If you are joining a gym, then I recommend getting one of the staff to give you a tour and demonstrate how to operate equipment that you plan on using. If you are one of those people that hates asking for help, then prepare to be baffled. Some of the equipment is sure to be created by someone who has never used the thing. I’ve seen plenty of people defeated by something as seemingly simple as adjusting the incline of a weight bench.
On the other hand, if you plan on setting up a home gym, then I would make an effort to go to a commercial gym first. Doing this gives you an idea of what equipment you need. It’ll save you a lot of wasted money.
The first piece of equipment you use is the shoe. Therefore it is a sensible place to start.
Shoe style will always remain a matter of personal preference. For running, I have found it highly beneficial to get a specialist shoe store to match a running shoe to my gait and foot shape.
When it comes to weight lifting, I find it uncomfortable wearing a typical running shoe that allows a lot of compression. This discomfort is primarily for the squat, deadlift, lunge, and Olympic lifts. Most serious lifters prefer a ‘minimalist’ shoe, especially for the deadlift. I prefer a minimalist shoe with the ability to spread my toes. Barefoot is even better, but most gyms aren’t keen on that.
Resistance bands are useful for warming up, correcting technique, travel, rehabilitation, and other situations such as attaching to weights. Choose a resistance that is challenging yet not too heavy.
If you don’t have a suitable post or something similar to wrap your resistance band around, then a door anchor is handy, especially for travel. Set at shoulder height or waist height depending on the exercise.
Adjustable weight dumbbells generally aren’t as comfortable to handle, but they do allow flexibility for the cost. Primarily if you aim to push your progressive loading by increasing your weight loads, which you should be doing. Bear in mind that changing the weight load of adjustable weight dumbbells midway through a workout is not very practical and quickly becomes tedious. It will also quickly become apparent that resting them on your thighs hurts like hell. If you are intent on going for an adjustable dumbbell, it may be worth considering a more innovative, although more expensive type.
Set weight dumbbells are much better but are also much more expensive. Only buying what weights you need is the best way to go, unless you have money to burn. Urethane/ rubber coated dumbbells are definitely worth investing in because you’ll undoubtedly be throwing them around. Hexagonal shaped ends on dumbbells are useful for preventing them from rolling away.
Given their current popularity, you might be surprised to know that kettlebells have been around for a long time. Dumbbells and kettlebells are interchangeable for many exercises, and each has its limitations. Kettlebells are great for swinging exercises and deadlifts. Yet some exercises are better done with dumbbells due to the excessive pressure that kettlebells place on the wrists.
With time, the value of investing in quality kettlebells becomes apparent. A smooth handle, consistent handle diameter, and wide handle so you can get two hands inside the handle opening all matter. Consistent distance off the ground also helps for doing deadlifts.
If you are setting up a home gym, the weight bench is probably the first thing you need. Beyond the weights themselves, that is. A weight bench is useful for many different exercises. The bench press, one arm row, chest supported row, lying tricep extension/ skull crushers, tricep kickback, and box squat, are to name a few.
When considering the quality of a bench, there are more considerations than you would think; size, safety/ strength, durability, comfort, stability, and frame. The frame can interfere with your feet, so it’s worth considering the different options out there. An adjustable incline bench gives you more options but adds to the decision making process. Extra considerations are back and seat angle options, the gap between the seat, and ease of use. Some adjustable benches go to an upright position of 90 degrees, but this doesn’t work. You want closer to 85 degrees. Seats that don’t adjust to being perpendicular are also useless.
Remember, the bench has to hold your weight, plus whatever weight you are lifting. So it needs to be strong to be safe. Benches come in some pretty weird sizes, like humans, I guess. So check that its width, height, and length suits you. When you have your knee, chest, or back planted on it while lifting something f’ing heavy, it also helps to be comfortable.
Serious strength training requires a good barbell. Apart from the numerous types of barbell out there, the traditional barbell comes in two varieties; Olympic lifting (or weightlifting) and Powerlifting.
