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My Favourite At-home Gym Equipment: What to buy - and skip - for limited space & maximum versatility

If you live in a cramped little apartment in any major metropolitan city, attempting a workout at home can seem like a terrible idea. There’s barely any space to move, you can’t stomp or jump around (unless you want your neighbours banging at your door), and there is absolutely no room for fancy equipment.

I was in the same boat pre-pandemic, with workouts limited to some Blogilates and Yoga With Adrienne sprinkled in here and there. It was more a supplement than my primary form of movement. Of course with the endless months of quarantine, I haven’t had much choice in the matter and I’ve adapted to - and even acquired a real taste for - home workouts.

The key to home workouts boils down to making the most of what you’ve got. The explosion of home workout material on social media this year has made this even easier with tons of resources available for every fitness level using just bodyweight or everyday items.  

If like me, you’ve really enjoyed the convenience and efficacy of home workouts and have decided to incorporate them into your daily routine going forward, there are some pieces of equipment that have helped me take the challenge to the next level (without having to set up a whole gym in-house). 

I’ve listed them as follows in order of the most to least value for money considering versatility, size & cost. In line with the spirit of home workouts, I’ve also listed some of the household alternatives I was using for each item before I slowly built out my equipment collection.

Lastly, with the surging demand for home equipment and with more options than ever, I've highlighted the pieces we definitely don’t need to have an effective workout, especially when working with space and noise constraints. *the usual personal opinion disclaimer

Basic Gear

To Buy: Yoga Mat

The most obvious piece of home equipment that I'm sure most people already have in their arsenal: the basic yoga mat.

If there is one thing you need when you’re just getting started, it’s this. Even if gyms in your area are opening up again, it’s more hygienic and safer to bring your own yoga mat (if this isn’t a requirement already), than to use the communal ones at your gym or fitness class.

Yoga mats can be cheap, simple, easy to roll up and store and serve for a wide variety of workouts from Yoga and Pilates to Resistance training, Calisthenics, and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). 

Mats are available at various price points however you don’t need to invest in the most expensive mat, especially when you’re just starting out. I would caution against going for the absolute cheapest option however to ward off shedding, losing grip quickly and having to replace the mat more often. 

Household Alternative: A soft carpet or towel to provide some cushioning. The towel can also be rolled up to provide extra cushioning under your knees. I’ve often used these options in hotel rooms when I don’t want to travel with a mat.

To Buy: Resistance Band: Short-loop + 7 ft. long resistance band

Resistance bands provided the most bang for your buck as they are both travel friendly and adaptable. However, the variety of sizes, shapes, materials can be confusing especially since all the mutations of the basic resistance band do not give you the same result (I learnt this the hard way). 

The most versatile of the bunch is definitely the humble long 7ft. resistance band of medium strength (not closed-loop). Not only is this the cheapest and lightest weight option, but it can also work the entire body with resistance ramped up or down by simply holding the band closer together or further apart. While this one band can do it all, it is especially effective for upper body workouts focused on shoulders, back, biceps and triceps. It’s also great for stretching and recovery, particularly if you’re not very flexible (like me) and want the band-assist to work on mobility. 

The single long band can easily be looped by tying it into a knot however I’ve found that short closed-loop bands also known as ‘booty-bands’ or hip circles are the easiest and fastest to use for lower body focused workouts. They work well both at home and at the gym and I have both the plastic bands set of varying resistances and one heavy fabric band in my collection. The fabric one is more intense with less slip, however the plastic ones serve as a better starter kit at a much lower price point. They are also easier to store and toss into your gym or travel bag.

Household Alternative: Body-weight with more reps. Increasing the volume of reps can compensate for lower resistance. Alternatively, you can use dumbbells or dumbbell alternatives as a substitute for some of the exercises that call for a resistance band.

To Skip: Resistance tubes & long closed-loop resistance bands

Neither of these are particularly bad options however the lack of versatility means they more often than not just sit collecting dust in your collection. *exception for the long closed-loops band in the advanced section. 

