Are you still forking out cash every month to train at a global-gym or CrossFit box? Would you rather be training at home? If the cost of owning your own quality equipment seems too high and way out of reach, and that reason alone prevents you from starting your own garage gym, I have good news: it is completely possible to build a functional, quality garage gym on a budget, and I’m going to show you how with as little as $500.
Table of Contents
- Box Stores
- Gym Packages
- Bar+Bumper Packages
- Build Your Own Gym
- Best & Cheapest Budget Configurations
- Final Thoughts
A strength training gym doesn’t have to include nearly as much equipment as you’re used to seeing at the commercial gyms. You don’t need row after row of pin-select stations and plate loaded isolation machines in order to make those gains. Even machine-less CrossFit boxes tend to have far more equipment than is actually necessary to work every muscle group in your body. Sure, variety is nice, and in time you’ll have it, but you need to lay the foundation first.
In this article I’ll show you how you can get set up at home with a $500 to $1000 budget. If you happen to own some equipment already, the cost can even be less. Of course you won’t have everything you want right away, and start-up gyms on a budget don’t usually make for a top-rated Pinterest image, but once you have that foundation you can start putting those gym dues towards improving your own space rather than paying rent for someone else’s, and that is something that you can definitely be proud of.
So first I’m going to discuss two types of gym packages that may save you some money: full equipment packages and bar+bumper packages. Since I am not really convinced that packages are the ideal solution on such a strict budget, I will then discuss multiple pieces of equipment that are needed to start a gym and give a few examples of what to look for when trying to find these items for yourself.
Just so you know, I never recommend anything that I know to be or even suspect to be junk, and I certainly never recommend anything I wouldn’t feel confident enough to use myself. If the equipment I talk about is still too expensive for you, you may be better off sticking with the gym membership until you have some money saved. Going much cheaper than this is questionable at best, and I’d rather you got a quality workout at the Gold’s than a shitty workout at home.
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Box Stores and Mega-Fitness Outlets
Don’t buy your barbell and power rack down at the local sporting goods store. That stuff is almost always complete and utter garbage. Anyone who tells you that their $200 Dick’s power rack is just as functional as a Rogue rack has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. If your neighbor tells you that his $90 Body Solid barbell will get the job done just as well as a $300 Ohio or American Barbell bar, he is obviously not loading any weight on that $90 bar.
I could dedicate thousands of words to the difference between a $200 power rack and a $500 power rack, or the difference between a $100 barbell and a $300 barbell… and maybe some day I will. For now, suffice it to say that when it comes to strength training, sporting good stores are the Wal-Mart of the fitness world. Box-store weightlifting equipment is for impulse buyers, not serious lifters; it simply won’t last. Even if you don’t break box-store gear, you’ll ultimately replace it out of necessity, and that makes it a waste of money all the same.
I get enough feedback from people to know that some of you will still buy your gear right there next to the Subway and Bed Bath & Beyond. I genuinely hope that whatever these folks buy serves their purposes and lasts as long as they need it to. There is nothing worse than having the motivation and willingness to put the time and effort into training only to have your gear hold you back. Progress is worth a hell of a lot more than a few bucks.
Retailer Packages for Garage Gyms
Many strength training retailers like Rogue and Vulcan offer pre-assembled garage gym and CrossFit packages. These packages come in all shapes and sizes, are often customizable, and can sometimes be a great way to start a new gym. However, they can also be a horrible way to start a gym; especially when you’re trying to make the best of a limited budget.
The fact is that there are not very many packages out there for under a $1000 (much less $500) that will be all that helpful for a start-up gym unless you strictly CrossFit. Still, it never hurts to look around and see what’s out there. There are two things you should keep in mind when considering packages though:
- Never assume that a package is cheaper than buying everything individually. Usually the only significant savings come in the form of discounted bulk shipping, not a discount on the products themselves.
- If the package contains items that you don’t want or need, it’s not a good package. Each and every included item that won’t get used negates the savings you might have gotten by buying the package in the first place.
