Tips for Choosing the Right Home Gym
A “home gym” is a person’s workout room within their home and may include various items of fitness equipment, such as treadmills, rowing machines, free weights, and other accessories that help them with their training. However, the term “home gym” also refers to specific strength training systems, such as weight stack cable machines, functional trainers, or Smith machines, built for residential use. These are typically available for a more affordable price than similar machines made for commercial gym usage.
The term is quite inclusive, and the fitness equipment or machines that fall into this category are quite different from one another. My home gym category here addresses seven types of fitness machines labeled as home gyms.
These are weight stack machines, smith machines, cable crossovers (or functional trainers), power racks, power towers, flex-rod home gyms, and bodyweight fitness benches. Each type has its specifics, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Therefore, if you’re looking to purchase a particular home gym machine, in this guide, we’re going to point out their strengths and weaknesses and the most important aspects to consider about them.
Learn more in my complete Guide below!
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Weight Stack Home Gyms
Weight stack machines are multifunction home gyms consisting of pulleys and cables that connect to a stack of weight plates. Each machine of this type offers more or fewer workout stations. For example, some may include a pec fly workout station, and others may have a preacher pad station, etc. The more workout stations comprised in a weight stack machine, the higher the price.
In general, even a basic weight stack machine model offers the possibility to perform a wide array of exercises, especially for the arms and core, and the legs. Differently put, if you get one, you may not need to perform exercises using dumbbells as often, as many of the exercises that involve dumbbells are replicable on this type of machine.
Most weight machines of this type have their weight plate stack included, and you won’t have to purchase the weight plates additionally, as for most Smith machines, unless, of course, you want an upgrade of the included stack.
Most weight stack machines are heavy and somewhat oversized. Therefore, you’ll need at least two people for their unpacking and assembly, and you will have to consider their assigned space carefully. Once assembled, the machine will be difficult to move.
Each weight stack machine includes many parts, and its assembly may not be exactly easy. Although all of them come with assembly manuals that guide you step-by-step through the assembly process, you may leave specific steps out or hard to comprehend. Also, the overall assembly always takes at least 3-4 hours.
Aspects to consider
1. Weight plate material. Some weight machines may have a standard weight stack featuring cast iron weight plates. However, there are weight machines that feature vinyl-cement weight plates, which are less durable. Thus, even though a machine with vinyl plates may be a bit cheaper, it’s always best to opt for one with cast iron plates.
2. Weight stack upgradability. If a machine comes with a 300 lbs weight stack, for example, it may be suitable for you for a while. But once you develop enough strength, the supplied weight stack may not suffice anymore. Therefore, it’s best to opt for a machine that gives you the possibility to upgrade the weight stack.
3. Weight ratios. Each weight stack machine may have its specific weight ratios for each group of pulleys. For example, even though the maximum weight of the plate stack supplied with the machine may be 300 lbs, the maximum weight that you’ll get when chest pressing maybe only 150 lbs, due to the 1:2 ratio for the press station. Some machines come with a table with the ratios for each station, but some models don’t specify it. Thus, always keep in mind that a clean 1:1 ratio is not very common. Also, ratios can go from 1:2 to 1:5 for specific models.
4. Overall upgradability. Some weight machines offer upgrade possibilities. For example, accessories such as preacher pads, leg press attachments, or dip bars may be available. Such additions may be perfect for various exercises that you might want to perform in the future.
5. Bench. First of all, most fitness machines of this type have an integrated workout bench. However, there still are models which don’t include this accessory, and their display pictures may be misleading as they show the machine with the bench attached. So, before purchasing one, make sure that the bench comes included. Also, if a machine does include a bench, have a look at its adjustability. If the bench features at least two adjustment positions for the backrest, horizontal and inclined, it considerably increases the machine’s versatility.
A Smith machine typically consists of a vertical metallic frame and a barbell attached to it within a set of steel rails, allowing vertical or near-vertical movement. It’s designed to provide stability for a variation of barbell squats but can be used for other exercises as well. All Smith machines use Olympic or standard barbell (or dumbbell) weight plates, and most of them don’t come with a set of weight plates. Also, most models feature a weight rack for weight plate storage, which also enhances the machine’s stability.
