The amount and type of resistance your home gym offers will ultimately define your user experience. This report includes models with each common type of resistance for home gyms, including:
Weight stacks are rectangular weight plates that are pulled vertically along a bar by a cable, just like equipment at most gyms. Users slide a sturdy metal pin into the stack to select how much weight to lift. This makes changing resistance quick and easy, but you're limited by the stack's maximum weight.
Plate loading requires users to heft the weight plates onto the machine's lever bars. All the plate-loading machines in this report use Olympic weights, which have a 2-inch diameter hole in the middle of each plate. Plate-loading machines usually have the greatest versatility, and are also capable of handling the most weight -- perfect for a heavy lifter, but equally accessible for beginners.
Power Rod resistance is Bowflex's proprietary technology. Power Rod resistance uses flexible rods that start out straight. As you move the home gym's handles through the range of motion, you bend the rods. The more they bend, the more resistance they offer. This is sometimes known as non-linear or progressive resistance because the rods offer a progression of increased resistance throughout the range of motion.
Glideboard resistance uses your own body weight to help you build up. Home gyms that use this technology tend to be smaller, lighter and less expensive than other types. To use these, you sit or lie on a padded board that glides on parallel rails. Pulleys are mounted at the top of the rails, and you pull on the cable handles to move the board. The steeper you set the incline, the more your body weight works as resistance.
Ultimately, the only way to be sure a home gym is right for you is to test it. Don't be shy about going to a local fitness equipment or sporting goods store and trying out some of the floor models before you buy online. While there, actually do the exercises, or at least get into the machine and make sure it's comfortable to adjust and use.
Some home gym manufacturers offer a short trial return window, but that's not exactly convenient. You have to put the gym together to try it, which can take anywhere from two to 10 hours, depending on the model. Then if you don't like it you have to disassemble it, repack everything in the original packaging, and return it to the manufacturer at your expense -- all within the limited trial period. To help keep such disappointments to a minimum, we've paid close attention to user comments on how the gyms perform in actual practice, including feedback about whether a gym is capable of handling particularly tall or short users, in making our recommendations.
Some home gyms arrive in multiple boxes but, even then, they're so large and heavy that retailers may use specialty shippers. You might have to create a delivery appointment with the shipper to receive your package. Make sure you're there at the appointed time, or you may be assessed delivery fees.
Read the fine print on the delivery agreement carefully to make sure you understand your obligations. Often, you'll have to pay extra if you want the shipper to bring the box(es) inside, upstairs, or even unload it from the back of the truck. This "inside delivery" is often worth paying for; otherwise, you might end up with a home gym in your driveway. Some users who opt only for standard shipping suggest opening the box and carrying the gym inside piece by piece.
With a few exceptions, the purpose of a home gym is strength training. For cardio, you'll need a different type of equipment, such as a treadmill, elliptical, stair climber or exercise bike. You might also want to invest in a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor to keep track of your progress, too. We cover all of these fitness products in separate reports.
There aren't any expert roundups for home gyms, although there are a few fitness buffs who review individual machines for their blogs. We're cautious when using those, though, as those "reviews" are often just a list of features. So, for this report, we relied heavily on user reviews to see how these home gyms work in the real world and hold up over the long term. When leaning so heavily on user reviews, we focus on those that provide balanced analysis, discussing both pros and cons, rather than over-the-top five-star reviews, or, by the same token, one-star reviews with no context or related to issues that have nothing to do with the gym itself. We also look for users who have left more than one product review on a specific site or have a verified purchase on Amazon.com or elsewhere to ensure credibility.
The result of our research is our picks for the very best home gyms based on how easy they are to set up, how well they perform for both beginners and dedicated weightlifters, and the overall owner experience, which includes customer service, durability and warranty coverage.
If you want a solid home gym that will go the distance, you won't find another one as highly rated as the Bowflex Blaze Home Gym (Est. $800). The Blaze uses Bowflex's patented Power Rod resistance, which increases resistance as you progress through the range of motion. The Power Rods take getting used to, users say, but the technology's fans applaud their smooth, quiet operation. The Blaze comes with 210 pounds of Power Rod resistance -- plenty for beginners -- and can be upgraded to 310 or 410 pounds. Upgrades cost about $100 per 100 pounds.
There are more than 60 configurations for exercise options on the Bowflex Blaze, although you have to do some fiddling with the cables to change things up. Some dislike the interruption, although making the change over is not difficult to do. The Bowflex Blaze can also convert to a rowing machine -- a very popular option with owners, who say that it gives them an excellent cardio workout in addition to the full-body strength training. Users also like that the bench will lay fully flat so it can be used for other exercises as well.
The Bowflex Blaze receives very fewer user complaints regarding durability. This home gym is not available on the Bowflex website; it is manufactured by Bowflex for the retail market and is available elsewhere, including Amazon.com, Walmart.com and DicksSportingGoods.com.
