Health & Fitness

How to pick workout equipment you'll actually use

Buy the gear you need to suit your goals.

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Having some choice fitness equipment at your home is great for convenience's sake. With the right workout gear on-hand, you don't have to commute to a gym (or need to wear masks or social-distance while exercising) and you have immediate access to your exercise toys, so you are far more likely to get on and keep to a schedule. And, as inspiring as this can be, it can also be intimidating, when you consider the vast array of stuff that promises fast results, if you just act now.

Of course it's hard to determine what products can help you score the greatest fitness results, or which equipment you personally will get the most use out of. After all, plenty of eager exercisers have inevitably used a piece of cardio equipment as an odd-shaped clothing rack, or stashed hand weights under their bed only to find them, years later, mummified in dust bunnies.

That’s why, when my personal training clients ask me about what to buy and what to skip, my answer is always, “it depends.” Here’s what it depends on, and how make the best decisions for your personal gym space and fitness journey.

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Assess your current fitness habits, likes, and dislikes

cycle
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If you like cycling classes, it makes sense to get a stationary bike.

When you’re feeling super psyched to build your gym space, it can be tempting to go “all in,” buying cardio equipment, weights, mats, rollers, bands, and anything else you think a good gym needs.

Slow your roll. Start with a single piece of equipment that you already know and love, says psychologist Lisa Lewis, Ed.D., who specializes in working with athletes. At the gym, what piece of equipment is your main jam? If you prefer group fitness classes, what kind do you usually gravitate to? In short, what do you already feel skilled at? Feelings of competency are critical to enjoying any activity and your motivation to stick with it. We like to do things we feel we’re good at, so make your first purchase something you know you’ll enjoy. If you like running, consider a treadmill. If you’re missing your indoor cycling classes, a stationary bike could be the right call. If strength training is your main jam, some adjustable dumbbells can go a long way.

On the flip side, if you’ve never used a certain type of equipment before, or just looking at its tech-heavy dashboard has you overwhelmed, that’s probably not the place to start. “When we start from scratch, we have less motivation at our disposal,” Lewis says. To build a habit, grow your confidence and skills, then you can grow your equipment buys.

Lastly: Don’t buy a piece of equipment you know you don’t enjoy using! Even if you think you “need” to run or cycle or lift weights, the only thing you really need to do is move. As I tell my training clients, the best form of movement is the one you enjoy. It’s 100 percent true that that’s the form of movement you’ll actually do, and that’s what will also best help you foster a healthy relationship with both exercise and your body. And life’s too short to do workouts you hate.

Evaluate your options to find the one that’s best for you

When choosing the gear you want in your at-home gym, it’s important to determine your overall budget, space requirements, and then start searching in earnest. Otherwise, people are prone to going into searches already hooked on the top-of-the-line option, even when it doesn’t fit their budget or their living space.

Most at-home fitness equipment breaks down into four broad categories. I recommend thinking through each before making any moves.

Consider cardio machines to get your heart pumping

treadmill
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No matter what you choose, a cardio equipment is a great way to work up a sweat at home.

Cardio machines tend to be the most expensive piece of commonly purchased at-home equipment, with treadmills leading the pack in terms of popularity and price. Ellipticals, stationary bikes, and rowers generally come with slightly smaller price tags.

Here, one major factor influencing cost is the interactive technology—that is, built-in features that allow you to join live or pre-recorded training sessions—included with the product. Bells and whistles come with costs, and for exercisers who generally like to keep to themselves at the gym and aren’t into classes, they aren’t really necessary. However, for exercisers who best thrive in workout classes and exercising with friends, connected interactive features can drastically improve motivation, enjoyment, and adherence. The Peloton bike is a great example. It costs $2,245 plus a $39 monthly membership fee, but also allows a cult following of riders to take live and on-demand classes with friends, wherever they are. (You can also use the standalone Peloton app, which also lets you tune into live classes, if you don’t want to invest in Peloton equipment.) Treadmills from brands such as NordicTrack and Bowflex also have connected features that allow you to take guided classes.

