Strength Training 101: Finding the Right Gym

This is an article by Nerd Fitness Team Member Staci, as the third article in her series on strength training.  You can read the first installments here and here.

Picking a gym is a big decision.

You’ll be spending a lot of time there (hopefully), commuting there, and regularly interacting with staff and other gym members.

Your gym can be an important part of your life, and if you don’t find one that fits your needs, you could end up paying for something that you never use and feel like you’ve made a huge mistake.

Now remember, you don’t necessarily NEED a gym to strength train or to get in shape. There are many different options, like focusing on bodyweight only work (Steve’s favorite), sandbags, or making your own garage/basement gym.

However, for those of us who want to focus on barbell training and don’t have the space (or resources) to build our own gym, a gym membership ends up being the best option.

Today we’re going to talk about the ins and outs of finding the right gym for you, as well as how to pay as little as possible for it.

Figure out exactly what you want

Storm Trooper Barbell

Picking a gym isn’t as easy as running to the closest gym and signing up. There are a lot of things you need to take into consideration

The first thing you should do is make a list of what you’re looking for. I would be sure to make the distinction on your list between: “must haves” and a “would be nice to haves.”

Let’s cover some of the basic things to look for:

Equipment – We’ve already gone over equipment extensively here, so if you’re worried about being able to do all the exercises you want, check it out.  For basic barbell strength training, you’re going to want to look for the following:

  • Olympic Barbell
  • Power Rack (or at least a squat rack)
  • Dumbbells up to 100-150lbs (Heavier end if you want to focus on dumbbell training over barbell)
  • Pullup Bar/Dip Station
  • Flat Bench (preferably with racks for the bench press)

Classes – Some gyms offer classes that are free to their members, which can be anything from yoga, some sort of dance fitness, to kickboxing. I’ve found that classes are extremely helpful, especially for people who are just starting out, since you have to get there at a certain time and stay for the duration of the class. If classes are something you’ll be interested in, check out which classes are available for free, and be sure to factor this into your price considerations later.

Amenities – Some gyms offer awesome amenities which you can’t get by working out at home. Have kids? Some offer childcare so you can get a distraction free workout. Female and nervous about working out around guys? Some offer women’s only areas.  Short on time? Some gyms even let you drop off your dry cleaning.

Distance and feel – For me, a huge part of going to the gym is getting away; whenever I try to work out at home, my cat always wants to join in (and I know I’m not alone here). While having a 20lb weight on top of me is entertaining, I find it much easier to focus when I’m at the gym, headphones in, free from interruptions of my daily life. I’m sure if you have kids, it’s even harder. I know personally, I go crazy if I don’t go to the gym because it’s my “me time” away from everything else that’s going on. Is this gym’s distance from your work/home about right? Is this a place you can feel comfortable working out?

Training/Coaching – A lot of gyms have training packages or coaches available to help you out with form and help you develop a workout plan. If you’re looking for personalized attention when getting started, be sure to check out what coaches are available.

Rules – It may be a “must have” to be able to bring your kids with you to the gym. For someone like me, who only has cats, you may prefer that kids are not allowed entirely. I’ve also been to gyms that do not allow you to wear vibrams and do not allow you to deadlift – two things which I like to do very much. So even if the facility has everything I want and it’s in the right price – I would not be very happy there.

Also remember when making this list that a gym is a long term commitment – so look ahead.

  • If you’re focusing on dumbbell training, make sure the dumbbells go high enough – when I started out, 5lbs was freaking heavy, and now I’m regularly using dumbbells over 100lbs.
  • If you think there’s any chance you’ll want to eventually try out the olympic lifts, look for bumper plates and a gym that lets you drop the weight.
  • If you think you’ve always wanted to try kickboxing or yoga and plan to shell out separately for a class later, consider that now!

Of course, you can’t always plan ahead – I thought I’d never get on an elliptical again until I got injured – and was extremely happy I had one available to help with my rehab.

To help out, I’ve created an example list that you can copy and print out here.

