How to Build A World-Class Powerlifting Home Gym w/ The Bare Essentials
This is a quick and straightforward guide to building a simple & basic powerlifting gym.
This is for people who are perfectly comfortable training with minimal equipment (which is all that is necessary) and are working with a budget.
However, “working with a budget” doesn’t mean cheap. It simply means being deliberate to get the best equipment possible at the best possible price. It also means buying everything you need and nothing you don’t.
I bought my first home gym the second they announced that businesses were closing due to COVID. I was a bit late, but still managed to grab good equipment.
The good thing about powerlifting is that you really don’t need much. Training revolves around three lifts, all which are performed with a barbell and weights. Below are the bare essentials needed to build a perfectly functional powerlifting home gym.
What You Need to Build Your First Garage Gym
These is the bare minimum list of items:
These are the bare essentials needed to build a perfectly functional powerlifting home gym that will serve you faithfully for decades to come.
The power rack will serve as the tool that facilitates squatting and benching. The power rack is one of the most critical components of the home gym, since almost everything else will be built around it.
You don’t need a fancy power rack that takes up a ton of space: you need something that will allow you to squat, bench, and press overhead. Nothing more.
Four steel uprights, four steel crossbars, J-Hooks, and safety pins is all that is required to perform those lifts.
There are two considerations: a bolt-down rack (to the floor) and a flat-floot rack that doesn’t require bolting. We’ll speak more on those later.
The barbell will be arguably your most important piece of equipment. If there’s one item where you absolutely cannot go cheap on - it’s the bar.
A well made powerlifting bar will last you decades if you treat it well & maintain it properly.
That means no rack pulls, or letting it go months (or even worse years) unattended.
Dropping the bar on steel pins will bend it.
Letting the bar pile up rust, chalk, sweat, dust, and other stuff will reduce the effectiveness of the knurling, and in that the effectiveness of the bar itself.
The bench will be used in exercises that require the use...of a bench. The standard dimensions are:
- Power Rack
- Plate Tree
The main consideration for a bench is going to be the material - making sure that the lifter doesn’t slide through the exercise. If you’ve already got a bench, and you have this problem, the use of resistance bands is usually the best way to improve the “stickiness” of the surface.
The platform is also another important element of the gym. I often recommend the use of a large platform. This will be a platform that allows you to bolt down your rack to the floor affording you more stability than a flat-foot platform.
It will also protect your garage floor from deadlift and other pulling movements. This part is critical. Simply using horse stall mats is not enough, if you plan on getting sufficiently strong.
Which we advocate for on this website.
You need to build a platform that has two layers of plywood on the bottom, another piece of plywood placed directly in the middle as the third layer, and stall mats on the sides where the plates would touch.
The weights are going to be an absolutely essential part of your garage gym, as well. There are essentially five types of plates you can buy:
- 12 inches wide
- 48 inches long
- 17 inches high
Each has its own pro’s and con’s.
Cast-iron plates are the cheapest and most widely available option. Their main downside being that they can be 5-10% inaccurate at times. I’ve found mine to be all within 2% variation of 45 lbs with one plate only being 43 lbs. These are extremely popular and you can at times find them for as cheap as $0.80 on the dollar.
Rubber-coated plates are popular in commercial gym environments. They also tend to have grip configurations. They are safer to handle and not as noisy as cast-iron plates, but more expensive. Their main drawback being that they also aren’t any more accurate than cast-iron plates, and I kind of enjoy the iron clanking sound.
Bumper plates are generally used for weightlifting movements. They’re created to be dropped on the ground without wrecking everything around it. They can be found in lb and kilo configurations, and can be as calibrated as steel plates. The main drawback being their enormous size taking up too much space on the bar and thereby limiting the amount of weight that can be lifted.
Olympic-machined plates are more accurate than cast-iron plates but slightly less so than steel calibrated plates. They’re not very popular, and aren’t typically the smartest choice to make. The reason being is that if you’re going to be shelling out cash for accurate plates, you’re most likely planning on being a competitive lifter. So, you’re not getting the flexibility in bar loading that steel plates offer (they’re thinner and heavier). And you’re also paying far more cash than you otherwise would with cast-iron plates. So you don’t get the cheap price of cast-iron nor the ability to load more weight on the bar or perfect accuracy of steel plates - so why get them? In my opinion, purchasing olympic-machined plates is like buying 35 lb plates.