Resistance tubes are by definition long tubes with handles at either end making them hard to customize for full-body workouts. Closed long-loop bands are also around 7ft. in length but instead form one long continuous loop. Both generally require you to buy (and find a place) to store multiple bands of varying resistance levels and switch between them mid-workout. A lot of exercises using the latter require more space than you might have available to you (this will vary depending on your apartment size). 

To Buy: A medium-to-heavy Dumbbell Set

Again, this may seem like an obvious inclusion but having one set of medium-to-heavy dumbbells, emphasis on set and medium-to-heavy, can unlock a whole new variety of home workouts. 

Medium to heavy will differ from person to person depending on your fitness level and can range from anywhere between 5 to 25 pounds (2.5 to 10 kg). ‘Heavy’ here does not refer to set-a-new-PR heavy but rather enough to make the first set challenging and the 3rd or 4th set painful. Having one medium set at say 8 pounds and one slightly heavier at 12 pounds for instance can be helpful for upper and lower body training respectively (or doing drop sets). 

Personally, I’ve just split the difference and made my peace with a 10 pound (4.5kg) set that works for both upper and lower body. If at any point the weight gets too much - or is too light - for a particular exercise, I just get creative with the options: dropping one weight, working unilaterally then switching halfway, using the resistance bands, stacking a backpack with heavy books + the weights, combining the dumbbell with resistance bands, etc. At some point, I may invest in a heavier set but for now, this combination has been working for me.

Even if they are a bit bulky and travel averse, one (or maximum two) sets should be easy to store and use consistently. I prefer the neoprene material in the hex shape for home workouts since they are relatively cheap and much less likely to roll around and scratch delicate surfaces.

Household Alternative: The easiest substitute would be any household items that can be used as added weight in place of a dumbbell. Bottles, cans, jugs, books, vases (if you dare), babies, anything you can find lying around with some heft should work. Resistance bands can also work as a substitute for some of the exercises.

To Skip: Plates, kettlebell, medicine balls + an extra light dumbbell set

Dumbbells are the most versatile of weight options and can be used for any workout that requires added weight; it can easily be used in lieu of a plate, kettlebell, or medicine ball in almost every exercise that calls for one.

More controversially, I would also recommend against investing in an extra light dumbbell set (< 5 pounds). While light dumbbells are called upon in certain types of workouts, they are usually much easier to substitute with everyday home items compared with a medium to heavy set.

For example, a 1L bottle of water (or wine) filled to brim is at least 2 pounds (1kg), a can of beans (or white claw) - catering for all types of households here - is almost a pound (0.5kg), a stack of books or a bag of rice can weigh up to 5 pounds (2kg). These weights are relatively easy to find, grab and use in the midst of a once-in-a-blue-moon barre workout. On the other hands, balancing heavy unwieldy gallons of water or detergent - while doable - is a lot harder when doing squats or renegade rows.  

To Buy: Jump Rope

Okay so this one is a bit of a cheat, since it doesn’t exactly work in a small space and it’s loud! Or at least I know I am when I am trying (and failing) to gracefully skip around my room.

However, the reason I’m including it in my list is that it’s easy to incorporate into a home workout if you have any space to either step outside onto a patio, a yard or even just a corner park in your area. It has been a simple addition to my home equipment that has tested both my cardiovascular endurance, coordination, and pain tolerance (ouch can it sting if it smacks you wrong). 

The best part is no matter how terrible the weather, boiling hot or freezing your eyeballs out cold (I unfortunately experience both), if you can find just a bit of space outside you can get your heart rate cranked up to the max and be out of there in under 10 minutes. Yes, I can do ‘quiet cardio’ workout videos at home, and I do, but when I want to recreate the sweaty completely winded spin class feeling, the jump rope always comes in handy.