Number two is why I am not overly confident that a package is the way to go when on a budget. Accessories like gymnastic rings and plyometric boxes are fine and dandy, but they are small potatoes when compared to bumper plates, decent bars, racks, and so forth. When starting from scratch it’s more important to get these larger and generally more expensive core pieces than it is to have an AbMat and a selection of kettlebells. Add your box jumps and ring dips a few paychecks down the road. For now, make sure you can lift.
To give you an idea of what most equipment packages are like, pictured above is the Alpha Package from Rogue. It contains an Ohio Bar, collars, and 320-pounds of bumper plates; all of which are perfect for a start up gym (320-pounds is a very generous amount of weight to start out with.) However, this package also contains an Ab Mat, gymnastic rings, 4 kettlebells, a medicine ball, a climbing rope, a jump rope, and the whole package sells for over $1500!
That’s a boatload of dough to spend and not even have a squat stand, pull-up bar, or a bench. I’m not saying it’s a bad deal, but it certainly isn’t helpful when you’ve got at most a grand to spend and you want to do more than a CrossFit WOD.
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Bar + Bumper Packages
The other type of package out there are Bar+Bumper packages. These are more common among retailers, and in my opinion usually a better buy. It allows you to potentially save a few bucks on these core pieces that you’d buy anyway while also allowing you to price shop for your rack, bench, and other high priority pieces. You can find economy packages that start as low as $450, premium packages that can set you back the cost of a used Kia, and anything in between.
The downside? Just like equipment packages, they aren’t usually that much of a deal, and sometimes they aren’t a deal at all! You’ll almost always get free shipping on a package, but the price of the equipment may be no different than piecing it out. Also, you’re stuck with everything coming from the same retailer. You may want Brand X’s bar, and bumpers from Brand Y, and there isn’t going to be a package like that obviously.
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Well-Equipped Budget Garage Gym for Under a Grand
In order to have enough equipment at home to leave the global gym behind, you should be looking to get your hands on the following core pieces:
- 20 kg or 45-pound Olympic bar
- Olympic weights or bumper plates
- Olympic bar collars
- Squat stand or power rack
- Flat utility bench
- Pull-up / chin bar
With these pieces you can train every major lift and leave no muscle group behind. You can squat, bench, OH press, deadlift, good morning, row, power clean, jerk, snatch, pull/chin-up, and nearly any variation of these movements. In other words, unless you just go to the gym to creep around or ride the treadmill, there is no reason you couldn’t cancel your gym membership and hit it hard at home.
I’ll be giving some examples of affordable, reliable, and safe options for each of these pieces of equipment. These suggestions are perfectly viable options, but they are not your only options. My goal is to give you enough information about each piece of equipment so that you know what to look for yourself in terms of quality, features, etc. You’ll still want to do some of your own research, of course.
You can learn even more about each piece by looking at my equipment guides which you can find on the top menu bar on this or any page of this site.
Note: Shipping prices are not included in this article. Lots of stuff ships free, some can be locally picked up, and even the stuff that must be shipped will vary in price depending on your location. It was easier to leave shipping out of this.
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Trying to buy a decent power rack will kill your budget unless you already have a bar and plates. I suggest holding off on buying a full-size rack until you can afford to do it right, and just use squat stands in the meantime. It’s really not worth it to buy some rickety piece of crap power rack with a few hundred pound max rating just for the sake of saying you own a power rack; you’ll regret it down the road.
Here are a couple of affordable alternatives:
Squat Rack Option 1: CFF Gen2 Squat Stand
The CFF Gen2 Squat Stand (the white stands pictured above a few clicks) is made with 11-gauge steel rather than the more common and weaker 14-gauge steel that is typical of economy stands, and it has a much higher load rating because of this (750-pounds.) The Gen2 also has the added benefit of short safety spotters that allow you to perform strict bench presses without needing a full rack.
This unit is strong and inexpensive, and it should serve you well for some time while you save for a real power rack. You can read reviews and buy these stands on Amazon, but I’ve noticed the price fluctuates a bit from about $150-$190. No idea why!
