Rationale for the Garden Gym

After all the lockdown-drama surrounding the closing of gyms and stocks sky-rocketing in the fitness band sector, having reliable access to decent training facilities has been invaluable for us.

At home, we made it a priority to have a place to train so that we could always take care of business regardless of rota/life commitments. Now that I’m firmly approaching my mid-30’s, the consequences of not training seem to multiply manifold. It’s at this stage in life that peak physical attributes are naturally deteriorating, a trend that training can ameliorate or reverse. If you, like me (a type 1 diabetic), shoulder any chronic medical conditions at all, then training should be just as routine and vital as brushing your teeth or taking a shower – its a non-negotiable hygiene practice.

I’ve made a case for why training is crucial from a clinical perspective, but it also soaks up stress, helps me sleep, increases my energy, contributes to my identity, and is just good clean fun.

There are some basic considerations for a garden gym:

– Short commute (kitchen->garden)
– No waiting for equipment
– Full freedom to experiment
– Be outside
– No people
– Psychological resilience (climate)
– Be outside
– No people
– Equipment maintenance
– Up-front cost

Some points are both ‘pros’ and ‘cons’; being outside is lovely when its 25c, but more challenging in January sleet. No people reduces distraction, but also means solo training. This boils down to personal preference, and I personally feel the accessibility, reliability, and other benefits make this worthwhile.

There is a large garage gym community, and I feel like there is more space for garden gyms to take their rightful place. With a reasonable, upfront investment, you can design your own bespoke and private space to train exactly how you want.

Our requirements were straightforward:

  • A training space outside
  • Under cover from the rain

I’ve become overly acclimatised to commercial gym environments, and forget that there are psychological gains to be squeezed from more exposed settings.

‘The worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter. You got civilised’. 

Mick, ‘Rocky II’

I forget all too quickly that there are countless examples around the world who have not used their environment as an excuse to not excel.

A search of ‘garden gym’ or ‘pergola gym’ brings up depressingly little in the UK. Most returns are of garden office/outbuildings used as gyms, many of which are akin to public gyms but more claustrophobic.

The garden gym essentially layers on an additional dimension to the typical training setting of climate and exposure. When we’re used to only performing in a temperature controlled gym, in front of others, and with Ed Sheeran blaring out, then our capacity for performance is arguably more fragile and reliant on specific, ‘just-so’ circumstances.

The cynic may say ‘you’re merely justifying to yourself for not forking out for a proper home gym’; which may be right. Either way, training parkour outdoors for many years has taught me that there is a unique, perhaps subtle benefit to practice in unregulated climates. I think the sheer autonomy over your own training environment alone can compensate for shortcomings that a garden gym brings.

The central thrust of all my content is autonomy and self-empowerment. A garden gym, or any readily accessible training space, is one further step in securing the means to be autonomous over my own health. Rather than take blood pressure pills, I hope to be able to continue to just take training sessions.

The Gym

  • 2.5m tall at highest end, to 2.2 lowest end
  • 3m x 2.2m training area
  • Power rack
  • Flat bench
  • 2x gymnastic rings
  • 2x barbells

The Process

I’d suggest reading ahead only if you are interested in an overview of how we built the gym. I’ve forgone exact measurements and costs to provide just a birds-eye account.

We spent around a month to build our gym, and a few weeks longer planning and obsessing over how to build it. It also took some time to nail down supplies for timber and so on.

The main structure was made of six 150mmx150mm (6×6) fence posts and seven 2×6 timbers, which were used for the rafters. All timbers were pressure treated, and I also treated the parts of the posts that would be dug underground with Creosote, to try and delay any rotting of the timber. Just getting hold of the wood took weeks, due to the DIY boom over lockdown.

Wood delivery day (just the top few timbers)

I initially planned out the position of the uprights using the ‘3-4-5’ method to make sure they were all square. Then I went ham with a shovel and dug down around 1 metre per post.

