I built a gym in my tiny backyard—here's how
No space inside for at-home workouts? Take 'em outside.
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Despite being a geek who likes interesting equipment, shiny objects, and cool gear (why do you think I write for Reviewed?), I've never been a fan of gyms. I like working out, but I can do without the constant pressure to sign up for personal training sessions, the skull-pounding house music that drowns out my own music, podcasts, or thoughts, the tiny towels that don't quite fit around my, ah, midsection, and the side-eye from the "I lift things up and put them down" crowd when I grab "only" the 25-pound dumbbells for bicep curls.
So even though many gyms have reopened after pandemic lockdowns, I've decided to take my workout routine outside. My wife and I rent a ground-floor apartment in a two-family home in the New York City borough of Queens with a tiny backyard. Really, it's more like an oddly shaped fenced-in patio with three surfaces: pebbles, a strip of clay-based dirt, and uneven brick pavers. But we're very lucky to have access to private outdoor space in the city where it is often hard to come by if you're not a homeowner.
As I came out of pandemic hibernation earlier this year, I wondered if I could turn this weird backyard into an outdoor workout space. The main mandate was to be able to quickly and easily set up, break down, and store this makeshift gym so that my wife and I could continue to use the backyard for gardening, grilling, and COVID-cautious socializing.
I set out to create my al fresco gym, with a bit of creativity, a tolerance for the lack of right angles, and a mix of gear I already owned and some versatile new stuff I bought. Here's how you, too, can outfit your own outdoor workout space.
Start with a large workout mat
My first challenge was making the uneven and potentially knee-skinning surface of the concrete pavers more hospitable to working out. Solution: Find a big mat that's simple to set up, durable enough for outdoor use, easily storable, and not absurdly expensive. I researched oversize rollout mats that could fit the space I wanted to use but these can get pricey, seem harder to store the bigger they are, and are pretty thin (5 to 7 millimeters, like a standard yoga mat). Also, some are for barefoot-use-only.
Instead, I went with puzzle mats, which are much cheaper and thicker, too. I ordered the 48-square-foot pack of the Prosource Fit puzzle exercise mats, which have have a dedicated fanbase and more than 21,000 reviews on Amazon). Each “puzzle piece” is a half-inch thick, 24 inches long and wide, made from EVA foam, and has a patterned non-skid texture. (I paid about $35 for my set but prices vary depending on Amazon’s usual fluctuations.)
Assembling the pieces was pretty intuitive. This set came with a dozen tiles and a bunch of edge strips that create a smooth border around the assembled shape, so I placed them on the ground and stuck them together until the pavers were covered. I used all the main puzzle pieces in a three-by-four layout but had some edge pieces left over. (This is because you may need more edges if you try a different configuration.) The mat covers more than enough space for one person to work out with equipment or for two people to do a more contained workout like yoga or Pilates.
I can't evaluate the long-term durability of the mats yet but they're holding up well after a few weeks' use. Several reviews on Amazon indicate they're pretty sturdy for home usage. "I bought several of these tile sets about two years ago and they are very durable," one Amazon shopper writes. "I work out with all free weights and a weight cage on top of the tiles. They have been exceptionally sturdy."
Choose your main equipment
I decided to make a suspension trainer the centerpiece of my gym. I envisioned it as an easily deployable accessory for a full-body workout, especially if I was in a hurry and didn't have time to unpack all the other stuff. I considered buying a TRX suspension trainer, which is highly regarded, popular, and Reviewed-approved, but I went with Lifeline's Jungle Gym XT for two reasons. First, its straps anchor individually, while the TRX has one anchor at its fulcrum. This means you can anchor each strap in a different place (such as each one on a different tree or pole) for additional moves. And secondly, Costco sells it bundled for just under $100 with the Power Wheel, a device that looks like a mini mountain bike tire with handles on either side that can be used to level up planks, hip thrusts, and push-ups. That's a great deal because the Jungle Gym alone often retails for around $99 and the Power Wheel usually sells for around $49.
