ASK A SWOLE WOMAN
This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.
First of all, I want to say I love LIFTOFF! LOVE it. Thank you for putting such an awesome program together. I am getting stronger and I also love that the program mindset is about maximizing the body’s strength and potential, not about getting smaller and taking up less space.
Here is my question. I am nearing the end of the first three weeks of the program and I am already using the heaviest dumbbells I own (25 lb dumbbells). Yay!
I have a large empty basement with tile floor that I would like to set up as a home gym. I believe my next steps are purchasing a barbell, rack, and plate weights. Is this correct? If so, do you have recommendations on what I should buy, and what I should avoid? I see these items sold on Amazon and at Dicks Sporting Goods, but I don’t know if you have specific recommendations for a person like me gradually building up a home weightlifting gym.
I’m gonna warn you that building a home gym for barbell lifting is not cheap. As I noted in the book of LIFTOFF, the cost of solid home gym equipment that allows you to do barbell lifts is probably about the same as it costs to be a member of a very good gym, in most places in the country, for about a year. If you aren’t sure about lifting, try a gym first! Not every gym will have everything you need for all three phases, but more and more (inexpensive!) gyms have barbell setups and plates these days. Not just Smith machines—real power racks and bumper plates and barbells and platforms. There is more in the book about what specifically to look for before you commit to a membership.
I also think many people imagine that if only they could work out at home, that would fix all of their problems. Often, this is wrong. (You may work out perfectly well at home, but it's not the one true motivation bullet.)
But if you insist on buying all the stuff for a home gym, here is my perspective as someone who used to work for Wirecutter: There is so much disingenuous garbage, and it feels like so much content online is incentivizing me to chase around “deals” and coupons, searching and searching for the best bang for my buck. When the landscape is like "here is the first and most likely thing you want, it's $25, but here are 18 other options that are $20," after hours of work and research on the other 18 options, I end up buying the first thing I looked at (or, I do buy one of the $20 options, and end up having to replace the thing because it ended up not being a quality item). I’ve gotten really tired of spending my time this way. This has turned me into a “just buy the somewhat trustworthy thing” person, and while it doesn’t save me that five or ten dollars, it saves me a lot of patience and time and stress down the road.
Or, honestly, just get the $20 thing, if you think you can make peace with the possibility that you might have to replace it with the $25 thing later. Online shopping research that is anything more than "a recommendation from a real human who you trust" is a waste of time. (I wrote about this a few years ago, and it's only grown more true.)
You may be able to find cheaper objects online that look to be the same shapes as other ones here. But we are living in a time of peak online retailer untrustworthiness, and I don’t think it’s worth it to save a buck buying something from someplace I’ve never heard of before, especially when it comes to heavy stuff that’s going to get thrown around a lot. Most things in here I’ve owned and used for an extended length of time, but anything else, I’m linking you to a brand that’s been around for a while.
None of the pricing below includes shipping, which can vary a lot for heavy and bulky stuff, depending where you live. For this reason, I tried to minimize the number of places I was getting things from. There is some overlap between the two setups, because I did not buy all new stuff the second time around ("total costs" reflect buying all the things anew, as independent sets). And none of these are affiliate links!
Without further ado, please find below four setups:
- The most minimal possible setup that covers Phases One (bodyweight) and Two (dumbbell) of LIFTOFF ($261)
- The most minimal possible setup that covers Phases One, Two, and Three (barbell) of LIFTOFF ($1,132.50)
- The cheapest-but-still quality barbell setup I was able to put together ($973.50)
- My current setup ($2,443.50)
Plus, some optional objects that I have or had, but are not 100% necessary; things I don’t have, mostly on purpose; and special outdoors considerations.
The Swole Woman barbell home gym 2.0
Total cost (Nov 2023): $2,443.50
Everything here that I didn’t buy around November 2020 as part of my first cheap gym set (below), I bought around November 2022. (November, ‘tis the season to purchase lifting stuff in my book, apparently). So everything in here, I acquired over the course of two years and some experimentation. Where entries repeat, I just copied and pasted them.
I’m going to further warn you about this setup that it is not especially cheap. It’s not shooting the moon, either. But I did buy all of these things myself, none of it was a gift, or discounted, or sponsored, or anything like that. The reason I probably don’t seem to talk my equipment up quite as much as some online lifting people is that I am not contractually obligated to, but also that I am not so delusional that I imagine this is a pocket change amount of money that they are obligated to let rip if they want to ever lift properly.[^1] I also feel comfortable spending a little bit more because lifting gives me life and I don’t have zillions of other expensive hobbies.
Rogue HG 2.0 Bumper Plates ($375, $77 for each additional set of 45s). I did a lot of price- and feature-comparing for plates. These were the best ones for me, especially given they were going to be outside. The main alternative would be some kind of iron plate, but even living entirely indoors, iron plates can start to rust and then they are very messy. Very elite lifters disdain bumper plates because the weight distribution is slightly different, but they would go off and buy Eleiko plates anyway. Any newer lifter, you should definitely have 25lb and 10lb bumper plates. I’m glad to see lately that many more gyms have these just as a default. Don’t bother with 35lb plates.[^2] My personal rec would be to get the 160lb set (a pair each of 10s, 25s, and 45s), add sets of 45s as needed. You only need one set of bumper 45s, really; after that you can just get iron or rubber-coated plates, like these from York ($154 for two).[^3] Make sure you get an additional set of 10s, below, in addition to these and the change plates, otherwise there will be a plate math gap. Generally, be careful when buying plates, sometimes they are listed in pairs and sometimes not. Big note: “Olympic” barbells (the kind you will be getting) are two inches in diameter, so you want TWO INCH-opening plates. NOT one-inch opening plates.
