The Breaking Muscle Rules for Finding the Right Gym
Entering a gym shouldn’t be the start of a journey through Dante’s Inferno. The first thing you need to understand is, no matter who you are, you are the one paying the bills. Take your time, explore, ask questions, and stand firm. Although you’re bound to come across the hard sell, our rules will make sure you stay on track and end up at a gym you’ll love.
#1: Brands Are Meaningless
There are thousands of terrific local gyms out there. Don’t be put off if one does not have a brand name. XYZ Strength and Conditioning may do a much better job than the brand-name place down the street. Orange Theory, Zumba, CrossFit, and Jazzercise are just marketing tools for companies with big budgets. Brands don’t guarantee you anything in terms of quality or compatibility with your goals and needs.
No fitness brand we know of currently guarantees or certifies their gyms to any meaningful standards. And even if they did, there’s no guarantee they are doing better than the local place down the street. Even within a brand or chain, there can be significant variation. This is especially evident in the CrossFit community, where the quality and program content can vary greatly from location to location. Follow the useful criteria below and ignore whether or not there’s a brand name on the door.
#2: You Need the Big Three
We strongly recommend you look for a gym and program addresses these three areas for your overall health:
You need strength training in your program. The days of worrying about “bulking up” are over, and the huge benefits of strength training for health, longevity, and better quality of life are irrefutable. Make sure strength training is part of any program you choose.
“You can’t out-train a bad diet” is a common truism among coaches in the fitness community. You must understand your nutritional needs and align these with your fitness goals. A good coach can be invaluable in helping you navigate the bewildering world of nutrition and discover what’s right for you. Make sure you ask about nutrition when you shop for a gym and coach.
Rest and Recovery
Just as you have to maintain a race car between races, you have to take care of your body between workouts. Make sure your program and coach both take this into consideration. Ask about how the program addresses recovery and rest.
#3: Convenience Is King
Why is convenience king when selecting a gym? For many of you, your biggest challenge will not be in the gym – it’ll be in getting to the gym. That little devil on your shoulder will use every possible objection to derail you, so a convenient location is an objection already overcome. Issues like parking and the gym’s neighborhood are also important.
There may be a stellar gym for you right around the corner. Local gyms, neighborhood gyms, and garage gyms are often excellent places to get fit. We believe strongly in small gyms because they are not bound to any brand or system and because the owner usually has a deep personal investment in coaching and managing the gym. Without corporate overlords or brand expectations, small gyms are free to use any methodology, program, or equipment that benefits you and their community. In addition, these smaller gyms are not only able to give you more personalized attention, they may also provide a greater value than a gym with lots of overhead and franchise-related expenses.
#4: A Dirty Bathroom Is a Deal Breaker
(You thought we might be kidding about this? No way.)
First impressions matter! Does the place look clean and organized? Think about actually working out there. For example, if you’ll be asked to get on the floor, you want to make sure it’s been cleaned between classes. If the floor has not been cleaned, you’ll be lying in someone else’s sweat and other fluids. Look the place over carefully. The equipment should look maintained and organized, the floor swept and clean (unless during or right after a class), and so on.
The first thing you need to understand is you are the one paying the bills.
Always check the bathroom! One of the most telling places in any gym, the bathroom doesn’t need to be awe-inspiring, but it must be clean and well-stocked. If you find the bathroom gross or unusable, immediately go elsewhere. Any gym that can’t be bothered to keep a clean bathroom simply does not care enough about its customers. A bad bathroom is a deal breaker.
#5: Check Out the Program and the Programming
“Programming” is the word used to describe the way workouts and movements are chosen, and the sequence in which they are presented. It’s the plan for what everyone will be doing each day. On the other hand, the “program” may refer to the overall methodology or philosophy of the gym or their approach to training. For example, a strength and conditioning program may buy their daily programming from someone online.
To make the most of the time, money, and energy you’re going to spend on exercise, choose a program that tracks and diagnoses your progress. Beware any “workout” program that does not record your efforts and accomplishments.
