Have you been asking this question since the start of the lockdown? Several clients have asked me this question. And I bet tens of thousands across the country are asking the same thing.
It’s not that easy to figure it out. There’s a bewildering array of fitness equipment out there, the vendors of each all claiming theirs is all you’ll need to get super fit and toned. And the costs of home fitness equipment vary between a few quid to thousands of pounds.
How do you figure out what will meet your needs? How do you know whether you actually need expensive kit, or whether something cheaper will do the job?
Below, we run through various options for home fitness and give you the pros and cons of each.
Types of fitness
Before we do the run-down, let’s briefly remind ourselves of the types of fitness you might consider.
Very broadly you can break down fitness into
- Cardio: Longer duration, lower intensity exercise.
- HIIT: High-intensity interval training.
- Strength: Resistance training for strength and toning.
- Mobility: Mobilising, stretching and postural exercises.
I appreciate this is very broad, and it only covers ‘exercise’ and not ‘sport’. In this article, we’re not covering sport or skills-based activity, only keeping fit and strong.
Ideally, your exercise routine will include all of the above modalities, and your choice of equipment will enable you to do all of these adequately.
But this is the real world!
Everyone has different capabilities, preferences and budgets. So let’s talk about equipment now, and we can help you make informed decisions about what you buy.
Your equipment and exercise choices
If you can run and you enjoy running, then that’s your cardio sorted.
Walking is ok if you can’t run. But if you can do it at a fast pace and up a hill, then it’s a decent substitute for running.
If you can’t do either of those, or if you’re too fit for just walking, then you’ll need to look at other options.
Pros: Cheap! And running is excellent exercise.
Cons: No strength or flexibility component, although you could do hill sprints to get your HIIT done.
When it comes to HIIT, your body is quite an effective tool. There are lots of dynamic movements, such as burpees, and you can jump about and generally expend a lot of energy quickly. You only have to look at the challenge that the well-known ‘Insanity’ programme presents, to see how effective bodyweight can be for making you work hard.
But let’s be clear. You don’t get to look like Shaun T just by doing bodyweight HIIT. Your legs will get a decent workout, but your upper body will be much less challenged. If this is the only exercise you do, you’ll become unbalanced.
Pros: It’s cheap. Aside from the cost of Insanity, it’s free. It’s also great exercise, which will improve your cardio fitness.
Cons: It has a limited strength component, especially in the upper body.
Bodyweight strength exercises
Bodyweight strength exercises have a similar profile to HIIT, in terms of which muscles get worked. You can probably work chest and core a little better than with HIIT, but you definitely won’t get the same cardio benefits. You’ll probably pant a little bit with bodyweight strength drills, but not like you do if you have added weight or you do HIIT.
As with all bodyweight exercises, the muscles that are hard to work are those of the back, shoulders and biceps. If you only do bodyweight strength work, then you’ll end up imbalanced. Most people need to strengthen their back and open up their chest. Bodyweight strength work will do the opposite.
Pros: It’s free, and ok for beginner level strength work.
Cons: It’s not good for cardio conditioning. The opportunity for strength and toning is limited. It will create an imbalanced physique.
Bodyweight – yoga
I am a big fan of yoga, but only because it is supreme when it comes to flexibility, mobility and core.
If you’re looking for cardio conditioning or toning, yoga is not a good choice. It’s undoubtedly great for your core, and some of the poses will give you good endurance in certain muscles, especially postural muscles. But if you’re looking to build yourself up, yoga’s not going to do it.
Pros: It’s free to do at home, and it’s superb for core, posture and flexibility.
Cons: It’s not going to do much for your cardio conditioning, and it’s not going to tone you up.
If you can run, and you can cope with pavements and bad weather, then run. If you can’t, then you might like to invest in some cardio equipment.
Just to be clear, steady-state cardio has a lot of value. It’s good for stamina, it’ll strengthen your heart, it’ll improve your cardiovascular physiology, and it’ll improve your health markers. I enjoy my cardio because I can read a book while I’m at it, and it conveys real benefits in terms of my endurance and energy levels in everyday life. It’s an excellent way to burn calories while you’re doing something else – I’ve read so many books on the elliptical!
Talking of ellipticals – that would be my recommendation if you don’t like the treadmill. It’s a lot kinder on your joints, and it’s also a standing exercise, unlike the bike. I think we sit enough as it is, so I’m keen to get off my bum when I exercise.
The downside of any cardio equipment is that it will likely be expensive. It’s also not going to tone you in any way. No, not even your legs. If anything it’s going to shrink your legs. You’ll need to do something a bit more high intensity if you want to keep some size and tone in your legs.
