The coronavirus pandemic fundamentally shifted how people exercise – including runners. While gyms used to be a center for lifting and cross-training, more people have been opting out of gyms to minimize exposure. Home gyms have become more and more popular – and you do not need a lot of expensive equipment to build a functional one. In this post, I’ll cover the equipment for how to build a home gym for runners – even with limited space or budget.
Since time availability is often the biggest hindrance to runners incorporating strength training, a home gym removes that obstacle. You can hop off the treadmill and straight into a strength workout. You can head downstairs into the basement after work to quickly lift. Or you can even bring your equipment into the living room and train while the family watches TV!
A home gym can be scaled to fit your budget. You do not need a fancy barbell and rack set-up (although if you want one, go for it!). You need just a few key items to build a home gym. Even just one or two of these pieces will allow you to complete your lifting workouts from home. If you have a limited budget or space, a set of resistance bands and a kettlebell are enough for functional strength training.
Table of contents
Home Gym Essentials
If you only get one thing for a home gym, get a heavier kettlebell (such as this one). You can do squats, deadlifts, swings, carries, and other exercises (including entire total body workouts)- enough to build a strong body for running. A kettlebell requires minimal storage space; tuck it in a corner or a closet.
If you can only pick one kettlebell, opt for slightly heavier rather than lighter. You will be better off weighting squats, deadlifts, and swings and then using bands or bodyweight for upper body exercises.
Resistance bands cannot load an exercise as much as kettlebells or dumbbells. However, they are a great substitute for a budget or limited space. You can use them for rows, pulldowns, deadlifts, even squats!
Even if you have heavyweights, a resistance band can be used for exercises that would traditionally utilize a cable machine: lat pulldowns, rows, Palloff presses, and more. For these, you want a long band with relatively heavy resistance.
Mini bands are another useful option, particularly for injury prevention and activation work of the hips and glutes. You can also tie resistance bands in a loop, but the smaller size of these is more practical for movements such as clamshells or banded walks.
From walking lunges to chest presses, dumbbells are a versatile strength training tool. Ideally, you want at least one set of two equal weight dumbbells. If it is in your budget, have a couple sets – for example, one set of 20 lb and one set of 30 lb. Even one set is highly functional! You can scale reps and tempo to make one set work for various exercises.
A well made plyo box can be used for a variety of exercises. Plyo metrics such as box jumps are an obvious one. You can use it as you would a bench for some exercises, particularly for rear-foot elevated split squats and rows.
A plyo box is one of the few pieces of home gym equipment that you can make! If you have access to power tools, you can make a high-quality plyo box (see these directions).
Do not just reach for an old pair of running shoes for lifting! The ideal lifting shoe is a minimally cushioned shoe with low stack height. You do not want to wear a heavily cushioned running shoe, a carbon plated shoe, or a rocker shoe to lift, as this will compromise your form. Either purchase a minimal shoe with low stack height or use a pair of lightweight shoes you may have (I lift in a pair of racing flats that I already had).
Extras for Your Home Gym
Pull-ups are a total body exercise: your back, arms, core, and glutes are all working to fight against gravity as you pull yourself up. Pull-ups are the ultimate upper body exercise, but they aren’t all you can do with a pull-up bar. You can do isometric holds, leg lifts, and more. Plus, a pull-up bar takes up minimal space, especially if you do not have a dedicated room for a home gym.
Similar to the kettlebell, a medicine ball is versatile for both resistance training and power moves. Pick a ball designed to withstand slamming (and that won’t damage your floors). You can use this ball for both power moves (such as ball slams) and strength moves (weighting squats, etc). Plus, few things are as cathartic as slamming a medicine ball against the ground.
If using primarily for slams and throws, you want to opt for a lighter ball. If using primarily for strength, pick a heavier one.
Stability training is not all it’s cracked up to be. However, a stability ball (sometimes called a physio ball) is a practical tool for accessory movements such as plank variations, hamstring curls, and more. Be sure to pick the size appropriate for your height. Generally speaking, individuals under 5’5/165 cm want a 55 cm ball; those in the range of 5’5 to 5’11/180 cm want a 65 cm ball; and those taller than 5’11/180 cm should opt for a 75 cm ball.
Suspension training systems (such as TRX system) use sturdy bands or ropes and rings to allow you to use your body weight for functional strength training. A TRX works well if you do not have space for a whole set of weights. A TRX is a great option for those who want to take their strength training outside in nicer months (or who live in year-round warm climates), as you can anchor it outdoors.
The biggest use I get out of my TRX is inverted rows, which serve as a replacement for pull-ups (since I do not have a pull-up bar – our home gym has a hollow core door). While TRX can be anchored on the door, a wall/ceiling anchor is more secure.
Hardwood floors or concrete is a potential disaster for strength training. You could slip or work with poor form on a poor traction surface. Ideally, you want a grippy mat that will provide good traction. Plush mats are fine for core work but will be too slippery for squats, deadlifts, push-ups, etc. Pick a non-slip yoga mat or other grippy floor tiles (such as these) to provide comfortable and safe footing.
While totally luxurious, we outfitted our home gym with rubber flooring (it also doubles as a toddler playroom). In part, this decision was business-driven since as a coach, I use the home gym for videos. However, if you are truly wanting to maximize your home gym, I cannot recommend this flooring enough! We installed it ourselves in a few days and it now serves as a functional and safe home gym.
Of course, runners love to run also. While not a piece of strength training equipment, a treadmill is the ultimate piece of home gym equipment for many runners. Again, it’s a luxury item for both space and budget, but if you can have one, it is an invaluable training tool. I delve more into how to pick a home treadmill in this post. I personally have the Nordictrack C 1750 and love it!
How Heavy of Weights?
The notion that runners should lift light weights for high reps is an old myth. High reps with low weights do build muscular endurance – but most runners already have enough endurance! You want to build muscular strength, especially to reap the full benefits of lifting for running (since strength equates to better power output and fatigue resistance).
You want to lift heavier weight (roughly 75% of what would be your max) for a moderate number of reps (6-10, but feeling as if you could do 12-15 before failure). This can be safely achieved at home (you do not need a spotter as you would for very low reps and very heavy weights). The weights you use should be challenging but doable – not heavy enough that you strain to move.
When you build a home gym, pick weights that serve this purpose. The exact weight will vary for everyone; pick something at the upper end of your ability that allows you to push yourself and grow.
No Space or Budget?
If home gym equipment is not in your budget or you do not have space for it, you can be creative with home items! Pet food bags are heavy enough for deadlifts and squats. You can fill a milk jug with water to use for rows and presses. If you have a foam roller, you can use that in place of a physioball for exercises such as hamstring curls. Always remember that bodyweight strength training (such as this workout) is better than no strength training at all!
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What pieces would you choose to build a home gym?
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