Updated January 2015
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A home gym is a top all-in-one fitness option

If you have a gym membership -- and actually use it -- you already have access to all the weight-training equipment you could imagine. However, if you want to save the money or prefer the convenience of 24/7 access to all those machines, you'll want to seriously consider a home gym, also known as weight machines.

People at all fitness levels can use home gyms. Some novice or light exercisers like them for firming muscles, to incorporate fitness as part of an overall wellness plan, or to help maintain muscle tone. Others want to build muscles or seriously bulk up.

Home gyms are easy to use because they usually isolate the muscle being worked, negating the need for perfect form, and replacing a human spotter with built-in safeguards. Some such safety mechanisms are stoppers that limit your range of motion or U-shaped bars that do not cross the plane of your body, preventing the bar from seriously injuring you if you drop the weight.

Types of resistance

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 is when you use your own body weight as your weight. A few home gyms use this technology and they tend to be smaller and less expensive. To use them, 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. These home gyms tend to be smaller and lighter.

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.

Flooring is important too

Owning a home gym presents many advantages, but there are a few factors to consider before buying one. A heavy home gym machine can harm both hard and carpeted floors. At the very least, you'll need to place a good, thick floor pad down to protect your floor. This will also provide a bit of give to help reduce stress on your joints when doing exercises with your feet flat on the floor. If you're renovating a dedicated space for use as a home gym that will include a variety of equipment, interlocking home gym flooring that fits together almost like puzzle pieces is often very well-reviewed and usually easy to assemble and install.

A word about shipping

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 points of 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.

How we chose the best home gyms

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 are often just a list of features. So, for this report, we had to rely 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 to ensure credibility.

The result of our research is our picks for the 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.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Home Gyms: Think you can't afford a home gym? Think again! There are plenty of top-quality home gyms to suit any budget.

Best Compact Home Gyms: These home gyms may be small, but reviews say they offer big versatility and value. They also get great reviews for durability. We recommend some flooring options for your exercise equipment as well.

Buying Guide: Not sure which home gym will fit our needs? We offer a thorough overview of home gyms to help you make the right decision.

Our Sources: These are the expert and user sources we consulted to find the best home gyms. They are listed in order from most helpful to least.

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