Most public gyms suck these days. I don’t really think too many people would argue with that.
However, if you’re lucky enough to live by a place like my friend CJ Murphy’s Total Performance Sports (pictured above), in Everett, MA your local gym is “wicked retaaded” and you should consider yourself blessed. The rest of the world is very jealous of you.
Unfortunately, great gyms like that are few and far between these days. They certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to.
That’s why so many people who like to train Renegade style end up building a home gym or starting a little warehouse facility of their own.
With that in mind I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be essential equipment in creating the ultimate, badass training facility.
Some of you may be surprised to see that I put three other barbells ahead of a standard straight bar. The reason for that is that these bars are somewhat less stressful; especially if you have any nagging injuries like I do.
Remember, that progressive overload is rule number one. If you can get stronger on a consistent basis without beating yourself up too much you’ll be able to recover faster and thus train more frequently at a higher capacity. Obviously, those planning to compete in power or Olympic lifting or who just want to keep it pure and old school would put the straight bar ahead of the other three.
With that in mind here’s what I’d put in the ultimate dream facility:
(Note: For your convenience I’ve linked to all the best of each on the list)
Level 1 Essentials
1) Power Rack- This it the cornerstone of any weight room and you need one to squat, press, pull, chin, do reverse band work, hang your rings or Jungle Gym XT, etc. The EliteFTS 3×3 Collegiate Rack is the top of the line.
2) Trap Bar with Low & High Handles- Straight bar deads from the floor are very hard on some people simply because they can’t do them with a neutral spine. So I prefer the trap bar as a starting point for most clients (as long as you pull with perfect form and have a grasp on submaximal training). This will allow you to do deadlifts more frequently while sparing your lower back. They can also be used for farmer’s walks.
3) Safety Squat Bar- Squatting with a straight bar can be problematic for those with shoulder issues. If that describes you and you have the choice, why even put any stress on your shoulders when doing a lower body exercise? I think it would be smarter to leave the shoulders alone during lower body training. Straight bar back squats can also aggravate or help lead to elbow pain due to bicepital tendonitis in certain individuals. In order to squat without putting more undue stress on your shoulders a safety squat bar is awesome to have and would be my first recommendation over a straight bar for guys with a decent amount of size on them or any type of limited range of motion in the shoulder. Or if I had to pick just one for the gym at least having a safety bar allows the beat up guys to squat.
4) Angled or Neutral Grip Barbell- As long as you’re squatting and deadlifting you could get away with only using rings and dumbbells for upper body work if you really wanted to. The squats and deads are the two essential exercises. But if you want to get huge in the fastest time possible pressing a bar will help get you there. It allows for more rapid and easily trackable progression than bodyweight variations and will allow greater loads to be used than dumbbells. But pressing a straight bar can be bad news for those with shoulder issues (not to mention wrist and elbow). An angled or neutral grip bar, however, is infinitely safer than a straight bar. So I’d use this to press, clean and row with while saving your wrists, elbows and shoulders.
6) Rings- For iso holds, chins, dips, pushups, inverted rows (JGXT works here for most stuff as well).
7) Padded Plyo Boxes- As you age you lose the ability to perform explosive contractions. And as you lose the ability to perform explosive contractions you age faster and feel worse. It’s kind of like a chicken or the egg type of deal. Explosive exercises are typically jumps, throws or Olympic lifts. But Olympic lifts take skill and can beat you up if your technique isn’t perfect or if you have any wrist, elbow or shoulder issues. Even some medicine ball throws can be bothersome to certain individuals with shoulder problems. That’s why box jumps are always essentials in my programs. Vertical, hurdle and broad jumps can beat up guys who aren’t prepared for them and/or are over 35. But anyone can do a jump onto a nice padded box. That’s the go-to explosive power exercise and this is an absolutely essential tool to have.
8) Dumbbells- For presses, rows, single leg work, curls, snatches, etc. Ideally your dumbbells should be about 1.66 or 1.75 inches in diameter. Anything smaller than that is a waste of time. For pressing 2-2.5 inches is even better. The only problem with those is that they’re too hard to hold on to for rows and other pulling exercises. That’s why if I was ordering one set I’d go between 1.66 and 1.75 and just put Fat Gripz on for pressing. These have fat handles with rotating sleeves and are the Mercedes of dumbbells. That’s what I’d order if I won the lottery.
9) Really Good Olympic/ Power Lifting Hybrid Bar- For snatches, high pulls, clean and presses, etc. A crappy bar will ruin your wrists, elbows and shoulders. If you have a standard gym bar it’s almost not even worth doing Olympic lifts. Obviously this would be much higher on the list for those planning to compete in either endeavor. For everyone else the specialty bars can keep you healthier. If you’re really serious about Olympic lifting you’d want to get a top of the line Eleiko bar.
10) Adjustable Bench- For flat and low incline presses, chest supported dumbbell rows and shrugs, dragonflags, hip thrusts, rear foot elevated squats, etc. The key is that it has to allow the optimal 15-30 degree incline for pressing otherwise it’s useless. The majority of incline benches in most gyms start at 45 degrees. That’s too high.
11) Chalk- You can’t train heavy with no chalk. It’s dangerous.
12) Bands- For reverse band work to ease shoulder stress on barbell pressing variations, pull aparts in all directions which are critical for shoulder health, terminal knee extensions and band leg curls to warm up before squats, x-band walks, resisted clams, band assisted chins and dips, open-the-knees squat drill, and to replace cable exercises such as pushdowns, face pulls, Pallof Presses, etc. if you don’t have access to a cable column. These can also be used as a form of accommodating resistance to do Dynamic Effort exercises such as squats and presses.
