If you are trying to make up your mind whether you should work out at home or join a gym, you certainly aren’t alone.
On the one hand, home gyms are now more popular and more affordable than ever. On the other hand, many gyms have cut their membership fees to attract more customers.
Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all. Commercial gyms are great for some, while others prefer working out in their own home gym. Yet, some people can’t even imagine working out at home.
In this post, I put the home gym head to head with a paid gym membership to help you decide.
I cover many factors, including hygiene (an important topic since COVID-19), and many other factors you should think about.
Your personality is a major factor when trying to decide between setting up a home gym or getting a gym membership.
Are you easily motivated?
Do you tend to get distracted easily?
These are just a few of the issues to consider.
Hold on before taking out your credit card to buy the latest exercise equipment or signing up for that 12-month gym membership contract.
This comparison is based on my twenty five years of experience in the field
It’s important to note that when put in context with other issues, any individual factor is less important than the overall “big picture” view when determining the best choice for you.
Let’s get started!
Home Gym – Freedom to work out whenever you want—that’s the number one reason people like to have some kind of a home gym setup.
During bad weather it’s a big advantage to be able to work out at home. You may be able to do that workout if you don’t have much time, whereas if you had to go to the gym, you would have had to skip the workout altogether.
Commercial Gym – Commercial gyms might close early in the evening, or get closed during holidays and renovations. They might require a significant amount of time to drive to, which isn’t pleasant at times when the weather is bad.
Winner: Home Gym is the clear winner no doubt—working out at home is as convenient as it gets. It’s open 24/7 so if you feel particularely motivated for whatever reason to do a workout at 2am, go for it.
Home Gym – Working out at home, you can hit a workout almost instantly. There’s no need to pack any gear or clothes, you don’t even need a damn gym bag!
Commercial Gym – Going to the gym is time-consuming, at least for me.
I have to prepare my gym bag, make sure I didn’t forget to take everything I need, like my shaker, clean clothes, a towel etc.
My bag is always stuffed to the max and I still often forget something.
Winner: Home Gym is once again the winner—you save a ton of time.
Home Gym – I gave time efficiency its own space here, because not only do you not need any time to prepare, there’s also no driving time involved and never any need to wait for a machine.
A home gym allows you to spend virtually all your workout time actually working out. Home workouts can be very time condensed, quick and efficient.
Commercial Gym – Going to the gym involves preparation, commute time, parking, time in the locker room, unpacking your stuff when you arrive and packing your gear when you leave.
During peak time you might have to wait in line for a machine too, which wastes more time—plus it can mess up your rest periods between sets and exercises.
Add some small talk here and there, and voila—before you know it you’ve spent two to three hours on one workout.
Winner: Home Gym wins
big small time here. You save an enormous amount of time by working out at home.
Cleverly built all-in-one workout machines let you get a total body workout without the need for other exercise equipment. These home gym machines offer you a complete home gym in just one machine, which is excellent if you don’t have a lot of free space.
But you definitely don’t need them in order to get a good home workout, in fact, there are many exercises you could do with just one pair of adjustable dumbbells and a bench.
Freedom To Do Whatever You Want
Home Gym – Throw the plates, scream your ass off, take off your shirt or put your stereo on full volume. Maybe add some motivation by playing your favorite workout videos on TV, or whatever makes you happy.
Commercial Gym – At the gym you just cannot do everything you might want to, like things that might embarrass you.
For example, if you find that a quick shout gives you the mental boost you need to squeeze in that last rep, that’s something many gyms aren’t fond of. Some old-school gyms are more liberal than others, but these are becoming harder to find.
Winner: Home Gym wins. You are the boss, do whatever you want whenever you want.
I was working out with a friend who also happened to be my ruthless personal trainer at the time.
It was leg day, mid-set, and I was about to give up, but my trainer forced me to work through the pain and finish the set.
I really gave it all, honestly, I think if there was a gun pointed at my head I couldn’t have done another rep! After the set, a lady came over and told me that even when she gave birth she didn’t scream like I had.
There’s a reason why these karate people give a shout just before they break blocks, and tennis players give a shout right before a powerful serve.
Screaming or grunting is very effective, and in fact it’s the sound that can make you 7% stronger.
That said, it doesn’t work for everyone; studies show it depends on how conditioned you already are. It isn’t likely to provide any benefit for novices, so don’t just scream for the sake of it.
Are you thinking of skipping the hygiene section, believing this only applies to compulsive cleaners?