You can anchor the Jungle Gym (or any suspension trainer, for that matter) over a door, around a tree, or on a ceiling beam using additional hardware, but I chose my yard's most unique feature: a retired utility pole. This pole comes out of a concrete block inside a corner of our fence and rises a few dozen feet but no longer serves any discernible power, telephone, or cable purpose. I looped the Jungle Gym's anchor strap around the pole about 7 feet up and I was in business. Taking down and storing the system is quick, but I imagine I could leave it hanging on the pole during stretches of good summer weather. When it's up, it can be used for exercises like hamstring curls, single-arm rows, and pikes.
As for the Power Wheel… well, let's just say I need a lot of core strength improvement before I can use it for more than a minute or so at a time.
- Get the Lifeline Jungle Gym Suspension Trainer System and Power Wheel from Costco for $99.99
- Get the Lifeline Jungle Gym Suspension Trainer System from Amazon for $89.01
- Get the Power Wheel Core Trainer System from Amazon for $46.99
Consider space-saving weights
Sure, a full-body workout is possible with the Jungle Gym. But the thing is, I get bored easily, so I like variety. Plus, training with dumbbells, especially a set with a variety of loads, can challenge your muscles in different ways and deliver better results. I freaking love my set of Core Home Fitness adjustable dumbbells, which were a gift, and I use with my Escape Fitness workout bench—a hand-me-down from a trainer friend when she was decluttering a few years ago and knew I could use it.
Adjustable dumbbells are expensive—my set is about $350 to $400, depending on where you get them—but are so worth it because of the convenience factor. To use this pair, you grab the handles and then twist to adjust the weight from 5 pounds to 50 pounds in 5-pound increments. I'm finally getting strong enough to do 30-pound curls, so I don't imagine needing to exceed 50 pounds any time soon. If you need dumbbells that adjust in smaller increments, you may like Bowflex's SelectTech 552 weights, which average 4.7 stars over 14,597 ratings. These adjust from 5 pounds to 52.5 pounds in 2.5-pound increments up to the first 25 pounds.
I placed the bench on the edge of the mat and set up the dumbbells on either side for easy access. I love this bench because it feels sturdy and stable under me and can be adjusted to several heights and positions. This means I can do steps, jumps, and other plyometrics on it, too. Also, I've kept the bench in the yard for more than a year—in the rain and snow—and it has held up very well. (I don't recommend this, per se, but storage in a NYC apartment is at a premium, so...)
- Get Core Home Fitness Dumbbells from Amazon for $350
- Get the Escape Fitness Bench from Amazon for $149.99
- Get Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbells for $399
Round out your lineup with utility players
I had reconstructive foot surgery in 2019. My recovery has taken a lot longer than planned, in part because the pandemic derailed my physical therapy for many months. But I'm now back in PT working with some great therapists who have suggested getting certain items for exercises tailored to my needs. So this is where you can seek out advice from your own trainer, coach, or clinician, as may be the case, to stock items for your particular fitness goals. Here’s what I’m working with.
A 6-pound medicine ball
Medicine balls are useful in many ways but I use this one for squats, balance work, and ankle strengthening. You can find medicine balls from several brands and in a slew of weights, but I picked this 6-pounder from Amazon Basics because it was available in "used/good" condition as an Amazon Warehouse deal. I couldn't tell it was used when I got it, and after five months of use, it has held up well. Disclaimer: I haven't used it for more vigorous exercises like overhead slams.
Incline stretch wedges
I got these foam wedges at the suggestion of a personal trainer I spoke with for a previous article. The trainer, Dorothy Evans, recommended putting wedges under my toes to push my weight back on my heels, taking pressure off my knees when doing squats. These wedges help me focus on my form and feel that weight in the heels, not toes. I also use these wedges for calf stretching.
Foam yoga blocks
I have mild carpal tunnel syndrome, so doing floor exercises tends to put painful pressure on my wrists. These blocks help not only with providing extra support in yoga poses like Triangle and Half Moon but also strength work, such as dumbbell rows: Kneeling on the mat, I bend over, grasp one block with one hand and the dumbbell with the other and then row back the weight.
