Home Gym Systems: Our Buying Guide
A “home gym” is basically 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 fitness machines, such as cable crossovers 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. Our home gyms category here actually addresses to 7 types of fitness machines that can be labelled as home gyms. These are: weight stack machines, smith machines, cable crossovers, power racks, power towers, flex-rod home gyms, and bodyweight fitness benches. Evidently, each type has its own specifics, strengths, weaknesses etc. Therefore, if you’re looking to purchase a certain home gym machine, in this post we’re going to point out their strengths and weaknesses, and the most important aspects to consider about them.
Weight Stack Home Gyms
Weight stack machines are multifunction home gyms, consisting in a system of pulleys, and cables which connect to a stack of weight plates. Each machine of this type offers more or less workout stations. For example, some may include a pec fly workout station, others may have a preacher pad station etc. It goes without saying that 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, but also for 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 can be replicated 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 rather large. Therefore, you’ll need at least two people for their unpacking and assembly, and you will have to carefully consider their assigned space. Once assembled, the machine will be difficult to move.
Each weight stack machine includes a huge number of parts, and its assembly may not be exactly easy. Although all of them come with assembly manuals that will guide you step-by-step through the assembly process, certain steps may be left out or hard to comprehend. Also, the overall assembly always takes at least 3-4 hours.
Aspects to consider
1. Weight plates 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. Evidently, if a machine comes with a 300 lbs weight stack for example, it may be suitable to 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 which gives you the possibility to upgrade the weight stack.
3. Weight ratios. Each weight stack machine may have its own 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 may be only 150 lbs, due to the 1:2 ratio for the press station. Some machines come with a table with the ratios for each stations, but there are also models that 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 certain 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, and 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 is 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, the machine’s versatility is considerably increased.
Our best recommendation – Powerline BSG10X
Even though this home gym system doesn’t have an adjustable backrest for the bench, and comes with a standard 160 lbs (72.5 kg) weight stack which cannot be upgraded, we still chose it as top recommendation here.
That’s because this machine integrates 5 workout stations, including low pulley station, lat pulldown station, mid-pulley station, chest press station, and leg attachment. It features cast iron weight plates rather than vinyl, and so far it benefits from an overwhelming number of 5-star reviews and ratings… Read Full Review.
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 (or basic) 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 that has to be outlined here, is that most Smith machines which also integrate 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 basically load the barbell with a lot of weight (up to 600 lbs, or even more). Needless to say, the weight ratio for the bar is 1:1. Also, if the machine features pulleys and mobile weight elements, you can also load them too with a consistent amount of plates. These aspects basically make Smith machines superior to home gyms with weight plate stacks, as they’re great for all users, including power lifters, 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 simply 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 plates compatibility. Most Smith machines are 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, in order to provide incline, decline and horizontal presses.
3. Counterweight. Some Smith machine 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 there are users who simply cannot lift even the bar alone, due to disabilities for example. A counter weight 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 useful.
4. Other accessories. In general, Smith machine models that offer several workout stations along with the main bar station, leave room for upgrades. Therefore, it’s a good idea to find out what other accessories can be attached to a model before purchasing it.
Our best recommendation – Marcy Diamond Elite MD-9010G
The Marcy Diamond Elite Smith machine has much more to offer than a basic weight training equipment of this type. Not only that it includes the Smith cage with the bar, it also integrates an adjustable bench, preacher pad, low pulley, high pulleys and also a pec fly station.
It’s actually a multi-function weight machine, which offers the possibility to perform a wide array of exercises. And on top of that, it currently costs, less than $1,000. It’s definitely a home gym system with a great price / quality ratio… Read Full Review.
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 extremely effective, due to the exercises that they make available.
Most cable cross machines come with their own weight stacks, but there are models, which require barbell or dumbbell weight plates. Evidently, the second type normally 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 extremely effective fitness machines for the core and arm muscles. You don’t really need a specific workout bench for seated workouts with a crossover; you can simply 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 in order to provide maximum stability, especially when using the lower pulleys. Certain 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 wider array of exercises.
2. Weight plates. Many models come with their own weight stacks. But some require classic standard or Olympic plates. So, in case you opt for a model of this sort, due to the fact that you already own a set of weight plates, make sure they will fit to the machine before purchasing it.
3. Maximum load. Obviously, if a crossover comes with two standard weight plate stacks, the maximum load is pre-determined. But in this case, it’s not a bad idea to find out if these stacks can be upgraded with extra plates. However, in case 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, when it comes to cable cross trainers, we can’t speak of too many other workout stations. But some of them feature a lat pulldown attachment, or pull-up station. These are elements which you may find handy.
Our best recommendation – PowerLine PCCO90X
The PowerLine PCCO90X is one of the simplest cable cross machine models that you can find. It doesn’t have weight stacks, and requires barbell or dumbbells weight plates (which are not included) and due to this fact it costs less than $400. It features standard 1″ load pegs, but can work with Olympic plates as well.