Pros: A piece of cardio equipment is convenient, great for health and for a ‘relaxed’ way to burn calories.
Cons. It’ll be expensive and will take up some room, and it’s not going to help you tone up in any way.
Resistance bands for fitness come in two forms. There are the long tubes that have handles at each end, or there are wider bands – power bands – that come in a loop. With the latter, you double up the band, and the band itself becomes the handle.
Both types of band do the same thing more or less. The power bands provide more resistance and are more ‘heavy-duty’.
Resistance bands allow you to work the whole body. Providing you have an anchor of some sort, you can pull the bands towards you to work the back, and you can curl them to work the biceps. You can do a variety of exercises for your shoulders too.
So you can definitely develop a more balanced physique with resistance bands. You’ll have a hard time getting really strong and building muscle though. That’s because of the way the bands provide resistance.
As you stretch a band, the resistance increases. So, at the start of the movement, there is very little resistance; at the end of the movement, it’s about right. Either that or it’s about right at the start, and too hard at the end. Either way, you’re not getting full stimulation throughout the full range of the movement. This feels unnatural to me, and slightly frustrating. I never really feel like my muscles have been worked hard enough when I use bands. There are some notable exceptions, like lateral raises and biceps curls, but generally bands fall short, especially for the lower body.
Pros: They are cheap, take up no space and you can work your whole body.
Cons: They have an unnatural feel due to the changing resistance, and full muscle stimulation is difficult. You will find it hard to work the legs fully
You might think this is an odd entry on the list, but I include it because it’s cheap. And, if you’re into yoga, pilates and flexibility, then a swiss ball can help you take your capabilities to the next level. There are some great core exercises and balance drills, and you can also work your hamstrings quite nicely on a Swiss ball.
Aside from that, a Swiss ball won’t give you a lot. You certainly should not be hoisting dumbells while sitting on them, and you definitely should not try and stand on one! Take a look at our previous post on functional training to see a photo of a ludicrous exercise on a Swiss ball.
Pros: They’re great for taking your core and balance training to the next level
Cons: They won’t tone you or improve your cardio fitness.
Dumbbells and a bench
Now we’re talking.
Dumbbells provide variety while also allowing you to work your whole body really well. Not only that, but you can do some pretty good HIIT drills with dumbbells too. That means you can get toned, create a metabolic burn and improve your cardio fitness all with one set of equipment.
For me, dumbbells would represent the most cost-effective way to achieve all the things you’d need out of a fitness programme. Providing you do some flexibility work, you have a complete fitness programme available to you with a set of dumbbells.
There are a couple of downsides. First, you have several degrees of freedom with dumbbells, so you need to be able to maintain proper control over them. Second, if you’re quite strong, you’re going to need heavier dumbbells, and that can get quite expensive. Personally, I wouldn’t use those adjustable dumbbells because they would disrupt the flow of the workout and affect my focus.
Pros: You can get a full-body strength workout and decent aerobic fitness with dumbbells. They are economical on space.
Cons. They’re a little pricey if you’re strong and the instability can take some mastering.
Chinning bar and dipping station
You’ve probably seen these all-in-one exercise stations without realising what they are. Overhead there is a set of handles for pulling yourself up. Underneath those, you’ll find another set of handles for doing dips. What are dips? If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember Brian Jacks pumping out dips on the programme ‘Superstars’. Don’t remember? Take a look at this video and start watching at the 6-minute mark.
Pull-ups and chin-ups are great for the back, biceps and rear of the shoulders. Dips are great for chest, triceps and the front of the shoulders. If your station comes with the ability to do leg raises, then you’re getting some hip flexor and abdominal work too. So as a developer of the upper body, and chinning and dipping station is not a bad piece of kit.
The problem is, of course, you can’t work your legs with one of these. That means you’d only really get one of these to complement your other equipment. And the entry-level is high. You need to be pretty strong in the first place to be able to do chins and dips.
Pros: You’ll get decent upper body development on a single piece of kit, and it doesn’t occupy a lot of floor real-estate.
Cons: You won’t develop your legs, and you need to be strong to be able to use it.
Bench, barbell, plates and a gun rack
Like dumbbells, a barbell and plates offers a lot of variety and even better opportunities for strength and tone development. Barbells are supreme for big lifts – squats, deadlifts, cleans, bench presses, military presses, bent-over rows. Those are superb exercises for overall strength and force development. And they’ll give you good size too.
