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A Simple Fitness Workout Space

In my first post, I touched briefly on the how minimally and easily you can set up a fitness space in your home.   I tend to move every three to four years, so I’ve had A LOT of practice finding ways to exercise at home in a wide variety of spaces.  It sometimes takes some creativity, but it can be done. 

In my first post, I included a picture of my current workout space.  In this post, I’ll go into more detail how to set up a home workout space. 

Mat

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If you’re an absolute minimalist in working out or are on the road without access to a gym, there’s so much you can do with body weight only.  In that case, you technically don’t need anything but yourself and your sneakers, but it’s also nice to have an exercise mat, especially if you’re working out of a hard floors. 

Three types of exercise mats are most popular:  yoga, pilates, and fitness or general purpose (in increasing order of thickness). 

Yoga mats are typically 1/8″ to 1/4″ (3-6 mm) thick and are the thinnest type of mat.  They generally run 6 feet (180 cm) by 2 feet (61 cm).  These mats tend to be sticky so you can perform yoga moves without slipping around.  More eco-friendly producers will make their yoga mats out of cotton, hemp or bamboo.  But you have to be careful with some ecofriendly mats (e.g., bamboo) if you plan to do sweaty moves that require a sticky surface since mats from these materials sometimes slip.   Goodtrade.com has a decent review eco-friendly yoga mats.

I’m currently using a Wai Lana yoga mat for my workouts because it rolls up easily and fits in a corner.  I picked it up at a grocery store several years ago, to be honest, so it wasn’t a deeply thought investment.  I’ve had this mat for years, and based on the photo above, it’s probably time for a new one.  But the Wai Lana has worked perfectly fine for me.  If you want to get a better mat, companies like Manduka, Jade Yoga and Gaiam are known to make good yoga mats.  

Because my mat is a thin yoga mat, I keep a fluffy towel in my supplies basket to have on hand for exercises or stretches that put more pressure on my knees, back, or pelvic bones.  If you’re sensitive in these areas, a yoga mat might be too thin for you.

Pilates mats are thicker and cushier, between 1/4″ and 1/2″ (6-13 mm), or even thicker.  In a Pilates mat workout, you tend to roll onto your sides and stomach a fair amount, so the thicker texture will make these mats more comfortable.  Pilates mats are often made from  PVC or rubber, so they tend to be less ecofriendly.  STOTT and SPRI are known for their pilates mats and have some ecofriendly versions.  Pilates mats are more slick than the sticky yoga mats because you tend to do more exercises or your back and stomach and don’t need the non-slip properties of a yoga mat. 

The size of a Pilates mat can be a bit larger to accommodate the variety of moves done in Pilates that require cushioning, so take this into account if you have a narrow workout space.  In my experience, the standard size yoga mat is generally just fine for my daily routine.  However, if you have an extra wide area, you could consider a 4′ wide mat and even go as long as 8′-10′. 

General purpose or fitness mats are the thickest type of mat (at least 1/2″ or 13 cm) and often shorter than pilates or yoga mats.  You will often find them in gyms because they’re durable and easy to clean.  Many have a foam core and vinyl cover, but more ecofriendly mats are out there.  Food Fitness Flora recently reviewed ecofriendly mats on their blog.  If you want something thicker or more variety to choose from, check out the wide selection of mats on SPRI’s website

Space

You can use just about any space for your workout area.  Back in the day when (dating myself) fitness videos only came on VHS or DVD, you had to use them in front of the TV .  Now, with Smart TVs, you can stream tons of content.  Using your television is convenient because you can see the screen from a variety of angles.  (Nothing like trying to follow a yoga video on your laptop or iPad from an upside down, twisted position).  Personally, I like to have a small, dedicated space for my workouts.   I don’t want to spend time setting up the space by having to pull out the mat and weights, and then put them away afterwards.  (If there’s anything that stands between me and my workout, chances are I’ll find an excuse not to do it.)  If I can find a space that will accommodate the full length of my body, with arms outstretched overhead, and also wide enough that I can lay on my mat, arms straight out in a “T” shape, then I can generally make the space work. 

Right now, my workout space is in one corner of my home office.  I like to keep it looking neat and tidy, beckoning me over to do a few bicep curls between conference calls.  I also like to keep a dedicated pair of sneakers (or tennis shoes, baskets, gym shoes, etc., depending on where you live) that I don’t wear outside the house.  That way, I always know my shoes are there ready for me, and I don’t get my mat dirty from my last outdoor walk or run in the rain.  I also have a small basket (the pictured one was purchased at Target) where I can keep a number of small items.  I’ll discuss those more below. 

Weights

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While there are plenty of challenging exercises you can do with body weight only, I’m a huge proponent of using free weights.  Weight training exercise makes you feel strong, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the stress that more cardio type workouts can put on your joints.  As you get older, weight workouts are critically important for maintaining bone health and muscle mass.  Some women are reluctant to strength train because of the fear of “bulking up”.  Don’t let this stop you — there are plenty of exercises you can do with lighter weights and higher repetitions that provide similar benefits and results to heavier lifting.  And, most women can’t easily bulk the way men do when they lift.  We’re just not built that way.  In my view, the benefits of weight training outweigh whatever short term trend might dictate toothpick arms and legs.

