Just like a lot of us, I allowed my fitness routine to slip a bit in 2020. First the pandemic forced me to cancel my gym membership, and then a seemingly endless run of daily horrors in the news cycle filled me with existential dread. But toward the end of last year, things started to look up, and I set out to take control of my workout routine.
I needed to build my home gym on a budget. For me, $2,400 sounded like a reasonable target. That’s two years’ worth of my old $100-a-month gym-membership fee. In the end, I actually managed to come in below that amount, even while splurging on some high-quality equipment. Here’s how.
Like most Outside readers, I prefer to do my cardio outside. I also own three big dogs, and they need exercise, too. But the pandemic swelled trail-use numbers nationwide by as much as 50 percent, and here in Bozeman, Montana, trails certainly feel more crowded. I’m not sure whether that’s because more new people are moving into the area or visiting, or if it’s due to residents with a little more free time; either way, the trails my wife and I used to have to ourselves are now overwhelmed by overflowing parking lots at the trailhead, and the places we used to take our dogs to run around off-leash are now full of people who don’t welcome their presence.
As a result of all this, we had to drive farther from town. And because that took more time, the regularity of our hikes took a major hit. So I set about looking for a way to burn calories and maintain my cardiovascular fitness at home in the shortest time possible. The answer? A rowing machine.
NordicTrack RW900 ($1,599)
The motion you perform on a rowing machine is similar to that of a deadlift combined with a horizontal pull, only with a lot less resistance. That means it employs your entire posterior chain (including everything in your legs), your abs, and your biceps. Basically, every muscle except your pectorals and triceps is engaged. And while the resistance created by a rowing machine isn’t thought to be enough to build muscle, recruiting all of those muscles with each stroke means you burn an awful lot of calories. I can expend up to 1,000 calories an hour, or more frequently, 350 calories in 20 minutes or 500 in half an hour. No other form of cardio is as efficient for me, and rowing is also a low-impact activity that won’t wear out my knees and other joints.
Unlike water rowers, the NordicTrack RW900 folds in half for easy storage. I don’t have to do that every day, but it still makes it easier to clear the basement room we set aside for the gym should we need that space.
Compared to other fan rowers, where the resistance increases with the speed of your pull, the RW900 also includes magnetic resistance, which can make the entire motion more challenging no matter the speed. Combined with the onboard connected fitness system, iFit, that all affords some interesting possibilities.
NordicTrack’s parent company, Icon Health and Fitness, developed the iFit virtual-training suite. (It’s also a smartphone app.) On the RW900, you use iFit via the included 22-inch touchscreen to access hundreds of prerecorded and live workouts. There are programs designed to teach you how to use the rower, outdoor paddles through scenic waterways, high-intensity interval-training (HIIT) studio workouts, and even some classes built around other equipment, like dumbbells and yoga mats, or simple bodyweight exercises you can do on the floor. Hit play on a rowing session, and the instructor will be able to vary the machine’s magnetic resistance on the fly, with a range of workout possibilities that go far beyond one more 500-meter interval. Slow pulls with high resistance, sprints with low resistance, and everything in between keep things interesting and work your body in different ways, too.
I then modify the variable fan resistance as my fitness progresses. When I finish this article, I’m going downstairs to restart a six-week studio program I’ve already completed. But instead of repeating the same exact program, increasing the fan resistance by 20 percent or so should add a new layer of difficulty.
The RW900 is definitely a splurge: $1,599 is a lot of money. But NordicTrack does offer financing—$50 a month for 39 months—and rolls a $39 monthly iFit family plan into that fee. The $1,299 RW700 and $999 RW600 appear to be functionally identical, just with smaller screens.
Before I got this thing, I was a connected-fitness skeptic. Now I’m a convert. The variety of workouts available keeps me from getting bored, the classes add challenges I wouldn’t know how to tackle on my own, and both motivate me to work out more often.
In the Before Times, I used my gym membership for one thing, and one thing only: lifting weights. I like being strong, and I like feeling confident with my shirt off. Is there a way to re-create the gym at home without actually turning space in your house into a weight room? I think I’ve actually found something better.
TRX Home2 ($150)
My wife had me hang up a TRX Home2 in our gym room a while back. I tried a few triceps dips and seated pull-ups on it, couldn’t really figure anything else out, and dismissed it in favor of working out with sandbags and kettlebells on our back porch. Then winter hit—and lifting weights outdoors when it’s zero degrees just isn’t a positive experience.
