Bring your workout home with you
(MONEY Magazine) – Physical fitness, as a walk down any busy street will show you, is of varying importance to people. There are gym rats, who have their own locker at the local club and always look maddeningly fit. Then there are the folks who appear to have forgone pumping iron in favor of a waffle iron. For the vast phalanx in between—people whose schedules make gym membership uneconomical but who are committed to staying in shape—the solution may be to bring the gym home.
Investing in equipment might seem an odd idea for people who can't even find time to work out. But a well-used home gym is not only a good value, it can in fact increase the amount of time you exercise. "It's motivating to actually see the equipment right in your home," says Keli Roberts, a Los Angeles fitness expert who has worked as a personal trainer for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Cher. For what you'd spend on a year or two of membership, you can buy just the equipment that meets your needs.
You've heard this before, of course. In the 1980s, the advent of the VCR begat a home fitness trend when Jazzercise videos and Jane Fonda workout tapes became ubiquitous. Next came more hyped products like Soloflex and NordicTrack. But Americans figured out that stocking fitness equipment in the basement didn't necessarily mean working out more; after rising from $14 million in 1986 to $230 million in 1992, NordicTrack sales plummeted and the company almost went bankrupt. These days, the machine is an eBay regular.
Some people need to go to a gym to motivate themselves—for them, home will never feel like a place to do tricep dips. But for others, home can work. Belonging to a gym is expensive—$45 a month, perhaps, for the sparest menu of privileges (no spinning classes). And while gyms have every kind of equipment imaginable, the stuff you use religiously could probably fit in your den. The biggest drawback is the time it takes to get to a gym; even if it's only 10 minutes away, a 30-minute workout takes almost an hour. At home it takes 30 minutes.
Fortunately, the confluence of two home fitness phenomena have made it easier to avoid the NordicTrack trap. First, as annual home equipment sales climbed from $1.4 billion in 1990 to $4.2 billion in 2003, products became smaller, more specialized and of increasingly high quality. Second, a boom in personal training has created a ready army of experts who can help you choose only the stuff you'll actually use. Consider hiring one at her hourly rate, which can range from $40 to $100, to analyze your needs and even shop with you. Spending in the four figures on fitness equipment without seeking 40 bucks' worth of advice seems silly.
The selections here are based on value, quality and compactness. I tested them all and others, enlisting the input of Courtney Gates, a personal trainer in Burlington, Vt., where cold winters force the outdoorsy masses inside to tone up. We divided our picks into three categories: cardio equipment, strength equipment, and accessories.
As for making sure your new equipment doesn't end up on eBay, Gates has two ideas. "If you don't have anything to occupy your mind, like a TV, you won't enjoy it as much and you're less likely to stick with it," she says. "I watch movies when I'm on my treadmill at home." Her second tip is to make workouts mandatory. "When you get home, there are all sorts of distractions," she says. "Phone messages, mail, family demands. You have to put a workout on your schedule and treat it just like a doctor's appointment or a meeting—or a trip to the gym."
ROWING MACHINE CONCEPT2 MODEL D $850/concept2.com
PURPOSE BUILDS full-body endurance and strength; works more muscles than just about any other cardio machine.
THE SKINNY You'll find the Model D in many gyms across the country. During a single stroke you'll work muscles in your arms, legs, chest, shoulders and back. Concept2 allows you to keep a training log on its website and compare your performance with that of people around the world.
TRAINER'S TIP To avoid back strain, proper form is essential. Concept2's website provides pointers and workout programs.
EXERCISE BIKE SCHWINN DX900 $599/schwinnfitness.com
PURPOSE Low-impact cardio training
THE SKINNY There's nothing high-tech about the DX900, and that's good. The resistance on the 31-pound flywheel is adjusted manually, allowing for better fine-tuning than with the electronically programmable bikes so common at health clubs, which have a limited number of resistance settings. The DX900 can be used for everything from short, intense workouts, like spinning, to long endurance rides.
TRAINER'S TIP The DX900 has a wide seat and high handlebars, so an hour of pedaling is far more comfortable than on a real bike, according to Gates.
BIKE MOUNT CYCLEOPS FLUID  $300/cycleops.com
PURPOSE A cheap alternative: Make your road bike stationary
THE SKINNY Plant your rear wheel in the CycleOps, start pedaling, and it'll provide progressive resistance—as you pedal harder, it pushes back.
TRAINER'S TIP "This can be a better option for triathletes and racers because they should really ride as much as possible on their own bikes," says Gates.