It’s not, hygiene is more important than you might think, especially in the gym.
Home Gym – At home you control how clean the machines are, and since you are the only one using them you won’t find any repulsive sweat marks leftover from anyone else, nor is there anyone to catch a cold from—at least not during your workout.
Commercial Gym – The number of germs lurking in the gym is staggering. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sports Medicine found sixty-three percent of gym exercise machines tested positive for the virus that causes the notorious cold; sometimes even disinfection didn’t kill the stubborn contaminants.
The number one way to get infected is not by air, but rather by touching a contaminated surface (such as almost just about anywhere in the gym) and then either by touching your face or through cracks in your skin.
You are always exposed to these germs; it’s just that your body usually fights back and defeats them before they make you sick. The real problem is that our immune system tends to be jeopardized during high-stress activity like working out.
The abundance of germs lurking around just about everywhere, along with a weakened immune system, makes the gym the best place (in a bad way!) to catch a cold or get a two-week disabling flu infection.
I can personally attest to this. I have gotten sick many times shortly after some particularly grueling workouts. Flu infection can sometimes take two days for symptoms to start showing up. By then you may have forgotten about the gym workout you had the other day, but now you are kinda useless, lying in bed for a week—not fun.
The abundance of germs lurking around just about everywhere, along with a weakened immune system, makes the gym the best place (in a bad way!) to catch a cold or get a two-week disabling flu infection.
Winner: Home Gym is the clean winner here.
Gym Machines Dirties Than Toilet Seats
A study on germs in the gym conducted by the University of Arizona found harmful contaminates—some to severe levels—on 28% of all gym surfaces tested. Toilet seats were among the cleanest of those surfaces, by the way.
The university of Irving California found that gym germs can live for up to three days; they feel extra comfy on hard surfaces such as those dominating gyms. Other studies found bacteria like Staphylococcus and E. coli on cardio seats. Staphylococcus can be dangerous and potentially fatal.
Home Gym – It’s no secret working out at home can be demotivating. There’s no atmosphere, no vibe, it’s just you there.
Of course, you can create your own environment, but some people find it extremely hard to work out at their home. At home they are in their comfort zone, so to speak, and that can make it hard to disconnect and focus on a workout.
Recommended: 10 Tip to Stay Motivated When Working Out at Home
Commercial Gym – When you are working out near others with the same mindset as yours, it gives you more motivation to push yourself harder.
Winner: The pros and cons here would indicate that commercial gyms are more motivating environments than home gyms.
However, I believe that if you plan your home gym properly, you can create the kind of motivating environment you want and need, right in your home.
Starting is only half the battle – You also have to finish your workout!
When people think of motivation in the fitness context, what immediately comes to mind is the motivation to work out.
I think it’s important to make the distinction between motivation to just work out, and the motivation to work out hard. That is, to have meaningful workouts that count.
You may have the motivation to start your workout, but lose motivation in the middle and either just completely stop (convincing yourself it’s not your day) or just go through the motions, not getting much of an effect from the workout.
Going to the gym takes more time—we already talked about the preparation, the commute, unpacking yadda yadda yadda. It’s simply a more involved process. Yes, these are all downsides, but they can also work in your favor as advantageous.
Psychologically, you may perceive your workout as more valuable because you already spent a lot of time and effort going to the gym. Subconsciously you may be more inclined to make the best out of it and less likely to quit in the middle.
A thought like, “I don’t feel like it” might more easily defeat you when you work out at home than at the commercial gym. That’s why setting up a motivating environment at home is so important.
Home Gym – Let’s face it—your home is full of distractions. There is never any shortage of other things you could find doing besides your workout.
It’s easy to say “I’ll do it tomorrow” and go watch TV. When you are working out at home you can stop and start your workout anytime you want. You may find yourself spending 2 hours on a workout that could have been completed in 45 minutes.
Commercial Gym – Some people don’t want to be disturbed. Unlike socializing, which is taking time out to talk to people because you want to. Often in the gym, you can get stuck in situations where people want to chat with you when you just want to focus on working out.
If you just want to work out in peace, depending on the kind of guys and gals at your gym that may prove challenging.
Tip: if you work out in a commercial gym just put on headphones; people are less likely to disturb you that way.
Winner: Even – There are potential distractions both at home and at the gym. You need to figure out which would throw you off more, people at the gym or home distractions.
Home Gym – There’s nothing social about working out alone at your home, which is good because you are there for working out anyway.
