3 Budgets, 3 Home Gyms
A buff bod doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.
3 HOME GYMS
One of the great things about living in suburbia is space. You’ve got a basement, a garage, perhaps even a spare room (or two). So, unlike your city relations who have to hump it to a gym, you can work out in the comfort of your very own home. The advantages of having a home gym are legion. No waiting for equipment! No pressure to squeeze your workout into your lunch hour! No locker rooms or questionable shower floors! And of course, no gym dues!
The key to getting a great workout at home, of course, is finding the right equipment. But which of the hundreds of options out there are good and which do we really need? We went shopping at Total Fitness (with locations in Bedford Hills, White Plains, and Stamford, Connecticut) and Omni Fitness (Bedford Hills, White Plains, plus Stamford, Greenwich, Brookfield, and other Connecticut locations) with Andrew Guida, fitness director of the Saw Mill Club in Mount Kisco, to find out.
Guida, who is also an exercise physiologist, quickly broke down the equipment into basic categories: cardio, weights, and core (stability balls and other toys for balance, ab work, etc.). “A home gym should incorporate all these elements for complete workouts,” he says. Here are his picks for complete gyms at three different price points.
Absent an orthopedic problem like bad knees, Guida says, a treadmill is your best bet. “Walking and running are natural, efficient, whole-body exercises,” he explains. “And, unlike a recumbent bike, where your weight is supported by the seat, the treadmill requires you to carry your weight as you exercise, so it’s a load-bearing activity that helps prevent osteoporosis and build muscle strength.” Plus, a treadmill is versatile. Beginners can walk slowly on a completely flat surface, adding hills and increasing speed as their fitness improves; athletes can run challenging cross-country courses or work on shaving minutes off their mile. “In a plain-vanilla situation where there aren’t any injuries or joint problems,” Guida says, “I’d always go with a treadmill.”
Okay, but which one? According to Guida, the best-quality machines you can buy are the same ones you’ll find in your health club: the commercial models. Residential versions of these machines are generally lighter, smaller, and less hardy. (Both types can be ordered through a home-fitness store.) Unfortunately, good treadmills don’t come cheap. Count on spending upwards of $2,000 for an entry-level, name-brand machine from a home-fitness store. Yes, you’ll be able to find a far cheaper machine with the same features elsewhere, but you’ll either end up discarding it at a yard sale or paying for it with aching joints and maintenance headaches.
Guida’s second choice for cardio is an elliptical trainer, a machine that simulates walking or running without impact. “It’s a perfect choice for someone with knee problems or recent injuries,” he says. “It’s also a good choice for someone who’s obese and might find the load bearing properties of a treadmill too difficult.” And when it comes to choosing a brand, Guida has one word for you: “Precor! They’re just head and shoulders above everyone else,” he says.
Guida prefers the Precor models that feature moveable arms. “They give you a full-body workout.” He also likes the Precor models with “CrossRamp,” a feature that changes the slope of the machine’s incline, shifting the emphasis of the exercise to different muscles. “It’s like the incline feature on treadmills.” However, only one Precor model, the EFX 576i, has both moveable arms and CrossRamp—and its suggested retail price is $6,999. If you don’t have that much to spend, Guida recommends choosing a model with CrossRamp and no arms. “You can always pump your arms instead,” he says.
Andrew Guida’s Picks
Budget: Precor M9.23
With a 3.0 HP motor; a reversible, silicone-impregnated deck; a low-impact suspension system, steel frame, clear controls, and six programs, this is a quality entry-level model. (The 10-year warranty certainly helps.) Guida particularly likes the lack of protruding handles. “Protruding handles make it harder to stay up at the front of the treadmill, where you ought to be.” $2,199
Moderate: Landice L7 Pro Sport Trainer
It’s got a one-inch-thick reversible deck and a choice of two shock-absorption levels. A 400-pound user-weight capacity and a lifetime, assignable, “bumper-to-bumper” warranty on all parts and wear items makes this treadmill a solid choice. You can even choose between titanium or a matte textured black finish. $3,600
Deluxe: Life Fitness T9i
Voted “Best Treadmill” by Health Magazine, this is the only home treadmill Guida saw on our entire shopping trip that impressed him as comparable to health-club quality. “It’s sturdy, and I like that you’re situated high off the ground. It’s easy to use, easy to read, and, even though it has handlebars, it’s very roomy. I also like the deck.” It has a 4.0 HP motor, 16 workout programs, and oodles of electronic goodies. A lifetime warranty on the motor and frame plus 10 years on mechanical parts and electrical components protects your sizeable investment. $5,599
Note: All Precor cardio machines come with a 10-year warranty.