In choosing weights, I prefer a nested set that takes up minimal space.  I started off with a set of Reebok weights that allowed for variable weights in one dumbbell up to 12 pounds.  I bought these weights 10 years ago for under $50, and I still use them.  You could go from 2.5 (handle only), 5, 7.5, 10, and 12.5 simply by moving a pin.  Now, it takes a little time to get used to a nested set of weights.  If you are doing an online routine that requires a wide variety of weights  and doesn’t give much time between sets, you might have to hurry to shift back and forth or pause the video to make the change.  But I got used to it pretty quickly.  

Eventually, I grew out of the 12 pound set and wanted heavier weights.  Since I was exercising regularly at home and using my weights, I treated myself to a set of PowerBlocks.  I love, love, LOVE these weights.  They’re high quality, easy to adjust, and just make me feel super bad ass because they look like weights the pros would use.  The downside is they’re pretty pricey.  I bought the Sport 24 set in January 2017, which is one of their more entry level sets, and I also bought the stand to go with it.  The total cost was around $250 (cheaper than a couple of months of gym membership).   These weights go up to 24 pounds, which is generally enough for me (5’4″ female).  If you want heavier weights, PowerBlock has a number of options.  I bought my husband a set for his birthday that went all of the way up to 90 pounds per hand, with extensions.  On the PowerBlock heavier sets, one small disadvantage is that you have to take the slug weights out to make smaller changes in pounds, which takes a little more time.  (Watch this video to see what I’m talking about — :56-2:05).  But you get quick at it after some practice. 

If you have more space and don’t want to have to adjust the weight on a nest pair of dumbbells, by all means invest in in a full set of weights.  I’d suggest shopping for used equipment, since this is a common item people buy and sell regularly.  Neighborhood garage sales, Ebay, Craiglist, Offerup, and Facebook Marketplace are all good sources of used exercise equipment.  I also came across this Shape article recently with some really creative ideas on homemade weights!

Ball (or bench)

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A good exercise ball is not required but nice to have.  Fitness balls are easily found in most big box and online stores.  I’m sure some are better than others, but I’ve generally not had an issue with any fitness ball I’ve purchased over the years.  They all work just fine so don’t geek out on it — put that money towards your weight set.  The most popular exercise balls are Theraband and DynaPro.  Here’s a recent article on balls if you want to do some comparison shopping.

Exercise balls are most often used to perform a variety of core and stability exercises, but I use my ball a lot like I use a weight bench.  While certain exercises can quite easily be done on the floor — crunches, chest press, chest fly, pullovers — you can increase your range of motion with a ball or bench.    You simply put your head and shoulders on the ball and make a tabletop shape with your legs for balance.  You can find some good examples on of this on the Polar.com blog.

The hardest part about buying a ball is figuring out which size to get.  Here’s the general rule of thumb: 

DiameterHeight
45 cm5′ (152 cm) and under
55 cm5’1″– 5’8″ (155–172 cm) 
65 cm5’9″– 6’2″ (173–188 cm)
75 cm6’3″– 6’7″ (190–200 cm)
Exercise Ball Guide

If you have the room, you might want to invest in a bench.  You won’t get the same core stability benefits of a ball, but it works well when you want a stable surface and full range of motion, or with exercises where you want to sit straight or at an angle with some support (good for people with bad backs).  Spend some time researching if you really want a bench.  There are some pretty poorly constructed benches out there.  If you’re going to invest in one, you want it to hold up over time. 

While I don’t use a bench now, I’ve used them in the past when I had more room.  I bought a Powerline bench off of Amazon and was quite happy with it.  It has wheels at one end so you can move it easily, and it will fold down and lean against the wall when you want to move it out of the way.  It has a sturdy construction and doesn’t wobble.  It was around $150.  For a slightly more expensive but even more solid option, you can buy a PowerBlock Sport Bench for about $200. As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the PowerBlock product.  You can’t go wrong with these guys. 

Miscellaneous Items

As much as I try to keep to just a mat, ball and weights, there are a few little extras that are always convenient to have around and help break up monotony. 

·       A larger towel to cushion my knees and back on my thin mat

·       A small face towels to wipe off sweat (I keep a stack in my basket)

·       Flexible exercise bands that are useful for exercises that aren’t easily worked with dumbbells (e.g., inner and outer thighs and lats)

·       Ankle and wrist weights (you can do wrist weights too)

·       Hand weights for small muscle exhaustion exercises (e.g., arm circles) 

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And voila!  At the cost of a few months of gym membership, you have yourself a home gym for years.  I’d love to see what you home fitness space looks like!  Follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (see buttons on top right of screen), and send me your photos of your Simple Fitness space! 

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