Commercial Gym – There are tons of articles around telling you just how bad it is to waste your time at the gym talking with people while you should be sweating your ass off working out.
After twenty years of lifting weights both at home and in commercial gym settings, I see a clear benefit to socializing at the gym.
Some people I’ve met at the gym have become my friends for life.As long as it doesn’t make you train less intensely or rest too long between exercises or sets, then go for it.
Yes, it may make the workouts last longer, yes your rest periods may not always be precisely 90 seconds (or whatever you opt for). But unless you are an athlete training for the Olympics, an extra few seconds here and there won’t make a huge difference.
As with everything in life, moderation is the key.
Some hardcore weightlifters like socializing while working out, because having fun at the gym add to their motivation. They may not consider it a waste of time, as long as their workouts are productive.
You could even say you kill two birds with one stone, socializing and working out at the same time.
If talking with your gym buddies make you enjoy your workout more and make you more likely to go to the gym, then why not?
I’d rather have someone “waste” two hours working out and socializing with gym buddies than not go to the gym at all and spend those two hours socializing with beer buddies at the bar!
Winner: Commercial Gym is the winner if socializing will make you more likely to go to the gym. On the other hand, if you are going to use it as an excuse to work less intensely and rest for ten minutes between sets, then stick to working out alone in your home.
Home Gym – Working out in privacy, you don’t have to give a shit about what others think of you—it’s as simple as that.
Commercial Gym – There’s no privacy in commercial gyms, as that’s not the point. Some people simply don’t feel comfortable working out in front of others.
NBC found embarrassment to be a real issue, especially for overweight people to workout near fit people. Maybe you are too skinny and feel inferior near the big guys.
Perhaps you are a woman not fond of guys staring at you all the time. These are all legitimate reasons to feel uncomfortable.
If you are easily influenced by what others may think of you, it may eventually cause you to stop going to the gym altogether.
Winner: Home Gym is the choice for those who like their privacy and don’t feel comfortable working out in front of others.
Home Gym – A typical home gym doesn’t have as much variety for working out as a commercial gym does. That could mean you would need to improvise sometimes, which isn’t a bad thing.
Home gyms tend to concentrate more on free weights than machines.
Doing basic exercises with free weights builds more muscle and strength than what solely working on machines would.
Commercial Gym – Commercial gyms offer more variety, as there are more machines and facilities you can use to mix up your workouts and avoid boredom.
Advanced fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders are likely to benefit from variety to spice up their workouts and break through plateaus.
Commercial gyms also tend to have a greater selection of fixed dumbbells weights ranging from 5 up to 170lb and ideally with smaller increments in weight, allowing for gradual increases in strength.
Want to know what every machine in the gym does?
Check the complete gym equipment names with pictures & videos.
Winner: Commercial Gym provides more variety—that’s a fact, but there’s a caveat. Having many options is a blessing that if misused could turn into a curse.
You could easily become overwhelmed by the many options out there, and try to use every machine in sight rather than just the few machines you really need to increase your strength and muscle mass.
I have seen people going through eight machines in a single chest workout, which is stupid, unnecessary and counter-productive.
If you are the type of person that gets easily bored the variety of a commercial gym can keep you going.
Creating Variety With What You Already Have
If you want to build your own home gym, chances are you can’t have a dream gym as well-equipped as that of Hollywood superstar Mark Wahlberg.
When you have a limited number of options, you have no choice but to maximize the potential of what you already have. This involves implementing workout techniques which you wouldn’t be as likely to consider otherwise. Some methods that pop into mind include:
- Improvising different exercises on same machines, working the muscle slightly differently
- Doing breakdowns – a long set of constantly lowering weight without rest.
- Using the Super Slow technique going super slowly (10 sec. lifting, 10 sec lowering) in which a single rep could take 20 seconds.
- Changing rest periods between sets
- Changing rep range
Yes, you could implement all of these at any gym, but you are still more likely to do so when you don’t have as many options for variations when working out at your home.
Guidance & Spotting
Home Gym – Unless you are working out with a friend or a family member who can spot you, you have no spotting.
If you have a good power rack it can solve the issue, but some exercises with dumbbells, for example, require a spotter (someone who helps to make sure the weights won’t fall, crushing your chest).
Commercial Gym – You can always ask for help from one of the trainers at the gym, which is especially important for novices. When incorporating advanced techniques such as forced reps, it’s great having someone to help you get more reps done and may also help with a bit of extra motivation.