Squat Rack Option 2: Vulcan H-Basic Squat Stand
These stands are a little pricier than the CFF stands from above, and it may simply be too much to pay and not get a pull-up bar included, but it is a more secure option for those who prefer a one-piece unit rather than independent stands so I’ve included it anyway
The Vulcan H-Basic is built with industry standard 2″x3″ 11-gauge steel, can hold up to 1000 pounds, and has plastic lined J-cups that keep your bar looking nice. As I just mentioned, these stands also have the benefit of being one piece, which makes it feel much more secure.
The downside is that there are no safety spotters. However, because of the steel used it would be easy to add spotters down the road, but you’d want to make sure the spotters don’t stick out further than the feet of the unit as it’s very dangerous to set the bar down outside the footprint of the rack (incidently, that’s why the spotters on independent squat stands are so short.) $325 with free shipping.
Squat Rack Option 3: Rogue S-2
This will probably tear up your budget if you’re not saving money somewhere else, but it’s worth every penny if you can afford to work it in. The Rogue S-2 Squat Stand is an extremely popular, economical, full-size squat stand that is far more secure than independent stands. It has an 11-gauge 2″x3″ steel frame, Westside hole spacing for benching and rack pulls, and can handle over 1000 pounds. It’s nearly 8′ tall, has plastic coated J-cups, two pull-up bar options (eliminating the need for an alternative pull-up bar), and can handle a bunch of accessories including spotter arms, dip station, landmines, and more.
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Affordable Multi-Purpose Barbells
One of the biggest issues with a new garage gym can be finding the right barbell at the right price. Depending on your goals and your budget, getting exactly what you want may not even be possible. After all, a great bar can cost as much as a power rack. Thankfully, it is possible to find a decent bar with a much more “budget-friendly” price.
Remember, the idea is to find something affordable to get you started at home while not being so cheap that you can’t or won’t use the thing. Seriously, you can only be so thrifty with barbells before your “saving money” becomes “wasting money.” Also, assuming you continue to lift, you will eventually replace your economy bar down the road. That doesn’t mean that your economy bar becomes useless though; there is definitely something to be said for having multiple bars. My point is to buy something that will last.
Bar Option 1: Rogue Beater Bar
The Rogue Beater is Rogue’s most affordable bar at only $165, and it’s about as cheap as you can get while still having a relatively high level of strength and reliability. It’s not going to make a great bar for Olympic weightlifting, but it’ll work just fine for general strength training and powerlifting.
The Beater has a black zinc 31 mm shaft, bright zinc 2″ Olympic sleeves, and a very respectable 155,000 PSI shaft. The Beater Bar is pinned which isn’t really ideal, but just about anything cheaper that you’d find at the box-store or fitness outlets will also be pinned, and at least this bar has the advantage of being a warranted Rogue bar. The lesser of two evils, you might say.
Bar Option 2: CAP OB-86-B
The CAP OB-86B is the only bar I can think of for less cash than the Beater that I would even consider lifting remotely heavy on. Even though the model name implies that it’s an Olympic Bar (the ‘OB’ in OB-86B), it’s really more of a power bar. It has bushings and a 28.5 mm shaft, super aggressive knurling, and it only has IPF powerlifting marks (no Olympic marks.) So yeah, this bar makes for a decent power bar, but I think that I’d find a way to spend a little more cash if Olympic lifting and/or CrossFit is part of your training.
Personally I’m not a huge fan of CAP products, but if you have almost no money to spend on a bar, this might be your best option. Hell, it’s only $135. It’s not great, but people have made gains on a lot worse.
Bar Option 3: AB Black & Chrome Bar
The American Barbell Black & Chrome is a more expensive option than the CAP or the Beater, but it’s a much better bar than both of them. The B&C is a composite bushing Olympic bar with a high tensile strength rating (190,000 PSI), moderate knurling, and decent elasticity for an economy bar. The shaft is finished and black zinc, the sleeves are finished in hard chrome, and it sells for about $250. Very affordable for such a nice bar, and even available in 15 kg for the same price.
