Setting up a home gym

Here's what you need to keep you exercising.

Published: November, 2018

Image: © SelectStock/Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest physical challenge for older men is maintaining muscle mass and strength. On average, men can expect to lose up to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30.

But regular strength training can slow that loss and even increase muscle mass into your 90s, according to Dr. Steven Makovitch, an instructor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. "Increased muscle mass has benefits beyond physical strength, too," he says. "Staying fit can reduce your fear of falls, increase confidence, and help you sleep better."

Keep in sight

While home gym equipment is easy to store when you're not using it, rehabilitation specialist Dr. Steven Makovitch recommends placing these items within eyesight as a constant reminder to exercise: "For instance, drape your bands over your bathroom door, so you can exercise before you begin your day. Or leave them in the room where you watch TV, so you can do your routine before or during your show."

Home assistance

However, another major challenge is finding the time and place to exercise. Joining a gym or enlisting a personal trainer will definitely help you maintain scheduled workouts, as they offer the proper equipment, setting, and support for exercise.

Yet, many people cannot make it to the gym on a regular basis or afford monthly gym fees, never mind pay for a personal trainer. In those cases, it's ideal to set up a home gym. In fact, a study in the April 2017 Journal of Aging and Physical Activity showed the biggest barriers to participating in a resistance training program for older adults are being unable to exercise at one's own pace, a lack of easy access to equipment, and expense. "These all can be overcome with a home gym," says Dr. Makovitch.

Don't think that home workouts can't produce good results. A 2017 pilot study in F1000Research found that older adults who did an unsupervised home-based exercise program for four weeks improved their muscle mass, power, and strength.

Perhaps best of all is that you don't need a lot of space or money to set up a good home gym. "You can do a lot with just three basic items that cost less than $100 total and don't take up much room," says Dr. Makovitch. Here is a look at each one.

  • Elastic resistance bands. These lightweight bands come in various thicknesses for lesser or greater resistance and can be just as effective as most gym weight machines for improving strength, according to a study published in the March 1, 2018, Journal of Sports Science & Medicine.

  • Five- to 10-pound dumbbells. You don't need heavy weights to see and feel results, says Dr. Makovitch. "Light weights can be added to your body weight to offer greater resistance," he says. Beginning with lighter weights also can reduce your risk of injury while you build up your strength and endurance.

  • Stability ball. Stability balls are used to perform various kinds of core exercises. You must use your core muscles to keep the ball from moving and prevent yourself from sliding off. The stability ball also can be used along with bands and dumbbells in exercises to provide an extra core workout. Stability balls come in different sizes. Men who are 5 feet, 2 inches to 5 feet, 11 inches tall should use an 18-inch-wide ball, while men 6 feet and over should use a ball 22 to 26 inches wide.

Sore from your workout? Roll it out

When you lie on a foam roller — a small cylinder made of compressed foam — and roll up and down across your legs, back, or hip, or any sore spot, the roller pushes against your body and provides resistance much like a massage. A 2014 study found that a 20-minute foam rolling routine after a workout helped to reduce sore muscles.

At-home workout

Once you have your home gym set up, there are many kinds of routines you can do. To get you started, here is a sample five-exercise workout that covers the major muscle groups and can be completed in 10 to 15 minutes:

  1. Wall push-up.

  2. Squats. (You can do these with dumbbells or with a stability ball between your back and a wall for support.)

  3. Upright row.

  4. Arm/biceps curl.

  5. Overhead press.

For an added core workout, do some of these while sitting on a stability ball.

You can learn how to perform these exercises and others at the NIH's Go4Life website at, or from Harvard's Special Health Report Strength and Power Training for Older Adults, available at Make sure to check with your doctor before doing any new exercise routine.

Dr. Makovitch recommends beginning with one set of 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise, using light resistance or weights; this is defined as 40% to 50% of the maximum amount you can manage in a single repetition. As you become more comfortable, slowly increase the amount of resistance or weight with a goal of using 60% to 70% of your maximum.

Next consider increasing the number of sets to two and then three. "If it's too easy, add more resistance, and take some off if it's too difficult," says Dr. Makovitch. Also, make sure to take your time completing each rep. Take three seconds to lift or squat, pause, and then take three seconds to return to your starting position. A 2014 study found that using this slow movement can increase muscle size and strength in older adults.

Finally, always properly warm up with a five- to 10-minute brisk walk before you exercise to help reduce strain or injury, and take at least one day of rest between workouts to allow your muscles to fully recover, says Dr. Makovitch.

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