Budget

Bank Job

I’ve seen gym memberships range anywhere from $9 a month to $365 a month. In the United States, a typical gym membership costs between $30 and $50, but it really depends on where you live and the amenities offered.

When looking at cost, remember that you get what you pay for. However, that doesn’t mean you need to go for the highest cost gym.

Don’t forget about the little things that could be the things that you end up using every day. For example, if you’re going to the gym on your lunch hour, a gym with towel service can be invaluable – since there is really no good place to hang a towel after a workout.

What exactly will you have to pay for, in addition to your daily gym routine?

  • Some gyms offer free classes, including yoga, which is a great addition to any strength routine.
  • Some offer events or trips at a discount. For example, they will organize a hiking trip where each member pays $20 for the day to go – which is not only a great deal but a great way to meet other people who are interested in fitness.
  • If you need to pay for an extra hour or two of child care every time you go to the gym, it may be worth an extra $20-30 a month to get an all inclusive gym.

Now remember, it costs you money to drive/metro/bus to the gym. If you have a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, you go to the gym 4 times a week, and the gym is 5 miles out of the way, you’ll end up spending an over $20 a month in gas just getting to the gym. So while a gym further away may seem cheaper, it may not actually be in the long run.

Location and Hours

Map

Consider options close to both home and work/school. While a gym membership close to work could be convenient, if you work an hour away from home, you definitely won’t be working out on the weekends.

If you’re planning on working out near the end of business, check to see if they have a “last person admitted” time. Some gyms, while they close at 11pm, won’t let you start working out after 10:15 or 10:30. If you’re a night owl, or work really odd hours, look into gyms that are open 24/7.

Think about all this in context to your own personal willpower meter.

  • If you go before work, do you wake up super tired and then get more excited to work out as you become less groggy? Or do you need to get to the gym immediately to prevent yourself from “delaying” and never going.
  • If you plan to go after work, are you one of those people who is exhausted when you leave work and then will skip the gym? Will you convince yourself that you can take the night off the longer you’re in the car?

Remember – it’s better to pay a little extra to pick a gym that you’ll actually use instead of paying a smaller price to on an unused gym membership.

At one point, I was paying $90 a month for a gym that I only swam at because it was only ¼ mile from my work, so I was able to swim every day at lunch. I could have paid $40 to go to a gym with a pool closer to home, but then I wouldn’t have been able to go at lunch – and wouldn’t have gone at all.

My favorite location for a gym is on your way to and home from work. That way, not only are you forced to drive by it twice a day, but you’re not spending any extra money on gas to get there.

Types of Gyms

Choice

Be sure to consider the many types of gyms, picking one that actually suits your needs.

Globo Gyms – Often big name franchises, these are typically where you’re going to find your $10 a month deals. For many, the only “perk” is tanning (which we don’t really consider a “perk”). While often super inexpensive and usually have offer good guest pass policies, globo gyms often offer less amenities, certain training is often banned, and they can suffer from a limited free weight section and inexperienced staff.

Health Clubs/Sports Clubs/YMCAs – These are often similar to globo gyms, but are franchises offering a higher level of service. You’ll find there are more amenities offered, such as towel service, child care, and TVs on some of the cardio machines. However, these gyms can be upwards of $100 a month, occasionally disallow types of training, and may have a limited free weights section.  However, if you’re looking for a pool or tennis courts, these may be your only option.

Note: Franchises (both small globo gyms and bigger health clubs) can be great if you travel a lot, as you can usually get a global membership that gives you access to all of their locations.

Locally Owned Gyms - One my favorite options that run in the $25-50 a month range. They often offer much better equipment and a better free weight selection. However, very often their amenities are not as nice as a health club and don’t have classes. But since the staff is usually the owner or someone close to the owner, they are usually much more helpful and knowledgable than the staff at a globo gym.

Weightlifting Club/Barbell Club/CrossFits - These are typically one room gyms with a pullup bar, barbells, dumbbells, and bumper plates. The membership usually includes coaching and classes, however, they’re usually more expensive (due to a coach being included) and only open a few very specific hours during the day. In these gyms, you’re also usually expected to follow the club’s programming and not your own.