Household Alternative: Just run (jog, bike, run/walk, hike, whatever) outdoors. Or as mentioned ‘quiet cardio’ home workout videos with no jumping. A few favourites linked here and here.

To Skip: The myriad of foldable "small" home cardio devices

If I had a penny for every article I've read recommending a foldable lightweight treadmill or spin bike for 'small spaces', I would be a very rich woman right now. I think their concept of small space is in reference to "this is a small space I've managed to carve out in my home for a mini-gym" rather than "I'm trying to workout between my bed and my desk without knocking my limbs against something". Unless you don't mind half your tiny room being taken up with workout equipment, work with the limitations of your space and skip the bulky cardio gear.

Advanced Gear

For Calisthenics:

To Buy: Pullup Bar

Calisthenics by definition are workouts that rely on nothing but body weight so recommending equipment might seem counterintuitive but hear me out. 

Working on your back and lats effectively can be quite difficult without the heavy resistance machines available to at the gym. This compared to the heavy body-weight only push exercises that are easier to ramp up with no equipment (e.g. decline pushups). A pull-up bar is the perfect way to add a heavy pull set and work on those neglected muscles without taking up any extra space.

It is more of an investment than anything else on this list but it’s not staggeringly expensive available at around the $30 - $50 mark (I got mine in Dubai for $20!) . It also requires installation on a door-frame so there is some initial set up and it can’t just be tucked away after a workout, however, a simple no-nonsense bar is usually inconspicuous enough not to make the entire room seem like a hybrid gym. 

Getting a single full pull up in is a 2020 goal of mine and having easy access to a bar right in my line of sight is an easy way to incorporate it into my everyday workouts. 

Household Alternative: A sturdy enough surface such as a support beam, the side of a stairwell in the building, etc. that can support your body weight (+ more for assurance) could work in place of a pullup bar. As a beginner though, I find these alternatives difficult to use with the varying grips and lack of support.

Using your desk or dinning table (provided the furniture can take your weight) for bodyweight rows also engages the same muscles and is much easier to scale up and down by moving your feet closer or away from your body. You could also work on lat engagement exercises that focus on these smaller muscles groups and improve your mind-muscle connection.

To Skip: Paralletes or Dip Bars

Paralletes or dip bars (both have slightly different utilities) are incredibly useful tools to work on advanced moves such as dips, leg raises, row variations or push-ups, handstands, L-sits, etc respectively. Paralletes are smaller and much more portable than dip bars however for the purposes of your small apartment space, you don't need to invest either to work on any of the above advanced exercises.

The kitchen counter can be great for dips whereas any plain ol' wall will work for handstands. The apartment is filled with plenty of surfaces to work off of, especially if you are just starting out on any of these moves, rather than trying to find that non-existent space for more equipment you don't have room for and can barely use to its full extent.

To Buy: Long closed-loop resistance bands

Speaking of pull ups, long-loop resistance bands are the perfect accompaniment to work on pullup progressions. 

When I first started off with the bar, I couldn’t do much more than dead-hang and improve my grip. Unless you can do a full pull-up already, a pull-up bar will not be of much use to you without a resistance band. 

I currently use one relatively heavy closed-loop band to work on full pull ups. My long open-loop medium band (tied in a knot at the ends) works fine for negatives and practicing more difficult progressions.

Other than pull-up assistance, long closed-loop bands can be used for a variety of other total body workouts (space permitting) neatly replacing dumbbells. I plan to continue taking the long closed-loop with me whenever I manage to find myself at a traditional gym. 

Household Alternative: Work your up the pull-up progression ladder by doing body weight rows and negatives with the bar. The same muscles are engaged and progressively loaded with those two exercises. For the remaining resistance band exercises, bands from the basic section work in most scenarios.

To skip: A gym bench

It can be tempting to consider one for the myriad of upper body exercises, step ups, etc. but a solid steady chair - a flat stool without a back or arm rests is ideal - but any chair works just fine here and actually has other functionality in your tiny space beyond your 30-60 minute workout.

