlift performance, as well as preventing pain and soreness.
The Compex muscle stimulator, which I was sent when I did a story on weird fitness gadgets, has proven its efficacy and then some. The price tag has dropped considerably on this item since 2017, and similar units can now be bought for around $200, but as near as I can tell, it does actually work. I’ve not worn it while working out, as some athletes do, because the pads (which have to be replaced pretty frequently, and are a pain to apply) come loose, but I do use it when I’m dealing with some major lactic acid buildup after a difficult training session. It zaps the muscle and has loosened up more than a few of my “charley horses.”
The Big Takeaway
Look, most of us don’t have room for all this stuff. Truth be told, I really don’t either — but I’ve made space. My basic advice, though, is to start thinking about what your training sessions are like, start thinking about what you can keep around the house, start pricing that stuff out and then start buying it. Walking, running, sit-ups and push-ups are fine, and you can get by with just those things, but there are plenty of ways to skin the fitness cat — and with everything above, your basement or garage gym will always be there for you whenever your 24-hour globo-gym cannot.