Each post was initially secured upright with 2×4 beams into the ground, and 2×6 beams between each post to ensure all sides were square and equally spaced apart. There seemed to be a national shortage of postcrete, so I ended up mixing ballast and cement and pouring my own concrete for all 4 posts.

Once set (24-48 hrs), I measured and cut each post to plan for an angled roof. This was my first time using a circular saw, and some of the cuts were beyond sketchy, but thankfully my fingers are all intact. I then went through the highly treacherous process of heaving the cross beams on top of the uprights, because I was too impatient to elicit help from a friend. I secured each horizontal/vertical post joint with a T-bracket, drilling pilot holes and using coach screws to secure in place. 

Once the 150x150mm posts were all positioned, I then bird-mouthed all the 2×6 rafters onto the cross beams and secured them in place, using 90º angle brackets, with the help of a friend. All the hardware I used (T brackets, angle brackets etc) was also pre-sprayed with satin black spray paint, just for aesthetics. I made sure that the crown of each rafter was facing upwards in order to maximise structural strength of the roof.

I had ordered three 1m x 3m polycarbonate sheets, at 3mm thick, to secure on as the roof. Although much cheaper, I didn’t like the look of corrugated plastic, and wanted the roof to be as transparent and unobtrusive as possible. I secured these all on using pilot holes through the sheets and rafters, then placing screws in with waterproof caps. The gaps between each sheet was sealed with polycarbonate roofing sealant to ensure it was all waterproof. 

Garden gym in progress, DIY

With the original flooring being concrete slabs on sand, they had started to shift over time, and weren’t suitable for training on. Laying the patio was the most physically exhausting and frustrating part to this whole thing, and each 18kg tile was unforgiving and awkward to the extreme.

To summarise: I pulled up all the old concrete slabs, broke up the mortar, and dug up all the sand until I hit soil. Then I dug down further to about 150mm below the edge of the grass to account for sub base, mortar and tiles. I ordered 1 tonne of dolomite sub base and wheelbarrowed it through the house into the garden.

I compacted it all down using a hand tamper, and then bought 20 x 25kg bags of fine sand, and 5 x 5kg bags of cement. Each tile required its own entire wheelbarrow worth of concrete to be mixed by hand, so that came to 19 wheelbarrows of concrete mixing. I used a level to ensure a slight fall on all the tiles to account for rainfall, then proceeded to lay them all on a mix of around 5:1 sand:cement. This took 2 days and was complicated by a desert-dry sub base that sucked all the moisture from my mortar mix on many of the slabs. After realising that some of them hadn’t adhered, I got in touch with ‘JohnyBoy’ at Greentop Landscapes, by commenting on his Youtube channel. He was generous enough to have a phone discussion with me, and advised to use some Mapei tile adhesive and relay the loose tiles. Since doing that, they have stuck down an absolute treat. 

I also laid some sleepers to border the plant beds, and filled in the gaps with gravel between the posts and patio. The flooring of the patio was bordered by gravel boards that I secured using stakes and screws.

Approximate Project Consumables (definitely more):
– 6 x 6×6 timber posts (3.0m and 3.6m long)
– 7 x 2×6 timber posts (3.0m long)
– 3 x 2x3m polycarbonate roofing sheets at 3mm thick
– 8x T brackets
– Multiple angle brackets
– Other hardware – coach screws, exterior wood screws, roofing screws etc
– Gravel boards for patio border
– Railway sleepers for edge of gym
– 24 x 60cmx60cm porcelein tiles at 40mm thick
– 1 tonne of dolomite sub base
– Approx 150kg ballast
– Approx 500kg fine sand
– Approx 200kg cement
– Approx 200kg postcrete
– Approx 100kg decorative gravel
– No Nonsense Screwfix Decking Oil
– Mapei tile adhesive

Tools used:
– Drill / impact driver
– Jigsaw
– Circular saw
– Electric sheet sander
– Shovel
– Hand tamper
– Rubber mallet
– Trowel
– Wheelbarrow

The above is a broad brush outline of the 4 weeks to build the gym. If you want any further details about this, or want to get in touch for any other reason, just write to julian@strongermedicine.com.