Tools of the Trade – The Best Equipment for At-Home Fitness

While gyms and fitness centers remain a gold standard for those looking to get fit and stay fit, a surprising number of Americans are turning to at-home fitness programs to replace or supplement their gym workouts.

At Personal Best Personal Training, 80% of my clients workout solely at home, and another 10% workout at home as well as the gym. The clients who choose to workout at home site the time saving efficiency of working out at home as the primary reason for their choice. Not having to drive to a gym, wait in line for equipment, shower in the locker room and then drive home, saves at least an hour each day-precious time for busy stay-at-home moms or high level executives. Furthermore, for many of my clients, finding the right gym, in the right place with the right equipment, that has hours and classes that fit their busy lives, is often impossible.

Still, many fitness enthusiasts think you can only get a quality workout at the gym- and nothing is farther from the truth. The only group who may find working out at home less than adequate are those who lift maximum weight for sports training or for bodybuilding. But even for this population, there are many wonderful adjunct exercise programs that can be performed at home such as core and abdominal workouts, functional and bodyweight exercises and flexibility and cardiovascular workouts.

The keys to a good at-home workout are clearly, motivation and knowledge, and that’s where personal trainers come in, but at-home exercisers also need the right equipment to do the job. Listed below are, what I consider, the best types of fitness equipment to have at home- both “must-haves” as well as “wish I could have it”. Starting from least expensive to most expensive:

  1. Elastic Tubing or “stretch cords”– These cords have handles at the ends so that almost any equipment based exercise can be mimicked in an at-home program. They vary in strength from very easy- ideal for unfit seniors, children or rehabilitation purposes- to extra heavy- great for athletes and very strong men and women. They range in price from $6 to $15 in general, and are lightweight and portable for travel as well. There are various attachments that can also be purchased to attach the tubes to a door jam so that exercises such as lat pull down, vertical chest press and standing hip abduction can be performed depending on where the tubes are attached. These “fit loops” cost as little as $3.
  2. Physio Balls– The balls come in varying sizes depending on height. 55cm balls are appropriate for individuals up to about 5”6, 65cm is best for 5”7 to 6”1, and there are even larger balls as well. However, it is best to try one out as leg or torso length may make a slight difference in which ball you choose. You’ll know it is right for you if, when you sit on it, hips and knees are at 90 degrees. Choose the highest quality ball you can afford- many that are purchased at a discount are of very poor quality and in a short amount of time, stretch out and become too big. You should expect to pay between $20 and $30 for a good quality ball. Avoid the balls with “nubs” on them- they are uncomfortable. Balls should be inflated until they are quite hard and can be used to lie on, lean on, sit on, or as a bench for exercises such as bench press or reverse flyes. Generally, you should use lighter dumbbells than if you were using a traditional bench, and NEVER try and stand on the ball unless directed to do so for sports performance training (skiing-surfing?).
  3. Dumbbells– Dumbbells can be purchased almost anywhere and are less cumbersome and have more varied uses than barbells. What weights you choose depends on your baseline fitness level- but women can generally expect to start with 3-10 pounds, and men, 8-15 pounds. Lower body strength training exercises require heavier weights than a triceps exercise, for example, so having three or four sets minimum is best. These can be ordered on line or from catalogs- but shipping costs are ridiculous- so best to hit the local sporting goods store. Between stretch cords and dumbbells, any gym workout can be recreated!
  4. Medicine Balls– These “heavier than they look” balls can be used like dumbbells in various functional exercises, but are also great for throwing and catching exercises necessary for certain sports. Some medicine balls bounce slightly or have handles for various sports performance exercises. They have come back into popularity as “functional” and “sports performance” training keeps growing, and they range from one pound and up. A 3 pound med ball is a good place to start for new exercisers or women, whereas a 6-10 pound ball will work for most men. It is not the weight itself which makes these challenging- but the exercises which use these balls are unusual but functional. They range in price from $20 to $50, but these are not a necessity, as many med ball exercises can also be performed using a dumbbell.
  5. Foam Rollers and Balance Discs/Boards– We are now in the realm of “not always necessary- but a lot of fun”. Of course, balance training is key for athletes, but also for seniors or rehabilitation exercises. They usually must be purchased from a specific catalog (see below) and cannot always be found at a sporting good store. Foam rollers have multiple uses ranging from self massage and postural realignment to balance work. They range in price from $6-$15-quite affordable. Balance boards are more expensive, but durable and long lasting. Inflatable balance discs are usually around $15-$30, although some larger discs are quite expensive ($100-$200).
  6. Cardiovascular Equipment– There are many poor quality pieces of cardio equipment featured in local sporting goods or department stores. They are never worth buying, as they break easily and cannot be repaired. So- we are really looking at a major investment here. A higher quality treadmill, bike or elliptical should cost at least $1000, and truly excellent equipment costs $2000 and up. The investment is worth it- gym memberships run $500-$2000 year- and these high quality pieces should last many years. Make sure that what you buy is warranteed and repairable, and test it out before buying. It should be very sturdy,make no excess noise, and treadmills should have a strong motor that can accommodate running and heavier users. If you are told that it is not for jogging/running- then you know the motor is weak. Having an at home cardio piece has been a life saver for me- no excuses for not exercising due to bad weather in the winter or summer! Occasionally, you may find a good discount on a floor model- or used piece of equipment- but again- make sure it is warranteed if possible and in excellent condition.
  7. Universal Gyms– Not a necessity by any means- and way up there on the price charts. $1000 minimum- up to several thousands of dollars for the best equipment. They are great for users who lift heavier weights, but because they are rarely fully adjustable nor ergonomically ideal- they can also be inappropriate for some people with joint limitations or musculoskeletal injuries. You just cannot have all the best exercise positions in one piece of equipment, so they often force an exercise into an unnatural position. One example of an unnatural exercise that just doesn’t feel right is a standing hamstring curl station. It saves space, but is difficult to do well, and back injury is a risk. Make sure you try out the gym before buying. Cables and pulleys should be smooth and effortless with accommodating tension. It should be fully repairable and warranteed and should be put together by professionals- not You! As far as some of the “Bowflex” type pieces- I have never found those to work as well as a cable driven piece. The tension does not accommodate smoothly at all- it is either too hard in some spots- or too easy in others. Beware miracle products shown on TV! One of my clients does have a “Total Gym”- and it is fine for light weight and high reps- but it is made poorly- and certainly did not give Chuck Norris his rippling muscles!

Finally, what you choose to buy depends on the space you have. Remember that your exercise area should be attractive and welcoming- so putting a $3000 treadmill in a musty, unfinished basement is not conducive to exercise adherence. You may only need as little as a 10×10 space to exercise, and I recommend you place a mirror on the wall, if possible, to check your form and posture.

Many of the items listed above can be ordered from specialty catalogs where high quality is guaranteed. The two catalogs which I frequently use are:

Perform Better (M-F Athletic Company) in Cranston, Rhode Island, often ships in one day. This is unheard of, isn’t it? Shipping costs are quite reasonable- depending on weight of item of course. Request a catalog at 800-556-6464 or click on the Perform Button below to go to their Web site.

Power Systems in Knoxville, Tennessee also offers a wide variety of equipment at good prices. They take much longer to ship-but in some cases, are less expensive than Perform Better. Reach them at 800-321-6975 or