Building a bare-bones home gym: ‘A small bar with weights and two dumbbells can do a lot’

The longer lockdown progresses, the more ovals and homes around Sydney resemble makeshift gyms. Some trainers have shifted everything but treadmills and ellipticals outside, while others rely on a few key items to train themselves and others while the gyms are closed.

So what do you need if your gym is shut and you want to keep training? Not much. And what you do need won’t break the bank.

A Sydney personal trainer, Tania Dragon, the manager of Vision Personal Training Bondi Junction, says initially, all you need are “resistance bands of any kind” and a yoga mat. Both can cost less than $10.

From home you can bring “towels for stretching” and use a “bottle of water or can of beans” if you are having trouble accessing hand weights.

Looped resistance bands allow you to do exercises such as biceps curls (looping the band around your knee), triceps extensions and hip abduction (by looping the band around your ankles).

If you are training in a park, Dragon says to use structures already in place – like benches to do dips, squats and stretches.

If you want to work out with weights, Dragon suggests dumbbells and kettlebells. “Have a couple around 5kg and some a bit heavier, around 10 to 12kg depending on your level of strength.”

If you want more variety, “a small bar with weights and two dumbbells can do a lot. If you can find a bench in the park, you can do lifts with two 10kg dumbbells.”

For stretching, Dragon says all you need is a towel (for resistance) or the resistance bands, a yoga mat and foam roller. “The foam rollers are super easy to buy and not too expensive [they start at about $7.50 from Kmart]. Start with a classic one – not too firm, with a smooth surface.”

A foam roller will help you cool down by stretching joints and muscles and works on soft tissue, rather than joints. The firmer the roller, the greater the pressure on muscle groups. Larger rollers are great for areas like the upper back (I lay mine length-wise on the mat and sit my shoulder blades over the roller to stretch my tight upper back after being hunched over a computer all day) while smaller rollers are good for stretching out the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.

In addition to weight and resistance training, Dragon says walking or using running apps such as Couch to 5K are great for people who are newer to running. “There’s a lot of injuries in lockdown when people just start running without building up to it.”

Make exercise a priority – ideally something you do first thing in the morning
“Don’t go too hard,” she warns. “If before lockdown you were training three times per week for 40 minutes you should be increasing this for 10 minutes a day. And if you want to run, you need to build up to this slowly.”

Dragon also advises that if you want to maintain your fitness in lockdown, you need to schedule exercise into your day and maintain a routine.

“Make exercise a priority – ideally something you do first thing in the morning. It will give you endorphins and energy to think more clearly for the rest of the day and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you got the job done and out of the way early.”

Like everything in this pandemic, you need to adapt your exercise routine to lockdown conditions.

Mark Fischer, 36, was a member of a gym near his house in Sydney when it shut its door seven weeks ago.

He had been getting up before 6am most mornings a week and heading into the gym for a workout. But lockdown meant he had to adapt both his training routine and the times he works out.

“I have two young kids and my routine was to get up before the family was up and head across the road and work out for 30 to 45 minutes before going home and getting the kids ready for daycare.”

Now he works out after he has got the kids ready for the day, and uses his Apple fitness subscription ($14.99 a month). At home, Fischer does classes on the app – usually strength training or Hiit workouts.

Previously “my routine was very dependent on what was in the gym”, including a variety of weights and machines. Now, he makes a space in his bedroom to work out using dumbbells and lighter weights that his wife bought in the first lockdown.

“I have two dumbbells, they were the last ones I could find online – you add the weights to it – up to 10kg each. It was $79 from Decathlon. I’ve also got a yoga mat – I’ve got another set of 5kg dumbbells, a skipping rope and that’s it.”

In addition to working out at home, Fischer teamed up with a friend to do an outdoor workout twice a week. His friend brings boxing mitts and pads to the park and Fischer brings the weights.

“People are adjusting to new ways of being fit. Because we are stuck inside again, and there’s no end in sight at all, exercising outdoors is one of the legitimate reasons to get out. It’s a chance to be out in the sun for an hour.”

So enjoyable is his new workout routine – particularly working out outside with a friend – that Fischer is reconsidering his gym membership when lockdown ends.

“We are slowly increasing the equipment we have, so I sometimes wonder, ‘Why go back to the gym?’ – particularly in summer and when we are investing in equipment.”

Instead Fischer thinks he will go to the gym in winter and “cancel in summer”.