Most cities and towns these days have anywhere from a handful to dozens of gyms to choose from. How in the world does one decide? It might be tempting to choose the cheapest one, thinking that a weight is a weight, and a treadmill is a treadmill. If you always buy the cheapest car on the lot and the cheapest cell phone in the store, then by all means sign up for the $10 per month gym membership, otherwise read on for qualities to look for in a gym that will enhance your results and overall fitness experience:
1. Size – the gym shouldn’t be too big or too small. A small gym will feel cramped and won’t have much variety of equipment. A very large gym will make you feel dwarfed by the space and make it tough to get to know anyone or receive personal attention or help from staff or owners.
2. Location – I don’t need to tell you that your time is valuable! Still, I would encourage you not to automatically join the closest gym to your home or work place. That would be like choosing the closest fast food restaurant every time you want to eat out. An extra 5 or 10 minutes in the car in exchange for a more enjoyable and productive hour in the gym is typically worth it.
3. Free weights – if you’re interested in gaining muscle size or strength, the gym should have a generous selection of barbells, dumbbells, benches, squat racks, and lifting platforms. Does all of it look heavy duty and in good condition? You can tell a lot about a gym by how heavy the dumbbells go. If they top out at less than 100 pounds, it’s not a serious results oriented gym. If the dumbbells top out near 200 pounds, you’re in a very hardcore gym that likely has a lot of steroid users. The sweet spot is somewhere in between. Ask the staff or owners what kind of bars they have and hope for a better answer than “45 pounds”. Quality barbells that stay straight, balanced, spin and grip well are the most important items in the free weight area, but most people don’t know the difference so most gyms have cheap crappy bars. Ideally, there should be a section in the gym with lifting platforms and bumper plates so that deadlifts and cleans can be done safely.
4. Weight machines – there should be at least a couple of different machines for each major muscle group so that you can vary your routine and work your muscles from different angles. The machines should operate smoothly and be in good condition. For those new to exercising, look for machines where the weights are easily adjusted (e.g. using a simple pin) and diagrams are on display showing how each machine is used and what body parts it works.
5. Cardiovascular equipment – there should be several treadmills and ellipticals in good condition and a variety of other types of cardio machines to break the boredom and add intensity to your workouts. Steppers, rowers, and stationary bikes are all good. Fancy display screens on the machines are a nice plus but are mainly there for show and don’t give you a better workout. Variety and condition of the cardio equipment are much more important.
6. Cleanliness – the gym should be clean and not smell like a dirty sweaty sock. That includes the bathrooms / locker rooms. Make sure you visit the gym before joining to see how clean it is on a normal day. You’d be surprised how many gyms look great in advertisements but look and smell like a dump in person.
7. Crowd – how crowded is the gym at the times you like to go? Crowds normally peak weekdays around 5-7 pm. Are the members friendly and considerate enough to let you “work in” with them rather than wait? It’s a great idea to take a trial workout at your preferred workout time and see whether crowding is an issue.
8. Atmosphere – the gym should be a place that makes you feel comfortable, uplifted, and motivated to exercise and improve yourself. A very posh spa-like atmosphere will suit some but generally is not conducive to getting results. A dark dungeon atmosphere suits others, but most will find it uninviting and depressing. Most people enjoy a gym atmosphere than includes newer looking equipment & decor, lots of natural sunlight, non-judgmental and non-intimidating gym members, and overall good vibes when they walk in the door. You must visit the gym to get a sense of the atmosphere!
9. Friendly and helpful staff – you should be made to feel welcome in the gym, and the staff should be more than willing to help with anything you need.
10. Hours – for early risers and night owls, gym operating hours are critically important! Ideally your gym will provide 24/7 access so you’re free to go whenever you want.
11. Group fitness classes – for those looking to get lean, toned and fit, group classes are a great alternative to traditional weights and cardio equipment with the benefit of instruction and the companionship and camaraderie of classmates. A complete gym will have a variety of classes to choose from at times that are convenient for you.
12. Other amenities – personal training, nutritional support, child care, tanning, sauna, or specialized equipment for boxing, basketball, cross fitness, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, or obstacle course racing are available at better gyms. If you need any of those amenities or think you might want to try them in the future, put them on your list of must-haves.
Long list! I hope it provided you with some helpful pointers in selecting your next gym or deciding to stay at the one you’re currently at.