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I love the gym and never thought a time would come when I’d need to… (gasp!) work out at home. The problem is there’s only so much you can do without equipment. Burpees, pushups, air squats, and situps get old—fast. You really do need to invest a bit if you want to do a hard, full-body strength workout. But stuffing a squat rack, an exercise bench, and a complete set of free weights into your home is expensive—both in money and space. Thankfully, you don’t need all that.
Consider your goals and living situation
Before jumping onto Amazon, step back and think about what you’re trying to achieve—whether that’s staying healthy, training for a sport, or getting stronger—and if you need any workout equipment at all.
If your goal is general health and well-being, it’s hard to beat a nice stroll. Many writers and scientists have made the case that a regular brisk walk is sufficient for the vast majority of people (even if you don’t reach 10,000 steps per day).
On the other hand, if you want to lift heavy weights, there really isn’t a minimalist setup that can replicate a barbell—it already is the minimalist setup. No amount of kettlebell swings will replace a deadlift.
Unfortunately, while a barbell and weight plates would let you do almost everything, they weigh a few hundred pounds—and you need quite a bit of room to use them. If you’ve got an outdoor area or a garage, great, but if space and storage is an issue, you’ll need something a little more compact.
Two heavy kettlebells
The next-best thing to a bar and plates is two heavy kettlebells. Andy “IronMac” McKenzie, a strength and conditioning coach in the UK, recommends a weight of between 20 and 24 kilograms (45 to 52 pounds), though you should scale as needed. Holding both kettlebells at the same time should be comfortable, but challenging.
By using the kettlebells either individually or together, you can hit almost every muscle group by squatting, swinging, pressing, pulling, or pushing them. “Even with lighter weights, you can use tempo (how quickly you move) and time-under-tension (how long you spend on each lift) to create the sensation of more weight,” said Will Henke, head coach of The Program by WanderFit. Combine these with a few bodyweight exercises and you’re well on your way to replacing the gym.
Resistance bands and a stick
But even two heavy kettlebells might not be enough resistance for movements like squats and deadlifts.
That’s why, according to both McKenzie and Henke, you also need some resistance or pull-up bands. You can use them to increase resistance when you do “sumo-style” squats and deadlifts by looping one band around your wide-spread feet and through the handles of the kettlebells, explained McKenzie. The extra force you’ll need to pull against the tight band forces your muscles to work even harder. It’s not a full barbell replacement, but it’s as close as you can get with stuff that will fit in your cupboard.
Add a wooden broom handle and you open up a wide range of new exercises. “With a stick and a band you can do loads of pulling exercises,” McKenzie said—before quickly demonstrating a range of horizontal and vertical pulls via an Instagram message. “And you can do bicep curls and tricep presses.”
Gymnastic rings or suspension straps
The final piece of the minimalist gym puzzle is a set of gymnastic rings or suspension straps. With these, you’ll be able to do pull-ups and rows, both hallmarks of most good bodyweight strength programs. They’re also a key component of some killer ab exercises.
If you’ve got space to hang a pull-up bar, great. But if you don’t, it’s not a problem. Both gymnastic rings and suspension straps can be mounted to a sturdy door. Just put the anchor over the top of the door, close it, lock it, attach your rings, and you’re good to go. I’ve used this kind of setup to do full horizontal rows without an issue.
Expanding your gym
With the gear above, McKenzie promised you can “have a kick-arse workout every time.” But, of course, there are always pieces you can add, depending on your goals.
If you have the space, both coaches flagged a barbell as the best thing you can buy. “You don’t even need that many plates,” Henke said. “For a normal person, up to 225 pounds will do great.”
For cardio, you can always run outside, but there are other options. “A jump rope goes without saying,” Henke said. “And having a bicycle is good too. A cheap mountain bike is a great bit of cardio equipment.”
Otherwise, things like sandbags and slam balls will let you do more high-intensity workouts outdoors—and you can adjust the weight as needed. A yoga mat also makes floor movements more comfortable. Plus, you can always add more kettlebells or a set of dumbbells so you can vary the weights a bit more.
Putting together workouts
No amount of gear will help you if you don’t know how to use it safely and effectively. If you’re not comfortable programming workouts for yourself, there are plenty of great resources you can use.
Reddit’s Bodyweight Fitness community has put together a fully-scalable bodyweight routine that uses a resistance band and gymnastic rings. It’s easy to work in kettlebells, too. I’ve used it for the past month and it’s been great. It’s also been thoroughly vetted.
I’m a big fan of online personal training. It gives you direction, accountability, and easy access to an expert coach. There are hundreds of options out there, including both McKenzie and Henke. I’d recommend doing a bit of research and finding a coach you like whose programs line up with your goals.
If you don’t want the personalized touch, services like 8fit and NEOU have more workouts than you could ever do in your lifetime. Try a few and see which service you like most.