Creating a Home Gym (aka The Gym That Math Built)

I lift weights, and I love it. I haven’t always been consistent with it though. I started a few times. First when I was a teenager, and then again when I was a newlywed, and then again when I was in my early 30’s. It was that last time that stuck, and here I am at 43 still lifting (currently recovering from an injury 4 weeks ago, but I am still a lifter). At first, I would go to a commercial gym, and I learned a lot there about what the different machines are for, what movements to do, and how to lift with good form. I loved going to the gym, but after a while I wanted the convenience of being able to train at home. I didn’t want just any home gym though. I wanted a home gym that would totally replace the commercial gym. I have one now, and this is the story of how it came to be. It started in June, 2006.

Rich’s Home Gym, aka “The Dlingeon” Version 1.0 (June, 2006)

First things first, I needed a space. We had recently moved into a new home (brand new that we chose from architectural plans), and a big criterion was that there be a good space in the basement for a gym. Our basement has just that. When you go down the stairs and turn right there is a big open area with a walkout to the backyard which is great for a family/games room, but if you turn left there is a smaller perfectly rectangular area that my wife and I knew from the get-go would eventually be the home gym. Check “space requirement” off the list.

Next on the list – flooring. It’s just not a good idea to put a home gym down without the proper kind of flooring. In a basement, you are probably dealing with concrete as I was. This is good because it’s hard to seriously compromise concrete, but if you don’t cover it with something you’re asking for dust, concrete chipping when you drop weights (and you will if you’re doing it right!), and cold feet. Ideally you’d want some heavy-duty rubber mats like they have in commercial gyms, and initially that was my plan. Then I found out how much that costs. To cover the whole floor would have cost more than the gym equipment I planned to buy! So I scaled the 1-inch thick rubber down to two 4X6 mats, for deadlifting, and for the rest I bought the children’s play-area interlocking foam. One side is colorful, the other is black. I opted to have the black side facing up. Check flooring off the list.

Next – equipment! My goal was to spend as little as possible to get as much as possible. That’s usually the case. I did a lot of research and initially wanted to get a smith machine since it’s safe for training alone, and provides a lot of options, especially since you can add options with pulleys etc. But smith machines are quite expensive and when I went shopping I discovered the leverage PowerLift system by BodySolid. It had a pressing station, a curling and pulldown station, and a hack squat station. Plate loaded and extemely well-designed. And the best news was that I could come in under-budget and buy a power rack. I bought the PowerLift, power rack, a bunch of weight plates (2X2.5, 2X5, 4X25, 6X45) and I was set. This was to be the last time I would make a major gym purchase retail. If I had known then what I know now I never would have gone to a store. But more on that later. Check equipment off the list.

The PowerLift still in the boxes. This was an exciting moment!
Sept. 2006. Rich’s Home Gym v1.0

In the pictures you can see where I set up the power rack and the heavy duty mats. It’s the perfect spot for it as there is just enough width and depth to be able to train in the rack and load/unload weights comfortably, with literally not an inch to spare. “Not an inch to spare” is a key characteristic of a good home gym. I don’t remember what the total cost was, however I have a vague memory of having done all this for around $1600. Not bad.

Here’s a quick video of me using the PowerLift in 2007. I used to time my rest between sets, so you’ll see me hit the button on my high class Casio after the set.

This is a good time for a detour into how I paid for all the rest of the evolution of the gym.

How Math Built My Gym

From a budgeting perspective, the money I spent on the gym at this stage was money my wife and I had allocated for a home gym for me, and I had a pretty complete gym. From that time on, any money I wanted to spend had to come from “non-family” funds. I do a lot of math tutoring so there’s a source of income that is “extra”. When I tutor though, my wife and kids have to stay quiet, because I tutor in our home in the dining room. Our house is not very big. Any noise in the house is heard in the dining room, no matter where the noise originates. I have to tutor in the dining room because it is in plain sight of the front door, and it’s important to me that parents of the students I tutor know that at any time they could walk up to the door and see us. Teachers will understand that sadly, these are things we have to consider whenever we know we are going to be alone with a kid who is not ours. A long time ago my wife and I sat down to discuss tutoring funds, and we decided that the whole family contributes in their own way to my being able to earn that extra money. So we decided that what made the most sense to us is that whatever I earn, 50% goes right into family money. Of the remaining 50%, half goes to my own discretionary pile and the other half goes into my wife’s discretionary pile. This is money that either of us can spend on whatever we want without having to consult or feel guilty that a frivolous purchase was made at the expense of something the family may have needed or wanted. I use it for things like casino trips, electronic toys that only I care about, and gifts for my wife (she uses hers on gifts for me among other things). This stash of money was to become my source for the rest of the improvements to my gym.

