Building Your Home Gym: Grapplers Edition

You’ve been stuck at home for a while without being able to roll.  You are probably getting pretty antsy. Maybe you have already started burning off some of that energy by working out. Maybe you are considering drilling at home with a grappling dummy to keep your skills up.  If you have not done it already, it is time to start putting together your home gym. This will be your sanctuary to go and train day or night and get yourself in the best shape possible for the future.  Where do you begin? What will you need?  Let’s plan it out.

Dedicated space.  

Not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated space to train, but maybe you can move a few things around or have a space that serves a dual purpose.  First consider your garage or your basement.  Those are the first choices.  Second choice might be a guest bedroom. If those are not options consider setting up your living space so you can easily move your couch and tv and rollout your mats to train and then put everything back when you’re done. If you have young kids consider a dual purpose play space that has matting and some gymnastics equipment for them to play on that you can also use to train on.  


Once you have a space picked out we have to consider the flooring.  If you’re using your garage or basement you’ll probably want two types of flooring. You’ll want some rubber matting to soften the concrete and allow you to lift weights on and also some soft mats for grappling.  Depending on your space you may want to dedicate the soft mats to the floor as a semi-permanent grappling area or get some fold up or roll away mats.  There are lots of choices here but here are the considerations.  Are you creating a dedicated grappling space or a mixed-use space that also doubles as a gym and/or kids play space?  Are you going to seriously train with a few friends in this space or are you just going to drill and grapple with a dummy? The harder your training the more durable the mat you will need especially if you plan on doing takedowns, you’ll want some thick mats.  If you just plan on doing some solo drills and practicing with your dummy then you don’t need especially thick mats. 

Grappling dummy

There are a million choices here as well.  This is because there is no perfect grappling dummy. Each design is better for some drills and worse for others.  The cheapest options is stuffing a gi with pillows and towels and making a dummy that way.  I have seen dummies on amazon that you can fill yourself with old shredded t-shirts and these range from $25-65.  Then there are a variety of dummies that come filled.  Some people want a dummy that they can practice their ground and pound, in which case you might just want to get an old heavy punching bag and put it on the ground.  Some people like the throwing dummy which is like a heavy bag with arms and legs that you can practice picking up and throwing.  And there are some other various shapes and sizes that are good for different types of drills, but chances are you’re going to want something that you can grab on and choke that isn’t going to complain the way your wife might if you did it to her.

Exercise Equipment    

Solo drills are not going to be enough to keep you sharp and in shape for your triumphant return to the dojo.  You need to start working out and getting stronger and faster and more flexible…all those things you said you wished you were but couldn’t make the time for because of your busy life and devoting all your spare time to jiujitsu.  So where should you begin? We will start with essentials and then ponder some more extravagant purchases.

Pullup Bar

You need to do pull-ups if you are a jiujitsu player. I mean they are, hands down, one of the best upper body strength exercises in existence. All you need is something to hang from and you can improve your grips strength and endurance as well as your arms, shoulders, and back.  The cheapest option is to build something yourself with $10 of material from the plumbing supply store.  Get a length of threaded pipe between 3 to 4 feet long and some flanges and you can install it in a doorway or hallway.  You could also secure it to the wall or ceiling if you get some elbow joints and two more 1-foot lengths of threaded pipe.  You might need some 2’x4’ pieces to reinforce your studs. Nonetheless it is a simple DIY project.  If you want something removable, you can get a doorway bar but those vary in quality and anything that isn’t screw into the studs can come loose pretty easily and cause injury so be careful.  The other option is to buy various prefabricated pullup bars that screw into the walls or perhaps get a free-standing one.  Once you have something to hang from you have the ability to do pull-ups, muscle ups, leg raises, skin the cats, levers, and other awesome upper body exercises that you simply cannot recreate without hanging.  

Rubber Bands

Some of you are saying, “I’m not strong enough to do pullups.” Buy some big rubber bands to assist you on your journey.  These days you can get giant rubber bands for pullups on every fitness equipment website as well as amazon.  They are about 3’ long and vary in thickness with the thicker bands giving the most assistance and the thinnest giving the least.  I recommend buying a set of these ranging from 1/4” to 2” wide and that will give you not only plenty of assistance on pullups but these are also great as a substitution or addition to other resistance exercises done with weights.  