College/University Gyms – Another favorite of mine, these gyms typically get you access to their full facility – pools, racquetball courts, classes, etc included. If you live near the college or university that you attended, you can often get a discount “alumni” membership. Don’t live near where you went to school? Many gyms will offer memberships to family members of alumni or staff, local “senior” memberships, or even just local resident memberships. These are also usually very inexpensive, but have to be paid upfront in full.

Test drive the gym

darth

So now you’ve figured out what type of gym you want to join, made your list of everything you need, and found gyms in the right location.

Before you sign up for a gym, ask for a guest pass. Some gyms give out free passes for a week or two, some you have to pay for (e.g. $20 for 20 days). Even if you have to pay for it, it’s totally worth it.

Make sure you go at the time of day that you’re planning on going regularly.  There’s nothing worse than finding a perfect gym, signing a big contract, and then discovering that the gym is so swamped with people after your work day that you can’t even get to the equipment you’d like to use.

During your guest visits there are lots of things to look for:

Is the equipment in good working order? Is there enough equipment for everyone or are you fighting for a bench?

What’s the general vibe of the gym? Does it seem clean?

If you’re going before work, are there enough showers available? Did you have to wait to use one?

It’s also never a bad idea to talk to the other members and ask them what they like and dislike about the gym.  You can also read reviews online on sites like Yelp or Google, but remember that people are more likely to complain than compliment, so take all online reviews with a grain of salt.

Contracts

Lego words

One of the big reasons many people don’t want to sign up for a gym is because they don’t want to sign up for a contract! However, if you read everything and know exactly what you’re signing, a contract isn’t all that bad.

Specific Items to look for in a contract:

  • An out clause, in case you move, lose your job, etc. Often you can get out of a contract if you move a certain number of miles from the club without a fee, but usually any other item requires an “early termination fee” to get out of your contract.
  • Can you freeze your contract if you go out of town or are on vacation?
  • What happens if the club goes out of business?
  • Does the membership renew automatically?

Always get everything the sales person promises you in writing (and remember that most of the time they are working on commission). I’d also suggest that you get a copy of the contract and take it home with you to read before you sign it. If they won’t let you do that, that’s a bad sign.

Remember, if the sales person is overly pushy, or you don’t feel comfortable for any reason, walk out.

Also, while it’s not easy, many states have a law that states that you can get out of a contract for a health club within the first day or two of signing it, so if you sign up and get home and find something terrible in the contract, keep that in mind.

Now, for costs, gym contracts often include a few different things:

  1. Activation Fee - This is a one time fee required to join the gym
  2. Monthly Cost - A fee that you will be charged monthly
  3. Maintenance Fee - Usually a yearly fee. Some gyms have a clause that says: “We don’t have one now, but we could at any point, without telling you, add one” (make sure to read this clause carefully if it is in there).

Take a look on the website before you go in to see if they’re offering any deals, but always ask the sales person about deals first (they could be offering a better deal in person).  I also always like to google “name of gym deals” and similar items to see if any recent ads show up, as well as check on sites like Groupon and Living Social.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate, they’re often given a range of prices that they can sell a membership at, with a higher commission rate at the most expensive one.  The worst thing they can do is say no.

You can also often get the gym to waive the activation fee - While they will tell you they can’t, 99% of the time they are lying or they just personally don’t have the authorization to do it. Ask for someone who can, and don’t be afraid to walk out when they say no. Since membership sales employees typically work on commission, they might give you a call the next day or two with a better deal if one becomes available.

Some gyms will offer a better rate if you pay for a year up front, so consider it if that’s an option financially.

Most employers and health insurances offer discounts with specific gyms or rebates for joining a gym, so make sure to check with them as well.

Stay focused

Dog Treadmill

Gyms have a huge variety of equipment, so it may beat trying to workout at home if you want to try some new things.

If you train with dumbbells, you don’t need to keep buying larger dumbbells as you get stronger, and you’ll never run out of weight plates if you focus on barbell training.  Plus, working out around other people can be motivating to push yourself harder.