Of course, the classic Smith machine includes just the frame, barbell, and stoppers. However, there are models which offer much more than that, integrating various workout stations such as high and low pulleys, benches, etc. One of the main aspects to note here is that most Smith machines that combine pulleys and cables also require barbell or dumbbell weight plates for the mobile weight elements, rather than a square weight stack such as the previous category of machines.
The main advantage of a Smith machine is that it provides safety and stability for heavy-weight squats or chest presses, as the bar is attached to gliding rails. A second advantage is that you can load the barbell with many weights (up to 600 lbs, or even more). The weight ratio for the bar is 1:1. Also, if the machine features pulleys and mobile weight elements, you can load them too with a consistent amount of plates. These aspects make Smith machines superior to home gyms with weight plate stacks, as they’re great for all users, including powerlifters, not just beginners and intermediate users.
The main disadvantage of a Smith machine is its movement restriction for the barbell. For example, due to this fact, you cannot perform deadlifts by using a Smith machine. Also, since the bar is stabilized and connected to its gliding rails, your workout will have a much lesser impact on the stabilizer muscles.
As we’ve mentioned above, most Smith machines don’t come with weight plates. You will have to purchase them additionally or use the ones that you already have. Also, depending on how many workout stations a Smith machine has, its assembly may be more or less complicated.
Aspects to consider
1. Weight plate compatibility. Most Smith machines come equipped with an Olympic barbell. This means they require Olympic weight plates, the ones with 2″ holes. However, there are models which come with a standard bar (which requires plates with 1″ holes) and also comes with 2″ sleeve adapters for Olympic plates.
2. Bench. A standard Smith machine does not include a bench, but there are models which include this accessory. So, just as for the weight stack home gyms, if you’re looking at a model which has a bench attached, before actually purchasing it find out if the bench is included or not. Also, if there’s a bench included, it’s best to be a bench with multiple adjustment positions to provide incline, decline, and horizontal presses.
3. Counterweight. Some Smith machines feature a counterweight for the barbell, or at least there’s an accessory available for it. That’s because the Olympic bar typically weighs 45 lbs, and some users cannot lift even the bar alone due to disabilities, for example. A counterweight not only eliminates the bar’s weight but also offers the possibility to use 5, 10, 15 lbs weight increments. So, as a general idea, this is an accessory that you might find helpful.
4. Other accessories. In general, Smith machine models that offer several workout stations and the main bar station leave room for upgrades. Therefore, it’s a good idea to find out what you can attach other accessories to a model before purchasing it.
Cable crossover machines (or cable cross machines) are functional trainers which involve two lateral weight stacks attached to a set of cables and pulleys designed for building arms and core strength. Even though they don’t include as many workout stations or elements and accessories as a multi-function Smith machine or weight stack machine, they’re incredibly effective due to the exercises that they make available.
Most cable cross machines come with their weight stacks, but there are models, which require barbell or dumbbell weight plates. The second type typically doesn’t include the weight plate set, just like Smith machines, and you’ll have to purchase them additionally. These are also typically cheaper.
They’re highly effective fitness machines for the core and arm muscles. You don’t need a specific workout bench for seated workouts with a crossover; you can use a chair of your choice. They’re easy to put together, and they don’t take as much space as other home gyms, at least not widthwise. They’re also generally cheaper than weight stack home gyms or Smith machines.
Some models require to be bolted to the floor to provide maximum stability, especially when using the lower pulleys. Specific exercises performed on a cable crossover may feel awkward. For example, you can simulate a chest press if the machine has low pulleys on each side, but the exercises will lack stability compared to pressing an actual barbell.
Aspects to consider
1. Pulleys. The more pulleys a cable crossover machine has, the better. But as a general idea, it’s best to make sure that a machine of this sort features top and low pulleys so that you will benefit from a more comprehensive array of exercises.
2. Weight plates. Many models come with their weight stacks. But some require classic standard or Olympic plates. So, if you opt for a model of this sort because you already own a set of weight plates, make sure they will fit the machine before purchasing it.
