What You Need to Build a Powerlifting Home Gym

August 8, 2022  /  By Aimee Heckel

The advice you need to build your space, straight from a record-holding powerlifter.

Stacy “Bama” Burr started small, but she ended big: with the best wrapped Wilks score of all time in powerlifting. When Burr hung up her competitive knee wraps in 2019, she was the actual GOAT, with a 668.2 Wilks and a crown as the all-time world-record holder in the 148lbs class. It all started with a spot on her South Carolina property, where she pieced together a home powerlifting gym on a tight budget.

Today, Burr coaches a team of about 60 athletes, the majority of which are competitive powerlifters; she travels the country teaching lifting workshops; she runs a motivational lifting podcast; and she’s now training for her first bodybuilding show this fall. Burr knows how to build an at-home powerlifting gym; she’s done it herself three times in three different states.

“For my first gym, I was ballin’ on a budget, so I had to figure out what was the most important thing and add on from there,” she says. “I built it piece by piece, following the hierarchy of what’s most important.”  

Bama Burr teaching a lifting workshop. Photo by Adam Rivera

Three lifts. Compared to bodybuilding, powerlifting training is pretty straightforward. It centers around a squat, bench, and deadlift – all barbell lifts. So, starting a powerlifting gym doesn’t have to be wildly expensive or complicated.

Of course, your accessory lifts are going to require other kinds of equipment, but exactly what accessories you do and what equipment you use is pretty flexible. The specifics will vary based on your program/coach, personal needs, and preferences. As a coach, Burr’s got some advice there, too.

Here’s the Queen of 148’s advice on how to build an at-home powerlifting gym, in order of priority: what you definitely need – and also what you might want to add, either now or as you build out your space in the future.  

1. A Quality Power Rack

First and foremost, you need a rack.

“A versatile power rack is definitely #1,” Burr says. Two-thirds of your competition lifts can be done in a power rack, so picking the right one is key. When making your selection, you’ll want to look at:  

  • Weight capacity: Many cheap racks can’t handle a lot of weight. Make sure your rack can grow with you. Even REP’s simplest rack, the PR-1000, can handle 700lbs, all the way up to the commercial-grade PR-5000, with a rackable capacity of 1,000lbs.  
  • Size of the rack: Gotta make sure it fits in your space and you have room to move inside and outside the cage.
  • Versatility: What can you add to your rack in terms of attachments and spotter arms? A versatile rack saves you space and is easy to add to and grow with.  
  • Organization: Burr recommends also thinking strategically about storage and organization when selecting a rack. A rack with built-on weight storage horns removes the need to buy a separate weight tree. An organized gym streamlines your workouts and saves you time and effort too, she says.  
  • Safety: Make sure your power rack comes with J-cups and safeties (all REP racks do). Depending on your preference, you may want to upgrade to different safeties and cups.  
  • Hole spacing: Different power racks have different distances between the holes in the uprights, where you place your J-cups (and other attachments). If you need a specific liftoff height for bench, look for a rack with closer hole spacing throughout the bench zone, like the PR-4000. Proper hole spacing tends to be even more important for short and female lifters, Burr says. “In commercial gyms, that’s what most people struggle with the most: The bench height is too high or too low,” she says. This doesn’t always translate well on the platform.  

2. A bench

You can’t bench without a bench. Duh. While competition bench is only done on a flat bench, Burr recommends choosing an adjustable bench with flexibility for your accessories.  

“An adjustable bench allows you to work in different planes of motions,” Burr says. “You can change the angles and range of motion and have a lot more access to different exercises. Even if you just change the angle slightly, that can totally modify an exercise.”

The AB-4100 is great for competitive lifters, because it has three posts: two by your head and one by your feet, so the feet of the bench won’t get in the way of your own feet when you’re setting up/driving through. The AB-4100 also meets IPF height standards, so you’re training how you’ll compete. As an adjustable bench, it goes both ways: flat and incline, with seven total back positions and three seat positions.  

3. a barbell

Your barbell is your bestie as a powerlifter. While you could start with the Basic Barbell (great if you’re on a budget), the Stainless Steel Power Bar checks all the boxes. The medium knurl will help with grip, but it’s not too aggressive to affect higher-rep training and frequent use. IPF markings let you train on a competition-style barbell, and a weight rating of 1,500lbs means it’s tough enough for even the world’s strongest deadlifter.

The bushing design features snap rings, perfect for slower, strength-centric lifts. A huge bonus of this bar is it is end-to-end stainless steel and comes with a lifetime warranty – so you’ll be able to grow with this bar for years and years without worrying about rust and wear.

Or if you’re a deadlift specialist or powerlifter who really loves that aggressive knurling, you’ll like the Deep Knurl Stainless Steel Power Bar EX. This bar has the grip you want for deadlifts (cut 75% deeper than standard knurling) and a center knurl to prevent slipping during back squats. Plus, it’s fully stainless steel, on both the shaft and sleeves, the most rust-resistant option.This bar also features IPF knurl markings so you can practice with precision for a competition. The bushing design is optimal for slower, strength-intensive lifts. The weight rating is 1,500lbs.

4. weight plates

A set of weight plates is really the last must-have for a simple, at-home powerlifting gym. Exactly how much weight you need varies by your strength.Sanctioned powerlifting meets use calibrated kilo plates, and it’s most common for powerlifters to use iron plates over bumpers. The most accurate iron plates are Equalizers, which weigh within 2% of their stated weight.

