If you have a gym membership -- and actually use it -- you already have access to all the weight-training equipment you could imagine. If you'd rather do your weightlifting at home, you have to choose between free weights (dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells) or a home gym, which reproduces gym strength-training machines on a smaller, usually lighter scale.
As a general rule, free weights (dumbbells and barbells) are a good choice if you already know what you're doing, are confident with your form and do not want a spotter. (We cover the best dumbbells in a separate report.) Home gyms usually isolate the muscle being worked, negating the need for perfect form, and replace a spotter with 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 crushing you if you drop the weight.
As mentioned above, most home gyms make up for imperfect form by guiding you through a set range of motion. This is a double-edged feature: It's great for beginners who still need to master the path of travel or for those who want a little extra guidance to support and protect their joints. On the other hand, to get the correct range of motion you still have to line your body up with the home gym. As much as manufacturers attempt to make their machines adjustable, they haven't arrived at the perfect one-size-fits-all formula just yet.
Ultimately, the only way to be sure your home gym fits you is to try it out. 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 its joints (pivot points) line up with your joints.
Some home gym manufacturers offer a short trial return window, but this rarely works out. 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 keep this from happening we've paid close attention to user comments on how the gyms perform in actual practice. We paid particular attention to feedback about whether a gym is capable of handling particularly tall or short users.
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 (also known as selectorized): 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: Instead of sliding a selector pin into a stack of weights, users 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: Bowflex's proprietary 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: A few home gyms, such as the iconic Total Gym, use your own body weight for resistance. You may also see these called glideboard gyms because 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.
However, because the pulleys introduce a major mechanical advantage, you can never lift your full body weight with these machines. Even if the workouts are a challenge when you first start out, regular training will make you stronger. If you plan on consistently training, invest in a gym with more resistance than you currently need; it'll give you room to grow.
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. A floor mat for protection is a good idea, but will only do so much. Regardless of the gym you decide on, a socket set is the most common tool needed for assembly. Although, with some models you also need a screwdriver and a few crescent wrenches. If your gym of choice has pulleys, you're going to have to lubricate them and periodically check the cables for fraying.
With all that in mind, we've selected the very best models 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. Gym manufacturers make some pretty big claims, so our very best sources were user reviews posted to retail websites like Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Sears.com. No matter how you slice it, a home gym is a significant investment, so buyers usually aren't shy about saying exactly how well their purchase has (or hasn't) worked out.
We also found expert input from sources like About.com, Fitness-Equipment-Source.com and Bodybuilding.com to be quite helpful. These experts usually leave brief, but insightful, comments about how well a particular home gym compares to similar models. When dealing with user reviews, we focus on those that provide balanced analysis, discussing both pros and cons, rather than over-the-top five-star reviews. 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.
Some home gyms arrive in multiple boxes but, even then, they're so large and heavy 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 experience this dilemma suggest opening the box and carrying the gym in piece by piece.