Winner: Commercial Gym is the winner. It’s an advantage having someone you could ask for spotting. If you are novice you could ask a trainer to make sure your form is correct.
Ellipticals are cheaper than they used to be
Home Gym – Good cardio machines aren’t as expensive as they used to be, some are foldable and consume a minimum amount of space. You can get good treadmills for under $500 or grab an elliptical trainer for less than $200.
You don’t need bulky machines to do cardio. You can just use your bodyweight. Methods like bodyweight circuit and resistance bands can be done anywhere.
Commercial Gym – There are more options for cardio at the gym. Maybe you are the kind of guy or gal that likes variety, alternating between a treadmill, an elliptical and bike.
The problem is many gyms limit the use of cardio equipment to 20 to 30 min sessions during peak hours. Some may find this insufficient. If you plan to visit your gym during peak hours, make sure cardio equipment isn’t time-limited.
Winner: Commercial Gyms certainly offer more options for cardio if that’s what you are after. Good gym vibes may motivate you to do more cardio. Of course, doing cardio isn’t limited to the gym; it can be done anywhere.
There are countless ways to do cardio at home, either using equipment or just bodyweight exercises. Depending on where you live, you may prefer a jog outside rather than staying at home or doing it in the gym.
Home Gym – One positive side of working at home is that there’s no incentive to show off. You work with the proper weights and motions. You don’t need to impress anybody. You work smart as you should be working, that makes you avoid stupid injuries while gaining quality muscle and strength.
Commercial Gym – Some people let their ego, rather than their physical ability, dictate the weight they are going to lift. They’re especially likely to use excessive weight when other people are watching.
Don’t get me wrong – I am all in for using heavy weights to increase one’s strength and muscle mass.
But using heavy weight is one thing, and using insanely excessive weight is another. You increase your risk of injury when you use a weight that is so heavy that you can’t use decent form. It also prevents you from going through a full ROM (range of motion) when performing an exercise and engaging all of your muscle fibers.
Ultimately, this limits your potential for strength increase and hypertrophy (your muscles won’t grow as much as they should have).
Winner: Home Gym is the winner. Don’t let your ego stand in your way to the perfect body. You want to perform your workouts properly in order to increase your strength and improve your physique.
Lifting Your Ego
Arch Bench Presses
I am sure you’ve seen these. It usually involves a guy, because guys have more inflated egos to protect, but just the other day I saw a woman doing just the same.
She was benching 400lb for reps, arching her back so much the Titanic could pass in the space between her back and the bench, makes my back hurt just watching it. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of natural arch but exaggeration could lead, over time to back injuries
Extreme back arching is acceptable in the case of professional powerlifters trying to lift as much as possible. It gives powerlifters an advantage as arching their back shortens the distance they have to lift the bar, making the lift easier. If you are not a powerlifter, there is no reason for you to lift like one.
Quarter Range of Motion Squats
That’s something I see a lot in the gym. Hardly anyone goes deep enough; people load the bar with too many plates to inflate their ego. The legs don’t really get worked out as hard as they should be.
Yes, some of these guys may have big legs but they could have had much bigger and stronger legs had they worked their legs through a proper full range of motion.
Home Gym – A home gym setup can be built pretty cheaply with just the bare essentials like a bench, a power rack, and some free weights. You don’t need to spend much to have a good setup.
But it can get expensive as soon as you add more and more equipment like multi-gym trainers, dedicated machines and other accessories.
Commercial Gym – Gyms can run from being very affordable to extremely expensive depending on factors such as facilities, equipment and location.
A gym membership runs $58 per month on average; this comes to just shy of $700 per year just for membership.
Other costs like travel and fashionable gym clothing may seem negligible at first, but they do add up.
Winner: Home Gym is the winner, particularly calculating costs over several years. Taking the average commercial gym yearly membership cost of $700, multiplied by four years that could reach $2,800.
My take on this is that cost is never the factor when deciding between a home gym and a gym membership.
Why? Because even if you are broke, you should be able in most cases to find a decent gym that’s not too expensive or you could save on other stuff.
If you are on a tight budget, then by all means, try to find some reasonable second-hand bench, power rack and some weights, and you are good to go without breaking the bank.
Gym Comfies – Stuff You Can’t Get At Home
Some gyms offer towels, massaging, saunas, etc.
Some people don’t care (I personally don’t), but I have some friends that won’t go to a gym without a sauna.
