Garage Gym

Lifting weights is arguably one of the greatest activities a human can engage in: it makes you stronger, healthier, and makes you feel better. It’s fun, it’s empowering, and it elicits a raw, primal feeling of power that cardio-type exercising just… doesn’t. For such an amazing activity, it seems that commercial gyms go out of their way to ruin it whenever possible, and do an amazingly good job at making lifting a horrible experience. They focus almost entirely on machines and creating a “cognitively sterile” (read: mindless) environment full of bad music and low expectations and seem to discourage exactly that powerful, raw feeling that makes lifting weights so immediately gratifying. Of course, they make money when people sign up but don’t come back for the remainder of their contract term, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone — but it is still frustrating.

These commercial gyms have entirely too many rules, too many distractions, and typically aren’t conducive to lifting heavy, lifting loud, and doing the sorts of occasionally unconventional lifting that I enjoy. I have been kicked out of several gyms for lifting in my Vibram five finger shoes, infuriating experiences made worse by the extremely illogical arguments that ensued on my way out the door. I’ve been told not to perform “rapid barbell movements” such as complexes or a power cleans and presses, despite not dropping the weights or making any noise at all. I’ve been bitched at for being loud when deadlifting ~500lbs or DB rowing 150lbs — as though there is a way to quietly way to lower that much weight or as though lifting weights is supposed to be a quiet activity. I find the noise complaints the most ironic as most gyms regular blast the world’s shittiest 80′s music and pop (a redundant description, I know), to the point that my earbuds blasting metal aren’t enough to drown it out — you almost need the sound of crashing plates to fully cover up the demotivational garbage they play. And science help you if you bring chalk into a typical commercial gym; they’ll practically try to have you put to death for that.

In 2009, to avoid all of this nonsense, I started putting together a gym in the garage of the house I was living in at the time. I put down some sheets of OSB and rubber mats for flooring, bought a cheap power rack, and bought used bars and weights off of craigslist. Over the next couple of years I would watch craigslist and some fitness websites for deals on equipment and ended up amassing a pretty sweet setup for relatively cheap (<$1,000 including flooring and all). Here's what my garage gym looked like at my old house:

The garage gym at my old house

Another shot of the garage gym at my old house

When Cavewoman and I moved in July, though, we had to break down all of this gym stuff and move it to our new house in St Pete. The house is old (built in the 30′s) but very, very awesome. A downside of a house 80 years old, however, is that the garage is a complete wreck. It was largely unfinished and the cement floor was badly poured and was extremely uneven, cracked, and pitted — I guess back then they were just happy to not have dirt floors. To make things worse, the previous owners used it as a long-term storage area for several years, so the garage was filthy and needed a bunch of large items removed from it. When we first moved in, the garage door didn’t even work because they hadn’t used it in so long. We had to basically break it open, scrub off a bunch of rust, and lube up the track to get it to work. Here’s what it looked like after we got most the garbage out of there and had already started cleaning (it was much, much worse when we first moved in:

This is what the garage and garage floor looked like when we moved in — basically a mess.

After scrubbing the walls down, putting on a fresh coat of paint, pressure cleaning the floors, and letting the place air out a bit, it was starting to come along. But one problem remained: the floor was incredibly uneven. We first thought that putting down the OSB we had at the previous house would be enough to smooth out unlevel and pitted areas, but we were wrong. Once we had the gym set up, it became rapidly apparently that this would not work. Barbells placed down on the ground would immediately roll around the floor, which is both annoying and dangerous. Worse, lifting on uneven surfaces presents problems of causing muscle imbalances and injuries at very heavy weights. We measured the peaks and valleys of the floor and there was a deviation of 1-3 inches across the garage, and at various points throughout. Note that it’s not as though one side was higher than the other – I’m talking about a garage that resembles a contour map with highs and lows scattered about randomly. We had several cement contractors come out to inspect the floor and offer us quotes on fixing the issue. All of them said the issue was a bad cement pour, but that the slab was very structurally sound and was just shitty. Most of them wanted to tear up the old slab and pour a new one, charging us anywhere between $3,000-$5,000, which was of course out of the question. One said he would be able to cap the existing slab, but that would still cost about $2,000.

We looked for alternatives and eventually stumbled across this article that talks about leveling an uneven floor using asphalt shingles. This was perfect for our situation as we didn’t care at all what the floor looked like (as it would be covered by OSB and mats) — we just needed a safe, level surface on which to lift. We went to Lowe’s and picked up several packs of asphalt shingles, a large level, and went to work. The goal was to level out the peaks and valleys in the garage floor, layering the asphalt shingles in the depressions of the garage floor and leaving the high points of the garage floor exposed. Once that was even, we placed one layer of OSB on top and then another layer of OSB on top of that and perpinduclar to the first layer. Finally, rubber and foam lifting mats went on top. Here’s what it looked like:

Our seriously unlevel, chipped, and pitted garage floor

Putting town the first round of tiles. There was about a 2″ valley on that side I had to fill in.

The garage leveling project coming along nicely. No more rolling barbells!

Another shot of the first area being level

Another massive valley in the middle of the garage that had to be filled in.

The final product — asphalt shingles leveling OSB stacked two sheets high

Once this was all done, we put down rubber mats and foam tiles, and setup our equipment. Here’s what it looks like today:

Conditioning equipment — Farmer’s walk handles and a sled

There is plenty of equipment and room here for a couple of people to lift, stretch, do mobility work, conditioning work, and almost anything else. The only other thing I think I’ll add will be a cable stack, a GHD, and some more Dumbbells and Kettlebells, which I can fit by getting a more space-efficient dumbbell rack.

Just outside the garage, we went for a little more construction and setup some dip bars:

The homemade dip stand. The cinder block is there to use as a step.

Doing all of this saved us several thousand dollars and the whole leveling project only took one weekend. Even building the dip stand saved a bunch of money, as solid dip stands suitable for weighted dips run $300 and up while we built this one for about $60 worth of materials. The next project will be to build a large chin/ring/gymnastic station by the dip stand that is of a similar design (4x4s and steel pipe) but much taller. In the meantime, we have 400 square feet of awesome lifting space and no arbitrary rules about how loud we can be or what clothing we can wear. Rock on.

4 Responses to “Garage Gym”

  1. Jim says:

    Awesome garage gym and dip bars! I will be building a home gym eventually.

  2. Craig says:

    Great handiwork Keenan and glad to see a new post up. I hope I can come see your awesome setup in person sometime.

    (I definitely know what you mean about the music at commercial gyms. I can’t make it through a workout without hearing Taylor Swift and Britney Spears twice each. Who in the world wants to lift to THAT?)

  3. jackbravo says:

    just wow…

    it’s inspirational

  4. That is AWESOME!
    Wish I have a garage to setup like that!
    You are my new hero!

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