What did a Home Gym Set Up Look Like in 1950s America?

Okay, I admit it. I have become, for want of a better word, a home gym fetishist. What began out of necessity during the Covid-19 pandemic has now become a delightful, but expensive, obsession of mine. We recently moved home and, for the first time in two years, my home gym now has a roof! Admittedly it is a wooden shed with zero insulation but hey, a roof is a roof. Few things are more demoralising than bench pressing at 10pm at night in Ireland with the rain in your eyes and a camping torch for light.

Admittedly that last sentence sounds very much like – ‘back in my day we talked 10 miles each way to school, shoeless, and in the snow.’ Well, that was my reality of fitting training around my new-born’s schedule. Needs must and all that. Anyway, back on point. I now have a roof over my head and that means one thing… more equipment. Like all home gym owners, I am in an ongoing process of buying little gadgets, cables and gizmos, which I hope will mimic the machines and equipment I can find in any nearby commercial gym. It would be cheaper, of course, to just buy a yearly gym membership but where is the fun in that?

Thankfully we live in a boon time for home gym owners with many companies not only catering to people like us (“there are dozens of us… Dozens!”), they oftentimes offer their own home gym ‘starter pack’ to speed up the buying process. This got me interested in the home gyms of yesteryear, specifically the ‘starter packs’ offered to men and women.

Who Sold Equipment in 1950s America

The immediate decade following World War Two in America saw one company dominate training equipment sales. That was Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell. Established in the 1930s, Hoffman was, for want of a better phrase, a kingpin in American health cultures in the 1940s and 1950s. He was coach of the US men’s Olympic weightlifting team, the head of the Amateur Athletic Union, and the owner of York Barbell (which encompassed training equipment and a magazine empire).

Hoffman managed to do the near impossible during wartime America – he kept a company which sold equipment requiring metals alive. In his magisterial book on Hoffman, John Fair noted Hoffman’s ability to make opportunity out of obstacles. This point was evidenced when Hoffman invented new equipment requiring less materials (hello swingbell!) and when he secured a contract with the US government to produce wartime materials.

When the War ended, York Barbell was one of few companies actually capable of matching consumer demand for barbells and fitness equipment. Hence his company is the focus of today’s post. Scrolling through Strength and Health magazine (which Hoffman had produced since the 1930s) I came across an advertisement for York’s popular and high selling 10-in-1 combination set for home gym owners. Varying between $27 and $47, the set promised the ability to train the entire body from the comfort of one’s own home.

The 10-in-1 combination set

York 10in1 barbell set

So what did this set encompass?

  1. York Deluxe barbell made up with 5 foot solid steel machined and knurled bar, the latest type of wrenchless collars and an assortment of York streamlined Deluxe barbell plates which make up the advertised weight.
  2. Pair of 14 inch solid steel, machined dumbbell bars with revolving hand grips. 4 outside lock collars and a wrench
  3. Pair of latest type Iron Health boots with straps. York was the first to sell Health boots which permit the practice of many exercises to develop the legs and strengthen the mid-section
  4. Heavy duty head strap for neck development. A good, substantial strap which will give you years of service.
  5. Wrist roller to develop the hands, wrist and forearms.
  6. The short solid steel bars can quickly and easily be used as dumbbells or swingbells
  7. Book containing York courses No. 1 and No. 2. The famous barbell-dumbbell system of training which has been used by more champions than all others
  8. Book containing York Courses No. 3 and 4, weight lifting training. Courses No. 1 and 2 build the muscles in groups. Courses No. 3 and 4 bring sensational results in coordinating these groups and building exceptional bodies
  9. A book of leg developing exercises, three complete courses. 3 Wall charts.
  10. Bob Hoffman’s Swingbel system of training. This course, which is exclusively with York, adds interest to your training program and produces superior results.

120 lbs. set – $27.95 (c. $280 in today’s money)[1]

170 lbs. set – $34.45 (c. $350 in today’s money)

220 lbs. set – $40.95 (c. $410 in today’s money)

270 lbs. set – $46.95 (c. $470 in today’s money)

How does this compare?