3. Maximum load. If a crossover comes with two standard weight plate stacks, the maximum load is pre-determined. But it’s not a bad idea to find out if you can upgrade these stacks with extra plates in this case. However, if you opt for a model that requires Olympic or standard plates, make sure it has a weight capacity suitable to your needs.
4. Other training stations. Of course, we can’t speak of too many other workout stations regarding cable cross-trainers. But some of them feature a lat pulldown attachment or pull-up station. These are elements that you may find handy.
Power racks, also known as power cages, are weight training items consisting of a steel frame, with adjustable catch bars and safety bars, for workouts involving a barbell. As opposed to Smith machines, the barbell is not attached to the frame. Thus the equipment promotes free moving workouts. Also, most power racks don’t include a barbell, so you’ll have to use your own or purchase one additionally.
As the term suggests, a power rack usually features weight plates, typically near its base. Storing plates on the rack’s supports also improves its overall stability.
A power rack offers the possibility to execute exercises that involve a barbell, such as squats and chest presses (in case you also use a bench), but without movement restrictions, such as in the case of a Smith machine. Because you can freely workout with the barbell, you benefit from much better training for the stabilizer muscles. That’s why most experts would almost always recommend a power rack over a Smith machine.
Power racks usually offer the possibility to attach a pull-up bar or dip bars to them, to broaden the exercise spectrum. They’re easy to put together, and they’re not too expensive; you can get a standard and reliable one for less than $200.
There aren’t many disadvantages to speak of when it comes to power racks. Due to their versatility, many would recommend them as the core of any home gym. The essential inconvenience is that that they have a larger footprint than other fitness machines. Thus usage space may be an issue.
Aspects to consider
1. Barbell. As opposed to Smith machines, most racks do not come with a barbell. So, if the display pictures of one model include a barbell, make sure it comes included.
2. Storage pegs. If you already have a set of weight plates, make sure they fit the supports of the rack you want to buy. There are models which only support Olympic plates, so standard 1″ plates won’t work.
3. Weight capacity. Even though most racks support a lot of weight, this is one of the most important aspects to consider. You don’t want it to fail in case you drop a barbell with a hefty load.
4. Other workout stations and accessories. In general, a power rack must have the frame, catches, safety bars, and storage pegs. But some of them also integrate pulleys, cables, and various other workout stations, such as lat pulldown, pull-up bar, etc. Of course, the more workout stations, the greater the machine’s versatility. However, some users would want their rack simple to move more freely inside of it and focus on their squats.
A power tower is an item of fitness training designed for exercises that involve the user’s body weight. It typically consists of a steel frame with a firm base, two vertical bars, united via a pull-up bar at the top, with a dip station in the middle, and a set of handles for push-ups on the base bars. Differently put, your average standard power tower should provide support for pull-ups, dips, and push-ups. Due to this fact, a power tower is not for building muscle mass. This type of equipment helps improve your overall fitness, muscle strength, flexibility, stamina.
Power towers are typically inexpensive. You can get one for less than $150. Even though the number of exercises that you can perform on one is limited, it still does offer the possibility to execute all kinds of pull-ups and dips variations, which can have a tremendous impact on your core muscles.
A power tower is usually easy to put together, doesn’t take a lot of space, and may not be challenging to relocate even when it’s fully assembled.
The number of possible exercises provided is limited.
Aspects to consider
1. Distance between the dip bars. This may be the essential aspect to have a look at when purchasing a power tower. For specific models, the space between the dip bars may be too narrow for you.
2. Height of the pull-up bar. Most power towers are over 7′ tall, so their height shouldn’t be an issue for the average user. But in case you’re 6’7″, you may want to opt for one of the tallest models to perform pull-ups without any hindrance.
3. Weight capacity. The average weight capacity for a power tower typically exceeds 300 lbs. In general, most models can support your weight without any problem. But in case you might want to perform weighted pull-ups, it’s best to make sure your weight, plus the weight you want to attach to yourself, won’t exceed the exerciser’s weight capacity.