Funny aside: When I ordered these Amazon Basics foam yoga blocks, I thought I was getting a pair. Turns out, I had clicked "buy" on a special eight pack that was on sale at the time. Oops. (I gave a pair to my mom, another pair stay next to our Peloton for indoor yoga, and four stay in the outdoor gym.)
A macebell (also referred to as just a "mace") is a steel staff with a rounded, bulbous end, or macehead. I had to get one because, um, it's called a macebell and it looks like a weapon out of Braveheart. (Also, you can find a lot of great ways to use it from trainers on YouTube.) This one from Retrospec cost me $21 on Amazon.
One piece of advice: If you get a mace, buy a lighter weight than you think you can handle. Because almost all the weight is located in the ball on the end of the tool, it increases the feeling of instability as you use it. You can also use them in place of dumbbells or kettlebells during squats or during hip thrusts.
Usually, I stand and grip the handle at the opposite end and move the macebell around my upper body and head, almost like a gyroscope. This move is a lot harder than you might think, due to the instability, and the last thing you want to do is grab a 25-pound macebell and injure yourself on the first try. I bought the 5-pounder because I wanted to be extra careful—if you're not sure where to start, a trainer suggests most men start with a 10- to 15-pound macebell, and most women try a 5- to 7-pound tool.
Adjustable ankle weights
I got these 5-pound Amazon Basics ankle weights last year during physical therapy to strengthen my surgically repaired foot and ankle. Instead of wearing the weight on my ankle, I slid one over my midfoot, extended my leg out onto an ottoman, and then alternated doing ankle circles with ankle flexes. (My therapist prescribed these moves for my rehab.)
As I've gotten stronger, I've continued to use them occasionally, such as these ankle circles and flexes, but you can use them as you see fit, perhaps for leg raises or barre workouts. Just don’t strap them on to go on walks, as they can pull on the ankle joint and can cause injury.
This wacky, perhaps evil inflated plastic disc—upon which you balance while doing squats and attempt to not fall on your face or tush—is another PT-recommended item for my rehabbing foot. You can use one or two for different types of balance training, depending on your goals. My focus has been to stand on two cushions, one under each foot, and soften my knees to a kind of half-squat while holding my medicine ball. Then I step up the exercise by tossing the ball back and forth with a partner for as long as I can hold my balance or not drop the ball.
Balancing on the Tumaz wobble cushion is no joke, which is why I usually use one cushion for each foot. But what I've learned is that improving my balance—which is tied to ankle, leg, and core strength—is key to achieving my goal of returning to hiking and running.
Get a massive bin to store (most of) it all
So where does all this clutter, er, amazing gear go when I'm not using it? When we first moved to this apartment, my wife and I ordered a 120-gallon Keter deck box to store tools, folding chairs, and grilling accessories. When I set up the outdoor gym, I commandeered the Keter box exclusively for fitness, biking, and other outdoor recreation items. The one I'm using is cavernous enough to fit the more compact workout equipment in my gym, with the disassembled puzzle mats right on top of everything else. (As mentioned, the Escape bench hangs out to the side, though I've recently gotten a cover for it.)
The 120-gallon version is sold out, but you can still get a 90-gallon deck box, which should be sufficient and just as sturdy and user-friendly, as all of Keter's resin storage bins are generally well-reviewed.
Above all, plan carefully so your gym works for you
What have I learned from this, other than I own a lot of, um, stuff? (Yes, Mom, I know I have too many toys.)
Researching the gear and finding the right mix of items for the space was a lot of fun. And this project also helped me clarify what types of exercises and equipment I really enjoy and, hopefully, will help me achieve some results over the months and years to come.
If you decide to build your own gym—whether it's in a tiny patio in the city, a spacious suburban backyard, or in a corner of your garage or a spare room—I hope you, too, have a blast figuring out what equipment will entice you to get up from the couch and help you get your sweat on.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.