As a point of comparison let’s check out Rogue Fitness and one of its home gym packages. I choose Rogue because (a) I want them to give me free equipment (pretty please) and (b) there are some cool parallels with York. York became the voice of US weightlifting during the 1940s and 1950s. Rogue is the face of US CrossFit and is up there when it comes to strongman. Rogue also managed to keep up production, and even exceed expectations, during a global crisis (the Covid-19 pandemic).

I’ve chosen Rogue’s Alpha Bar & Bumper Set which comes in at $1,020 and is midway between their packages. Here trainees are offered 320 lbs. in bumper plates, a 20kg Rogue Ohio bar (which fits 2inch Olympic plates) and a set of Rogue oso barbell collars. There is also, importantly, the ability to add a squat stand and bench from the cheapest offering of $415 to a high of $735.

What the comparison tells us about the Home Gym industry

So for me a couple of thoughts jumped out

  • Quality has improved exponentially. York offered one inch barbells which, although useful in adding muscle, would appear pitiful compared to modern day equipment in terms of the rotation of the barbell, the loads the barbells could hold, and sheer comfort. Likewise the bumper plates offered by Rogue appear can be used in a variety of ways (by which I mean you can drop them without fear).
  • Training expectations have changed dramatically. York offered swingbells and neck harnasses, two pieces of equipment I suspect few individuals would use, or have even heard of. Funnily Rogue – which also produces specialised equipment – offered a more ‘basic’ package featuring a great barbell and some plates.
  • Training knowledge has changed. When York offered workout courses as part of its package that was legitimately a great deal. Information on training typically came from three sources – other gym goers, coaches or workout magazines/books. These courses therefore added value. Nowadays with smart phones and the internet such an offer would appear pitiful. Trainees can easily access information, training systems and new programs.
  • Starting weights are roughly the same. The ‘lightest’ package Rogue offered was a 160 lbs. set and the heaviest was a 320lbs. set. Sure the weights are higher than what York offered but it isn’t a huge chasm.

Now its your turn. How appealing does the 10-in-1 system seem? Would it satisfy your home gym itch? Let me know below.

As always… Happy Lifting!

P.S. This article seems blatantly product placement-y. I get no money from Rogue. I just thought this would be a fun comparison. Although if Rogue, Eleiko, Sorinex etc. want me to

[1] https://smartasset.com/investing/inflation-calculator#uYkBDJj7UN


  1. You are a braver man than me !!!! I live in Wales and the idea of benching out on my patio in the rain !!! I ( stupidly ) sold my gym equipment during lockdown thinking I wouldn’t use it again and the prices were so high . 2 years later I’ve just started training again and have to start my garage dungeon from scratch again . One used bench , a squat rack off Amazon and some vinyl weights to start me off and I’m away again 🤘🤘🤘🤘 , happy lifting brothers and sisters 👍

  2. How I lusted for an outfit like those offered by Hoffman and Weider in my early adolescence, but I had to content myself with things like chest pulls and “Krusher grips,” my mother being a poor widow living on a meager pension. However, she was able to get me five years of excellent private secondary education, which was probably better in the end. I didn’t acquire any weights until the summer between my two years up at Oxford as a Balliol Greatsman. That was 59 years ago, and I have been doing resistance training most of the time since then. I have always preferred the convenience and privacy of home training. My wife did get me some private sessions at a small gym near our house. This turned me on to the world of “unconventional fitness,” and I have largely mothballed my free weights in favor of kettlebells, macebells, sledgehammers, Indian clubs, medicine balls and slam balls.

    1. Haha that is quite funny. I lustd after a bull worker for the longest time because someone in the gym mentioned that they had used it for years to build their strength. Could never find one that transformed me in the same way sadly!

      I am the exact same, having been privileged enough to create my own home gym. I find the privacy and the accessibility to be an absolute godsend!

  3. Ah, the Bullworker! I remember its being heavily advertised back in the 1970s, largely in cheesy men’s magazines. I was very much a free-weights guy back then and regarded the Bullworker with suspicion. However, it seems to have stood the test of time rather well, I’ll admit.

    1. Right? Oh the hours spent searching for one. They stood the test of time but I was surprised Covid lockdowns didn’t result in an renewed interest in strand pulling and bullworkers given the limitations people had.

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