Weighty Choices at Home

So you're thinking of setting up your own gym at home? I heartily, and vascularly, approve.

There's a mind-body-boggling array of at-home pieces, from $12 digital jump ropes to $3,500 "Power Pak" resistance trainers, from $550 rowers to $25 chin-up bars.

First, figure out what you are willing to spend and how much space you can dedicate to the equipment. Then consider the following three categories: stretching, cardiovascular conditioning and strengthening. You want to be able to work on all three in your home gym.

Stretching Is Vital Stretching: Reduce your risk of injury by taking the time, and space, to stretch out your major muscles before you work them. For that purpose, a dance-bar and a mirror are ideal, but not essential. You can make a dance-bar easily (a thick pole between two wall holders), or you can forget the cosmetics and use a cane or a towel to help you through your stretches. A home exercise mat, good for stretching, for floor exercises, for yoga postures if you're into holistic stretching, is a good idea, too.

Cardiovascular conditioning: Any home gym should have at least one piece of equipment that makes your heart work harder than usual. You can do that many ways. One of the least expensive, least obtrusive, is a jump rope. Another low-priced possibility is a mini-trampoline. Here are some others:

--A stationary bicycle--great pulse booster and leg strengthener. Look for one with tension control and fly wheel front for smooth action. Avoid cheap models that feel rickety when you ride. Some units get major arm muscles working, too, for upper body toning.

--A rowing machine--marvelous way to exercise most all the major muscle groups: arms, legs, back, stomach. Select one that feels solid when you stroke. Adjustable tension is important. (A computer-run stroke counter is not.)

--Cross-country ski simulator--These contraptions look weird but can work wonders in terms of cardiovascular conditioning. All major muscle groups get to work.

--Treadmills--These tend to be large, and costly, but many exercisers like them. Treadmills, like jogging, only work the lower body, but there is much less pounding on the legs and knees. Strengthening: There are three basic ways to build strength at home:

--Body weight. The least expensive way to develop muscular strength is simply to do exercises that use your own body weight. Push-ups (off the floor, or a chair, or using a store-bought stand) and pull-ups (with a solid chin-up bar) are two good examples, and you can buy fitness books for dozens more. A slant board (with adjustable levels) is super for stomachs and backs. --Free weights. More and more, fitness fans are working with free weights at home to develop the bulk, shape, and muscle strength they desire. A good set of $50 to $100 or more dumbbells (with easy-to-remove collars) is a smart investment, and so is a standard 110-pound pumping-iron barbell set ($70 to $150 or more). A solid weight bench ($50 to $200 or more) offers many advantages for arm and leg development. Caution: Learn how to lift from a pro. At home, the safest way to work is with a spotter.

--Resistance machines. The multipurpose "home fitness centers" are the glamour buys of the year. They vary in cost from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. Again, the question is how much money and space do you have? Some units hang off a wall; many have attachments to make them free-standing. Shop around until you understand the various features: the attachments for leg lifts, leg curls, the lat bar, the leg pulleys, etc. Many units come with a 110-pound weight stack, with 80 pounds or more for an additional cost. A good instruction manual is essential. So is an understanding of weight training: building bulk (heavy weight, few repetitions) vs. building tone (lower weight, more repetitions).

And finally: The success of any home gym depends on your willingness to use and maintain the equipment properly. Working out at home has certain risks, but the rewards are enormous. You are in control. You work out when you want, as you want. The convenience is unbeatable and if you've got the discipline, your investment in equipment will be the biggest bargain of your life.

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