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Weight for It

Before signing up for a gym membership, consider the following tips.

John Tranchina
December 28, 2018

The first thing to consider when choosing a gym is determining what your goals are.

Are you starting from scratch and just looking to lose some weight and establish a healthier lifestyle? Are you an athlete trying to add muscle, get stronger and/or sculpt a more buff bod? Are you in decent shape and just trying to maintain your current level of fitness? The answers to those questions will lead you to different destinations.

By starting with the end result in mind, you can focus your search and find the best option that fits your needs, because there are many different variations out there that can make the selection process a bit overwhelming if you haven’t thought out that part of it first.

Before committing to joining a gym, though, you should definitely go check it out in person, preferably when you normally would go exercise. That way you can view the space, see how crowded it gets during your usual workout time, get a sense of the other customers, experience the atmosphere and determine if you can see yourself spending all that time there.

When visiting a prospective gym, be prepared with a list of things to look for, such as the features you plan to utilize, and questions to ask.

“You’re paying a monthly fee to use the facility. How much value are you getting for what you’re paying?” says Chris Bumpers, a local personal trainer who has worked at many different gyms. “Most gyms will actually give you a free trial. Some gyms will have one free day, and some will let you try it free for a week. You could probably bang out an extra month of free workouts just by trying out different local gyms. Obviously, part of going for the free trial is to listen to their spiel, and then you weigh, ‘What does this one have, what does it not have, and what’s the price associated with it?’”

Some things to consider during the selection process:

Traditional gym 
or specialized
When determining your fitness goals, are you interested in intense, specialized workouts like CrossFit training or Revved Fitness, where there is more interactive instruction and feedback, or do you want a more traditional gym where you can do your own weightlifting and cardio machines (treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical trainer, StairMaster, etc.)?

Guided spinning or yoga classes have specific schedules, so if you are interested in attending them, find out if the gym offers them, if the classes are during times that are convenient for you, and how much extra they cost, if anything.

Whether you’re interested in using the cardio options, weight machines, free weights, or whatever, make sure the gym has a good mix of the equipment that you plan on using and that there are enough of them so you won’t be waiting in a line.

“I would want to know how high the dumbbells go,” said Bumpers, who includes a lot of weightlifting in his own workouts. “At my gym, the dumbbells go up to 200 pounds. Some gyms only go up to 60 or 80 pounds sometimes, and for me, that won’t cut it. One of the other things to look for is how many dumbbell stations there are. One of the problems that many gyms have is that everybody’s trying to use dumbbells in the same exact spot and it gets cluttered. I would also look for areas to do free weights. I’d make sure there are squat racks, make sure there is an area to do dead lifts and stuff like that.”

While just about every gym has a number of different cardio options, weight machines that target every part of the body and various free weights, many gyms include extra features that might or might not appeal to you.

Some gyms have a pool, while others have a basketball court, a racquetball court, even an indoor track for running. A number of gyms have on-site child care, while some have their own juice bar with various healthy drinks or protein shakes. Some even have a cardio movie room, where you run the treadmill or ride the recumbent bike in the dark while a movie plays on a big screen at the front of the room. Does the gym have showers that you might use after a workout?

Some of these additional attractions might require a higher level of membership.

“For the extra features, the way to view that is, if you are planning on using those things, it’s cool if it’s built into the price, but if you’re not, you might want to find another gym that doesn’t have those things so the price would be lower,” Bumpers said.

Will you want the guidance and support of a personal trainer?
This can also be an important factor, because some gyms have personal trainers available (usually for an added fee but not always) to guide and push you, and to help you craft your workout plan, and some of them have better credentials than others. If this is something you are seeking, research this aspect first.

Gym hours
Different gyms and gym membership packages have specific hours when the place is available for use, so that is another consideration. If you will be hitting the gym before work and the place opens too late for you to get a workout in, then obviously, you need to keep looking. Or if you have to pay extra for access during off-peak hours, is it worth it?

Plus, if there are additional features at the gym you’re interested in, such as a pool or sauna, be sure to check if they have more limited availability hours. For example, it’s unlikely that a 24-hour gym will also offer child care at 5 a.m.

Spot check
Keep an eye out for dust or dirty surfaces. If the owners don’t keep the place clean, the exercise equipment could be in disrepair, too.

The other customers
When you visit a gym, discreetly check out the other customers and determine if the atmosphere is one you feel comfortable in. If everyone is really intense and buff and it’s an intimidating, potentially judgmental environment, maybe that’s not the right fit for you. Or if that is what you like and that’s not what you see, then again, maybe you should keep looking. It’s important to feel at ease and to be in a setting that will keep you coming back.

The social scene
Try to get a sense of the gym’s clientele. If you go often enough, the gym can become a great social outlet, so choose a place frequented by the type of people you might enjoy getting to know. Some gyms cater to the young, single crowd, others to families. That’s why group fitness programs are so successful. You’re there with friends and meet new people. And don’t necessarily dismiss a gym popular among co-workers. Chatting up your boss during a spinning class might improve your office relationship.

Are there TVs or music 
for distractions
If you’re someone who needs to be distracted when exercising, you might be interested in seeing if there are TVs that you can watch while on the treadmill, or if there is music playing. See where the TVs are located in relation to the equipment that you’ll be using and if you can link up your earbuds to the sound. While most people bring their own music to listen to, this might be another consideration for you, so keep an eye out for that.

The great outdoors
Hate the thought of working out with a ceiling over your head, but can’t get motivated to go for a solo run? You’re not alone. That’s why outdoor group exercise classes are becoming increasingly popular.

Convenience matters. Be realistic about how far you’re willing to drive to the gym. If you’re more likely to exercise right after work, consider finding a gym near your office or workplace. Otherwise, stick closer to home. It’s amazing how much of a burden driving an extra five minutes can feel like over time.

Of course, perhaps the biggest consideration when choosing a gym is how much a membership costs. How much do you have to pay up front and how much per month? Are there options to upgrade (or downgrade) your membership when necessary? Are the extra options you like included, or do they require another level of membership? It’s not always about the cheapest options, and most of the time you get what you pay for.

Ultimately, though, the best gym membership is the one you’ll use — so if you’re torn between a budget gym that never really makes you feel comfortable or a pricier (but still affordable) gym that inspires you to keep coming back, then pick the one you’re most likely to stick with. Even a cheap gym membership isn’t worth much if you never use it.
Online information

As more people strive to achieve healthy lifestyles in addition to rock-hard abs, gyms are taking notice and launching blogs with recipes, weight-loss tips and workout plans. Such online perks can add value to a gym membership. Gym hunters should consider whether membership comes with post-workout engagement opportunities.

Read the fine print
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 include:

  • An out clause, in case you move, lose your job or something else. Often you can get out of a contract without a fee if you move a certain number of miles from the club, but usually any other reason 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. Get a copy of the contract and take it home to read before you sign. If they won’t let you do that, that’s a bad sign. Remember, if the salesperson is overly pushy, or you don’t feel comfortable for any reason, walk out.