13) Fat Gripz- I would never allow someone to press with regular pencil thin diameter bars or dumbbells if given the choice. A thicker grip saves your elbows and helps your shoulders feel better while also increasing your forearm size and grip strength.
Level 2 Essentials
14) Sled- For lower body hypertrophy, conditioning, speed and strength. It’s eccentric-less so nothing compares to or replaces it. The Rogue Dog Sled is great for training groups because it has the uprights on both sides so you don’t have to turn the sled around (this can tear up your turf). Although, having to switch them is a pain in the ass, so ask for an extra set if you order one. Or if you want the option of leaving your upper body out of the equation when pushing the sled on lower body days go for the Prowler with drive pads. That will allow better recovery for older or beat up guys.
15) Neutral Grip Chin Up Handles- I don’t prescribe straight bar chin-ups or pull-ups; only neutral grip and ring variations. If you have rings you don’t necessarily need a neutral grip attachment but most people aren’t strong enough to do those (actually most people aren’t even strong enough to do chin-ups on any type of bar properly) so this would be nice to have. You can get them on your power rack. Ideally these would be about 1.66 inches in diameter. Skinnier handles are harder on the elbows.
16) Front Squat Harness- For some of the same reasons as the safety squat bar. Front squats put less stress on the lower back but can beat up the wrists and elbows. This can prevent that. And again, if you’re training someone or are someone who doesn’t plan to compete in Olympic lifting it might not be necessary to risk beating up the elbows and wrists on a lower body exercise.
17) Box Squat Box- A large number of people find that box squats are easier to recover from and beat them up less than free squats. Even if this doesn’t describe you I still think a box squat’s a good exercise to keep in your rotation.
18) Board Press Boards- Two and three boards allow you to train the triceps heavy without beating up your shoulders in the bottom range.
Level 3 Essentials
19) Glute Ham Raise- To bring up the hamstrings without beating up your lower back. The only form of loaded knee flexion I recommend.
20) 45 Degree Back Raise- Great posterior chain movement that hits the lower back, hamstrings and glutes hard but doesn’t cause any spinal compression or CNS stress.
21) Chains- This can make exercises like presses a lot safer by overloading the top portion and deloading at the bottom where it’s most stressful to the shoulders non a press or the elbows on a triceps extension. There are tons of cool variations of chain exercises you can on their own or with additional weight. You can also chains in place of a weighted vest or dip belt on exercises like pushups, chin ups and dips.
22) Belt Squat Belt- A dedicated belt squat machine is awesome but it also costs a lot of money and takes up a lot of space. So having the belt and looping some plates or kettlebells through it is a great way to squat when you have a beat up or injured back. If you want to squat more frequently without loading your spine this is a great option. And everyone knows the power of high rep squatting when it comes to building the quads. This version lets you do so without frying your lower back.
23) Power Wheel- Ab roll outs are one of the absolute best ab exercises you can do. With the Power Wheel you can also do pikes, low ab pull ins, and various hand walking drills (awesome for shoulder stability and core strength).
Level 4- Not Necessarily Essential but Great to Have
24) Climbing and (possibly) Battling Ropes- To climb, row and occasionally battle with (if you are one of those guys who feels the need to always do conditioning this is a good thing to do at the end of upper body days since it won’t instantly suck your pump dry like moving on to a lower body based drill like sled dragging will).
25) Medicine Balls- For throws and ab work. Great to have but if you are jumping, sprinting and doing some type of Olympic lift variation not an absolute necessity.
26) A Full Cable Column- Ideally this would be equipped with a seated row and adjustable cable stacks so you could set the height anywhere from 7 feet high all the way to the ground. This will allow you to do face pulls, wood choppers, 1 arm rows, curls, pushdowns, extensions, pull throughs, etc. It should also have a pulldown for reasons I won’t get into now since it’s an entire article in itself.
27) Steel or Wooden Log- There are few exercises more fun than a log clean and press. It’s definitely in my top five. And it builds massive size and strength.
28) Reverse Hyper- Pretty much the same benefits as the 45-degree back raise with a possible decompression effect. Either way it’s great for training the posterior chain.
29) Belt Squat Machine- As mentioned above. The benefit of the machine is that it’s just easier to load and less of a hassle. A high rep challenge with a training partner on this machine is a great time.
30) Tumbling Mats- If you want to be athletic you should be doing some tumbling.
31) Landmine Unit- Great for rotational ab work, single arm pressing and rowing, t-bar rows, RDL’s, etc.
32) Kettlebells- These are nice to have for swings and snatches but would be very low on my list. For presses, rows, shrugs, curls, etc. dumbbells are better. Having both is very nice but I wouldn’t be lost without kettlebells. Unlike a lot of the other stuff they aren’t irreplaceable.
33) Jump Rope- Everyone should know how to use one of these with a decent level of proficiency.
34) Giant Cambered Bar- For squats and good mornings. I especially like this bar to load 45-degree back extensions.
35) Farmers Walk Handles- The exercise itself is essential but if you have a trap bar or heavy enough dumbbells or kettlebells you don’t necessarily need the handles. However, they’re always very nice to have.
36) Yoke- This is very fun, strength producing strongman exercise that’s nice to have the ability to do a few times per month.
37) Sledgehammers- Swings with the sledgehammer at a big tire are great for grip and core strength.
38) Stones- You can’t be considered bad ass until you start carrying some heavy stones around. That’s some manly shit right there.
There are tons of other cool little toys that we’d all love to play with but that’s my list of the real essentials. Let me know what you think and what you’d add or take away from the list.
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