What to look for in a gym (it's not perks)

Curious about what to look for a in a gym membership? Find out from a personal trainer. You'll want to feel helped by most of the staff you encounter and get solid answers to some key questions.

Woman in black exercise pants smiling while holding exercise equipment

Imagine this…

You're sitting around talking with some friends and you hear one of your friends talking about how much better she feels since she started working out.

It's the holiday season and you're thinking about all those specials that gyms offer this time of year.

The next morning, you think back to that conversation. You pull out your phone during a break at work and start googling things like "gym near me", "which gym should I join?" and "how much does a personal trainer cost? (answer to that one here)".

There are so many options and some of them have conflicting google reviews:

  • Place 1:
    • "I found the sales tactics very unprofessional and didn't appreciate the comments made about me to staff under your breath."
    • "Staff is very friendly, and owner is very knowledgeable."
  • Place 2:
    • "Sure would like someone to clean the place. Do they even look in the corners?"
    • "Clean and great classes."

You feel overwhelmed so you just fill out a contact form for the first place on the list and get back to work.

Thankfully, someone gets back to you by the end of the day! You set up an appointment to stop by tomorrow.

Nervously you hang up the phone. How do you know what to look for in a gym?

You haven't had a membership in years but you've heard some nightmare stories. To your surprise, there aren't many bros as you expect when you arrive for your appointment and walk around the place on a tour.

The salesperson tells you that you're in luck, your first month will be free if you sign up now.

What are some of the other things that you should be on the lookout for?

As a personal trainer with a private studio, I often help clients build their confidence up to the point that they want to start training on their own. I have a process for determining what would make a good gym for people who find gyms intimidating and uncomfortable.

First, you need to think counter to the standard questions you might ask when looking for a gym or trainer (we'll cover those too).

Let's get into it...

How do you judge a gym? (what makes you uneasy)

The best gym in Columbia, Missouri might be Wilson's Fitness on Forum - but that depends on what you're looking for.

If it's a CrossFit that's CrossFit Fringe. A cardio-based option? Rho Engine Room. Cheap? Planet Fitness.

For me, I wanted a gym near me (both my home and office), that fit my nontraditional schedule and had a pool (I hope to learn how to swim someday soonish). Wilson's fitness membership cost varies based on when you joined.

Most of my clients choose gyms based on their boundaries which might include:

  • Diet, supplement, and weight loss "challenge" talk by staff
  • Feeling inappropriately looked at
  • Crowded spaces near the equipment they want to use
  • Open locker rooms without private spaces to change in

Fortunately, most new gyms have picked up on this and built their spaces accordingly. A recent story from NPR's Planet Money on gym architecture detailed how gyms "rely on consumer psychology to get you excited enough that you'll sign up for a gym membership but not so excited that you'll get up an hour early to do some crunches before work... 'You walk in, and it feels like a store. It doesn't feel like your traditional health club. You really don't see any equipment."

If you're one of the fortunate who manages to keep yourself motivated to work out (try using science), you can find a place to call home for a fraction of the cost of buying equipment.

What do most people look for in a gym?

Most people look for these standard items at the gym:

  1. Hours that make sense for your schedule (don't forget to ask about holidays).
  2. A location that is easily accessible from work or home.
  3. A cost that matches up with your budget (more on that below)
  4. Cleanliness (in workout areas and bathrooms) - free of dust, mold, and smells.
  5. Equipment that matches up with the type of workouts you want to do.
  6. Showers - In case you want to exercise before (or somehow during) the work day.
  7. Amenities - Do they have scales? Punching bags? A sauna? Pool? Hot tub? Massage chair? Tanning beds? Private locker rooms?
  8. Parking - A huge problem if you live in a major city.
  9. Classes - Are these free or an extra fee? Do they offer class options you like?
  10. Childcare - Most gyms don't have daycare but make sure to check capacity and hours if they do.
  11. Personal training - Some gyms don't have the staff for it. You may have to find a personal trainer who's comfortable traveling.
  12. Guest passes - Some offer a special rate or allow you to bring a friend along.

Do you need a gym membership to go to a gym?

Yes as a regular member but no if you're looking to try a gym out for a day (or a week). Most gyms offer day passes and some offer a week for free if you're looking to see if the place is a good fit for you. Be sure to see if you can visit during times that you'll be training. Trials are a normal thing that most people don't know is an option (but now you do).

After a trial, you'll need to sign up for regular membership.

Gyms price memberships differently but the most common options include:

  • Day passes - for those visiting from out of town or looking to try the place out.
  • An annual rate (paid in full)
  • Month-to-month memberships

Some gyms offer student rates, senior discounts, family memberships, public servant rates, and special sign-up discounts where they waive initiation fees. Read the terms and conditions before you sign on to a long agreement. What will it cost you to cancel? Can you pause your agreement?

See if you can negotiate and find more favorable terms. A good amount to pay for a gym membership is something that you can afford indefinitely.

Questions people also ask while looking for a gym:

(Some of these questions are for you to ask yourself)

  • If the gym has bands or pads for hip thrusting, are they replaced regularly or do they seem like they're falling apart?
  • Is there an age restriction? Some require a guardian or consenting adult to be present at all times or when signing up for a membership.
  • Do you have an old back injury that causes you to occasionally need to ditch heavy back squats for a leg press?
  • (If it's hot or cold) Does the place have working air conditioning, heat, and humidifiers? Trust me - you'll feel it if they don't.
  • Does personal training reserve equipment? You might need to find alternatives.
  • Do trainers approach normal members during their workouts? (which could be good if you need help)

Does the gym have a dress code? You may want to perform barefoot deadlifts because you heard that it'll help you learn how to perform a single-leg Romanian deadlift. Some gyms have special areas where you can take your shoes off.

What should a beginner focus on at the gym?

Beginners should focus on the basics of strength training and aim to progress their workouts over time.

That means going to the gym:

  • At least twice per to perform a full body routine (squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, and carrying).
  • Aiming for a workout that fits in 45 minutes to an hour.
  • Balancing strength, mobility, and cardio.

It should take you about 1-3 months to get a solid routine down and see some progress. You might opt to hire a personal trainer for your first 3 months (or you can just follow a workout routine like these two for Planet Fitness).

If you feel like you're ready to start working out find the "best gym in (your town)" by following some of the advice in this article.

One thing you won't find out until you've joined is what the other members are like. If you work out pretty often, you might find yourself spending more time with your gym community than you see your family. Be sure that you're comfortable showing up consistently in whatever space you choose.

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.