Flex-rod machines are patented and manufactured by Bowflex. They feature a similar construction and pulley/cable system as weight machines, but the resistance generates by a system of flexible rods instead of a weight plate stack. The machine cables connect to the adjustable rods, which bend as you pull the handles, generating the desired resistance. Evidently, due to their specific resistance system, these machines have their pluses and minuses.
Since Bowflex machines don’t have weight plates, they’re slightly cheaper than other weight machines. They’re quickly adjustable, which makes them perfect for various training programs. They’re highly versatile, offering the possibility to perform a wide array of exercises.
One aspect that can also be considered a disadvantage by some users is the workout “feel.” Since these machines don’t use a stabilized weight stack to generate weight resistance, pulling the cables also lacks some stability. So, if you perform a chest press or simulate a fly press, you will have to focus a bit on stabilizing your movements. But on the other hand, by doing this, you put much more focus on the stabilizer muscles, which results in an overall superior workout.
Since the machines don’t use weight plates of any sort, you won’t have them around cluttering the place.
The maximum weight resistance is usually limited to 210 lbs or 310 lbs (depending on the model). That’s 105 lbs or 155 lbs per handle. So, a beginner or intermediate user may be pleased with this weight resistance, but a pro may not find it sufficient.
Since only Bowflex manufactures resistance rods for their machines, you can only buy these from them in case they break or in case you need an upgrade.
Aspects to consider
1. Maximum weight resistance. As I’ve mentioned, there are Bowflex machines that offer 210 lbs and 310 lbs resistance, and on some models, you can upgrade from 210 to 310 if its the case. It’s best to opt for a model that you can upgrade.
2. Bench adjustability. A model that integrates a bench with multiple adjustment positions, including horizontal, offers superior versatility.
Bodyweight Fitness Benches
Just as power towers, this type of fitness benches uses the user’s weight primarily to generate resistance for the exercises. In general, a bodyweight fitness bench glides on a particular frame, also featuring a set of pulleys and cables used to pull or move your own body along with the bench during various exercises. This type of fitness benches offers a wide variety of exercises. But since the user’s weight limits the weight resistance, they’re designed to improve your overall fitness, cardiovascular shape, improving strength, and losing weight, rather than gaining a considerable muscle mass.
They’re affordable fitness machines, great for getting back in shape, easy to set up, offering the possibility to perform various workout routines daily for most groups of muscles. Most of them feature a folding design, being easy to store. Depending on their overall weight capacity, you can also use them for dumbbell pressing or various other dumbbell exercises.
The only disadvantage characteristic of these fitness machines is their weight resistance limitation. But there still are models that offer the possibility to add some resistance by attaching several bungee cords to the bench for it to move more challenging.
Aspects to consider
1. Bench and cable length. This may not be an issue for most users. However, tall users may not be able to perform all the available exercises on such fitness equipment, so in this case, it’s best to opt for the most extended model possible.
2. Usage space. Even though most fitness benches of this sort are foldable, and storage is not a problem, they’re long when unfolded. Some of them may even exceed 90″ lengthwise. Therefore, before committing to one model, make sure the usable space is not an issue.
My Best Recommendations
The Total Gym XLS Home Gym Plus AbCrunch Bench is a conventional body workout system. It recreates and strengthens how your body executes daily physical activities and stores those functions in your memory. It’s a small home gym and body-weight training system. It has 90+ exercises for complete training experience.
The XLS home gym is set up quickly right out of the box and has a durable and stable construction. It can support up to 400 lbs, including bodyweight and any weight you might hold for extra resistance.
Discover how easy it is to get fit and stay in shape with the Total Gym XLS home gym! Endorsed by Chuck Norris & Christie Brinkley, the Total Gym XLS comes complete with a total fitness program of workouts and workout tools to take all the guesswork out of getting into shape. Read Full Review
Power racks are the core of weightlifting equipment, as they allow you to execute exercises involving heavy barbells safely. They’re much less restrictive than Smith machines, and they’re typically less expensive. The basic power rack consists of a steel frame, a set of stopper bars, a set of safety bars, and several supports for the weight plates.