Of the four bars listed, this one will allow for the most growth with the Olympic lifts (and therefore, CrossFit) while still being more than adequate for the static lifts. The Black & Chrome is a perfect bar for starting a garage gym assuming that you can budget it in, and it’s the only one of the three listed that wouldn’t need to ever be replaced. You may anyway, but you wouldn’t need to.
Bar Option 4: Vulcan One Basic
The Vulcan One Basic is a very nicely priced bar for the specifications. For $229 the One has a hard chrome finish from sleeve to sleeve, a 190,000 PSI 28 mm shaft, self-lubricating bronze bushings, dual marks, and middle-of-the-road knurl (not too harsh, not too soft.) This bar is not only comparable to the more expensive Black & Chrome, it beats the hell out of the beater for only $29 more. Less actually since the Vulcan ships for free.
I cannot express to you how much better this bar is than both the Beater and the CAP for such a minor price increase (at least with the Beater). Everything about the One Basic is superior to those two bars – steel strength, finish, quality of the bushings, and on and on. Considering the lack of black zinc, it’s arguably better than the B&C. Women can save even more money, as the 15 kg One is only $213. A black zinc variation of the 15 kg One is only $198! Solid stuff from Vulcan.
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Weights / Bumper Plates
If you strictly power lift (no CrossFit, no Olympic weightlifting) then you can get away with any kind of weights, including steel/cast iron. If that’s the case, you’re in luck because there is a really good chance that you can find steel plates used on Craigslist for 50 cents on the dollar (or less.) You wouldn’t believe how many people impulse buy weight sets then end up ditching it for half of what they paid. If you can’t find them used and you’re forced to buy new, I suggest just getting bumpers instead of steel.
If you do plan to CrossFit/Olympic lift, then you’ll definitely need bumper plates. The likelihood of finding them used is much slimmer, but it’s still possible. I do suggest avoiding the box-store brands should you stumble upon them used though, that is unless they are just stupid cheap. Just think; if Rage and CAP bumpers are bad when brand new, imagine buying them with some miles on them already.
Plates Option 1: Rogue Echo Black Bumper Plates
Rogue’s Echo Black Bumper Plates are the most affordable, quality plates on the market; so long as you’re not looking for a large set. If you’re completely new to strength training, you may get by with only the small, 160-pound set. If you’re a solid lifter already, you’ll need more weight, in which case you may want to look at the larger sets of something like the Vulcan plates below. Regardless of which you end up with, years later, when you’ve replaced your economy bar and squat stand, you’ll still have these plates. 160-pound set is $245.
Plates Option 2: Vulcan Black Bumper Plates
Vulcan Basic Bumpers are priced competitively with all the big brands, and they are actually thinner than most other brands when it comes to the 25-lb + plates. You can probably get free shipping on these, and the best part is that these bumpers are far more durable than almost any other brand due to a handful of design innovations like an anchored insert and more resilient rubber compound. 160-pound set is $269.
Plates Option 3 – Last Resort: Steel Plate Packages
If for some reason you can’t find used steel, it is possible to find some half-decent deals on steel plates in the form of box-store bar+bumper packages (Sears, Dick’s, etc.) You’ll get a lot of weight for the money (when compared to bumpers), but the problem is that the bars in these packages are always garbage, which means that you’d basically be buying a bar that will be of no use to you.
Having said that, you could use that garbage bar as your dedicated landmine bar to spare your real bar from the eventual damage (assuming you intend to own a landmine), or maybe you could just Craigslist the bar. Really though, I’d look for used plates first. Of course, this is all assuming that you think that you’d even be content with steel versus bumpers. I still think that if you’re going to buy new that you should buy bumpers, but it’s your call obviously.
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There are a lot of cheap benches out there on Amazon and the outlet stores, but the one I’m going to show you is the only one I like this far south of the normal ~$150+ price tag. If you have extra money in your budget and want something a little beefier, take a look at the Rogue Utility Bench.
Adidas Flat Utility Bench
The Adidas Flat Utility Bench has a 600-pound capacity, 2½” foam padding, and measures 44″ x 19″ x 17″. This is a very popular economy bench, and the weight capacity is more than enough for even a strong man’s bench press. This bench has a lot of positive feedback and I see it all over the place. It’s ugly as hell and could be a couple inches longer, but who cares. ~$85
BTW this bench comes and goes a lot. If it’s out of stock, look at this bench guide for more ideas.