Strength training is necessary no matter what. No matter whether you are a man or a woman, an athlete or a hobbyist, a child or a grandparent, you simply must do some resistance training to stay healthy and functional.  Your muscles and bones need resistance. Two of the biggest health threats to astronauts in zero gravity is osteoporosis (loss of bone density) and muscle wasting.  Sedentary people suffer the same problems just slower. The point is that humans require resistance to remain healthy.  The most versatile choice is a loadable barbell. A barbell with a set of rubber bumper plates allows you the greatest amount of options with respect to the amount of different exercises and loads.  Obviously a seven-foot barbell and plates will take up some room so its best used in a garage or basement.  If you choose to use a barbell in your living area, you will want some rubber flooring and should considering getting some drop mats to deaden the sound and vibration from repeatedly lifting an barbell off the ground.  

Racks and Benches

If you’re going to be serious about weight training, get yourself a squat rack. A good rack is the center piece in your home gym.  The rack will allow you to squat, press, and bench heavier weights because you can take the loaded bar from a set height as opposed to picking it up off the ground to start every set.  A squat rack will often have a pullup bar that goes across the top so you will have killed two birds with one piece of gear.  Depending on the rack you get, it will often have the option of having spotter arms or rails that you set to a height just below the bottom of your movement so if you fail a heavy lift the barbell will land on the arms and not crush you.  Depending on the rack you get there are often lots of other fun attachments that you can get to do more and more exercises. 
A flat bench is another standard piece of gear.  Obviously it is necessary for bench pressing, but it can also be used for box squats, step ups, jump ups, jump overs, and a variety of other great exercises.  The upgrade would be to get an adjustable incline bench which offers even more options, but these tend to be far more expensive than a plain flat bench.  
Generally speaking working out at home is extremely safe and effective, however the bench press may be the single most injurious move in the gym…especially the garage gym.  Don’t believe me? Go on YouTube and look up bench press fail videos.  If you are going to bench press at home alone, get a rack with spotter arms and use the spotter arms. Bench with a big arch in your back and bring the weight down to your chest.  The spotter arms should be set an inch or two below the bottom of your deadlift such that if you stop arching your back the weight will rest on your spotter arms about an inch above your chest.  If you can’t afford a rack with spotter arms make sure you always avoid using clips when you bench press. If you ever get pinned under your barbell, you can tip it to one side and the weights will slide off then you tip it the other way and you can unload your bar. It will make a ton of noise and you might break some stuff that’s on the floor of your gym but you’ll be alive and safe.

Dumbbells & Kettlebells

The next thing you will want is some dumbbells and kettlebells.  Even and single dumbbell or kettlebell used properly can provide an abundance of options for exercises and workouts.  Adjustable dumbbells provide a great variety of loads but are often unsafe as the clips can come lose and drop weights on your face, foot, or floor.  So if you choose adjustable dumbbells invest in good clips.  I prefer rubber coated hex dumbbells because they do not roll and they don’t scuff my floor or tear my mats when I use them indoors.  
Kettlebells are great too and are often preferred by jiujitsu practitioners.  There are a handful of exercises that are really great with kettlebells that are unique and hard to replicate with dumbbells.  I love both kettlebells and dumbbells and do not really want to choose.  If you can afford both, get both. If you are strapped, look around for used equipment and get what you can afford based on price and availability.  You will always be able to find dumbbells at garage sales and gyms going out of business that are selling kettlebells.  So consider starting with whatever you can and adding to your stockpile over time.  
If I didn’t have anything and was starting my collection I would probably start with a single 25-35lb dumbbell from the store or garage sale and then gradually grow my collection from there.


As a grappler, I believe the sandbag is an essential training tool.  If for the the simple reason that you should be able to pick up a deadweight that weighs roughly the same as you and hold it and carry it around.  Talk about something in the gym that is directly applicable to our sport.  If I can take a sandbag that weighs the same as my average opponent and pick it up off the ground carry it, squat it and throw it over my shoulder, then I can feel confident that if I can wrap my arms around my opponent I can do the same thing to him.  Here’s thing: lifting up a sandbag that weighs as much as you is really damn hard and if you’ve never done any lifting do not start with a sandbag that weighs as much as you.  
So before you go buying a 200lb sandbag, you should be able to deadlift, squat and clean your body weight for multiple reps with a 200lb barbell.  The barbell is mechanically easier to lift than a sandbag so a 200lb sandbag feels almost twice as heavy even though they weigh the same.  So I would not consider these an either/or equipment purchase. I think a sandbag in addition to a barbell is the way to go.  
The good news is that sandbags are relatively cheep to buy and ship.  The bad news is that they are hard to change the load once they are loaded with sand.  The best kind of sandbags are the ones that look like pillow cases or laundry bags, not the ones that look like gym bags with handles all over them.  If you want a handle, use a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. If you want something that translates to grappling get a heavy sandbag that has no handles and forces you to hug it and hold on.  
My recommendation is to get 3 or 4 sandbags and fill them in 25-50lb increments. Having a 70lb, 100lb, and 135lb bag will be great additions to your gym.  Bags usually cost less than $100 and you just buy sand and fill them up.  Some bags have built in liners other bags require you to pre-bag your sand in smaller bags so that the sand doesn’t all leak out. There are ton of DIY options and instructions on YouTube. These are a great and cost-effective training tool.  