It offers the possibility to load up to 200 lbs on each side, capacity that various other models with a pre-determined weight stack don’t offer. It’s also one of the models with that so far benefits from an excellent feedback… Read Full Review.
Power racks, also known as power cages, are items of weight training 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 supports for 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 case of a Smith machine. Due to the fact that you can freely workout with the barbell, you benefit from a much better workout 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. Maybe the most important 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 are sold without a barbell. So, if the display pictures of one model include a barbell, make sure if it’s really included.
2. Storage pegs. If you already have a set of weight plates, make sure they fit to the supports of the rack you want to buy. There are models which only support Olympic plates, so standard 1″ plates won’t fit.
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 really heavy load.
4. Other workout stations and accessories. In general, a power rack must have the frame, the 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, in order to move more freely inside of it, and focus on their squats.
Our best recommendation – Valor Fitness BD-7
The Valor Fitness BD-7 is a more versatile power rack model, as it includes high and low pulley stations, and a pull-up bar. It also has an excellent weight capacity for its safety bars (up to 800 lbs). It’s equipped with 8″ long standard storage pegs, but also comes with adapters for Olympic plates.
It’s spacious enough, with a footprint of 59″D x 63″W, providing enough inside space for free movement. It’s also one of the best rated power racks… Read Full Review.
A power tower is an item of fitness training designed for exercises that involve the user’s bodyweight. 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 exactly an exerciser meant for building muscle mass. This type of equipment helps with the improvement of 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 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 difficult to relocate even when it’s fully assembled.
The the number of possible exercises provided is limited.
Aspects to consider
1. Distance between the dip bars. This may be the most important aspect to have a look at when purchasing a power tower. For certain models, the space between the dip bars may simply be too narrow for you.
2. Height of the pull-up bar. Most power towers are over 7′ tall, so for the average user their height shouldn’t be an issue. But in case you’re 6’7″, you may want to opt for one of the tallest models, in order 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 own weight without any problem. But in case you might want to perform weighted pull-ups, it’s best to make sure your own weight plus the weight you want to attach to yourself, won’t exceed the exerciser’s weight capacity.
Our best recommendation – IRONMAN Triathlon X Class 6880
Even though this is not exactly the cheapest power tower available at the moment, it definitely is one that offers quite a bit more than a basic model. First of all, it has an extremely sturdy construction, and a weight capacity of 400 lbs, which means you should be able to perform weighted pull-ups with no problem.
It also has an adjustable workout station, which consists of a set of handles and cushioned rollers, which you can lock onto the frame in various positions… Read Full Review.
Flex-rod machines are patented and manufactured by Bowflex. They feature a similar construction and pulley / cable system as a weight machines, but the resistance is generated by a system of flexible rods instead of a weight plate stack. The cables of the machine connect to the flexible rods, which bend as you pull the handles, generating the desired resistance. Evidently, due to their specific resistance system, these machines have their own pluses and minuses.
Due to the fact that 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 of the aspects that can be also 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 actually results in an overall superior workout.
Evidently, 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 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 we’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. Evidently, it’s best to opt for a model that can be upgraded.
2. Bench adjustability. A model that integrates a bench with multiple adjustment positions, including horizontal, offers superior versatility.
Our best recommendation – Bowflex Blaze
The Bowflex Blaze home gym system features an adjustable bench with horizontal and 45° positions for the backrest. It comes with a standard weight resistance of 210 lbs, but it can be upgraded up to a total of 410 lbs. It features several workout stations including lat pulldown, leg attachment low-pulley, and mid-pulleys.
It offers the possibility to perform over 60 exercises, and currently is one of the highest rated Bowflex machines… Read Full Review.
Bodyweight Fitness Benches
Just as power towers, this type of fitness benches uses mostly the user’s own weight in order to generate resistance for the exercises. In general, a bodyweight fitness bench glides on a special 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 weight resistance is limited by the user’s weight, they’re actually designed for the improvement of 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 setup, 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, they can also be used for dumbbell pressing, or various other dumbbell exercises.
The only disadvantage characteristic to 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, in order for it to move more difficult.
Aspects to consider
1. Bench and cable length. This may not be an issue for most users. However, really 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 longest model possible.
2. Usage space. Even though most fitness benches of this sort are foldable, and storage is not a problem, when unfolded they’re really long, some of them may even exceed 90″ lengthwise. Therefore, before committing to one model, make sure the usage space for it is not an issue.
Our best recommendation – Weider Ultimate Body Works
Even though this is a model with a maximum user weight capacity of 250 lbs, its frame is pretty sturdy, as users up to 300 lbs have mentioned to have used it regularly for a long while without any issues.
It offers a bit more than a basic model, as it features a set of 4 bungee cords which add up to 50 lbs of weight resistance. It offers the possibility to execute more than 70 exercises… Read Full Review.