Steel-calibrated plates are the priciest but the most accurate. They also afford you the ability to load far more weight on the bar. These plates are used for competition, and advanced powerlifters will also purchase them to simulate as much as possible a competition environment in their gym.
Once you have your plates, you’re going to need a tool to store them. These are called plate trees. The most effective ones have 1” pins and an “A” frame. Usually having the capacity to store up to 500 lbs at a time.
The reason for the 1” pin is that they’re easier for handling 45-lb plates. The two inch pins will often require two hands for you to take weights out of the tree, or place them back in. It’s a slight annoyance, but a consideration nonetheless.
- Cast Iron Plates
- Rubber Coated Plates
- Bumper Plates
- Steel Calibrated Plates
- Olympic Machineed Plates
What’s The Most EFFECTIVE Power Rack?
As I had alluded to earlier, choosing a Power Rack shouldn’t be too hard. All you need is a simple, sturdy platform that can hold your weights safely.
Safety pins will allow you to lift by yourself without the need for a spotter, in situations where you might fail a lift. For example, if you miss a rep on the bench, the height of the safety pins should be such that if you were to relax your arch, the bar would rest safely on them.
You could then squeeze from the underneath the barbell.
For squats, if you were to fail, you would simply “sit” back down, and allow the pins to take the weight off your back.
The height of the pins should be set such that by allowing your balance to shift back towards your heels, the bar would make contact and rest quietly on the pins.
The are two power racks that come to mind when it comes to what most lifters should find perfectly serviceable for their garage gyms:
The primary distinction between the Rogue R3 Power Rack & the RML-390F is that the R3 requires you to bolt down the rack to the floor. The RML-390F, on the other hand, is a flat-foot rack. This means that it doesn’t need to be tied down the floor.
This is important because the power rack being bolted to the floor gives you more stability.
My first power rack was the RML-390F because it was the only one available at the time (start of COVID). I originally wanted the Rogue R3.
Regardless, I love the RML-390F. I purchased storage pins to put 45-lb plates on the rear uprights. This affords me more stability. I also placed stall mats underneath the rack, because my garage floor is uneven.
So far, I have squatted low-400’s with no issues, and that number should continue climbing in the coming months. I will post any updates / change my opinion if given reason to.
Another difference between the two is that the RML-390F has more room inside the uprights. The R3 has 24”, while the RML-390F has 30” of room. If you like a bigger walkout on the squat, this might be a consideration for you.
The RML-390F also has a bigger footprint. Being 48” in width, it takes up more space than the smaller 34” R3.
Full disclosure: If I were to do everything from scratch, I would be an 8x8 plywood and stall mats platform as the foundation of my gym.
I would install a Rogue R3 Rack towards the rear half of the platform, leaving an entire area in front for deadlifting and other pulling movements.
However, not everyone wants to spend $800 on a power rack. Here are some recommendations for other (cheaper) platforms.
Disclaimer: I have never used any of the following power racks. I am basing my recommendation based on research alone. I also would never recommend any of these racks over the Rogue racks (if your budget allowed for them).
The racks are:
- Rogue R3 Power Rack
- Rogue RML-390F Power Rack
- Fitness Reality 810XLT Super Max Power Cage 4.6/5 rating with over 1,300 reviews.
- HulkFit 1000-Pound Capacity Multi-Function Adjustable Power Cage
How to Choose A Power Bar
Being one of the most important pieces of your gym, the power bar is one of the items that will take the longest to make a purchase decision on. The other two being the rack and the plates, I believe.
As a powerlifter, you will need a power bar that meets your expectations in the following criteria:
For a stiff bar, with no contributing whip, go for a 29-MM power bar. For a bar with a little more whip, go for a 28.5-MM power bar.
29MM is what’s usually used in competition, although some federations use 28.5MM here in the US.
The International Powerlifting Federation requires bars that are between 28 to 29 MM in diameter.
So, if you’re planning to build a powerlifting gym, you’re most likely going to want to be training using equipment that assimilates to a powerlifting competition environment.
If that is the case, I would recommend the following power bars:
These bars are going to be your top barbells when it comes to the current marketplace when speaking about price, quality, specs, and availability.
