I’ve been living the home gym lifestyle for a few years now, enjoying the flexible hours, dog-friendly policies, whatever equipment I need for my goals, and no lines waiting to use it. Here is my list of priority and preferred equipment, as well as some tips and tricks for building your home gym for rowing and strength training for rowing. I have also included links to additional resources and exercise demonstrations for specific pieces of recommended equipment.
Key Points: The biggest question of home gym equipment is determining what you will actually use. There’s no point having the best equipment just to turn it into a clothes hanger. If you’re open to my recommendations, my first priority is some sort of weights for adding external load to strength training exercises, plus mats to cushion the weights and a power rack or squat stand to support heavier barbell training. Resistance bands are great for a wide range of exercises from inexpensive, storable, portable equipment. If you have the space and budget for additional equipment, a trap/hex bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, an adjustable weight bench, a TRX or gymnastics rings, and a glute-ham raise are all on my list of worthwhile acquisitions for rowers.
Home Gym for Rowing Priority Equipment
#1: Some Sort of Weights
Bodyweight strength training for rowing is an option, but it tends to be a short path between starting bodyweight training and running out of sufficient challenge to stimulate gains in strength and power. Rowing is ultimately a force-governed sport and athletes beyond the beginner level will likely need some sort of external loading to adequately challenge themselves with strength training exercises.
What type of weights you buy depends on your personal desires, needs, and budget.
My recommended first priority is a barbell and a couple hundred pounds of weight plates. A barbell has the advantage over dumbbells and kettlebells due to the range of exercises and loading possibilities that it offers. However, those with larger budgets and a preference for dumbbells or kettlebells could buy a range of weights to facilitate loading several exercises in several different ways. The variety of loading is a challenge when we want to use overhead press exercises for higher reps (lighter weights) and lower reps (heavier weights, as well as goblet squats and deadlift variations requiring significantly heavier weights. A 45lb barbell and weight plates allows us to access all of these, where a limited range of dumbbells and kettlebells won’t. There are also adjustable dumbbells and kettlebells on the market that may provide the flexibility in loading without as much of a hit on the budget or storage demands as a complete set of varied weights.
There are many, many barbells on the market these days ranging from the very cheap to the very expensive. I love my Texas Power Bar and have also enjoyed using Rogue Fitness’ Ohio Bar and Rogue Bar in the past. These are on the pricier side, and I started my home gym with a $100 “beater bar” from a local supplier. The difference in a quality bar and an entry bar is minor for rowers. The differences tend to be the material the bar is made from (not all metals are equal for barbell design), the intensity and characteristics of the knurling (metal textured grip material on the bar), and the long-term durability of the barbell. If you have the option, buying nice is usually better than buying twice. I also recommend only purchasing barbells referred to as “Olympic barbells.” These barbells are seven feet long, weigh 45lbs, are designed for weight plates with two-inch diameter holes, and typically have a grip diameter of 1.1 inches. The other type of barbell is a “standard barbell,” which is shorter, thinner in diameter, and is designed for weight plates with one-inch diameter holes. “Standard” barbells are built to be cheap and are limited in durability and ability to load plates. Note that “Olympic barbells” is a bit of a misnomer, because barbells used for the sport of Olympic weightlifting are much more expensive and are designed to much more precise specifications for their specific sport purposes.
Metal plates are cheaper than bumper plates, and because I don’t use Olympic lifting in my own training or rowing strength training programs, they are perfectly fine for my needs. Metal plates can often be found for good deals used through used sporting goods stores or Craigslist-type websites.
#2: Horse Stall Mats
Stall mats are a cheaper substitute for gym flooring. At 3/4″ thickness of solid rubber, if they’re strong enough for horses to stand on, they’re strong enough to pad the floor for lifting. If you went with bumper plates over metal plates for your weights, you might not need these depending on what surface you’re lifting on. Mats can usually be found at any tractor supply or farm supply company, around $40-50 per 4×6′ mat. I recommend leaving these outside to off-gas for a few days before moving them inside your new home gym.
#3: Power Rack or Squat Stands
Without a power rack or squat stands, your options for barbell lifts are limited to deadlifts, rows, overhead presses, bodyweight lifts, and front squats if you can clean the weight into position and perform it safely. This is still far better than nothing, which is why a bar, weights, and stall mats take a higher priority than a rack or stands.
The advantage of a power rack, either a half rack or a full rack, is safety bars that allow you to safely miss a lift. While I don’t use 1RM weights in my rowing programs, mistakes happen and it is possible to miss submaximal lifts. Safety bars are a necessity for those who train alone in their home gym.
The advantage of the squat stands is the minimal amount of space they take up compared to a power rack. They are also usually less expensive and are more portable. Some even have add-on options for chin-ups, dips, and safety bars. Check out Ironmind’s model here and Rogue Fitness’ models here for some examples. Make sure to check the weight rating of any squat stands you purchase and make sure they can fit your barbell and amount of weight you intend to use.
The major disadvantage of the power rack is its footprint and cost. However, the power rack is my recommendation if you have the budget and space for it, due to the add-on options, built-in safety bars, and higher durability. Squat stands can work fine for those with smaller available space or budgets, as long as the weight rating is sufficient and you have a spotter or add-on safety bars.
