As a young, broke mom, I worked out at home for five years before ever joining a gym. I developed a six-pack for the first time a month after giving birth to my son, and a few months later, my legs were toned for the first time. I had my first taste of muscle growth and progress with exercise. I developed so much strength and solid conditioning that when I joined the military a year later, I was awarded Top Female Physical Readiness Trainee and Warhawk. I created my own exercise schedule, starting at just three days per week, then I gradually moved up to doing something every day. My trainer was Fit TV, and my primary TV instructor was Cathe Friedrich, whom I can credit with the strengths I gained that led to my military fitness awards. Given those results, it took quite a bit of convincing from reading books by several professional coaches to encourage me to join a gym (based on my then-goal: muscle growth).
After training at home for five years, being a personal trainer at various gyms for eight years, and working out at gyms for a decade, I know reaching your desired physique and performance goals can be achieved without a full-blown gym. I know many skilled, impressive, and well-built athletes who train at home gyms, some even train outdoors in the grass or utilize bars, wood planks, and other equipment at local playgrounds. The question isn’t whether you can effectively exercise without a gym, it is what kind of setup is required for you to effectively reach your goals.
To help you best visualize the role your goals play in where you work out, this article is organized by general goals, focusing on the optimum setup for maximum results, based on my experience as a personal trainer and broke single mom with 18 straight years of dedication to health and fitness.
Fat loss exercise requires little to no equipment. In fact, I’ll go with the latter: fat loss requires zero equipment. Unlike exercising on a machine that provides momentum, such as a treadmill or elliptical, when propelling your body on the ground or on a floor, you get no assistance from the momentum of a machine. 100% of the force that moves your body comes from you, amounting to more caloric burn.
Wasting time driving to a gym (in which you’re sitting down) and spending money on a gym membership simply to lose fat is a flawed approach. Instead, find an empty 6’x6’ space in your home or hit the pavement or grass; train immediately, with no travel time or money lost. You’ll also gain the bonus of high-caloric burn from using your own body’s resistance and strength, not the momentum from machines. Utilize the floor and pick up, hit, throw, drag, push, and pull objects. If being at home doesn’t motivate you, the outdoors is ideal for fat loss. It provides an abundance of space for the type of multi-joint, metabolic exercises that will maximize fat loss.
A gym with varying weights is ideal for the progressive overload required to stimulate muscle growth. It is possible to gain muscle at home, even with limited equipment, but muscle growth potential can vary by body type and genetics, and limited options for progressive overload can exacerbate this. Assuming an appropriate diet with a caloric surplus has been implemented to aid in muscle growth, bodyweight exercise, for example, which is common with home workouts, can present limited opportunities for progressive overload for many people. This is because progressive overload in bodyweight training requires mastering the body in ways that aren’t as easily attainable as picking up a heavier weight. For example, advancing from a pike push-up on the floor to a freeform handstand push-up can require months and sometimes years of work. This is because the body must make many strength, balance, proprioception, stability, mobility, flexibility, and joint adjustments to enable someone to advance through each progression. That’s a lot of slow, mindful work that does not leave much room to focus on muscle gain, rather skill is emphasized.
Beyond advanced bodyweight work, muscle growth and tone can still be achieved at home. The safest bet is equipping your home gym with gear such as bands, sandbags, and weights to ensure progressive overload can be executed regularly.
Save your money, train at home. When working to simply maintain your current body composition and fitness level, the primary benefit of the gym: loads of equipment, is most often unnecessary, unless maintaining your level of fitness involves access to a variety of equipment and weights. In which case, if you’d like to save money on a gym membership or enjoy the aforementioned perks of working out at home, perhaps consider investing in a home gym. The total cost can be cheaper than years of paying for a gym membership.
Home or the outdoors is sufficient for this goal. Of course, a gym can be used for varied equipment, but much of those pieces of equipment can be emulated outdoors or within your own home for skill work: bars, poles, walls, etc.
Flexibility, Mobility, Functionality
Save your money, train at home or outdoors. A gym is definitely not needed for optimal flexibility, mobility, or functionality. 500 years of ballet dancers acquiring extreme flexibility and mobility using little more than horizontal bars, walls, and floors confirms this. High flexibility and mobility translate to great physical functionality. Nuff said.
Currently, I’m rebuilding my home gym, spurred by COVID-19 lockdown orders. My goals are a mixture of functional strength, mobility, flexibility, gymnastics skills, and muscle retention/gain. I have a bare-minimum home gym setup. I purchased a yoga stand primarily for pull-up, muscle-up, and ring work that I have learned to use for leg exercises, and I’m creating new exercises as I go along. Because my goals involve muscle retention and building, I also plan to buy a few choice weights — that is, as soon as they’re available again owing to the COVID-19 exercise equipment shortage. Since March, when I returned to training 100% at home, I’ve finally been able to hold a handstand for longer than 10 seconds – and I’ve been working on handstands for three years! My splits have improved dramatically; my muscle-ups are finally getting somewhere; and my glutes are developing better than before, now that I can do publicly unacceptable glute exercises without shame. Although I love having access to the many heavy weights available at full-scale gyms, at home, I’m much more relaxed, at peace, and I have no judgers, onlookers, commentators, think-they-know-it-all-ers adding an air of negativity to my workout.
Working out at home can be liberating, fun, and just as effective as training at a gym. When I work out at home, I can watch a movie and laugh out loud; I never forget my intra-workout drink (the kitchen is nearby); there are no haters, judgmental onlookers, or self-proclaimed know-it-alls critiquing me from a distance. Most of all, my focus is 100% on myself. So, no, a gym is not required to exercise effectively. People can work out anywhere. However, a lack of certain types of equipment can make it more difficult and inconvenient to reach some goals. Sure, many people advocate picking up random objects at home to use as weights, but that can be impractical and even dangerous because weights sold specifically for exercise are designed to be safe to grip and store away. If you’d like ideas on how to build your own home gym, read: “Best Home Gym Equipment for COVID-19 Self-Isolation.”
As an athlete for over 19 years and a broke single mom for most of that time, I created brokesinglemomfitness.com, now LLAFIT.com, to aid anyone who believes the road to fitness requires a lot of cash or time. In reality, the way to fitness is paved with knowledge and firm principles; teaching readers how to master both is the goal of this site. LLAFIT – Lifelong Applied Fitness