Cardio Equipment

Lift Weights Faster

Many people assume you can only train your cardio respiratory system by getting on a machine and doing long runs. You can, in fact, create an enormous demand and training stimulus on your heart and lungs by doing many functional movements for an extended time and an intense pace.  You can do a circuit of 5 pullups, 10 pushups and 15 squats for 20 minutes and your lungs will be on fire. Similarly you could take a pair of dumbbells or a barbell and do several sets of thrusters paired with burpees for a another sure fire lung burner. 

The cheapest thing for you to do is go outside and run.  Don’t buy any special shoes, just run. I recommend if you are going to run to learn how to run better.  Pose Running by Dr. Romanov is an excellent way to learn how to run in and efficient and SAFE manner where you don’t develop a lot of overuse injuries of the feet, knees, and hips that so often plague runners.  Most of the time stick to shorter, faster sprints, and occasionally go on longer runs.  Hills, sand, trails, stairs offer good variety and training. 


Pretty much everyone that buys a treadmill uses it for a drying rack for their clothes and gis.  This won’t be you though! You’ll get up every day and run three miles. I generally think most consumer treadmills are over priced and under built so I wouldn’t get one unless you really love to run but are allergic to the outdoors.  You can always find someone getting rid of one.  
However, the one treadmill that is worth getting is a curved, self-powered treadmill.  These treadmills initially designed by Woodway are now available from a variety of providers and they are curved so that when your foot contacts the tread on the upper part of the curve gravity pulls it down and you are able to run like a hamster on a wheel powering the treadmill yourself and dictating the speed by your ability.  These are preferable because they force you to do the work and they force you to run more ergonomically and strike on your fore or mid foot and require better postural control.  These are also great if you want to work on your running form because you can video yourself on one and send it to your running coach and they can give you feedback. You can send video of you running on your street but it is much harder to capture 2 minutes of consecutive running unless you have someone driving next to you.  Still I would consider these a luxury item for those that have money and space and really care about running. 

Jump Rope

The next cheapest thing you can do is get a jump rope.  I find there surprisingly few good places to jump rope in or around my house. I love jumping rope and would do much more of it if I had a smooth level surface to do it on.  That being said, if you have the space, a jump rope is a great investment for home and travel fitness.  Get something good and watch some Buddy Lee videos for instruction and inspiration.  


If you do have the space and money and desire to add some good cardio equipment start with an air bike.  Every old wrestling room had a few Schwinn AirDynes in the corner and if you can find an old airdyne used, they tend to hold up really well over time. Of course these bikes have been improved over the years so if you want the Cadillac of air bikes get the Rogue Echo bike which is reasonably priced for what it is.  There are cheaper options out there as well as more expensive ones, but I don’t think there’s a better air bike on the market.  
Certainly there are other indoor bike options like the luxury Peloton which offers group exercise classes via a built in screen.  If you want to just cycle on more of budget or are tight on space, you can get a indoor bike trainer for your regular road bike and then you can use your regular bike indoors and outdoors. 

Ergs Et Cetera    

If I was going to tell you to get a piece of cardio equipment for your home gym, it would have to be a Concept 2 Rowing Ergometer a/k/a a rowing machine.  The Concept 2 is the erg that used by every crew team in the world for their dry land training. In fact indoor rowing is its own sport with competitions and world records.  For less than $1000 a Concept 2 Rower will last you a lifetime with minimal to no maintenance. The full body movement of pushing with the legs and pulling with the arms is directly transferable to playing guard.  The monitor is easy to use and provides all the data you need to track your progress.  It also saves data and allows you to download to your computer and upload to online training logs and do online competitions. 
Concept 2 also makes a ski erg and a bike erg which are just as great but I wouldn’t put them on the “must have” list for grapplers.  But if you fall in love with the rower, you might eventually want to expand your concept 2 family to include one of these other pieces and have more options at your disposal. 
There are other things like the Versa Climber, Jacobs Ladder, stair master, elliptical, etc. that are okay as well.  I think these are mostly based on your personal tastes but my recommendations are to choose something that gets you moving your whole body and requires you or at least allows you to go hard and fast.  The rower and the air bike allow you to work exceedingly hard and fast to the point of vomiting.  Most other exercise equipment kind of forces you set a tempo and cruise and you cannot go hard and fast even if you wanted to.  That’s not what you want.  