#4: Resistance Bands
Regular RowingStronger readers will know that I love to use exercise bands in my training programs. These versatile tools can be used for a variety of exercises and substitutes for a lot of lifts that would ordinarily be done on machines or dumbbells at a commercial gym. They are also less expensive, more portable, and more storable than other forms of loading. The tension of resistance bands can be adjusted for rowers of different strengths by simply moving further away from the attachment site (harder) or closer to it (easier). The challenge of resistance bands is finding or creating secure attachment points. Read my complete article for more details on how I use resistance bands in rowing strength training.
Read More: Resistance Band Rowing Strength Training
EliteFTS and Rogue Fitness both sell high quality resistance bands. I have had and used my EliteFTS bands for years, both for myself and with athletes I coach. It is worth it to buy higher quality resistance bands, as cheaper ones tend to fray or snap more quickly. The bands have different tensions based on their size and thickness, so here are the ones I use in order of highest tension to lowest:
- Pro Light Resistance Band
- Pro Monster Mini Resistance Band
- Pro Mini Resistance Band
- Pro Micro Resistance Band
Home Gym for Rowing Additional Recommendations
#5: Trap/Hex Bar
The trap or hex bar is my favorite deadlift variation for rowers for several reasons. The trap or hex bar itself is mostly just for deadlifting, although we can also use it for a Romanian deadlift variation, a neutral grip bent-over row, and a loaded vertical jump plyometric exercise. I typically use high handles with rowers taller than 5’10” or so, and it’s nice to have the option to use either even for shorter rowers. A standard model like the one in my video typically costs $125-150 and can hold five 45lb plates per side for a total weight of about 495lbs. This is plenty for most rowers, although very strong lifters and those who use bumper plates might need a larger, more expensive model with greater loading capacity. Read all about it in my “Complete Guide to Deadlifting” article.
#6: Kettlebells and Dumbbells
Having kettlebells and dumbbells opens the door to a lot of beneficial assistance lifts, but they drop down my rankings because they take up more space and are more expensive than bands. If you have the money and space, invest in these for great lifts like kettlebell swings, bottoms-up kettlebell press, dumbbell rows and batwing rows, YWT raises, seated or standing presses, and more. Adjustable dumbbells (plate-loadable or manufactured) can also be great for the home gym that is tight on space. I found a good deal on my dumbbells through Craigslist and also have a pair of plate-loadable dumbbells for heavier lifting.
Read More: Kettlebells for Rowing Strength Training
#7: TRX Suspension Trainer/Gymnastics Rings
These are fairly low cost and low space requirement if you have something tall enough to attach them to and use safely. Check out my video below for all the things I use my gymnastics rings for.
#8: Glute-Ham Raise (GHR)
The glute-ham raise is one of the best strengtheners of the posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes, and back), but it’s a limited-purpose piece of equipment, is fairly high cost, and takes up a significant amount of space. It does an excellent job with its few purposes though and I like to use them with any rowers who have access to them. see my video below for some of the GHR variations you can do. If you don’t have a GHR, you can still do a version of this lift for the posterior chain with the Nordic hamstring curl.
#9: Adjustable Bench
Bench presses and their variations take a very low priority in my rowing programs. Without a bench, you can still do great horizontal pressing variations such as the pushup and floor press, both of which can be perfectly adequate for rowing training in a budget home gym. The adjustable bench does afford some nice varieties of exercises including elevated batwing rows, dumbbell and barbell bench presses and incline presses, and putting your foot on the bench to do rear foot elevated split squats. This is not a piece of equipment you want to scrimp on, because it will be responsible for supporting your bodyweight plus the weight of whatever you’re lifting above your face. Adjustable benches rated to an adequate weight can be costly, so given the cost relative to the amount of worth these exercises deliver, this is at the bottom of my list compared to the other seven items.
#10 and Beyond: All the Other Stuff!
There’s an old joke that home gyms are never truly complete. I started regularly scanning online equipment sources once I started collecting equipment, as well as building some of my own from do-it-yourself resources and the help of more skilled friends and training partners. Part of the fun of a home gym is being able to sell and acquire equipment as your goals and desires change. You will see several pieces of odd equipment in the backgrounds of my videos, including an old-school standing t-bar row (a $50 pickup from a gym that just needed to free up space!), several kegs that I got from a local brewery changing its inventory, sandbags and atlas stones for competing in the sport of strongman, and more. I don’t use these with rowers, but they’ve been fun for my own training purposes. I’ve also added some specialty bars to my collection as special deals have come up and I’ve had the budget and desire. The Safety Squat Bar, for example, allows for loading the lower body with minimal stress to the shoulders. This isn’t a required piece of equipment by any means, but it has been convenient when training rowers with pain or injuries in the arms that makes barbell squatting uncomfortable. The fun part of having a home gym is that it’s yours to make work for you.
Finally, what if you have no equipment other than space around you to use (and a towel)? Well, there’s actually lots you can do. Check out my USRowing free webinar from early April of the Covid-19 shutdown, “Minimalist/At-Home Strength Training for Rowing.” Use my Exercise Index spreadsheet and video demonstrations for more brainstorming and instructions.
Last updated March, 2022.