TREADMILL LIFE FITNESS T3i $2,799/lifefitness.com
PURPOSE Medium- to high-intensity fat burning and endurance workouts
THE SKINNY If you run several times a week, don't be tempted by a "bargain" treadmill from ProForm or Weslo. Their weak motors struggle to spin the belt faster than a walker's pace, and they have short decks and short life spans. The belt speed of the powerful T3i maxes out at six-minute-mile pace and the deck inclines for hill work. There are 12 workout programs, including "fat burn" and "extreme heart rate."
TRAINER'S TIP Running on a flat treadmill requires less effort than running the same pace on a flat road, says Gates, so set the incline of the T3i to 1%.
ELLIPTICAL TRAINER VISION FITNESS X6000 $1,199/visionfitness.com
PURPOSE A cardio machine that places no stress on leg joints and also works out the arms
THE SKINNY Spending half an hour on an elliptical trainer burns almost as many calories as running on a treadmill—without pounding your knees. The X6000 comes closest to matching the performance of pricey professional versions. Plus, it folds up really small.
TRAINER'S TIP "An elliptical machine also gives you a good upper-body workout, something a treadmill doesn't do," says Gates.
DUMBBELLS BOWFLEX SELECTTECH $399/bowflexselecttech.com
PURPOSE The strength benefits of traditional dumbbells at a fraction of the price and space
THE SKINNY Dumbbells are practical when you're weightlifting at home without a spotter, but they hog space—you'd need at least 15 pairs (one dumbbell for each hand at each weight), plus a rack to hold them. The Bowflex SelectTech weights are adjustable and have removable plates, with 15 weight settings from five to 52.5 pounds. Just set the weight using the dials, and lift. The extra plates remain in the base tray.
TRAINER'S TIP Dumbbells allow the kind of free, natural movements that machines don't, says Gates, so you use more muscles than you would hoisting the same amount of weight on a machine.
HOME GYM PARABODY GS1 $999/parabody.com
PURPOSE Full-body tone-and-strength workouts in a compact package
THE SKINNY With its lone, adjustable seat and single set of weight plates (160 pounds total), the GS1 takes up barely more room than an entertainment center (it's roughly six feet tall by four feet wide). Yet it's as versatile as a colossal home gym set and costs hundreds less than many Soloflex-style machines. The built-in press-arms, pulleys and pull-down bars enable you to work out almost every muscle group in the body.
TRAINER'S TIP Think about hiring a trainer for a day to show you its full potential, says Gates (who, of course, is a trainer—but still).
WEIGHT BENCH DELTECH FITNESS DF1000 $185/fitnessdestination.com
PURPOSE Freeweight support
THE SKINNY Made from sturdy steel-gauge tubing, the 45-inch-wide Deltech will last forever. Its cushioned back adjusts to flat, incline or decline, and the bench comes with an attachment for leg exercises.
TRAINER'S TIP Every level on incline works a different set of muscles, so vary the angle.
WEIGHT SET CAP GRIP 210-POUND BARBELL $140/capbarbell.com
PURPOSE Old-fashioned iron pumping
THE SKINNY For getting bigger and stronger, nothing beats lifting free weights. This 210-pound collection of eight indestructible plates has chrome clips at each end to fasten the load securely every time. Your spotter can help. (You are using a spotter, aren't you?)
TRAINER'S TIP The Olympic-size bar (84 inches) is essential for varying the width of your grip.
EVERLAST NEVATEAR BAG $90/everlastboxing.com
PURPOSE Cardio and strength cross-training
THE SKINNY Works the upper body and the cardiovascular system through resistance to your punch.
TRAINER'S TIP "If you've got joint problems or high blood pressure," says Roberts, talk to a doctor before buying one.
HARBINGER FOLDING MAT $40/harbingersports.com
PURPOSE Floor exercises
THE SKINNY Two-foot-by-five-foot vinyl pad is filled with two-inch-thick foam.
TRAINER'S TIP Different from yoga mats, which are thinner and cling to the floor.
BODY TRENDS FITNESS TUBE $9.50/bodytrends.com
PURPOSE Resistance training
THE SKINNY A four-foot elastic band, use it for curls, chest presses, squats, lat raises and more.
TRAINER'S TIP Body Trends sells a guide, The Great Stretch Tubing Handbook, for $8.95. Buy it.
FITBALL EXERCISE BALL $29.95 (with pump)/fitball.com
PURPOSE Balance, strength or aerobic training
THE SKINNY Found in almost every fitness center in the country. Facilitates many stability, cardio and strength exercises.
TRAINER'S TIP Try it in place of a weight bench. "You'll be recruiting lots of little muscles to keep balanced," says Gates.
THE STEP $85/btsbodyshop.com
PURPOSE Low-impact cardio
THE SKINNY High intensity with little stress on the joints. Adjustable from four inches to eight.
TRAINER'S TIP Proper technique is essential for preventing Achilles tendonitis, and foot and knee injuries. Follow instructions. Carefully.