There are cons to joining a gym as well.  These include the cost, having to work out around people you don’t know, waiting for equipment if you go during busy hours, and driving/riding there.

Remember, you don’t need to join a gym to strength train or get healthy.  You can always stick to bodyweight routines (with even more workout plans in the Rebel Strength Guide), buy a basic barbell or dumbbell set, or focus on other equipment such as sandbags or kettlebells.

And even when the weather gets bad, you can always walk (to Mordor!) or sprint outside for free.

I know personally, my time at the gym is my “me time” away from everything else going on in my life.  It’s my time to relax and focus on myself, so I wouldn’t trade having the option of a gym for anything.

Finding a new gym can definitely be overwhelming, but it can definitely be one of the best fitness decisions you make. To help out, I’ve created a “New Gym Interview” document that sums up a bunch of the questions in the sections above.  It can be found here.  It’s a Google Doc, so just go to File → Make a copy, and you can whatever other questions you can think of.

What other questions do you have about gyms?

-Staci

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photo source: outdoor gym, storm trooper barbell, dog, lego words, bank job, map, darth, choice

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  • oivw

    “now I’m regularly using dumbbells over 100lbs.”

    In which exercises? For rows and even seated shoulder presses(after a few months of training) that is nothing special. For lateral raises, that’s a lot of weight!

  • PaulKalra

    I recently started doing bodyweight exercises at home, and I will probably never belong to a gym again. I am getting much better workouts in the comfort of my own home. This is shocking to me, because I have belonged to gyms for years and years and operated under the misconception that large muscles cannot be built with bodyweight only.

  • http://www.jessydiamond.com/ Jessy

    I renewed my yearly subscription to the gym this weekend. We have two power racks, one squat rack and two bench racks. Plus, it’s a 15 minute walk from where I live. Can’t get any better than this!

    By the way, I started my strength training this morning! Squats, overhand presses and deadlifts.

  • http://twitter.com/fatdemolisher Hassan

    my 2 rules for joining a gym. #1 no initiation fee & #2 walking distance. I’m not driving after 45 mins one way commute.

  • staciardison

    Yup, look at gymnasts – you can definitely get amazing workouts without the use of any weight at all.

  • staciardison

    15 minute walk = PERFECT warm up! :)

  • staciardison

    Just to clarify – wasn’t trying to boast there – just saying I never thought when I started I would ever need a dumbbell over maybe 20lbs, so I wouldn’t have even thought to ask how high the dumbbells go to.

    I would love to one day do shoulder presses with 100lb dumbbells, but as a 150lb woman, I think that might take me more than a few months of training :)

  • http://www.jessydiamond.com/ Jessy

    It was freezing outside this morning, I wasn’t feeling warm at all. But in the summer, it is indeed perfect!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.d.duncan Mike Duncan

    Depends on your goal. If you just want endurance and decent strength that’ll work great but if you want brute strength this won’t work. I train like a football player, brute, explosive strength but not as much longevity as a gymnast might have. I couldn’t do that if I couldn’t squat and deadlift with some serious weight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

    100 lbs per hand for shoulder press, for reps, isn’t a lot of weight?? In what world?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

    I can’t do gyms; I tried. The commute, the waiting for equipment, all that crap…what should have been a simple 40-60 minute routine wound up taking 2 hours out of my day. The only gym close is a Planet Fitness (Gag) so I wound up just buying a power cage and some weights. I know some folks love gyms but man…

  • Rustie Waters

    Info on how to choose a gym and get services needed to get in shape. “Lots of good infor” to help keep you from wasting your money. This article is a good guide for someone wishing to join a gym.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hugh.kerrigan Hugh Kerrigan

    I love having the gym to go to. It gives me a clear mindset of “I’m here to work out”. It’s all too easy to procrastinate or be distracted when working out at home.
    Only problem is it’s a “leisure centre” and costs €56 per month :-(
    (but is the only option within an hour’s drive)

