The Official Multi-Station Home Gym Checklist
Okay! You’ve decided that you want to work those muscles at home on a total body multi-station gym. Maybe you’re planning a trip to the beach and you want to tone up to look good in your bathing suit. Or perhaps your goal could be more functional in nature and you might desire to hit the golf ball further by building strength in your hips and back. Another possibility is that you know building muscle makes you a more efficient fat burning furnace at rest or at play. No matter how you cut it, a well thought out and systematic strength routine performed a few days a week on a home weight machine will be a very beneficial addition to your workout regimen.
HOME GYM FACT: All multi-station home gyms are “total body”. Differentiating one machine from the next has to do with the variety of exercises per body part, adjustability for body size/type, quality of construction and proper bio-mechanic positioning so that the exercises are done without injuring your joints.
Home gyms are quite different from the machines designed for cardio-vascular exercise that you’ll also find at the fitness store. For example, a weight machine is not electronic in nature nor is it complex. There is nothing hidden from your view under a cover and there are no circuit boards, motors or electric wires to go bad. As long as a machine is properly assembled AND it meets the criteria we’ll discuss below, it should be a great tool for achieving your strength and muscle building goals.
To get started, here are a few quotes that should throw up red flags if said by anyone trying to sell you a gym:
- “That just needs a little silicone.”
- “You’ll need to add a few more plates to try that exercise.”
- “Let me put that cable back on. It must have jumped off the pulley.”
- “This one’s not very smooth. If you get a new one it should work a lot better.”
- “Sorry. That machine is out of order. IT JUST BROKE.”
Quotes like these are obvious indicators that something is wrong with the gym you’re looking at. Some flaws in home gyms are not as apparent, but with a little research and inspection, you can find one that will give you years of smooth and reliable use. Below is a simple checklist to take with you when shopping for one of these machines. Pull out this list when you find a machine that seems to be the right footprint and price for you and go over it item by item. By using this, you’re sure to find the gym that has appropriate quality and best meets YOUR personal needs.
IMPORTANT “CHECKPOINTS” FOR BUYING A HOME GYM
- Does the machine function smoothly? If the cables are off track or something seems to stick or grind when you try the machine: WALK AWAY! It’s important to “test drive” any gym to be sure it feels smooth and stable. If a store places their units on a shelving unit 3 feet off the ground to be seen but not touched, take that as a warning. If you’re buying a used gym from a private party, be sure to try it out first.
- Try the “Top Plate Test”. Take the weight pin out of the weight stack and place it on the floor. Attach a lat pull bar to the top pulley or a bar to the low pulley (used for curls, etc.). Do not use the bench press or leg extension for this test. With no pin in the stack, perform several full range reps with your chosen exercise. If the top plate (or selector plate) is not fluid or if it sticks or shudders, then the cable/pulley/guide rod system is inferior and virtually un-usable. It would eliminate the ability to perform over half of the gym’s exercises and also make the machine unsuitable for any exercise requiring a low starting resistance.
- The “Cable Routing Test”. This one might be a bit more difficult but it is VERY important. There are two ways companies design the pulleys and cables for assembly on a machine. One assembly method is to install all the pulleys first then run the cables from pulley to pulley like you’re connecting the dots. The second way is to install each pulley as you wrap the cable around it and put it in place. If it is done “connect the dot” style then the cables are not tightly held into the pulley grooves and will come out as easily as they went in. This could be a huge problem! When performing exercises in which the weights are lifted quickly – which are some of the best for developing powerful muscles – the cables may jump off the pulleys and disable the gym. To insure that this won’t happen to your gym, physically check to see if the cables can be easily removed from the pulleys. One way to accomplish this is to create some slack in the cable by elevating the top plate on the stack and then placing the selector pin through a hole in the weight stack rod at a point that keeps the top plate from returning. At this point you can see if the loosened cable will easily slip off of any of the pulleys. Another check is to ask to see the assembly manual to determine which way the gym goes together.