The Valor Fitness BD-7 is a power rack with an exceptional price/quality ratio. It offers a bit more than just the squat cage as it also integrates a lat pulldown station. Due to this fact, its versatility increases. It’s a sturdy power cage, with a weight capacity of 500 lbs (226.7 kg) for the catch bars and up to 800 lbs (362.8 kg) for the safety bars. Read Full Review.
Marcy is one of the brand names to put on your list if you’re looking for an affordable weight stack machine. There are two Marcy home gyms of this affordable type, the MWM-990 and the MWM-6150. They’re both great machines, and so far, they’ve gathered an impressive amount of positive reviews, but I’ve chosen the Marcy MWM-990 as my main recommendation.
This Marcy home gym features a vinyl/cement weight stack which is considered less durable than a classic cast iron stack. However, considering that this is a home gym and too many people won’t use it, the stack can last a lifetime with proper care. Other than that, the MWM-990 is a pretty solid home gym. Its stack weighs 150 lbs but can deliver a weight resistance of up to 200 lbs. Read Full Review.
Bowflex offers several fitness machines with specific weight resistance systems. Although they have a similar construction to the weight stack machines, their resistance generates by a set of flexible rods. We’ve chosen the Bowflex Blaze is our main recommendation for this price category simply because it has an almost clean 5-star rating on most retailer and fitness websites. However, the Bowflex PR1000 and Bowflex PR3000 are also excellent fitness machines.
The Bowflex Blaze comes with a set of rods that provide up to 210 lbs (95 kg) of weight resistance, but you can add extra rods up to 410 lbs of weight resistance. As opposed to the other models, this one has an extendable bench that allows horizontal presses. It also has a leg developer who offers the possibility to perform classic leg curls. The machine covers more than 60 exercises. Read Full Review.
The Powerline BSG10X is a classic weight stack machine featuring a weight stack resistance system. Also, an excellent alternative to this home gym is the Body-Solid G1S.
The weight stack includes 16 steel alloy weight plates, 10 lbs each, with a total weight of 160 lbs, this being one of the main reasons the unit costs more than $800. The stacks are not upgradable unless you improvise. The pulleys and cables can withstand much more weight than 160 lbs.
The Powerline BSG10X includes five workout stations. These are the press station, the lat pulldown station, the leg developer, the mid pulley station, and the low pulley station. It comes with several accessories, and there’s also a leg press station attachment available for it (not included). The machine offers the possibility to execute more than 40 exercises. Read Full Review.
Smith machines generally offer higher versatility than standard weight stack machines. Most of them work with Olympic and Standard weight plates, always leaving open the possibility to upgrade the weight capacity. They also allow you to stabilize your weight and execute heavier lifts more safely. However, they restrict movement; thus, most would instead use a power rack over a Smith.
The Marcy Diamond is a multifunction Smith machine, offering several workout stations along with the Smith cage. It also integrates a cable crossover, and a bench with a curl pad, offering the possibility to execute more than 100 exercises. The leg developer also allows you to perform standard leg curls. The weight plates do not come with it, and it requires Olympic-type plates. Read Full Review.
The Body-Solid StrengthTech EXM2500S is a mid-range home gym featuring a solid frame made of 2″ x 4″, 12-ga steel tubing. It’s highly durable and coated with corrosion-resistant paint, white being the only color available at the moment. It comes equipped with 22 fiberglass reinforced pulleys and steel cables rated for 2,000 lbs tensile strength.
The machine features a classic cast iron weight stack with a total weight of 210 lbs. It includes 21 weight plates, 10 lbs each. The stack is not upgradable, but since the cables and pulleys are highly durable, you can always improvise.
The EXM2500S includes six workout stations. These are press station, lat pulldown station, leg attachment, fly station, low pulley station, mid pulley station. Thus, the home gym allows the execution of more than 40 exercises. There are also several accessories included. Read Full Review.
The Inspire Fitness BL1 home gym offers the range of exercises of most weight stack machines. However, when it comes to weight resistance, it has a different system. It’s a leverage machine and uses your body weight as the main element of weight resistance. The “BL” in its name stands for “Body Lift.” And when it comes to weight resistance, it offers a range between 10% and 150% of your total body weight.