  • Birdie737

    Love, love, love my local YMCA. I live in Canada, so I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but the YMCA gives reduced rates to people who can’t afford regular rates, has free programs for kids that include lots of physical activity, as well as free year-round swimming lessons for the kids. Plus, I commute to work so I use two different YMCAs. When I’m at work all day, there’s a YMCA practically in our parking lot, and when I’m at home, we have a YMCA two minutes away. My kids force me to go because they love it so much, and when we go out West to visit family, we go to the YMCA there because you can use your membership at any YMCA in Canada (and at most US sites too, I think). Plus, there’s no contract (I had a bad contract experience when I was in my twenties that scared me off other gyms).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=551574178 Anna Sobel

    man, I’m trying to find a gym right now for when I move into my apartment-it’s proving problematic. I can’t find any under 150 bucks for membership in the 20 minute radius!

  • Oread

    I also want to share my YMCA love. We have a fantastic one nearby, with 2 pools, great remodeled locker rooms, tons of classes, and a really nice childcare facility with longer hours than other gyms I have used (like 24 Hour Fitness). We get a reduced rate (military family) for $44/month that includes childcare! I have tried several other gyms before and hands down this one is my favorite by far. Like you said, what people want and need in a gym varies a lot, but I also find my particular local YMCA to be bounds above the other chains and most of the local ones too.

  • Paige!

    I go to Anytime Fitness and I love it, I need a 24/7 hour gym. I do like YMCA too, and used to have a membership there when I didn’t have as much money, and they did a low-income membership for me so it was much cheaper, and I loved all of the classes and the sauna. Now I prefer Anytime Fitness and working out late at night, the one I go to recently moved into a bigger building so now they have been able to do classes — not as many as the YMCA and still no sauna there, but I still love it

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Leonardo-Werlang/1298794174 Leonardo Werlang

    My “home gym” consists of some door bars, which i can turn into stall bars by putting one over the other (large door, almost allows me to do archer pullups), a pair of gymnastics rings and a high place to hang them, home-made parallettes and a feel weight plates I use to do weighted pullups/pistols/whatevercomestomind. It works wonders and was almost for free…!

    I like the idea of barbell training though. But the only places i can have access to decent equipment are way too expensive and I still have a looong way to go with bodyweight/gymnastics/calisthenics

  • http://twitter.com/pyth2 pyth151

    A gym didn’t allow you to wear vibrams…or deadlift? I just….why!? What sensible reason could they possibly give for not allowing that?

  • http://twitter.com/LeanMuscleMatt Fit Desk Jockey

    Hey Staci,

    Those are some great tips. The gym that I love is a privately owned gym that still allows chalk (a dying breed). but I’ve heard people (those who prefer the spa-type) refer to it as a “meat head” gym. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

    I always tell people to checkout the bathrooms. Are they clean? Stocked? If there’s a toilet that appears to have been out of service since the Clinton administration, then I can bet that you’ll be waiting awhile should your favorite piece of equipment ever go down. :)

    Also, watch how the trainers train. Sometimes some of them like to monopolize the space, which leaves you waiting or moving on to another lift that you really didn’t want to do.

    Best wishes,

    -Matt

  • Guest

    Great read as always, Staci.

    One thing worth mentioning is that some community gyms will offer reduced price memberships to people who are tight financially. My favourite gym I’ve worked in so far was a YMCA that fits this category. They had a free weight area, allowed chalk, had a regular friendly crew (including some of the personal trainers) that knew how to squat and deadlift properly, and the gym was heavily supported by the local business community and donations, so gym memberships were very reasonable even at regular price.

    One thing I would always recommend when looking for a gym is functionality over aesthetics.(That’s good advice for life in general, really.) Yeah, sure, it may be great they are only the second gym in North America to have the new-fangled superwhiz machine, but are you going to use it? Will you use this machine enough that it is worth it that the maintenance and upkeep is included in your membership? Barbells and dumbbells are really cheap and if treated properly last a long time. Gyms that have basic equipment will have lower overhead.