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You have a few options for a pull-up bar. Of course, the easiest solution is if your budget allows you to buy a squat stand like the Rogue S-2 from above; this way you have the pull-up bar built into the rack.
The second best option is to buy a dedicated wall or ceiling-mounted pull-up bar. There are some very nice ones out there for right around $100 or so. When installed correctly, these bars are solid and secure and you’ll be able to do chins, hang gymnastic rings, and even kip. I’ll show you one of the better models below.
The last option is to DIY your own pull-up bar. This can be done for about $40 (there are tons of guides available online.) If you’re really lucky, you’ve already got a pull-up solution of some sort; maybe exposed rafters, gymnastic rings, a doorway pull-up bar, a large tree, whatever. However you do it, don’t skip out on the pulls/chins.
Btw, there are some pretty cheap/shitty wall-mount pull-up bars out there. Be very careful trying to be overly thrifty here. I’ve heard some horror stories about some of them, especially the doorway bars. I’ve never heard of anyone being hospitalized or anything, but the damage these things do to drywall and door frames costs a hell of a lot more to fix than the few bucks saved on the unit itself (which incidentally is also trash after it comes down.)
Rogue P5-V Wall/Ceiling Mounted Pull-Up Bar
The P5-V Pull-Up Bar is probably the best priced, quality pull-up bar out there (pictured above, right.) Most of the others out there are 14-gauge steel tubing rather than 11-gauge like this one, and they’re also usually more expensive. The P5-V can be mounted to the ceiling or the wall, and the bar can be placed either 14″ or 22″ from the mounting point. This station is a great deal, and is arguably more secure than the others as it takes 8 lag bolts to install rather than the normal 4. Made in the USA: $120
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Best Configuration for a Grand
Using the gear I’ve highlighted, this is your best-case scenario for $1000.
- S-2 Squat Stand $425
- Beater bar $165
- Vulcan Bumpers 160-pounds $269
- Adidas bench $85
- TOTAL: $944
You have over $50 left to buy some decent collars. Downside: no spotter arms in this price. For a couple hundred more you could add those spotters and upgrade the Beater to the American Barbell. If you did, 100% of your starter gym would go the long haul and not ever need to be replaced, only expanded upon.
- CFF Squat Stands $150
- CAP Bar $135
- Used Steel Plates approx 260 pounds $125
- Adidas bench $85
- DIY Chin Bar $40
- TOTAL: $505
Downside: You’d replace some of this set-up over time, but for so little money you can’t really complain. The good news is that most of this stuff would sell again used for about 80% of what you paid for it, so it’s kind of like a very inexpensive lease. Certainly cheaper than the $40-80 a month people pay to use the Gold’s or Lifetime. Of course, if you frequent Planet Fitness, nothing is cheaper than that membership, but I won’t go there.
“Yeah, but I don’t have …”
I know! I said that you wouldn’t have everything at first, but you have enough to start. Next paycheck or two, add some change plates, or stall mats, or your plyo box, or adjustable dumbbells, or EZ bar, or whatever it is that you need for your training.
Some Final Thoughts
We all want to walk out into our garage and find a king-size power rack, a thousand pounds of bumpers, multiple bars, a fully loaded dumbbell rack, professional flooring, and so on. Well, not only does that not happen overnight, but it’s actually unnecessary. You can improve your squat just as fast with your S-2 squat stand, $200 bar, and steel plates as a guy with a $4000 power rack, competition plates, and a $1000 Olympic bar. Yeah we want nice things, but in the fitness world, functional is functional. Anything outside of that is just bells and whistles, and bells and whistles are not what makes you stronger.
So don’t let the image of other people’s home and garage gyms make you feel like your gym isn’t good enough to get the job done. The folks with super fancy garage gyms have spent years building those gyms, updating equipment, adding accessories, and so forth. It takes time, but you’ll get there. Shop smart, just don’t be too cheap. Safety trumps savings.