The Inspire Fitness BL1 comes equipped with an adjustable seat and backrest. The seat adjusts vertically, while the backrest adjusts horizontally. Both offer several adjustment positions to accommodate users of all sizes and facilitate various exercises. There are five workout stations available, including chest fly, chest press, low pulley, high pulley, and leg developer. Read Full Review.
Although the Bowflex Xtreme 2SE costs quite a bit more than the Blaze models, it does not offer an extendable backrest for horizontal exercises. However, this particular fitness machine does have something extra. It has a mid-pulley workout station; the mid pulleys can attach in two ways to make available different exercises. There’s a small bar attached to the frame right above the backrest of the machine, and by connecting the mid pulleys to it, you can perform ab crunches. There are; however, two other middle bars situated lower than the ab crunch bar, which is also longer, with four positions each for the pulleys. These bars make available various press exercises.
The Bowflex Xtreme 2SE features the same flexible rod resistance system. It includes rods that can generate 210 lbs of weight resistance (105 lbs for each arm), but you can expand up the rod base to a total weight resistance of 410 lbs. Read Full Review.
The Inspire Fitness FT1 is a functional cross-trainer similar to the Body-Solid GDCC210. We’ve selected this model over the less expensive Body-Solid one simply because it benefits from better user feedback so far. Also, as opposed to other functional trainers, the FT1 integrates a revolving rack at the back, to which you can attach multiple accessories. It’s a pretty helpful feature to have, as the accessories needed for each type of exercise will always be within close reach.
The Inspire FT1 features two metallic alloy weight stacks, 160 lbs each, and each weight stack integrates 15 plates, 10 lbs each, while the top stopper plate also weighs 10 lbs. The machine offers a weight ratio of 2:1 for each stack. This means the maximum weight resistance generated for each stack is 80 lbs. However, you can upgrade the weight stacks. Read Full Review.
Although the BodyCraft Xpress Pro has been on the market since 2013, it still is one of the best gym machines available in 2018. Not only that, it has a highly durable frame and comes with a metallic alloy weight stack; it also has an adjustable arm station. This is a feature that many other home gym systems at this price and spec range do not have. The lateral arms have ten adjustment positions, similar to the components of the Bowflex Revolution model. They come equipped with standard grips, and their pulleys can rotate 180°. They offer the possibility to perform a wide array of arms and chest exercises.
The Xpress Pro home gym comes with a 200 lbs weight stack, including 20 highly durable plates, at 10 lbs each. The weight plates are steel, so this BodyCraft cable machine is more expensive than other similar models. Read Full Review.
The Body-Solid EXM3000LPS is a double stack gym system, allowing up to 3 users to work out simultaneously on various workout stations. It’s a light commercial grade gym machine, offering 2x 210 lbs (2x 95 kg) of standard resistance, a ratio which can double for the leg press station.
The EXM3000LPS fitness machine integrates seven workout stations, incl ing: pec station, lat pulldown / high pulley station, leg press/calf press station, leg attachment for extensions and curls, ab crunch mid pulley station, seated row and low pulley station, multi-press station. It offers the possibility to perform more than 40 exercises. Read Full Review.
A Guide to Home Gyms Summary
These gyms are highly rated and well received by users- the key is to figure out which gym will meet your needs. Thinking back to the buyer’s guide above, consider your fitness goals and what type of resistance you’re looking to work against with your home gym.
Figuring out what style of home gym you want is the first big hurdle. Each type of gym has its benefits. Your budget and workout space will help you answer this one as well. Once you have that question answered, find a gym in your price range, and you are good to go. I’m confident you will be happy with any of the gyms on this list.
There are some other highly rated gyms out there that I did not discuss here. These gyms made a list because I feel they have the most to offer for the price.
Some really nice and expensive home gym machines out there won’t fit in most homes. Most of us aren’t looking to drop 5 or 6k on a home gym either.
I hope you found this article helpful and informative. If you have anything you would like to share or any opinions about my website, please speak up. I look forward to your comments, questions, and the sharing of ideas.