How to work out at home — in just a few square feet of space

Fitness experts dish their best advice on creating a compact — but effective — home gym, using only equipment that can be easily hidden away

The outline of an apartment with various workout equipment in colored photos. A yoga mat extends across the floor while TRX bands swing and weights bounce.
(Emma Kumer/The Washington Post; iStock)
6 min

You don’t need a tricked-out finished basement or even a separate room to create a functional and adaptable exercise space at home. In fact, you don’t need much more than an underused corner.

To figure out whether you have enough space, D.C. personal trainer Bianca Russo suggests standing in place, raising your arms and turning in a complete circle. If you’ve got enough clearance to do that, you can have a home gym.

Working out under your own roof has unique advantages, too. “There’s an attraction to having less barriers to entry and [not] having to leave your home [or] pay for a gym membership,” says Anna Claire Loper, a personal trainer in Philadelphia. Loper aims to help “everyone in every body” — including her transgender clients and people with disabilities — feel comfortable getting fit. “Being home really creates a safer space.”

Even if you only have a patch of square footage to spare, read on for advice from Russo, Loper and other fitness experts on how to turn it into a real workout spot, using equipment that can be easily stowed out of the way.


If you live in a multifamily building or your workout space is on an upper level of your home, consider padding the floor to keep from antagonizing whoever’s downstairs.

Russo suggests using a foam, puzzle-style floor mat. It will cover more area than a standard yoga mat, and you can build onto it piece by piece. “And, you know, it doesn’t get in your way. It doesn’t flop up,” says Russo, who specializes in training queer and transgender clients, as well as people of all body sizes.

Yoga mats, though, are useful for plenty of other reasons. Within the confines of a standard mat (typically about 6 by 2 feet), you can get your heart rate up and build strength. “There’s a lot that you can do in between those four corners,” says Haley Richers, owner of Haus Yoga in D.C. In her sessions, she amps up traditional positions with leg lifts and plank variations for strength-building. For cardio, she adds mountain climbers in fast reps. “Those full-body moves help maximize your time. You’re hitting a bunch of big muscle groups,” she explains.

Yoga blocks are another essential at-home tool for balance support and as a “sweat device,” Richers says, because “a block will feel like 50 pounds after a little while holding it over your head.”

Mimi Rieger, of D.C.-based Mimi Rieger Yoga, also suggests incorporating a bolster, which adds support for restorative yoga sessions and, when you’re not mid-flow, can be used for your office chair. “It just helps you sit up taller,” she says.

The multipurpose system

One space-saving tool that fitness experts rave about is the TRX Suspension Trainer, which can be used for cardio, strength-building and interval training — and can then get tucked into the included mesh bag. Created by a former Navy SEAL, the TRX system features a set of bands with handles. The bands connect to an anchor point, which allows you to leverage your body weight for various exercises, including chest presses, planks, squats and lunges.

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“You can do push-ups and pull-ups and tricep and bicep work. You can really do a full-body workout with a TRX,” says Louise Green, a trainer in Vancouver, B.C., and the author of “Big Fit Girl: Embrace the Body You Have.” She notes that people with larger bodies who struggle with getting up and down can use the TRX to accomplish exercises usually done on the ground, such as rows and squats.

Resistance bands

Resistance bands are crowd-pleasers, too. The experts we interviewed cited them frequently as a compact and affordable tool that anyone can use just about anywhere to build strength. Bands come in different weights to offer more or less resistance, and you can adjust them as needed. Some have handles; others, called mini-bands, come in a loop.

For the handled variety, Russo recommends the set from Black Mountain Products, which you can enlist for dozens of exercises, including bicep curls, rows and squats. Loop bands are useful “for lower-body movements, upper-body movements, and for both push and pull movements,” Loper says. “It’s a super versatile piece of equipment, and it’s very inexpensive.” A new set of three typically costs about $10, or Loper suggests scouring Facebook Marketplace for a secondhand set.

Free weights

If you’re looking to build muscle, you’ll also want a set of weights to complete your workout space. Some trainers swear by dumbbells, others by kettlebells or barbells, but it comes down to personal preference and lifting experience. Dumbbells are standard home-gym fare, and a beginner’s set typically includes ones that weigh five pounds, eight pounds and 12 pounds. Use them for common exercises, such as dead lifts, curls and chest presses. Russo points her clients to the BalanceFrom set on Amazon, which comes with a stand.

Kettlebells can be a bit more affordable — and compact. With just one kettlebell, you can hit multiple levels of strength and conditioning, and most cost less than $30. “You could have an entire program with like three days or five days a week, and each time — using the same kettlebells — do something different,” Loper says.

Though kettlebells are great for basic exercises, such as dead lifts and lunges, experienced users can move into “ballistic skills,” which require an advanced level of control for fast-paced movements called the swing, the clean and the snatch.

Other must-haves

For D.C. trainer Errick McAdams, the other small necessities for home gyms are a jump rope for quick cardio, a pull-up bar for advanced clients and a step-up (a box that can be used for both stair and seated exercises). He recommends the 12-inch red-and-black steel version from JFIT, priced at about $60. The box also grants support for incline push-ups, tricep dips and seated oblique twists, among other moves. Step-ups are highly effective for conditioning and cardio, and they only occupy about one square foot.

Russo recommends foam balance pads from Airex and exercise balls for clients seeking balance exercises and core stabilization. Though exercise balls are rather bulky, she points out that they can double as office chairs. Or try a creative storage solution, such as a hammock designed to keep the ball up and out of the way.

Rosa Cartagena is a features reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer who covers arts and culture.

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