Dlingeon Version 1.01 (June, 2006)

At some point early on I realized I wanted to be able to do what I call corner rows. Easy enough. Using money I make tutoring math, I bought a v-grip cable handle (still retail), and put a piece of foam in the corner to protect the barbell and the wall. Many people say you need to anchor the barbell for this movement, and I suppose that would be safe, but I have never done so and never had a problem. Because of the way I lean back when I start, it gets jammed into the corner pretty good and I have never had it drift up, even with as much as 5 plates loaded on the business end. Here’s an early vid from the same day as the other video of me performing this movement.

Dlingeon Version 1.1 (July, 2007)

I loved that PowerLift a lot, but I began to really miss a few items. First and foremost, dumbbells. Secondly, a dip stand. My first solution to the dumbbell dilemma was to buy two spin-lock dumbbell handles and enough 10 lb plates to load them both up to the hilt. I also bought four 5’s and four 2.5’s for maximum flexibility. These were standard handles, not Olympic, since Olympic dumbbells are actually kind of annoying. But it meant that I had to buy standard weight plates. I did get these retail, but it was not very expensive. Maybe $100 total. Plus side: I could now create dumbbells from 5 lbs to 85 lbs (85 was a tight squeeze). Minus: I had to load them manually and no matter what the handle always sticks out so if you’re doing presses that start on your thighs it can get awkward and painful.

Weight plates, PowerLift attachments, and spin-lock dumbbells

As for the dip stand, I did end up buying retail. I bought a basic Northern Lights dip stand which as I recall was $125 at the time. I put it in the corner where I do corner rows. You can see the foam piece I use to protect the wall. Only a minor inconvenience to have to move the dip stand to do corner rows.

Northern Lights Basic Dip Stand

My mother also bought me a cool clock for the gym. It was shaping up. So was I!

Gym Clock – “I KNOW IT HURTS”

Dlingeon Version 1.2 (April, 2008)

One of the fairly predictable side effects of lifting weights is that you get stronger. When I first started lifting in my 30’s I used to look at guys that could press the 70 lb dumbbells and think they were monsters. The dumbbells in the gym I joined at the time went all the way up to 100 lbs. I remember how those 100’s looked like caricatures – gigantic. I also remember that when the owner gave me a tour of the gym prior to joining he told me the dumbbells “only went up to 100 to keep out the goons.”

Well there were only two guys I ever saw pick up and use those 100’s and they seemed like goons to me. I guessed if you could use bigger dumbbells than that you were an ├╝bergoon. I never dreamed I’d get to that stratum of goondom but working out regularly for years will get you there if you do it right, and the time came when my 85 lbs worth of dumbbell flexibility was not enough. I needed heavier dumbbells. I was a goon.

Here’s the thing about dumbbells though. They really cost a fortune. They’re generally sold by the pound, and when you’re looking for 90 lbs and up that adds up in a hurry (side note, if you want to find out how much a set of dumbbells from 90 lbs-120 lbs in 5 lb increments will cost at $1.50 a pound you could add it up one at a time or you can use an arithmetic series to simplify the calculations – you can guess which method I use). There was clearly no way I would pay retail. Thus began my love affair with craigslist and kijiji. Not many people are selling heavy dumbbells, and of the people who are they are often still asking quite a bit of money, but with patience and diligence you will eventually find what you need at a price you can afford. And I did. I found a guy who was selling a set of 95 lb – 120 lbs in increments of 5 lbs for under 50 cents/lb. At the time retail was over $1.50. I drove to his house, loaded them up into my wife’s Honda Pilot, and brought them home. I was so excited to use them! I was not strong enough to use the 120’s for anything but one-arm dumbbell rows yet, but I could press the 95’s and fairly quickly got up past the 100’s.

├ťbergoon! Heavy Dumbbells, 95 lbs – 120 lbs

Dlingeon Version 1.21 (July, 2008)

Anyone who has ever lifted heavy dumbbells will tell you that it’s not the most fun when they all live on the floor. So began my quest for a dumbbell rack. When you’re trying to build something of quality on a tight budget you really start to think carefully about maximizing the utility of each dollar you spend (keep in mind, every dollar I spend on the gym is a dollar I can’t spend on an iPad or Dolby Digital Surround System). One of the things that I really started to realize was that there would be items I’d need or want in the gym that were not directly used for exercise. I didn’t want to have to pay a lot of money for those. I looked at retail dumbbell racks that could hold heavy dumbbells and they just cost way too much for me to justify the expense. I once again used patience and craigslist to stumble upon a guy who was selling a custom job that was seriously heavy duty, and also had a shallow footprint, which is key in a home gym with limited space. He was asking $150 and I bought it for $100. As a plus, when I got there he had a pair of 140 lb dumbbells that he had no use for and offered them to me for $25!! Easy decision, even though to this day I’ve never pressed them. I have used them many times for rows though. They look so hardcore too sitting on the rack.