One set each of 10lb, 5lb, 2.5lb, 1.25lb plates ($83.50). Yes, you need those additional 10s close the plate math gap (without them, using the above bumper plates and the other change plates, you can load 65lb, 75lb, 80lb, 82.5lb, and then nothing til you get to 95lb. Plate math!). You can save a few dollars getting these elsewhere (google “iron olympic plates”) but often shipping adds up for weight equipment, so I’m linking the Rogue ones just to reduce the number of places you are buying from.
Rogue 45lb Ohio Power Bar ($295). Here is the thing: I would not mess around trying to cheap out on bars, especially online. You need one with good knurling (the lightly spiky texture where your hands go; yes, you need it, otherwise your grip will suffer), not the cheap crap bars that Planet Fitness has. It’s hard to tell via the internet what you are getting, and it gets confusing fast. (Just one example: these are technically called “Olympic” barbells, but they are expressly not Olympic weightlifting barbells; these are a different thing, and they are not used in the Olympics (while Olympic weightlifting barbells are used in the Olympics). Someone really fucked up bad here, terminology-wise.) So unless you are going to shop in person at a trustworthy store, just go straight for this one. The black zinc one is currently only $245 right now for some reason; I have that one and the coating has held up perfectly.
Rogue S-2 squat stand 2.0 ($460). There is a slightly cheaper version of this stand without the pull-up bar, but pull-up bars are so worth it, both for doing pull-ups as well as being an overhead anchor point for all kinds of things (resistance band face pulls, triceps pushdowns, etc etc). I’d strongly recommend against getting any stand that is two separate uprights with big feet. You will trip over them all the time. I still use the plate holders linked in the cheap setup below, they don’t quite fit but that’s ok. The ones that match this rack are $55 for two, so I’ll include that in the above price.
BARWING 90° Adjustable weight workout bench ($150). Okay, here’s everything I know about adjustable benches: I like them. I enjoy to do an incline bench; that’s how I get my jollies. I was sad when I didn’t have one when I put together my first home gym, so I looked into getting one when I redid it.
Adjustable benches are rated based on how much weight they can support. Even a pretty cheap one like this one claims to support a lot of weight (in this case, a 300lb guy, plus his 500lb loaded barbell, theoretically). That’s plenty for me. Here is the thing: a cheap adjustable bench will be inexpensive, lighter and easier to move around, but slightly unstable-feeling and will make it difficult to get a really stable bench arch going. This is fine for me, since I’m not doing a lot of pushing my maxes right now. But the unstable feeling not ideal if you are trying to get good at benching.
An expensive adjustable bench, on the other hand, will feel a lot more stable. But because of the split seat, it will still feel kind of awkward to get your arch going. Because it’s expensive and stable, it will be very heavy and a pain in the ass to move around, and it will cost, this is not a joke, $600. My special concern is also still that all of my stuff is outside, and a $600 bench would have been the literal most expensive item out there, always sitting very close to the ground where all the dirt and rain and bugs are.
I had to make a call. I chose the cheap adjustable bench. Every day, I don’t like how cheap it feels. Every day, I sort of wish I just had a flat bench (see below). But I wouldn’t rather have a flat bench and no adjustable bench, and I definitely don’t want to have to herd two benches around my space. Every day, I also sort of wish I had a nice adjustable bench, but not so much that I want to watch $600 be ruined by rain and dirt. So here we are. You may make a different choice; this was the right choice for me, but only barely. Maybe someday I will get both a flat bench and a nicer adjustable bench and will kick the current adjustable bench into a ravine. Only time will tell. If you don’t care at all about adjustable benches, just get the flat bench below and save yourself $100.
Rogue Infinity safety spotter arms ($145). Expensive but worth it! They are longer than the ones below, too.
York Olympic A-frame plate tree ($95). I put all my little plates on here.
Bowflex Selecttech 552 adjustable dumbbells ($429). You can get a long way with just plates and a barbell, but someday, you may want to mix it up. Yes, it sucks how expensive these are. But you can often get them used; people give up on working out at home all the time (sad, but true). I use mine a lot and have never missed “regular” dumbbells. (If you really think you don’t need them to go up to 50lb, there’s a cheaper 25lb set of regular dumbbells below.)
Draper Strength Resistance Bands ($46 for a set). These are not absolutely necessary, but you’ll end up using them a lot. Mine have held up well and this is a great price for getting multiple bands in a pack. A gym hack is that, if your floor and/or bench doesn’t sit level, resistance bands are a perfect item to stick under the un-level foot. You can also loop them around the length of a slippery bench for more stability.
Jumping box ($135). You could use your bench for most things this does, unless you have the adjustable bench I got. I end up using this a lot for step ups and things. I taught our dog to jump on it.
Also a general note that, if I wanted flooring for my home gym and it was indoors, I’d use the same flooring mats in the next section below.