The Million Dollar Journey had an article on building a home gym that consisted of a power rack with a bench and barbell and a treadmill. While I am positively convinced that treadmills are useless, the power rack combo is one of the best solutions if one desires to focus on the three power lifts. The three lifts are of course the squat, the deadlift and the bench press which unlike the lever and pulley muscle isolation action you see in commercial gyms are very effective in getting strong. Clearly the Million Dollar Journey is heading in the right direction. Of course that particular setup came in just over $4000 or 0.4% of a million despite the inclusion of a run of the mill barbell which is the one item I would not skimp on.

Even though the setup is much better than your standard gym exercises (read Is your workout wasting your time?) and of course close to the ultimate for a competitive powerlifter, I would not choose it for general purposes. The treadmill is easy enough to discard. It is simply much harder and also much less expensive to run in the real world. On a treadmill you only have to move your legs. In the real world you have to move your entire body. The difference becomes painfully real on inclines. A 15% incline on a treadmill is comparably easy because you only have to lift your foot a bit higher before you put it down. A 15% incline in the real world (try running up the last few hundred yards up to the observatory of Mt Diablo) might just be the worst experience of your life because you have to power your entire body against gravity. The problem with power lifting is that it often results in what is known as gym-strength although obviously the discrepancy won’t be nearly as out of touch with reality as the leg press machine. Indeed a powerlifter will be stronger than average person and much stronger in the three lifts. However, overall he will not be stronger than a wrestler or a gymnast when it comes to simply moving stuff around. In fact he might just be weaker. Three easy test demonstrates this. First, the one-armed push-up in strict form without dropping the shoulder or twisting the body or legs. Many guys with 300lbs+ in the bench fail this because their supporting musculature is weak compared to their massive triceps and pecs. The second test involves picking up a round of fire wood of say 90lbs of so. This is much harder than it sounds because it does not have the nice and easy grip of a 1″ bar. In addition the grip is not symmetrical. Some people who can deadlift even a few hundred pounds fail this test and don’t understand why they seem so much weaker when they are moving semi-heavy furniture like king sized mattress or couches. Finally, holding the round of firewood, hold one leg straight out and squat on only leg. If you can squat 400lbs on two legs, squatting 90lbs on one leg should be easy, but it’s not. Under no circumstance try this at home if you have no experience with odd lifts!! Fact is that there are a lot of small muscles that are not used in gym specific exercises that nevertheless are often used in real life.

I goes without saying that I would not set my foot in commercial gyms for all the reasons that are nicely outlined in the article above. Furthermore, family friendly commercial gyms don’t allow hardcore training and besides – they cost money. Thus I prefer to train at home. This does require a small outlay of money e.g. maybe 2 months worth of gym subscription to get you started. However, per my rule of allowing spending that somehow improves me, this is and has been money well spent. Over the past 3 years I have added 25 pounds (I used to be a skinny geek), dropped my bodyfat to about 8-9% and I’m currently sporting an “office work” pulse of around 50 beats per minute. With enough dedication it can be done from home.

In terms of equipment there was a lot of good advice in the comments in particular about buying used. One problem with buying used equipment is that those in the know practically never sell. The reason is that quality weight equipment lasts a lifetime. Therefore, one has to be very patient or very lucky to pick up good used equipment. Conversely, “popular”, cheap, or retrospectively useless equipment can frequently be had for free. A brief search on current availability on craigslist reveals a couple of treadmills, a few exercise bikes, one recumbent, and various funky contraptions that I bet was once “as seen on TV”. Multi-gyms can often be had for a couple of hundreds. We have one sitting on the curb a few streets over right now. It would easily fill half our garage.

Fortunately, a good workout is not so much about expensive equipment as the equipment manufacturers would like us to believe. The philosophy in fitness is typical of the philosophy found throughout consumer culture e.g. substituting skills for expensive solutions, here in the form of specialized equipment. Instead, I want to focus on skills.

Focusing on skills keeps the workout interesting. It must be dreadfully boring to hop on a treadmill or an elliptical and run like a hamster for 45 minutes. This is probably the reason why they are placed in front of the TV or why they come with cup holders and magazine holders. Am I the only one who sees something fundamentally wrong with this picture? Similarly, those who lift weight or pull or push levers are practically all connected to an iPod. I say, if you need distraction like that or even need it to get energized, your workout is too simple.

The workout direction I prefer is one which I believe it was Pavel Tsatsouline who referred to it as low tech, high concept. Low tech – high concept means that it is YOU rather than the tool that makes the difference. Think of chess. A chess board with pieces can be had for very little money yet there is enough to study for a lifetime. Conversely, a computer game is high tech, expensive and can be played through in a few weeks or months after which a new computer game is required. Doesn’t that sound like the typical gym experience? It’s fun for two months and then it becomes dreary.

Of course this way of thinking about fitness, that it should be useful or about function rather than form, and that it should be high concept is enormously appealing to me because it is simply so compatible with the rest of my philosophy when it comes to dealing with life in general. In in the next part I will talk about what I use to train.

Coming soon.

Originally posted 2008-01-10 03:54:38.