How to Build Muscle at Home Without a Gym Membership

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Resistance exercise is a great way to improve your health and fitness, but what if you can’t afford a gym membership? While the numerous, expensive machines in gyms are invaluable for building muscle and can allow you to easily work out every part of your body, most aren’t necessary to get good results. You can gain muscle at home with a minimum amount of equipment, or even perform calisthenics with just your own body weight. Your exercise program should be supported by a diet rich in high protein muscle building foods and good quality carbs and fats for best results.

Minimum Equipment for a Home Gym

The minimum range of equipment needed to work out at home is dependent on your goals, and you should target your whole body to receive the most benefit from your effort. More importantly, a full-body routine ensures that muscles remain balanced, and improves physical stability by strengthening key areas like your core, back, and rotator cuffs. You’re less likely to suffer injuries because of this, both during your workouts and your day-to-day life.

Besides being highly beneficial, full-body workouts also only require a few pieces of equipment. The only things you need to gain muscle at home are:

  • A dumbbell or barbell set
  • Weight plates
  • A portable pull-up bar (and a study door frame)

That’s it. You can work out every muscle in your body for this small investment. The beauty of full-body workouts is that the best routines are built on compound movements that target several muscles at the same time, using a single movement with a dumbbell or barbell. The only area you can’t target as effectively with this equipment is your back, but this is easily remedied using a pull-up bar that can be fitted to a door frame and then removed again when not in use.

Dumbbells or a Barbell?

As a bare minimum, you only need either form of weight, but there are some differences to note. Some exercises will be a bit different with dumbbells compared to with a barbell, because you’ll naturally be more balanced holding a single bar rather than two. This isn’t a bad thing, however, as it does help to develop the stabilizing muscles in your core and other areas because it’s more difficult to hold dumbbells steady through the movement’s range of motion without engaging these muscles.

Dumbbells can also be used to perform a full range of motion bench press exercises without owning a weightlifting bench, by lying on your back on the edge of a bed or sofa, allowing your elbow to drop below the mid-line of your body on the way down. If you use a barbell for this without a bench, you can’t lower the bar as far because your arms will be impeded by the surface you’re lying on.

Supine exercises are also potentially unsafe if you’re using very heavy barbells, because you can drop a dumbbell and have it land away from you, off to the side, but a barbell will fall straight down onto you. This is something that can happen even with a bench too, but many do have safety features, and this should be a priority purchase if you will be lifting very heavy weights.

Alternatively, buying both types of weight bars instead of a barbell and bench is cheaper and will allow you to use dumbbells for certain exercises like this, eliminating the drawbacks that come from choosing a single piece of equipment. This will be sufficient up to a more advanced level, but by that point, you will likely be considering new equipment anyway. If you just want to maintain your physique, you could feasibly keep using the same set of weightlifting equipment for years.


What if you can’t buy any equipment for some time, or just don’t want to? As luck would have it, there’s still a reasonably good option for you in the form of calisthenics.

Calisthenics exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, and planks use your own body weight as resistance. Little to no equipment is required and routines built around these kinds of movements are great for functional fitness, as they focus on more natural muscle utilization patterns and target the core musculature particularly effectively.

There’s a downside to this kind of routine, though. Because the resistance comes from body weight, it won’t scale effectively as you get stronger, forcing you to compensate with the use of increasingly higher rep ranges and workout duration to encourage muscle growth to continue. If you’re a complete beginner with little muscle mass, some exercises may even be very difficult or impossible to perform correctly initially because you won’t be able to lift your own body weight while performing them.

Despite these drawbacks, calisthenics do work to create a fit and aesthetic body, although you may decide later that you’ve reached a point where you need to invest in some weights to continue moving towards your fitness goals.

Home Gym Machines

If you’re a beginner who wants more versatility and room to grow, or a more advanced lifter, a home gym machine can also be a good option to reach your goals. These machines allow for a greater amount of weight to be used compared to most dumbbell and barbell sets, but they are also easily adjustable to select the exact weight you need for the particular exercise or routine you’re working on.

Total Gym XLS Home Gym
A machine like this definitely doesn’t replace the need for free weights, however, as these are better for certain exercises and the machine won’t cover every kind of exercise you want to perform. You can’t do squats using a machine, for example, and these are one of the most important exercises to incorporate into any routine. What you can do, however, is supplement your free weight exercises, and a gym machine is one of the better options for exercising your upper back safely, with the ability to scale the resistance up higher as you grow.

If you are a beginner or intermediate lifter, a machine costing a few hundred dollars could potentially last you a few years before you outgrow it, and it will only take a few months to a year to save money over a gym membership. Advanced lifters will need to spend more for a higher-quality home gym with greater weight capacity, though.

A machine like this will likely be a permanent fixture in your household, as most people will never outgrow it. It could be a good investment for you regardless of your initial fitness level if you intend to maintain consistency over several years.


Whether you choose to use only a set of free weights or add supplementary equipment like a bench or machine, bodybuilding equipment is generally very sturdy because of the materials used. Problems like rust or broken cables can occur, though. Take good care of all your home gym equipment and it will continue to be an excellent return on investment for years to come, allowing you to exercise whenever you want to in the comfort of your own home.

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