If you have mats, a pullup bar, and some weights you have the essentials, but there will probably be some other things you’ll want to consider.  Depending on what you like and what your goals are. 

Neck Trainers  

Grapplers need strong necks. You can do a lot of exercises with minimal equipment. I’ve used Thera-bands, physioballs, towels, and just my own resistance to do neck exercises, but I believe every grappler should have some specialized neck trainer.  The basic one is a harness that straps a weight under your chin and you can do basic Yes/No movements to strengthen the neck muscles.  The more elaborate one is the Iron Neck which is a type of halo worn on the head with a resistance band that swivels around a full 360 degrees and allows training the neck from many angles.  This device is a lot more expensive but if you want to keep your neck strong, i recommend getting one.  

Hands, Wrists, and Forearms

A strong grip with exceptional stamina is what you need for grappling.  The world of grip training is quite a rabbit hole to go down. But a few simple tools will quickly help you develop a vice-like grip. 

Fat Grips 

These rubber handles slide over your barbell, dumbbell or pullup bar and make the handle roughly 2” in diameter which is much harder to hold on to. Doing a few extra sets of your favorite lift with Fat Grips will develop your gripping strength immensely.  

Wrist Roller

Take a PVC pipe and drill a hole in it. Pass a five foot piece of string through it and attach the other end to some light weights.  Hold your arms out in front of you and roll the weight up and down. Each time you roll it up you switch the direction of wrist action. If you don’t feel like making one.  You can take a barbell and put it on a rack at chest height. You loop a big rubber band around one of the sleeves and loop the other end through a weight.


The plastic grippers that you had as a kid are lame. If you want to invest in a real piece of exercise equipment get a Captains of Crush gripper.  They are knurled steel and sex appeal in a hand-sized package.  


A climbing rope is an amazing complement to your pullup bar.  Pullups and rope climbs are arguably the King and Queen of upper body pulling exercises.  However if you don’t have the ability to hang a rope of 15 to 20 feet high, find a length of rope 3 to 6 feet long and 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter and throw it over your pullup bar.  Do pullups with the rope.  Loop it through your kettlebell handle and do rows with it.  You can find lots of ways to use a rope to supplement your grip training. 

An Old Gi

They sell short lengths of gi sleeves that you can use over your pullup bar or around a weight to directly develope your gi gripping strength.  Not a bad idea but I would save the money and use an old gi.  

Heavy Bag

95% of all fights end up on the ground, that’s why we learn jiujitsu. 100% of all fights start on your feet, that’s why we need to learn to strike.  Find a place to set up a heavy bag for punching.  If space is tight your might have to hang it from your pullup bar and take it down when you want to do pullups. If you don’t have that much room you might want to get one of those pads that screws into the wall.  If you don’t have a good place to hang it, you will want to look for the free standing bags that are supported with heavy bases.  You’ll also need some cheap hand wraps and a pair of gloves.

Screen, Clock and Music

If you’ve ever been to a gym where they were playing crappy music, you will soon realize this alone may be worth the investment in a home gym.  If you can afford it, you will want a dedicated screen in your gym for working out along with videos.  Obviously the grappler’s ultimate home gym will allow you to put on an instructional video and follow along with your friend or grappling dummy.  A big screen would be great for that, but for live interactive sessions with your teacher you will want a computer or tablet that has a camera.  Furthermore, recording your workouts for reviewing your technique is a necessity when training by yourself since you do not have a live coach there.  You already have the technology for all of this in your phone, but if you can have a dedicated video, clock, and sound system it will make your home gym feel more professional. 

The sky is the limit when it comes to home gyms. Dream big, but start small.  Start planning out a space and dreaming of what you can fill it with.  Add pieces one at a time and grow gradually.  Hang up some posters and make it feel like home. Enjoy. Stay fit and stay healthy.  See you on the mats. 

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