Budget: Precor EFX 5.17i
It’s got CrossRamp, adjusting from a slope of 12 to 25 degrees (the better models have a greater range) and four programs, but no moveable arms. $2,799
Moderate: Precor EFX 5.23
The CrossRamp on this model goes from 13 to 35 degrees and there are 14 programs. No moveable arms. $4,299
Deluxe: Precor EFX 576i
“This is the dream machine,” Guida declares. It’s got moveable arms, CrossRamp from 13 to 40 degrees, 14 programs, and an extra-long stride of 21 inches (the other models are 19). The frame is beefy enough to support heavier users. Put it side by side with the home gym versions and you’ll see why it’s commercial quality. $6,999
Dumbbells for Smart Cookies
See all those big machines with levers, pulleys, weighted plates, and upholstered seats? You can safely ignore them. “You can effectively work every part of your body with dumbbells,” Guida maintains. “With the exception of pulling motions like low rows or lat pull-downs, they’re all you need to do most old-school exercises, as well as the newer, dynamic training routines.” And, although it’s nice to have an adjustable-position bench, you don’t even need one. “Use a stability ball instead,” Guida recommends. “You’ll recruit some core muscles and save a few bucks.”
When choosing dumbbells, Guida steers clear of the all-in-one sets like Nautilus SelectTech. On these kinds of set-ups, there’s one pair of stems and a bunch of weighted, magnetic plates that stick onto the ends. You dial in the desired amount of weight and the right number of plates sticks to the handles. It’s a great idea (5-to-52.5 pounds of dumbbells in one space-saving package) but, says Guida,“they’re too bulky to curl with good form. Plus, it would be hard to do compound sets in which you have to switch from one weight to another quickly. I like to be able to just pick up the weight I need without pausing to adjust it.” For a retail price of about $500, they aren’t cheap, either.
Traditional dumbbells, stacked vertically, don’t take up much floor space and they can be a very economical choice. Metal versions with hexagonal heads (they don’t roll away) go for about 69 cents a pound at fitness stores. Buy just a few weights to begin with and add on as your strength improves. (Try a set of 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, and 15 for women; 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 25 for men.) Want something a little nicer? Guida favors dumbbells with hexagonal rubber heads instead of metal. “They don’t chip,” he says. “And they don’t make a loud crash if you drop them.” Don’t worry about durability; either type will outlast us all.
Andrew Guida’s Picks
Budget: Hexagonal metal weights, 69 cents per pound. Stability ball (65-cm size for most people). $26.99
Moderate: Hexagonal metal weights, 69 cents per pound. Stability ball (65-cm size for most people). $26.99. Keys Fitness adjustable bench with flat, incline, decline, and vertical positioning. $289
Deluxe: Hexagonal rubber weights, $1.20 per pound. Stability ball (65-cm size for most people), $26.99. Keys Fitness adjustable bench with flat, incline, decline, and vertical positioning. $289
If you’re ready to augment your dumbbell exercises, Guida recommends adding a “free motion” resistance machine to your home gym. A free motion machine is a weight stack attached to cables and pulleys that you can adjust to varying heights. Unlike most weight machines, cables allow for unrestricted paths of motion. (Because exercise performed in multiple planes more closely resembles movements you make in everyday life, it’s often called “functional training.” It’s all the rage among fitness professionals.) You can work high, low, and everywhere in between to engage all your muscles from every conceivable angle. Add in a bench or a stability ball for seated, supine, or inclined exercises, and the options are virtually limitless.
Andrew Guida’s Picks
Budget: Precor S3.23
Dual independent weight stacks (each one with 150 lbs), over 30 starting positions, ankle strap, and even an instructional exercise DVD, provide plenty of options for every fitness level. The multi-angle bench is sold as optional equipment. $2,699
Moderate: Life Fitness G5 Cable Motion Gym System
Unlike the Precor, this version has just one stack of weights (160 lbs) and only three fixed pulley positions. “But you can still work low, medium, and high,” Guida says, “so it’s still going to give you versatility.” It comes with a removable, docking, multi-angle bench and an assortment of different handle attachments. $3,099
Deluxe: Torque Fitness F5 Fold Away Strength Trainer
The whole thing folds away into a self-contained unit, like a Murphy bed. It features one cable stack (200 lbs) with two independent columns featuring 17 pulley positions, a multi-angle bench that folds up and out of the way (so you can stand on the platform or use a stability ball), and a built-in leg extension/curl component. $3,499.