These bars will range from 185K PSI to 205K PSI when it comes to steel strength. There are some bars that use 250K PSI - but that may just be overkill for a home gym setup.
A 28.5MM bar will have a little more whip than the 29MM bar. If you want a bar with a bit more whip, you can choose from:
- ROGUE Ohio Power Bar (No Whip, Aggressive Knurling)
- Westside Power Bar 2.0 (No Whip, Aggressive Knurling)
- ROGUE B&R Power Bar 2.0 (No Whip, Standard Knurling)
- The ROGUE Bar 2.0 (Good Whip, Standard Knurling)
- Texas Power Bar (Good Whip, Aggressive Knurling)
The main difference here is going to be the knurling. The Texas Power Bar has more aggressive knurling, however, some people dislike this feature because it’s not as friendly on the hands. If this is so, go with the ROGUE Bar 2.0 since it has a “standard” knurling which will be slightly better on the hands.
The whip and the aggressive knurling will generally aid you more on your deadlift than anything else.
The Texas Power Bar is slightly more expensive than the ROGUE Bar 2.0 at $20. Additionally, the ROGUE Bar 2.0 comes with a lifetime warranty.
The Texas Power Bar’s call to fame comes from its history, and the fact that it’s been used repeatedly to break world records. I included that as it may be a consideration for some people.
Over on the 29MM side, we have three primary options:
- The ROGUE Bar 2.0
- The Texas Power Bar
The ROGUE Ohio Power Bar & the Westside Power Bar are very similar in terms of “whip”, PSI, and knurling.
However, the ROGUE Ohio Power Bar is $60 cheaper (for the Black Zinc) and has many more price options and coatings to choose from.
So, I’d go with the ROGUE Ohio Power Bar option on this one. I purchased the Stainless Steel, I don’t think everyone needs to spend the money for that one.
The option for those that want the “no whip” but also “standard knurling” would be the B&R Bar 2.0. This was designed by Mark Rippetoe & Mike Burgener. It has dual marks (for weightlifting & powerlifting) as well as a standard knurling (not aggressive).
The B&R Bar is primarily meant to be a “general training bar” for both weightlifting and powerlifting. It is not hyper-specific to either. So, if you’re someone looking to practice both types of movements (olympic and the power lifts) - perhaps this would be for you.
There are many other power bars in the market. Such as some more expensive ones such as Kabuki Strength & Eleiko Power Bars.
There are other cheaper options, as well. Such as The CAP or York power bars.
However, when it comes to quality, pricing, specs, and availability - the five bars I suggested clearly stand out as my top favorites.
If I had to choose one, I’d choose the ROGUE Ohio Power Bar every single time. It will last decades. It has very good pricing. The specs that I want (45-lbs, 29MM, 205K & Aggressive Knurling), and as long as I take good care of it, its effectiveness shouldn’t diminish, at all.
- The ROGUE Ohio Power Bar
- The Westside Power Bar 2.0
- ROGUE B&R Bar 2.0
Choosing A Competition-Grade Flat Bench
For a flat bench, there’s not much you’re going to be looking at.
First, how well it “sticks” - so you want good material on the pad. Second, dimensions. To create a training environment that assimilates to that of a competition, you’re going to want to get a bench that meets the following measurements:
There are two benches that immediately come to mind:
- 12” wide
- 48” long
- 18” high
The two are very similar, although the REP Fitness bench is slightly more popular.
The REP Fitness bench is always $30 cheaper (at the current moment), so if you’re looking for the best value for a high-performing item, look there.
Either one of the two will do the job perfectly fine.
Another question that will come will be that of an adjustable bench. At the current moment I don’t own one in my gym (although eventually, I will).
As I perform my own research and end up buying one, I’ll update this section of the post.
- ROGUE Utility Bench 2.0 (the one I own)
- REP Fitness FB-5000 Comp. Bench
Picking Your Plates
Choosing plates for a powerlifting home gym is mainly going to come down to three options. Here are your best shopping options, ordered by least to most expensive.
Cast Iron Plates
If you’re electing to the cast-iron plates route, I assume it’s because you’re looking for the cheapest option possible. If that’s so, I’d first look into physical (non-internet) ways of purchasing the plates.