Olympic lifting/ weightlifting consists of the snatch and the clean and jerk. Powerlifting consists of the squat, deadlift, and bench press. Considering that weightlifting is a test of explosive power, and Powerlifting is a test of pure strength, I do wonder who named the two categories?
Olympic lifting/ weightlifting bars have ring markings on the shaft 36″/ 91cm apart and generally have better bearings for rotation, making it easier to get under the bar. The men’s barbell is 20kg/ 44lbs, and the women’s barbell is 15kg/ 33lbs. Women’s bars are smaller in diameter, slightly shorter, and don’t have center knurling. However, many men’s barbells don’t have the center knurling because it can be uncomfortable when doing cleans.
Centre knurling has no purpose for Olympic lifting, although it is on IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) certified bars. Its primary existence is to provide grip for the back squat on Powerlifting bars.
POWERLIFTING AND MULTI-PURPOSE BARS
Powerlifting bars are slightly larger in diameter than Olympic bars and are more rigid to accommodate heavier weights. The ring markings on the shaft are also closer together at 32″/ 81cm apart.
Powerlifting bars are generally cheaper than Olympic bars. However, if you plan on doing Olympic lifting/ weightlifting, then I think it is worth choosing an Olympic bar with quality bearings. Being able to get under the bar quickly is noticeably more difficult using a cheap Powerlifting bar with poor rotation.
Multi-purpose bars with dual markings are commonplace, and you will find these in most gyms. Multi-purpose bars are unlikely to have the ‘flex’ of a quality Olympic bar, but a good one will suit most people doing Powerlifting and Olympic lifting. The flex or ‘whip’ is the ability of the bar to store elastic energy.
The more expensive barbells have better quality steel, flex or rigidity, resilience, knurling (grip), bearings, rust resistance, and sleeve grooving.
It took me a while to realize what matters in a weight plate. Being from a reputable brand improves the chance that they are the correct weight and won’t fall apart after a few months of use.
There are generally three types of plate to choose from; cast iron, urethane/ rubber coated, and bumper plates.
Cast iron plates are simple, cheap, and thin. Therefore you can fit a lot on the bar. However, they are noisy as hell, and no good for Olympic lifts or dropping the bar.
Urethane/ rubber coated plates are more expensive but aren’t noisy and are less likely to do damage when thrown around or dropped. However, they aren’t designed for Olympic lifts or for dropping the bar.
Bumper plates are more expensive again but are mostly the standard diameter of 450mm and designed for a beating. They should be able to be dropped without damaging the lifting platform, the bar, or themselves.
Bumper plates are essential for the Olympic lifts, the snatch, and the clean and jerk. I also like them for deadlifting because they lift the bar a decent, consistent height off the ground. With long limbs and back injury concerns, for someone like me, the bar distance off the ground matters.
If you like deadlifting and the Olympic lifts, the ideal setup is to have a pair of bumper plates of weights 5kg/ 10lbs, 10kg/ 25lbs, 20kg/ 45lbs, and perhaps 25kg/ 55lbs. Plus a pair of urethane coated plates at each weight category, of a smaller diameter than the bumper plates. If these coated plates have a handle design or holes in them so they can be easily carried also helps. I don’t throw the bar around doing weightlifting because I like to get the benefit of lowering the bar back down. If you want to throw the bar around, you should use bumper plates all the way.
The benefit of this setup is that you can put a pair of bumper plates on the bar to get it a consistent height off the ground. Then you can get the additional urethane coated plates on and off the bar as you progress through your set more easily. This ease is due to their smaller diameter not bringing them in contact with the ground. Although I wouldn’t assume that urethane coated plates will automatically be smaller in diameter. It is worth checking dimensions before buying equipment.
For lifts where the bar doesn’t contact the ground, the type of weight plate doesn’t matter, unless there is the chance of them dropping.
WEIGHT PLATES TO GET YOU STARTED
Starting strength training, you will most likely want the following weight plates:
- 1.25kg/ 2.5lbs x 2
- 2.5kg/ 5lbs x 2, having 4 allows greater flexibility.