The icing on the cake was when he offered to let me use his truck to bring it all home. He and his brother helped me disassemble it, then load it up, and they followed me back to my place where they helped me carry it in. I reassembled it myself. It’s not hard to do but when you have a home gym you start to learn quickly there are a few tools you want to make sure you have. A ratchet set, a wrench set and a set of Allen keys found their way into my toolbox that day! I can’t even count the times I’ve used them since.

Custom dumbbell rack, along with new 140 lb dumbbells the guy I bought the rack from threw in for $25.

Dlingeon Version 1.22 (August, 2008)

One exercise I absolutely love to do is the deadlift. Anyone who has done it for any length of time will tell you how great it is for building all around strength and size. However they will also tell you that it takes its toll. One way around this is to not deadlift every week. When I was in a commercial gym I would alternate deadlift weeks with weighted hyperextensions. This both alleviated the stress of deadlifting too often and also had the bonus of strengthening my lower back so I could deadlift heavier weight! In my home gym I had no good replacement for hypers. So I needed a hyperextension bench. But again these are tough to find used, and to get a commercial quality one retail was out of the question. Once more patience and diligence worked in my favour and I eventually found one for $40. A Lamar. Lamar is a fitness equipment company that made great quality stuff for home gyms, but unfortunately went under (from what I’ve read it had nothing to do with their product and everything to do with a crooked accountant). If you can find Lamar equipment that hasn’t been abused, buy it! It’ll usually be for a great price because it’s not a well-known name thanks to the company’s quick demise and so it’s priced well under comparable stuff from companies like Hoist, Precor, BodySolid, etc. This bench has adjustable everything, including the angle which adjusts from 45 degrees all the way to horizontal.

Lamar Fitness Multi-Position Hyperextension/Roman Chair

Dlingeon Version 1.23 (October, 2008)

The dumbbell handles with screw-lock were an okay solution for the price, but they have their drawbacks. First and foremost, the bar sticks out way past the weights, and it digs into your thighs if you want to do dumbbell presses with them starting with the weights on your knees, which is really the only way to do it when you train alone. Even if you offset the dumbbell so the bar isn’t digging into your thigh the screw-lock still does. So I had been trolling the internet for a used set for a long time, waiting for the right set at the right price. It finally came in the form of a guy who had a set custom made for himself in the 80’s by a friend who had a body shop. The guy had stopped lifting years before, and had stored the set in his basement. There was quite a bit of rust on them so he knew he couldn’t get much and was asking 50 cents/lb for his set which went from 25 lbs – 105 lbs in increments of 5 lbs, but for some reason was missing the 75’s. I offered him 30 cents/lb and he took it. My friend drove over to the guys house with me and we loaded up the dumbbells into my wife’s van and his station wagon, and once again when I got home I had the pleasure of multiple sets of farmer’s walk from my porch through the living/dining room and down the stairs into the basement. Note to anyone who ever does this – start with the heaviest ones! Otherwise by the time you get to them you won’t be able to move. Also, warm up. It’s a serious workout.

Once they were down my rack was finally put to full use. Here’s a pic. I had originally intended to restore the dumbbells by removing the rust and repainting, but to date I have not had the time or inclination, and the dumbbells work just fine anyway.

Full Dumbbell Set – 25 lbs – 140 lbs. Rust is free of charge.

another pic – the set was too big now to fit in one frame!

Full Dumbbell Set – 25 lbs – 140 lbs. Rust is free of charge.

At first I had decided to put the heavy dumbbells on top, since it’s actually a bit difficult to get them out of the vertically oriented rack from the bottom. That is what you see in the picture. However I did eventually move the heavy ones to the bottom because I worried (probably unnecessarily) about the centre of gravity of the full rack. Note those awesome 140’s at the top right! I do use them. Here’s a video of me rowing those bad boys.

Dlingeon Version 2.0 (November, 2008)

The PowerLift was a great gym, but it had some issues which over time I realized were becoming more than I wanted to deal with. For one, when you’re doing chest presses using a leverage system, every set always begins with a rep at the bottom of the range of motion. Imagine starting a bench press with the bar at your chest instead of at arm’s length. This is not technically a terrible thing, but I found as I got stronger that the weight I had to use so that I could start the set was significantly lighter than the weight I would use if I could make it heavier once I finished the positive portion of the first rep. I started to load heavier weights on and struggle to get the first rep but then the rest of the reps would be smooth. I injured my shoulder doing this, and it was quite a significant injury that kept me out of the gym for a couple of months.

