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Getting the most out of your budget

Bowflex tends to dominate the best inexpensive home gym market and has several candidates for our top pick: the Bowflex PR1000 (Est. $450) , the Bowflex PR3000 (Est. $1,000) and the Bowflex Blaze ($800). All three models use Bowflex's patented Power Rod resistance, which increases resistance as you progress through the range of motion.

The Power Rods take getting used to, and some users just never grow to like them. Those who are fans applaud their smooth, quiet operation. All three gyms start with 210 pounds of Power Rod resistance -- enough for beginners, but even casual exercisers eventually find themselves wanting more.

One of the Bowflex PR1000's biggest shortcomings is that additional resistance can't be added. The Bowflex PR3000, however, can be upgraded to 310 pounds of resistance and the Bowflex Blaze up to 410 pounds. Each 100-pound upgrade costs about $100.

The other major caveat of Bowflex home gyms, and most single-station home gyms, is users have to reconfigure cables to switch from one exercise to another. This process quickly becomes tedious if you were hoping to do multiple sets of several exercises. The Bowflex PR3000 lets you switch between exercises with very little juggling of cables.

It's worth noting that the Bowflex Blaze receives far fewer user complaints regarding build quality and customer service. The Bowflex Blaze, like the PR1000, folds up to reduce its footprint when not in use. And while the Bowflex PR3000 uses a vertical bench, the Bowflex Blaze's bench can be laid flat. You can also remove the backrest of the bench, using the seat for cardio rowing on the now-empty rails.

As price and maximum resistance increase, so do each model's possible exercises. The Bowflex PR1000 offers around 30 exercises; the Bowflex PR3000 can manage more than 50, and the Bowflex Blaze can perform more than 60. Even though you have to do some fiddling with the cables while using the Bowflex Blaze, we feel its additional resistance is well worth the money and the two or three hours you'll spend setting it up (users say the assembly instructions are clear and easy to follow). The PR1000 is even easier to assemble -- expect to spend just an hour or two. Users find assembling the PR3000 frustrating due to the many parts.

The Bowflex Blaze also has the best warranty of the three: lifetime coverage for the Power Rods and five years against defects for the rest of the machine. The PR3000 comes with seven years of Power Rod coverage, one year on the frame and 60 days for other parts, and the Bowflex PR1000 carries the same warranty but with only five years on the Power Rods.

Don't be bored, get a glideboard

Two glideboard, or bodyweight gyms, are on our radar: the Weider Total Body Works 5000 (Est. $200) and the Total Gym XLS (Est. $700) . The two are so similar, however, we have a hard time with the idea of paying $500 more for essentially the same machine.

In both cases you sit or lie atop a board (the "glideboard") that slides on inclined rails. Then you pull or push on pulley cables to move the glideboard up the rails; your bodyweight 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, even casual exercisers may find themselves wishing for more resistance, and experienced lifters usually won't bother.

The Weider Total Body Works 5000 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 Total Body Works' value. That said, both models attract complaints about poor durability and questionable customer service. Moreover, the Total Body Works only comes with a 90-day warranty. The Total Gym, at least, goes one better with a lifetime frame warranty and six months of coverage for parts. Both machines are easy to set up and use.

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Weider Ultimate Body Works
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from Amazon.com
New: $199.00 $145.27   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Bowflex PR1000 Home Gym
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $799.00 $499.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Total Gym XLS Trainer
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $1,948.00 $670.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Bowflex PR3000 Home Gym
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $1,299.00 $801.91   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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