*Do not recommend using your flimsy wheeled desk chair though; tried, tested and broken in my err enthusiasm

To Buy: Sliders 

An easy fuss-free way to level up any basic exercise by sliding your hands and feet across the floor. Sounds simple enough but it is guaranteed to make your limbs, especially your core, cry in the best possible way.

These gliding discs are light, small, easy to store but extremely effective and beyond the basics (e.g. lunges) make a whole range of Pilates inspired movements such as pikes, wheelbarrows, etc. accessible at home.

There are different options available depending on the surface you are working on with discs tailored for carpeted surfaces, tiled floors, hardwood, etc.

Household Alternative: I don't have sliders yet either and the alternatives - two small towels for tiled surfaces or paper plates for carpeted surfaces - have been serving me well for the past couple of years. While towels can be chucked in the wash, paper plates can be needlessly wasteful over time so I do recommend investing in sliders if you find yourself reaching for paper plates more often than not.

To Skip: Ab Roller

It looks like one of those devices that will definitely sculpt out that 6-pack but for a chunky piece of equipment it has just one exercise mode.... ab rolling. There is literally one and only move available to you at all times and if this was a video game, this would not be my character of choice.

Ab rollers are just as effective at activating your abdominal muscles as any other traditional body weight ab exercises. And much like any core exercise, if performed incorrectly, the ab roller can cause serious injury to your lower back.

Most importantly, in terms of versatility and usefulness, the sliders (or your towel!) are a better bet allowing you to work on the same roll out movement along with a whole other range of exercises.

For Recovery:

To Buy: Foam Roller & Mobility Ball

My least favourite part of the workout yet (unfortunately) the most important for your long-term health and wellness.

I had been neglecting cool-downs, stretching, mobility for years (blah blah boring) before my body decided it's had enough of my crap and started to give me some serious grief. I would get injured a lot more easily and it would take me much longer to recover from a small injury or even a long run.

Simple daily stretching is a great start but the foam roller has been a great investment in for my calves and hamstrings that have been strung tight (literally) from years of misuse. The analogy according to one wise pilates instructor was that our muscles are like meat: the more we workout the more our tendons tighten and the meat gets tough. We need to physically tenderize the meat (aka our muscles) to extend their use and the foam roller and mobility ball does just that.

As we lay there writhing in self-inflicted pain rolling out our ACL's, the unappetizing analogy stuck and I invested in a foam roller which is has been my semi-faithful partner since.

A mobility ball can help to work on deeper tissues in smaller areas such as your back, shoulders, lats, etc. and as I've been increasing my focus on upper body, the mobility ball (or still its substitute for me) has been vastly speeding up my recovery.

Household Alternative: A tennis ball is the perfect substitute for a mobility ball in terms of size and density and can provide a similar myofascial release. I haven't found the perfect dupe for the foam roller as yet but conning a small child into walking up and down your legs might do the job.

For the Yogi (& Inflexible)

To Buy: Yoga Blocks

If you're not a regular practioner like me, you know the struggles of seamlessly sinking into a pose or holding one in an awkward halfway but not quite there position.

I think we have established by now that I have tight everythings and I often find yoga blocks ("borrowed" from my mom) to be extremely helpful when I need a magical arm extension or neck and back support. It helps me stay in alignment when I'm working out at home without an instructor to correct my form and helps me derive the most from my infrequent sessions.

Blocks are often fashioned from cork, bamboo and foam - in that order of durability - however as a beginner, the foam ones have been serving me well and have held up just fine.

Household Alternative: A stack of books works well in a bind (pun intended). Personal exception for poses that call for putting your feet on the block cause I still can't bring myself to do that with books.

Despite a long post all about equipment, it's important to know that ultimately we don’t need an expensive gym membership or fancy gear or even a pair of sneakers to get in a good sweat. Do you agree with the above recommendations? Let me know what you think and I what I've missed below.