News & Politics

Make Over: Home Gym? No Sweat.

Can’t find time to exercise? Consider your own workout room—it takes less space and costs less than you might think.

Herb Brown likes to stay fit: The retired lawyer has been exercising for 37 years. Although he started out at a gym, he early on decided to set up an exercise area at home with a stationary bike and free weights.

These days, Brown and his equally fit wife, Andrea, work out in a 12-machine fitness center in their Bethesda basement. They have nine strength machines and three aerobic—a treadmill, a stationary bike, and an elliptical trainer—plus a stand for dumbbells and one for barbell plates.

Health clubs are not always convenient: Besides the time and motivation it takes to get there, you may have to deal with peak-time crowds and monthly dues.

Still, the idea of exercising in a small, dark room in your basement might not appeal either. Brown’s L-shaped home gym is about 18 feet in length one way, then turns and runs another 13 feet, giving him lots of space. “Not many people have equipment like this in their home,” he says.

Howard Kandel knows the advantages of working out at a gym and at home. Kandel owns both a construction company and Level Fitness, a gym in Cabin John. He has had home gyms of different sizes over the years.

“Before my wife and I opened Level, we had a home gym. It started out small, a few pieces of equipment. I moved my office out of the basement to expand the fitness space, then tore down a wall and expanded the gym a third time.

“After we built Level, we donated our equipment to the firehouse on River Road,” Kandel says. “Now we have a ‘boys club’ basement for our 13- and 14-year-olds. But there are days I don’t feel like leaving the house to exercise. As much as I like being at Level, we got a treadmill for the house.”

Working Out the Basics

With no plumbing and little electrical work, all a home gym needs is a modest amount of room. A 9-by-12-foot space is enough for two pieces of cardio equipment at the recommended 12 to 18 inches apart, with floor exercise space to spare.

“For strength equipment, the trend is toward single-station compact designs that allow the user to complete all exercises and adjustments from the front of the machine. You can put the equipment in a corner or up against a wall,” says Dominic Boone of Leisure Fitness in Bethesda.

If your ceiling is on the low side, consider recessed lighting. “Most homes built in recent years have eight-foot ceilings, so low ceilings are not the issue they once were in basement renovations,” says Pete Moravek of Fitness Resource in Chantilly.

Concrete-slab flooring needs no reinforcement even for the heaviest machines. The flooring installed over the concrete should be durable and comfortable. Rubber tiles are often used; vinyl and cork are good, too. Low-pile carpet and hardwood are the next best choices. Hardwood is a natural for dance or aerobics—although hardwood can warp even in the most moisture-resistant basements.

Some options for a home gym:

• a TV on a swivel so you can see it from any angle

• a VCR or DVD for exercise videos

• a mirrored wall, to check out your form and reflect light

• a window that opens for fresh air

• a ceiling fan if you have the height; floor fans if you don’t

• a sound system

Equipping a Home Gym

“The key to home fitness equipment is that it should be comfortable, easily adjustable, and smooth to operate,” says Boone.

Ideally, a home gym should have two pieces of equipment: for cardio, a stationary bike (recumbents are very popular), treadmill, or elliptical trainer, and for strength, a weight system. Weight-lifting systems are often called “home gyms” or “multi gyms.” They work a variety of muscle groups—legs, back, arms, abdominals—with minimal adjustments.

Many people also want free weights—dumbbells that range from 5 to 25 pounds in five-pound increments—or a weight-lifting bench with heavier weights. Most men buy a 300-pound set. Choose a bench with an adjustable back.

“The most important thing you can do when designing a home gym is choose equipment you like and feel comfortable on,” says personal trainer Nick Irons. “Try the treadmill, elliptical, or bike for an entire workout before making a purchase. Ask yourself if you can honestly see yourself using it on a regular basis. If not, try another machine until you find one you like. This will save you from having an expensive clothes hanger.”

Dominic Boone says that ellipticals outsell all other cardio equipment at Leisure Fitness: “A combination of skiing arm movements and stair-stepping for the legs, they are superior for aerobics and easy on the knees.” Boone recommends two Web sites for equipment research:, which started the trend of foldaway home equipment, and for strength equipment.

Moravek recommends for researching cardio equipment. He says $2,500 should be enough to equip a good home gym.

“Because few consumers recognize—and thus will pay extra for—fitness-equipment brands, you truly get what you pay for,” he says. That doesn’t mean a costlier piece is better for you: “A $7,000 treadmill has complex programming, a longer deck, and a bigger motor, but depending on your exercise regimen, a $1,000 treadmill might get the job done.”

Stores like the Sports Authority, Modell’s, and Dick’s have cardio equipment that starts at $300 and strength equipment from $500. Specialty stores such as Fitness Resource, Leisure Fitness, and Gym Source have cardio equipment that typically starts at $500 and strength machines starting at $1,000.

“My advice as a homeowner and gym owner is to buy the best-quality equipment you can afford,” says Kandel.

Also, try bargaining, says Irons: “Like cars, the price of fitness equipment seems open to negotiation.”