Another issue I had with the PowerLift was there was no good way to do a flye movment. There were bands you could attach to the arms of the pull station, but you weren’t pulling in the direction of the resistance. A flye is supposed to be from the outside in (or the inside out) and the resistance should be in the opposite direction of the pull. With bands attached to fixed arms the movement could be done but the resistance doesn’t work against the flye. In other words, I really missed the cable systems at the commercial gym where you could do crossovers. It wasn’t terrible since I had dumbbells and those are great for flyes, but there are times when you’d like to use a machine.

I also looked at the footprint of the PowerLift and decided that in the long run I would regret how much space it takes up. There was equipment I knew I’d eventually want to get and there wasn’t room for it as long as the PowerLift was there. So I made the decision to sell the PowerLift, which I did for about $200 less than I paid, and I bought a Nautilus Smith machine used for significantly less than I made selling my PowerLift. This was the beginning of me using my existing equipment to upgrade to new equipment, usually without being out of pocket and often at a profit!

The Nautilus system I bought was actually very clever, as it combined a smith machine with a plate-loaded cable system with multiple positions for the handles. Here’s a picture of it just after I put it together:

Nautilus NT-CC1

And here’s a picture of the bench it came with. One downside to selling the PowerLift was I had to sell the FID (Flat-Incline-Decline) bench it came with. The bench that came with the Nautilus was not as good.

Nautilus FID Bench

The main problem with the bench is the fact that it widens at the seat. This becomes quite irritating when doing movements where you’re lying down because I have been gifted with legs of a man 6 inches shorter than I am, and unless you have super long legs you have to separate your legs to let your feet touch the floor. A minor irritation but an irritation nonetheless. The Nautilus system also came with Nautilus Olympic plates, which was nice because I was starting to need more weight plates!

Dlingeon Version 2.1 (February, 2009)

One of the main pieces I had been missing from a commercial gym was a leg press. They take up quite a bit of space and they are really only good for a few movements, so it was hard to justify the purchase, but I had created space selling the PowerLift and had saved up enough that I could finally pull the trigger. Originally I wanted to buy the BodySolid leg press/hack squat combo but I found someone selling a Northern Lights unit that also converted from leg press to hack squat and they were asking about half of the retail price. Decision made. Here’s a pic:

Northern Lights Leg Press/Hack Squat, configured for hack squats. To switch to leg press the back pad can be moved to the foot plate and there’s a metal foot plate that can be lifted up behind where the back pad is in the picture.

Dlingeon Version 2.11 (April, 2009)

I had been looking for a seated calf machine for some time. Once again it has very limited use so I wasn’t interested in spending a ton of money on it. I kept my eye on kijiji and craigslist and one finally came up, listed for $150. I offered $125 and they agreed. It doesn’t take up much space so it was no problem fitting it in. It comes fitted for standard weight plates so I did have to buy an Olympic adapter retail – $15.

One issue with it that I live with to this day is that there is no safety stop position, so if you get in trouble and can’t re-rack the weight you have to let it fall to the ground and get your legs out of the way.

Northern Lights Seated Calf

Around this time, a friend of mine called me to tell me that his neighbour was selling a VKR – that’s home gym speak for a Vertical Knee Raise station and it really means one of those contraptions that you can use for dips, pull-ups and that also has a back pad and handles with armrests for hanging knee raises. They’re really versatile and a great addition to your gym. Since I already had a dip station though I wasn’t going to bite, but then my friend told me his neighbour only wanted $75 for it, and he would bargain down to $50 for me. That was too good to pass up so I listed my dip station for $125, sold it for $100, and bought the VKR for $50.

Standard Home Gym VKR

Sadly, I only used this for a few workouts. A friend of mine was over for a workout and watched me doing weighted dips on this unit. I weighed about 220 lbs at the time and was hanging 90 lbs from a belt around my waist, and my friend noticed that the handles were bending and the main posts were as well. That was when I learned that not all VKR’s are created equally. I sold it almost right away for … wait for it … $275! Then I replaced it with a Hoist VKR of significantly sturdier construction, which I bought from a guy who had been a silent partner in a gym that had gone under and had all the equipment in a storage unit that he didn’t want to keep paying rent for. I paid $150 for the Hoist VKR. It retails for over $1000.