- 5kg/ 10lbs x 2, having 4 allows greater flexibility.
- 10kg/ 25lbs x 2
- 20kg/ 45lbs x 2, or as many as you need. How many you need depends on your strength, mechanical limitations, and goals.
The smaller change plates come in finer weight increments, but when you start training, you shouldn’t need these for progression. These plates come in handy when you are much more advanced in your lifting.
Remember to get some collars. Of your basic, standard collar options, I prefer the lockjaw/ easy lock collar over the cheaper spring collar.
SQUAT STAND/ POWER RACK
A barbell requires a rack, and they come in many different styles. Either way, you will want to consider using a frame with safety pins/ spotter arms. Note; it is a good idea to practice using safety pins/ spotter arms with an easy load on the bar. Trying them out when you are at your limits may end badly.
When choosing a rack, make sure you can spread your feet to a distance you want without the structure limiting your stance. If it’s for home, make sure it can accommodate the space and height of all the exercises that you want to do. I’m thinking of the squat, overhead press, bench press, Romanian deadlifts, and pull-ups. Also, check the clearance space for loading and unloading weights.
Most power racks come with a pull-up bar, which is handy and can save you from having to buy a separate one. If you get one with a pull-up bar, check that you can bolt down the rack. Also remember to check the height of the pull-up bar compared to ceiling height. Look at head clearance when at the top of the pull-up. Power racks also come in different heights, so check that it fits your height.
Better quality racks tend to have closer together hole spacing over almost the full height of the frame. Better hole allocation allows greater flexibility for height adjustment of the bar and safety pins/ spotter arms.
PULL-UP/ CHIN-UP BAR
Pull-ups and chin-ups are a great bodyweight exercise and are hard due to the amount of load lifted, i.e., your entire body weight. The more options for gripping bars at different angles, the higher the range of neuromuscular development you can achieve.
STEP PLATFORM/ BOX
The best thing to use for step-up exercises is a stable item in the form of a step platform, or box, with a non-slip surface. The height should be such that it is challenging. You may be best to start at a low height and then raise the height as your strength progresses. Many boxes have different dimensions so that you can turn it over, and it’s a different height.
A practical height is having your thigh roughly parallel to the floor with your foot resting on the top of the platform.
If you want to self apply massage to your muscles and body tissue, then a foam roller is a great way to do this. Foam rollers with a hard plastic inner pipe structure hold their shape for longer than the solid foam rollers. You can use a PVC pipe, but these are brutal.
Massage balls are a great way to self apply massage to your muscles in a highly targeted way. They can get into those tight spots and trigger points, and are also great for massaging the bottom of your feet.
Each type of ball has its application. However, I find the rubber-coated balls that are about the size of a billiard ball the most versatile.
I have used the following devices but since given up on them long ago. Unless you have a particular aim in using them, I would consider them a waste of time.
I’m not dead against these but, why not just lift or carry something heavy?
BALANCE DISCS AND WOBBLE BOARDS
I now regard all of the time I spent on a wobble board in Pilates studios a waste of time. But hey, if you want to use one, make sure you refer to unstable surface training. Wobble boards are usually more challenging than balance discs.
SWISS BALL/ PHYSIOBALL/ EXERCISE BALL
As above, exercises that require balance performed on Swiss balls can be extra challenging for your stabilizer muscles. But why not do something that challenges your prime mover muscles at the same time?
Using a stretch strap for static stretching is supposedly useful for taking the load off your back. It does this by allowing you to lie down while stretching your legs. I haven’t found it personally any more beneficial for my back than just doing a standing stretch.
ARMBAND FOR PHONE
If you want to have your phone on you while you’re exercising, then an armband is an obvious choice. However, trying to do strength training while wearing one of these things soon became a pain in the arse. Mine only lasted ten minutes.
Analysis of equipment selection can go much deeper than this discussion, but hopefully it helps get you started!
For an introductory strength training program, refer to introductory strength.