There’s a lot of research and talk lately about the advantages saunas have on improving athletic performance as well as being very healthy for a variety of other reasons.
If you want to join fitness classes like Yoga, Zumba, etc., that’s a very good reason to join a gym, especially if your primary goal is burning a lot of fat. Full disclosure, I have never been a part of a class myself.
I have been training for twenty years but have not taken a single class, yet I know many people who do, including my sister, and I can tell you that these classes can be very powerful fat loss tools.
For most people, a treadmill wouldn’t replace a class, unless one is totally focused and can easily use the treadmill for long periods.
It’s hard to beat the atmosphere of a class full of like-minded people, high volume energetic music, and a motivating instructor. You are also much less likely to leave before it’s over, as that would be too embarrassing.
Want to Workout at Home? Be Prepared
HOME GYM OWNERS ARE MORE LIKELY TO START WORKING OUT BUT ARE LESS LIKELY TO STICK TO IT (if they are not prepared)
An article published in The New York Times titled With the Right Motivation, That Home Gym Makes Sense, cites a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine That study found people with home exercise machines were more likely to start exercising, but were less likely to stick to it.
We all know someone with a treadmill or elliptical which now serves more like some kind of a monument than an exercising equipment. I know someone who uses her treadmill as a clothing rack, that’s one hell of an expensive clothing rack!
But don’t despair and throw away the idea of a home gym just yet. The study goes on to show that those who scored high on psychological measures of self-efficacy were nearly three times as likely to be exercising after a year as those with lower self-efficacy scores, whether or not they owned an exercise machine.
Make your home gym as motivating as possible, be aware in advance of the psychological pitfalls so they won’t defeat you the next time you’re trying to tell yourself it’s “not your day” or any other bullshit.
Just Different Approaches
Working out at your home gym is different than working out in a paid gym. There are pros and cons to both. In some cases, these are not necessarily pros and cons per se, just different approaches.
Looking at the differences between the two should help you to make up your mind more easily.
Start at Home Then Join a Gym
Working out at home is ideal for those who could initially get intimated by the meatheads in the gym or feel uncomfortable. You could build up some confidence at home and join a gym later.
When I first started working out, some twenty years ago, I didn’t have any space at all, not even for a bench! So I just improvised and did standing and seated exercises with barbells and dumbbells, then after I gained some confidence and understood I couldn’t do much without a bench or a cage, I joined the gym.
Join a Gym First Then Build Your Own Gym
You can join a gym to get all the guidance you need, get the hang of it, build a good foundation, then once you know what you’re doing, build your own small home gym. Most people started out working out in a paid gym at some period in their life before they decided to set up a gym in their garage.
The Thrill in The Process of Setting Up Your Very Own Gym
There’s an incredible satisfaction from gradually building up your gym, adding accessories and weights as you go, seeing it evolve. There’s a certain thrill to buying new gear and maximizing its potential. You don’t need to buy expensive machines; a new set of heavier dumbbells or just a new motivating poster on the wall that can make all the difference.
Getting The Best of Both Worlds
If you are lucky enough to have the money, you can have both a home gym and a gym membership, alternating between the two so you can reap the benefits of both. No time to work out today? Weather is bad? Fine, do a home workout. Need spotting and extra motivation on leg day? Hit the gym.
I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but at one point in my life I had two gym memberships at once. I used one gym solely for leg workouts and trained the rest of my body at the other.
Why do leg exercises in a different gym? Well, my gym renovated and moved the squat rack to a location without a mirror. They wouldn’t listen as I tried to explain to them just how much of a problem it was not to have a mirror in front of a squat rack. It makes it hard to get the good mind-muscle connection needed for a good leg workout.
What Matters is What You Would Actually Use
Would you use your home gym? Or would you easily get distracted, procrastinate or lack the motivation to work out? If you are the kind of person who’s only going to work out for the first two weeks and then let the dust build up on the weights, what’s the point in owning a home gym in the first place, right? In that case, join a gym.
If you sign up for a gym membership only to start missing out workouts because just the idea of getting ready to go, packing your stuff or thinking about the commute and amount of time it would all take, then there’s no point in committing yourself to something that’s not sustainable. In that case, work out at home or turn your garage into a gym.
So Where Are You Going To Work Out?
I am a huge proponent of home gyms, but then again I am also a huge proponent of just busting your butt off exercising.
I don’t care if you do it at home, in your garage, under the sun or at the gym as long as you just do it!
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