Another great connected piece of equipment (and the current star of my cardio routine) is the Nordictrack RW900 rower, which streams virtual classes and lets users row through pristine open-water courses around the world—this feels especially cool right now as most people aren’t doing a lot of traveling. It costs $1,699. For comparison’s sake, the company’s less-techy base rower, the RW200, is $799.

Get free weights to make strength training a habit

dumbbells
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Free weights are great for mixing up your strength training workouts.

Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, even medicine balls and suspension trainers—they all work to build strength. Usually, I recommend my clients start with a set of dumbbells comprised of light (5 to 10 pounds), medium (15 to 25 pounds), and heavy (30 to 50 pounds) weights. An adjustable set is also worthwhile, and may end up being the most space- and cost-effective option, especially for people who are short on space or who foresee themselves accumulating what amounts to be a full dumbbell rack.

Rogue makes great hex rubber dumbbells that you can buy on their own or as full sets, while Powerblock manufactures various adjustable sets, starting at $159.

If you find yourself liking and regularly using those, and maybe feeling like you want to lift more weight, you can start thinking about adding in barbells, squat stands, and power racks. I recommend getting any of these from a top-of-the-line weightlifting company such as Eleiko or Rogue. When you’re back-squatting or deadlifting hundreds of pounds, that’s not the time to compromise on durability or strength.

Use resistance bands and cable machines to get a good burn

resistance
Credit: Bret Contreras / Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

Resistance equipment like loops and cable machines keep your muscles guessing—in a good way.

Although they’re both pretty similar in terms of how they work your muscles (continuous resistance moving at any angle), resistance bands excel for their low prices and space-effectiveness, making them attractive if you’re just dipping your toes into at-home workouts. But even advanced lifters commonly use resistance bands to augment their training. With bands, looped options, both long and short (usually called “mini bands”), tend to be the most versatile and useful, and often come in sets with multiple levels of resistance. I always suggest buying thick, durable bands, such as the INTEY band set and the Glute Loop, for $44 and $20, respectively. The last thing you want is to get smacked mid-workout by a giant snapped rubber band.

Cable machines usually allow for greater levels of resistance, ease of use, and durability—typically with a large footprint and price tag, which makes cable machines best if you’re a tried-and-true dedicated strength trainer who knows you will get a lot of use out of them. Traditional options like the Freemotion Genesis Dual-Cable Cross G624 ($5,699) and Cable Column G625 ($2,399) include a system of pulleys, pins, and weights. New, digital-resistance cable machines such as Tonal, which costs $2,995 plus membership, lies flat to the wall and takes up about as much space as a TV while also offering AI coaching.

Here, make sure to evaluate the max amount of weight you foresee yourself lifting, as all have included different weight stacks and available resistance levels. These often range between 75 and 100 pounds per cable attachment. However, some machines will only allow for lighter loads, while others will let you lift even more. If you plan to go heavy, make sure your equipment pick will let you.

Consider mobility equipment to work on your flexibility

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It's important to stretch your muscles after you exercise.

A good-quality foam roller deserves a place in any gym, and while it’s not necessary to get super fancy here, you certainly can. In my experience, TriggerPoint and HyperIce make some of the best rollers out there. TriggerPoint is my go-to for quality rollers that cost $50 or less, while HyperIce is worth checking into if you already have a base-level roller and want to splurge $200 on an electronic one that incorporates vibration therapy. Still, you don't need to spend a lot: In Reviewed’s test of foam rollers, the LuxFit—which is less than $30—was the top performer.

As far as mats go, dedicated yoga companies like Gaiam and Lululemon make great ones. Thick mats are best for lying-down exercises, and thin ones allow for greater stability push-off during exercises like squats. For anyone like me with ridiculously sweaty hands and feet, look for a dry-grip mat (both Gaiam and Lululemon offer these). This helps you keep your movements going without having to worry about flopping down on the mat.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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