The reason why is because shipping for hundreds of pounds worth of weights isn’t going to be cheap. Depending on where you live, I was charged $1 per lb shipped.
You can also look into retail stores in your area. Really, any place where you can go physically and buy plates - I’d look there, first.
If not, here are links from places over the internet where you might find some:
- Local junk /salvage yards
- Facebook Marketplace
If you go around shopping, it might be useful to carry a scale with you to make sure you’re getting plates that are at least accurate to face-value.
- CAP Barbell Plates sold by Amazon.com
- USA Sports, Inc sold by Amazon.com (I bought these)
- Ader Black Olympic Plates sold by Amazon.com
- ROGUE Olympic (Cast Iron) Plates
Machined / Milled Plates (2%)
For Olympic-Machined plates, there are three major options that I would recommend. I love two of them, and would buy one of them just for the looks.
Looks-wise, I think the York plates are awesome. They have a classic look in black plates. However, the Ivanko plates, to me, have the strongest aesthetic appeal. I really like that look.
However, if I had to pick one of the three, I’d go with the York plates. All things considered, I think they provide the best deal.
- York “Legacy” Plates at ROGUE: $1.46
- ROGUE Olympic Machined Plates: $1.77
- Ivanko Olympic-Machined Plates: $2.20
Steel Calibrated Plates
If you want steel calibrated plates, I’d check out the ROGUE Steel Calibrated Plates series. The main difference for purchase considerations is going to be price…
- ROGUE Steel Calibrated Kilo Plates: $2.00 / lb (25KG Pair)
- ELEIKO Steel Calibrated Kilo Plates: $2.36 / lb (25KG Pair)
- Ivanko Steel Calibrated Kilo Plates: $3.34 / lb (25KG Pair)
The Plate Tree
Once you have the plates, you need a place to store them. I’d highly recommend getting yourself a plate tree. Particularly, with an “A” shape, and a 1” pin. These would be easier to maneuver. Be mindful of the “weight carrying capacity”. Good ones should have at least 300 to 500 lbs capacity.
- Marcy Standard Weight Plate Tree (1”) - (300 lbs. Max)
- CAP Barbell (2”) - (500 lbs. Max) - I own this one.
- CAP Barbell (1”) - (300 lbs. Max)
Building Your Platform & Other Helpful Items
There are several helpful guides on the internet when it comes to building a platform for your home gym. I’d recommend Alan Thrall’s guide. That’s the one I personally used.
It was the most detailed, and included the entire list of materials to buy.
For my platform, I created a 4X8, since I am using a flat-footed rack which doesn’t need to be bolted down to the floor.
I used Birch Plywood from Home Depot for all layers, and I purchased horse stall mats from GreatMats.com.
The materials for assembling the platform were purchased from Home Depot, as well. No preference, this was just the closest to my house.
Useful Items for Powerlifting At Home
Barbell Collars & Quick Release Clamps
I purchased the Lock-Jaw Oly 2” Barbell Collars on Amazon.com. I’ve used them for several months with weights in excess of 400 lbs. and never had any issue of any sort.
The weights don’t move much and rarely rattle. Highly recommended.
This is a cheap item that you put underneath a plate, and roll it forward, so that one side is elevated. It makes the removal or addition of plates for deadlifting / rowing much easier.
Deadlift Jacks / Helpers can be quite expensive, but equally useful. This is a $10 item that can help you equally effectively. Some people will place a 5-lb or 10-lb underneath a 45-lb plate and roll it forward to achieve the same effect.
I’ve found that doing that the bar will tend to roll over in some form. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong.
Asides from all that, having a cleaning kit readily available should help you keep your barbell’s knurling as effective as possible.
As a general rule, don’t apply a bunch of chalk to your hand nor to the bar. It doesn’t improve your grip and reduces the effectiveness of the barbell by getting in between the knurlings.
Use chalk lightly, and it’ll also prevent too much cleaning or deterioration of the knurling.
Keep some 3-in-1 oil, WD-40, and brittle brushes for maintenance. Some cleaning rags can also help you in wiping down any residue. This also applies to your bench.
If you’re someone who sweats a lot, maybe having some disinfectant wipes nearby will be useful for after your bench session.
With all of the items listed in this article, you should have enough to assemble a perfectly functional powerlifting home gym that will serve as the training grounds for your next monster total.
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