A few days ago I got an email from a guy who is broke and untrained. He just didn’t know where to start, what to do or what equipment he needed. He was under the impression that I had a sumptuously outfitted home gym. Nothing could be further from the truth. I cobble together workouts with what’s available at the tiny little gym in my apartment complex, a few items I’ve purchased, and some stuff I’ve made.

First, if you’re untrained, the most important thing is to just start. Stop letting “I need the perfect setup” be the excuse behind getting your butt off the couch. That’s not what’s keeping you back. You don’t need any equipment at all. Nothing like burpees w/pushups, 400m sprints, leg blasters, chair dips, ab bridge complexes, and hindu pushups to get you started. I sent him a 8 week bodyweight routine that should be a good ass-kicking start.

Once you’re done with that, become a craigslist hawk. There’s a lot of perfectly functional equipment out there that can be had at a fraction of retail. Take advantage of people moving that need to get rid of stuff asap. I would add equipment in the following order, over the course of a year of training:

1) Pair of simple, used 25 lbs hex dumbbells. I’ve seen them for as low as $5. Don’t pay more than $20. Lunges, Goblet Squats, Thrusters, Renegade Man Makers, Scotty Bobs, Mr. Spectaculars, Shoulder presses, One-arm overhead squats, Russian twists, Weighted situps, Turkish Getups etc, etc… It’s going to take you a while to run out of possibilities

2) Home made suspension trainer with thin and thick PVC grips: $40. If you don’t need lots of flexibility as far as where you hang these and have some spare rope around you can make these as cheaply as $1.50 (Home depot will sell you 2′ lengths of 3/4″ and 1 1/2″ pvc pipe for 75 cents each)

3) Make two sandbags using wood pellets, military surplus heavy duty laundry bags (look for ones that are rubberized on the inside) or USN heavy canvas sea bags, contractor’s clean up heavy duty plastic bags, duct tape and zip ties: $20-$50 depending on if you need to buy a whole roll of duct tape, a whole bag of contractors bags, and how cheaply you can get the surplus military bags for (I paid $2.95 each). If you live in a place where people don’t use wood pellets, then try a pet supply store. They’ll sell you 40# bags of “natural kitty litter” – the exact same thing – for a 3x markup. If you’re starting out, you may want to go make 40 and 50# bags. Intermediate level, you’re probably looking at 65 and 80#.

These three items can run you as cheap as $26.50 and at most will run you $110 if you go cadillac. Frankly, you can get pretty fit with just this.

4) Home made 20″x 24″ plyo box: $30 I’m assuming access to a table saw and some basic wood working skills. You need a sheet of 3/4″ plywood for this, which if you really want to dirtbag it, you may be able to scrounge for free at a building site etc…

What I’d buy next depends on how much space I have.

Assuming I have unused space in a garage or basement where I can set something up “permanently” – that is I don’t have to clear out the space at the end of every workout. In this case I would buy:

5) Used, solid power cage w/ pullup bar, bench, oly bar, 300# of weights in decent condition: As cheap as $250. Seriously, that cheap. This is pretty much everything you need from a strength perspective. Maybe spend another $50 on a couple more pairs of 45# plates if and when you need to go heavier for deadlifts.

6) Muscle Clamps or Rogue HG clamps. $40-45. This might seem like a convenience item, but it lets you do heavy olympic lifts with regular old iron plates. Get a $10 piece of plywood if you’re worried about damaging a concrete floor.

7) 20kg Kettlebell. Fitness Factory Outlet has 45# Body Solid KBs for $1.10 a lb if you live in the chicago area (+10% tax): $55. The handles on these are actually pretty good. Every once in a blue moon someone sells a dragon door bell on craigslist. Probably worth jumping on it if you can. Some would make a kettlebell your very first purchase. If I could only buy ONE piece of equipment after the dumbbells and suspension trainer, that’s probably what I’d get. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Don’t get me wrong. I use a kettlebell daily, however the only exercise I can’t easily do with a dumbbell is a swing (and even that is doable).

Assuming I have unused space in a garage or basement but I have to clear it out when I’m done. In this case I would buy:

5) Oly bar and 300# of weights: $100-$150.

6) Muscle Clamps or Rogue HG Collars $40-$45

7) 20kg Kettlebell $55

Assuming the only space I have to train is a small apartment or a park, and everything I use has to be stored under a bed or in a closet I would get:

5) 16 kg Kettlebell $45

6) 20 kg Kettlebell $55

7) Pullup bar (probably over door mounted) $40-$50

8) Gymboss $25 – This is a personal preference but I find it’s essential if you’re going to stick to work/rest intervals. You can go all out and never have to worry about checking a clock.