While searching the web one day for muscle-building workouts I could do at home, I came across the TRX Traveller YouTube channel. I tried a couple of the demonstrated abdominal and shoulder exercises, and they felt pretty good. So I signed up for the $35 muscle-builder program. That was about two months ago, and now I’m only a couple of days away from finishing the eight-week program.
In the muscle-builder regimen, trainer Adam Atkinson walks you through video tutorials of every single exercise and provides a progressive set of push-pull, leg, and arm-day routines that you can perform three or six days a week, whichever you prefer. Atkinson’s instructions are detailed but easy to follow. For each movement, he lays out the muscles you’ll be using, and how best to activate and challenge them through technique. It’s functionally similar to lifting weights in the gym, but the instability created by the TRX suspension straps makes things harder. Essentially, every moment requires immense amounts of stabilization from your core, forearms, and shoulders.
About eight weeks into my first TRX program, the shoulders of my shirts and jackets are noticeably tighter, my legs are more toned, and my abs are visible at a higher body-fat-percentage level than they’ve ever been before. I am a happy customer.
I’ve been doing three days of TRX training and three days of 20-to-40-minute HIIT rowing sessions a week, with one rest day. My fitness has progressed to the point where I’ll be able to manage the TRX and rowing on the same days, and I’ll repeat the TRX Traveller muscle-builder program again, this time at twice the frequency. I’m actually looking forward to how hard that’s going to be.
As the channel’s name suggests, you can also take TRX outside your home, enabling you to maintain your regular fitness routine when you travel. The entire contraption weighs less than two pounds and packs into a small mesh bag about the size of a sneaker. You can easily attach the straps to a doorway, tree, or fence. I plan to affix a mount to the roof of my truck, to use it on camping trips, too.
Rogue Fitness Large Sandbag ($115)
While you can use the TRX system to perform a variety of squats, hamstring curls, and lunges, you can’t use it to perform weighted deadlifts. Enter this 120-pound sack of sand.
If you haven’t lifted a heavy sandbag before, you are in for a surprise. The unstable nature of the shifting grains makes it feel much heavier than it actually is. At the gym, I was doing three sets of ten 225-pound back-squat reps and the same number of 315-pound deadlifts. At home I can barely lift this thing off the ground.
You can make a weighted sandbag out of an old backpack or duffel bag, but using a purpose-built bag like this one puts handles in the right places and adds a level of robustness that should keep sand off your floor. Regardless of which route you go, you’ll need to get the sand yourself. Fill contractor bags with 20 to 30 pounds of sand, then wrap those up in duct tape before adding them to the container bag. I also threw a rolled-up moving blanket into this one to fully pad it and better keep the sand from moving unpredictably.
Right now I’m using this big sandbag to add high-rep deadlifts to my leg days. I should be able to add front squats to that routine next week. You can also use it for bent-over rows and similar lifts, but I prefer doing exercises like that on the TRX.
PKB Portable Kettlebell ($75)
I’ve kept kettlebells around for the occasional home workout for years. But because they’re essentially cast-iron canonballs, I’ve always been too afraid to bring them inside for fear of irrevocably damaging a floor, ceiling, or wall, or hurting a dog.
Filled with sand, the PKB weighs 45 pounds. That may not sound like a very heavy kettlebell, but again, sand is unstable, which contributes to the challenge, and its straps are less stable than a rigid handle. That arrangement also tests my technique, reinforcing good form through every one of my reps.
For a time, I tried bringing the PKB along on my travels, and purchased a matching water bladder to make hotel-room workouts as easy as possible. But filling and emptying it was more hassle than it was worth, and the kettlebell has since been relegated to at-home use only. I use it primarily for single-hand overhead presses and biceps curls. Kettlebell swings are functionally similar to the movement you perform on the rower. So if you don’t want to invest in one of those, a PKB kettlebell could serve as a good stand-in.
My total expenses for this setup: $1,975. That’s less than 20 months of my former gym membership. Plus, walking downstairs is an awful lot easier than hopping in the car, driving to the gym, and waiting around for popular equipment, so I’m able to use it more consistently, too. With these essentials, I’m able to do the same exercises I was performing at that gym—and more.