The Body-Solid EXM-1500S (Est. $850) is a similarly priced home gym that also receives solid reviews. This home gym uses weight stack resistance. It doesn't offer a squat or leg press station, but the single, 160-pound weight stack goes a lot farther than you might think. The EXM-1500S offers an excellent combination of high-quality parts that fit together easily, along with clear assembly instructions, and the maker has a well-deserved reputation for fantastic customer service.
The Body-Solid EXM-1500S isn't quite perfect. A few taller users report that they felt a little cramped when doing lat pull downs. Although reviewers say the EXM-1500S' assembly instructions are great, you should still plan on at least four to six hours to put it together.
Both the Bowflex Blaze and the Body-Solid EXM-1500S provide a lot of bang for your buck, but if you're looking for serious lifting equipment and can spend a little more, the Powertec Workbench LeverGym (Est. $1,250) offers between 200 and 500 pounds of plate-loading resistance, depending on the exercise. The downside is that users have to provide the Olympic weight plates themselves. Expect to spend around $1 per pound on the plates, although this can vary widely.
Despite not including the weights, the LeverGym remains a great value compared to similar equipment geared to serious lifters, and earns several personal trainer recommendations. The U-shaped press arm, which does not cross the plane of your body, means you can lift heavy weights without fear of serious injury in case of an accident, and a removable pin lets you move the two press arms separately (isolateral movement) as well as together.
With a very attractive price, the Bowflex PR1000 Home Gym (Est. $400) is an extremely popular home gym. It was discontinued at one point, but is back on the market -- something exercise aficionados are quite pleased about.
While the upper resistance of the Bowflex PR1000 is 210 pounds -- and there's no option to add weight to that as there is with the Bowflex Blaze -- but unless you're a serious fitness buff, you're not going to need more than that. The PR1000's versatile enough to accommodate more than 30 various exercises, enough to work your whole body. There's also the option to use it as a rowing machine for a cardiovascular workout as well. It's also easier to assemble than the more complex Blaze and has a slightly smaller footprint. Both the Blaze and the PR1000 fold up when not in use, although they're still not small machines.
Another popular, mid-priced home gym is the Marcy MWM-988 150 Pound Weight Stack Home Gym (Est. $400). Reviewers almost unanimously say it's not for taller users, but if you're under 6-feet, this is a choice that is very smooth and has a good range of exercises along with a durable build. Its upper lifting weight limit is 150 pounds, so is more suitable for those who merely want a home gym as an overall addition to their exercise routine, as opposed to serious fitness or body-building buffs.
One thing that most home gyms have in common is that they are big. Even those home gyms that are described by their manufacturer as "compact" might be more than 3-feet wide and 5-feet long. That won't work if you live in a small apartment, or have limited space in your home or designated gym area. Enter the glideboard. A glideboard, or bodyweight gym, uses the weight of your own body to provide resistance for strength training.
There are quite a few glideboards on the market, but there are two in particular that are very well-known: the Weider Ultimate Body Works (Est. $140) and the Total Gym XLS (Est. $850). We review the Total Gym in more depth in our As Seen on TV (Est. $850) section, but reviewers say if you want a glideboard, buy the Weider -- it's almost identical to the Total Gym and you'll save more than $700.
With both of these home gyms you sit or lie atop a board, or bench, that slides on inclined rails. Then you pull or push on pulley cables to move the glideboard up the rails; your body weight acts as the resistance. This type of exercise is easy, accessible and a satisfying challenge for beginners. However, the pulleys' mechanical advantage means you'll only ever lift a fraction of your body weight, so it's not for serious body builders. However, for those who are just interested in establishing or maintaining a baseline fitness level, the Weider gets some of the highest ratings at user review sites of any type of home gym.
The Weider Ultimate Body Works has a set of resistance bungees you can engage for up to 50 pounds of additional resistance, a feature the Total Gym XLS lacks. It's no wonder so many users rave about the Ultimate Body Works' value. Best of all, its small footprint means it'll fit just about anywhere. It's also very quiet, without the clanking of weights that are a feature of more traditional home gyms, so it won't disturb neighbors or other family members. It folds down and, supposedly, can be pushed under a bed for storage. However, most say the Ultimate Body Works is hard to move since it doesn't have wheels, and you may have to partially disassemble it to fit it under many beds.
We saw few complaints about durability with either the Ultimate Body Works or the Total Gym. The Body Works has a super short, 90-day warranty. The Total Gym goes one better with a lifetime frame warranty and six months of coverage for parts. Both machines are easy to set up and use.
As we noted in the introduction to this report, credible expert reviews of home gyms are hard to come by. However, the editors of ConsumerSearch are dedicated, knowledgeable fitness buffs, and we gathered the opinions of other exercise equipment owners to find the best home gyms. The most valuable sources for those user reviews were Amazon.com, Walmart.com, DicksSportingGoods.com and Sears.com.