Hoist VKR

This was a significant improvement over the previous two dip stations. First, it’s rated for weights heavy enough for me and my weight plates, and second, the back pad actually comes off and can be attached at the back for incline ab exercises. It also turns out this unit was a big attraction and here’s a picture of my friend, IFBB Pro Carrie Simmons, demonstrating dips in my gym.

IFBB Pro Carrie Simmons graces the Dlingeon and demonstrates proper dip form!

Dlingeon Version 3.0 (June, 2009)

Well the Nautilus Smith was fun for a while, but I didn’t like the bench it came with and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t do pulldowns on it. I also felt it was taking up too much space. So in June ’09 I decided to sell it and replace it with a multi-gym cable system. I sold the Smith for $700 and bought a Northern Lights multi-gym for $520.

Northern Lights Multi-Gym – dog butt not included as standard equipment.

I also used the proceeds from the Smith to buy a Northern Lights preacher bench for $75. Because I sold the FID bench with the Smith, I had to buy another FID bench, along with leg extension attachment. I found these used for $200 and $40, respectively. Northern Lights makes all their plate loaded stuff for standard plates, so once again I had to buy an Olympic adapter – $15.

Northern Lights FID Bench
Northern Lights Preacher Bench

The multi-gym was good for a lot of things, but I noticed immediately that it was built for people with different proportions than me. So for example I never could get the pec-dec to fit my arms properly, and when I did pull-downs my legs were always pretty squished under the anchors, even with them set at the highest position. Strange when you consider that I have freakishly short legs. All that said though, it was usable, and I used it for a long time.

If you’re paying close attention to the pictures, you’ll see the foam piece still in the corner. No problem, except now I have to move a preacher bench to do corner rows. Big deal. You’ll also notice a weird-looking curl bar on the preacher bench. That’s a purchase I regretted almost immediately and sold it right away for $35, then bought an EZ-Curl bar retail for $55 to replace it.

Dlingeon Version 3.01 (December, 2009)

Turns out I didn’t like the Northern Lights FID bench too much. I found the back pad to be too narrow and I was benching in the neighbourhood of 275 lbs at this point, with my bodyweight of 220 lbs or so, and I never quite trusted the tiny hinge at the bottom which becomes the focus of all that weight. So I looked around until I found a used Body Solid FID. Body Solid makes three of these, each one sturdier than the previous. I wanted the sturdiest one they make. I found someone selling one for $250 and bought it, then sold my Northern Lights FID and leg extension attachment for $350. I did have to buy the Body Solid leg extension attachment retail, for $112, so I was down $12 on the exchange. I could live with that for the much higher quality bench! I don’t have any pictures of it alone, but it will show up in pictures later on.

Dlingeon Version 4.0 (July, 2011)

The multi-gym configuration lasted me quite some time, but in July of 2011 I decided that I was ready for a change. I’d been looking at functional trainers and liked the idea of the flexibility they provide. I kept my eye out for a used one that was priced well as they’re seriously expensive, and finally found a trainer who had a gym but was shifting his focus from weights to TRX, and he had a Tuff-Stuff functional trainer that was gathering dust. So I sold my multi-gym and bought his functional trainer. And for a bonus, he’d paid extra for the Smith attachment to the trainer, so now I had a full functional trainer and a Smith machine!

Tuff Stuff Functional Trainer/Smith

With some moving around of equipment I was able to fit it all in.

Full gym except for functional trainer

Dlingeon Version 4.0 (July, 2012)

I love the functional trainer/Smith machine, but one serious drawback is that there is no good way to anchor yourself for pulldowns. This started to annoy me, so I decided to sacrifice the space my seated calf machine was taking up, and I bought a used Lamar lat tower. The guy that sold it to me had a lot of attachments that I didn’t need, and a lot of weight I didn’t need either. By the time I was done selling the stuff I didn’t need, as well as my seated calf machine, I was $100 and one lat tower richer than before. This is the current state of my gym, and here’s a virtual tour video I took a little while ago. I used a Samsung Tablet to take the video, and apparently the proportions aren’t ideal for YouTube, but you can see everything.

In Conclusion (finally!)

I have to say that I absolutely love having a home gym. My workouts are better here, without the distractions of the commercial gym. Nobody but me ever sweats on the equipment, and all the gym members always put away their weights and dumbbells. I have some computer speakers set up and I plug my iPhone into them when I train, so the music is always exactly what I want to hear. I’ve made huge gains in size and strength. Here are a few videos of my favourite lifts, to finish off this blog, which according to the editor I’m typing in, has just reached 5122 words!

Personal best deadlift:

High rep deadlift:

Low Flyes in the trainer:

Personal best 1-rep bench:

Reverse flyes in the trainer:

Lat pulls in lat tower:

Thanks for reading,

Rich