Those sorts of exercises will also stimulate your nervous system better than anything else in this list. That means you’ll get a better hormonal response and a better metabolism boost from a barbell.
Not only that, but barbells are supreme when it comes to HIIT drills. You can do cleans and power cleans, high pulls, squats and front squats, thrusters and all sorts of other powerful dynamic movements. Do them in a circuit, and you have an exhausting HIIT workout with strength development as a bonus.
So barbells are fantastic for lower body and torso, but what about arms? Well, if you get yourself an EZ bar as well as a standard Olympic bar, then you’ll also be able to do curls and skull-crushers amongst other things.
I’d say there’s only one missing component with a barbell, and that’s the lateral head of the shoulders. They’ll get some work with other exercises, but not a direct hit.
One final word of caution. Beware of getting fancy branded barbells and plates in funky shapes. If you can’t rack the barbell, and there’s no bench, you’re going to limit yourself hugely in terms of variety and weight you can lift.
Pros: A barbell provides supreme whole body muscle stimulation, is great for legs and torso and good for arms if you have an EZ bar. You’ll also get a really good metabolic afterburn.
Cons: The rack and plates can take up a bit of space, and you’ll need floor protection due to the weight and the need, sometimes, to dump the load. If you’re investing in an Olympic bar and plates, it’s a little more hardcore than some of the other options, so maybe not an entry-level option.
I do like kettlebells, but I think their uses are limited. You can do some nice movements like kettlebell cleans, clean and push press, snatches, figure of eight and the Turkish get-up. And the kettlebell swing itself is a great cardio exercise that will work your glutes and hamstrings really well.
But beyond that, they’re a little limited.
I tend to use them for a whole-body cardio workout. You can easily spend half an hour performing continuous kettlebell movements without a break. Swings, cleans, snatches, high pulls, figures of eight, push presses. And with the cleans and snatches, you can throw in squats and lunges to make the whole routine quite knackering. You’ll get some stimulation of the whole-body, but you won’t build significant tone. It’s really whole-body endurance.
Pros: They’re great for a whole-body cardio workout and some toning of the glutes and hamstrings.
Cons: They’re awkward to handle and, without coaching, you might wonder what to do with them. They have limited application.
Multigym cable system
With several stations on your multigym, you should be able to work the whole body thoroughly. Clearly, the main point of a multigym is to get a complete workout for the body.
But, be aware of the following cautionary notes
- All the exercises tend to be ‘machine’ based. That means the movements are on a fixed path. This means you won’t adequately stimulate the supporting muscles responsible for stability and control. This makes the exercises on a multigym less ‘functional’. For example, if the leg press is the only exercise you’re doing for legs, you’re missing out on some important free-weight exercises.
- You may run out of weight. If you’re strong, you may find there is not enough weight on the stack, particularly for the leg press.
- You’ll need a lot of floor real estate – not just an entire small room, an entire large room.
Pros: You’ll get a full-body workout and be able to build strength and tone.
Cons. They can be very expensive, and you’ll need a lot of room. You won’t get to do any functional exercises and, for that reason, you won’t get as good an afterburn. And you may find you’re too strong for it!
In my garage, I had a machine that had a chunky cable stack at one end, with a smith machine and a free-weight barbell gunrack at the other end. This combination gave me the versatility to work my whole body really well, doing all the big compound movements, but also target particular muscles with various cable moves.
You can get all sorts of combinations, but if you can find one that gives you the ability to use free-weights and also has a pulley system, then you’ll enjoy lots of variety.
The downside? Cost. Like the multigym, a combination arrangement is going to cost you money and space.
Pros: Probably the best all-round whole-body stimulation of all the choices and the most versatile
Cons: You’ll need quite a lot of space, and it will be expensive.
If you’d like to see a summary of our scores for each type of equipment, download our home fitness equipment scorecard.
What you invest in for your home workouts depends on what you want to achieve. But let’s assume you’re looking for decent overall fitness with some strength and toning for the whole body.
In this case, if you were going to invest in one piece of equipment, I’d choose a set of dumbbells. They won’t take up a lot of space, and they are relatively affordable. But, importantly, they’ll give you everything you need to work your whole body. You can strengthen and tone, and you can do HIIT drills for excellent cardio fitness and afterburn.
If you’re more hardcore, and strong, then you may need a barbell and plates. Or, if you can afford it, a combination system.
Of course, with all exercise equipment, you’ll get more out of it if you know how to use it. If you’d like some coaching, or some motivation to get the best out of you, then you can come and see us, and we’ll be happy to help.