- Switching/changing exercises. Most older or less sophisticated machines require the user to disconnect a cable from one station and reconnect it to another in order to do different exercises. This inconvenience slows you down and can affect your workout negatively by causing you to cool down between exercises. Removing seats or taking stations apart to reconfigure them is a hassle when you’re trying to get a time efficient and effective workout. This is also a common flaw in gyms that are seen on TV infomercials. The producers can cut and splice workout footage to present the various exercises but never show the difficult process required to move between them. Beware of this and always look for a gym needing minimal – or zero – changes in set up between exercises. The best gyms will be ready to perform any exercise at any time and the only “adjustment” you’ll need to make is picking the resistance you want to use on the weight stack.
- Bushings and bearings. This is an easy area to determine the quality of the gym. Look at every place where something moves or pivots. The most common are the bench press arm, the leg extension pivot and the butterfly, or pec deck, pivots. Is this pivot point metal on metal? This is the worst scenario and will cause the gym to grind with every rep performed. A slightly better gym will have plastic inserts or bushings at the pivot points. These are cheap and likely to wear out soon. High quality gyms will instead have bronze or steel bushings at these movement points. While these are more costly to manufacture, they’ll give you years of smooth and trouble free use.
- The “Leg Extension Pivot Point Test” Part 1. A very crucial element to any home gym is how well it has been designed biomechanically. If the angles of movement are not properly aligned for your body, then using it can do you more harm than good. One easy area to test is the leg extension pivot point. Sit on the seat and slide your shins under the bottom leg extension roller pads. Another set of foam roller pads (or the upholstered seat) will be behind your knees. Between your knees is the pivot of the leg extension arm. Check to make sure this is in line with your knee joints. This does not have to be exact but should be very close. If the bolt is way above, in front of or behind your knee joint, it will load the knee unsafely and the pads will also roll irritatingly up and down your shins as you exercise.
- The “Leg Extension Pivot Point Test” Part 2. Following the biomechanics theme, stay on the leg extension and select a weight that is approximately one quarter of your body weight. Choose a weight that you can lift comfortably for a few reps. Perform a leg extension. Take note as to whether or not your buttocks stays firmly on the seat pad or if it feels like it’s wanting to lift up. This relates to the angle of the actual seat pad. If it is too shallow, or flat, as soon as you exert force on the shin pads your body is almost lifted off the seat. Once again, this can create a situation in which the harm to your knee joint far outweighs any benefit you might get from strengthening your leg muscles.
- The “Press Arm Handle Bio-Mechanic Test”. Observe the chest press or bench press arm. It is usually shaped like an upside down “U” with 2 or 4 handles on it to push for the chest press exercise. For the manufacturer, it is far less expensive to weld these handles at a right angle to the “U” and it’s even cheaper to bolt them on. This bio-mechanic deficiency is not apparent to the untrained eye. However, this is sure to aggravate the user’s wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. These handles should be correctly welded at rearward angles which will keep you more properly aligned and eliminate possible joint damage.
- Does the machine have metal weight plates? Most are cast iron. Cast iron plates are a little less polished than solid steel plates but are perfectly fine for any application. However, if the plates are plastic coated concrete, move on in your search for a home gym. This is a sign of “bottom of the barrel” quality since these plates are the least smooth on the guide rods of a gym. They can even crack if the weights are banged together at the end of a rep.
- Check seats and back pads. Most home gym seats and some back pads are adjustable to fit different height users. Look at the metal seat post that slides. Is it chromed or is it painted? Chromed posts slide much more easily than painted ones. Painted seat posts take more effort to adjust and the paint can chip off over time, leaving an area that will rust. Higher quality units will have the more expensive – but more functional – chromed seat posts
If you follow this checklist step by step you will be able to find a gym with quality construction. Your gym will also provide you with a much more enjoyable experience working out later on because of efficiency and smoothness. And by following some of the tips here, you’ll also find a gym that safely conforms to your body as you exercise.