If you want to get even more accurate, you’ll have to go with bumpers – but they're gentler on your floors anyway, especially if you don’t have a deadlift platform. (It’s easy to build your own.) Color bumpers are made highly accurate, with a 1% tolerance. The Competition Bumper Plate Set comes in both kilos and pounds and is made to the strictest tolerances – less than 1% tolerance. They’re guaranteed to be +/- 10 grams of the claimed weight. Bonus: The comp bumpers also follow international color standards (red 25kg, blue 20kg, yellow 15kg, green 10kg).

However, competitive powerlifters may want to stick to the irons, Burr says. Bumpers have bounce to them and are thicker, which may make them sit up higher. The biggest issue with thicker plates is how they spread the weight farther out on the barbell, she says. This changes the way you take the slack out of the bar and also changes the distribution of weight. Thin, competition plates are much more compact, which actually adds difficulty to the lift, Burr says. Yeah, it’s subtle -- “but you’ll feel a difference, especially when working in that top 1% end,” she says.

If you’re a competitive powerlifter wanting to control as many training variables as possible (and not be unpleasantly surprised on the platform), go iron.

5. clips/clamps

Oh yeah, make sure you get some simple clips or clamps to hold your plates on the bar. Spring Clips are cheap and easy to use.

Nothing sexy or nuanced here.

6. dumbbells

Now that you have the five must-haves for a powerlifting gym, it’s time to think about accessory exercises. A set of dumbbells was the next piece of equipment Burr got for her OG gym. The barbell is a bilateral piece of equipment, so it’s important to also train unilaterally so you can correct any weaknesses or imbalances between your sides. Dumbbells also demand more stability than a bar, Burr says, and they’re incredibly versatile for all muscle groups. 

If you only train flat bench and the bar misgrooves in a meet, you won’t have the other muscles to help you correct the lift, and you’re going to lose it, Burr says.

“If we’re not hitting a movement from different angles, we’re leaving meat on the bone,” she says. If you have tight space, go with a set of Adjustable Dumbbells

7. bands

Yes, one of the baddest baddies on the platform puts resistance bands way high on her priority list – and for good reason. First, you can use them for warm-ups and mobility. (Do your warm-ups!) Second, you can attach them to Band Pegs on your power rack and use them as a tool to provide more and different resistance. If you don’t have the budget or space for a cable machine, resistance bands can fill in those gaps, too.

Plus, they take up no real space and they’re super affordable. Huge bang for the buck with these guys.

8. a functional trainer/cable machine

"A lot of powerlifters sleep on this,” Burr says. “They think cables? That’s a bodybuilder situation.”

It’s not. Just like dumbbells, a cable machine is versatile and helps build overall muscularity, which all comes together for the Big Three. But different than dumbbells, cables provide constant tension, so you can isolate the muscle more. Cables also allow you to do nearly infinite accessories – with less impact and CNS fatigue.

No, a cable machine isn’t a die-hard necessity for a powerlifting gym, Burr says, but it helps you do more total work.

“Especially in your off-season, you’re not always going to want to do only barbells – your body won’t always be recovered and ready to hit those compound moves,” she says. Cables let you keep training, without overtraining the same movements and muscles in the same way.

If you have limited space, Burr recommends a cable attachment that fits inside or attaches neatly to your existing power rack.

9. a landmine attachment

This piece is slept on in home gym land, Burr says. But it’s one of her favorite attachments. A Landmine Attachment is versatile as heck: T-bar rows, Meadow rows, overhead presses, tricep extensions, chest press. What makes it unique is it’s loaded from the bottom, creating a different plane of motion, she says.

“Across the board, you’ll never meet somebody strong with a big back who has never done a T-bar row,” Burr says.And as the saying goes, “Big back, big total.”

Get your T-bars in, kids.

10. a belt squat

This one goes out to the lower body. Next in Burr’s home gym was a Belt Squat Attachment. This allows you to load the lower body with less spinal compression than a barbell squat, so it’s easier to recover from. This can mean more frequency in your lower-body training with less fatigue.

“You’re still training the squat pattern, but the central nervous system can recover quicker, and your body will appreciate that,” she says. 

11. an ab roller

What? Yup. The last high-priority item on Burr’s powerlifting wish list is the Ab Roller.

“A lot of powerlifters say they train their core doing squats, bench, and deadlifts – which is true,” Burr says. “But this trains the core in a way that is really helpful in terms of those deep ab muscles that will help the big three more than just surface-area crunches.” 

That’s because the Ab Roller targets your transverse abs in a way no other equipment does, she says. She learned this firsthand at the Sweatt Shop gym in Cincinnati. At the time, she was pulling 525lbs. Owner Shane Sweatt told her to start training her abs with the Ab Roller every day – and she says it worked. She ended up pulling 550 to top off her 1,435lbs total. Did the Ab Roller do it all for her? No, of course not.

“But if you think about it, if your core or base is stronger, of course it’ll have an impact on your main lifts,” she says. “That’s something people overlook. For like $10, you can add that in, it doesn’t take up a ton of space, and it doesn’t require much time. But if you do that, your lifts will improve – and I’ll sign off on that one.”

Other add-ons to consider for your at-home powerlifting gym

Gym Chalk or Liquid Chalk to help with deadlift grip

Fractional Plate Set (especially helpful for bench jumps) 

Floor Mats (Some people use heavy-duty floor mats instead of or in addition to a deadlift platform to protect their floors.)