  • Guest

    I think the point is that as a beginner you don’t really know what you want and what you are capable of doing. A gym allows you to “try it out” before you commit to purchasing your own equipment. Plus, there’s always the benefit that that day you *really* don’t feel like doing barbell squats you can walk over to the dumbbells and do lunges instead. That’s not a luxury you usually have when you are working out at home.

  • JoRocka

    LOL too much time spent on equipment!!!

    I go to a big box gym- falls between Staci’s Globo/Franchise by set (no towel service :( ) and I actually like it. We have 3 squat racks- and 3 smith machines- oodles of benching- racks and lots of free weights- now… the 10-30 pounders get snapped up quickly and sometimes you have to wait- but I make do with 10 or 25 lb plate weights no issue. I have never spent 2 hours doing a 40 minute routine. Big gyms aren’t so bad- as long as they aren’t planet fatness.

  • Logan B

    Great Article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

    there’s two real ish gyms in my area but they’re both just too crowded unless you go at 5am (and with a newborn, no way in hell am I doing that). Zach’s has 2 squat racks but there’s the proverbial curl bros in them at all times, and there’s only 2-3 flat benches you can bench on.

  • Alex Kelley

    No need for a gym. Walk/run outside, pushups, squats, stretching and invest in a pullup bar and kettlebell.

  • http://shockingfit.com/ Mario

    Nice article, I find it insanely difficult to find a decent hardcore gym while travelling. Most of the gyms offer aerobic types of equipment and the dumbbells hardly ever go above 15 kg.

    Anyway great tips, in my opinion joining the right gym is an underestimated factor in progress that most guys don’t even think about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

    Our local Y’s have good people but they’re cramped as heck and low on equipment :(

  • http://twitter.com/ANerdAtLarge A Nerd At Large

    Great post, Staci! Joining a gym was a major breakthrough for me. I had equipment at home but there were too many distractions and I never really got into any kind of groove with working out at home. My gym is 15 mins walk from home and on my way home from work, which is key. It is never so busy that I have to wait for equipment. They also let me put my membership on hold while I’m travelling, so I’m not paying as much when I’m not around to use the gym. Going to the gym is as much a mental health break from my regular life as it is a physical workout.

  • rachel

    Great article with full details. very helpful. I recently came cross to another article which explained in detail about hiring person trainer in http://www.bidsbypros.com blog on health and wellness. It is important to find a gym that fits the need of the individual and for that as an individual we have so first know what do we expect from the gym and what do we want to achieve. Thanks for this brilliant piece.

  • Takekawa

    This help me to have good image about gym and starting to choose the best gym for my condition. On this day maybe hard to find the great between every gym, but we could see the best from their management and facilities.

    http://zenerexdrug.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100005361636263 Facebook User

    I think the location is one of the main factors
    that made me change gyms. It needs to be a special gym if your commuting is
    taking longer than your work out.

    Nick

  • Jill

    That’s an owe some full guide to start gym.
    Thanks,

    bootcamp nottingham

  • Peter Tremayne

    My main gripe with my local gym is that they only have those octagonal weights, which makes doing deadlifts or cleans more difficult, because they move out of line when you put them down.

    If this is important to you too, find a gym that has circular weights.

    Peter

  • http://twitter.com/TommyOlssonforu Tommy Olsson

    Good content in the post,very informative

  • http://www.facebook.com/carl.textor Carl Textor

    I can attest to the fact that the In-Shape gyms in the part of california where I live are excellent. any kind of equipment you can imagine, they have their, whether it’s a machine (not my style) or freeweights and barbells, they have a lot. I’ve been using them for a while now and they’re a chain, so I can go in my town or the next town over, wherever I happen to be at the moment. and it’s reasonably priced for me. $100/mo for a family of 4 to go to any in-shape gym anywhere. not bad as long as you don’t move soon.

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  • please answer

    where can i find the author of this blog ????????????

  • JeremyDB

    I’m lucky. I can use the campus rec center here which is very well equipped and I can go on my lunch hour. The only down side is that the vast majority of the patrons are college students in ridiculously good shape and about 15-20 years younger than me. It can be a smidge discouraging sometimes, but I’m also becoming less concerned about what others think as I get older so I guess it balances out.