Programming: The Plan for Day-to-Day
Some gyms buy programming from other gyms or from online vendors. We consider this a strike against the gym because only the owner and the gym’s other coaches know their community well enough to do good programming that is tailored to their community. Buying programming also suggests that the folks in charge may not be plugged into what is happening in their gym, or that they lack the skills to do good programming.
We consider it an essential capability for coaches to be able to do good programming. Frankly, a coach who cannot create good programming is likely not a very good coach.
The Program – The Overall Approach to Fitness
Is there an assessment or “on ramp”?
All good programs start with some kind of assessment. If there is one, be sure to ask about it in detail, so you can compare it with that of other gyms. If there is no formal assessment, that’s a strike against the gym.
Also find out how they get new people started. Are you thrown right into class with experienced folks, or is there some kind of introductory program (often called “Fundamentals” or “Onramp”)? Learn all you can in order to compare. If there’s no introductory program, that’s another strike.
Are there levels?
Ask if there is a system for measuring progress and determining the fitness levels of the gym’s members. Consider what it takes to get to each level and if these criteria are in line with what you want out of a program.
Also look at the class schedule and see if classes are divided into levels, such as beginner and advanced. Levels are a sign that they understand the needs of members at different levels of fitness and experience. Plus, it’s more fun and creates better camaraderie when you work out with people like you. If you are just starting out, it’s nice to be with other beginners. If you are advanced, it’s great to have some people to compete with.
What’s the focus?
You are likely to hear that the program is intended to address multiple aspects of fitness. But the reality is most gyms build their programs around an area of emphasis. For example, some mainly aim to get people ready for competitions, while others prioritize strength or endurance. Some simply offer everyday fitness for everyday folks, which is not a good choice if you want to compete. Be sure to ask what the main thrust of the program is, and make sure it aligns with your needs and goals.
The best plan is to be thorough in evaluating all your options.
Rule #6: Watch a Class
You must watch a class! When you watch, look for the following:
Is the coach actually coaching? Make sure the coach is keeping an eye on everyone and is attentive at all times. If you see a coach texting or chit-chatting while a class is working out, that’s a very bad sign. Remember, in a coached program, you pay for coaching. If they’re not going to coach you, why wouldn’t you save a ton of money and just go to a chain gym and work out unsupervised?
Look for people like you. Do you see people who have similar needs, who are about your age, or who seem to be at the same fitness level as you? While not a deal breaker, if everything else is equal, you should give preference to someplace where there are people like you. You are more likely to fit in and to stick with it, and the coaches are more likely to understand your goals and needs. Every gym has a vibe and a community, and no gym can serve every demographic equally well. Look for a place that looks like you’ll fit in.
Punctuality. Do they start and end on time? When you pay for membership and take time from your daily business for exercise, you don’t want to have your time wasted.
Warm up and cool down. Give preference to places that have this structure to their classes. If the coach jumps right into a workout, then walks away at the end of class, look elsewhere.
#7: It Won’t Be Free
Price is a difficult matter, and gym costs vary greatly by region. We recommend that you be frugal, but not stingy. What’s that mean? Well, think of it this way: Would you want to own the very cheapest car you can find, or the best car you can afford? With a gym membership, it’s not always best to shop on price alone. On the other hand, you have to shop, and you have to evaluate each facility and coach to make sure you get what’s right for you and for your budget.
Coached Versus On-Your-Own: Which is Right for You?
The biggest consideration is whether you can go to a low-cost, chain gym and reach your goals, or if you need a coached program.
You should probably seek out a coached program. But this is especially true if you are relatively new to exercise, are de-conditioned, or if you have specific goals (e.g., fit in a wedding dress, compete in your first triathlon). Also seek out a coached program if you have a condition or injury or anything that may require some modification of the program. This includes a wide range of things, from missing or artificial limbs to things like diabetes and pregnancy. Some high-level athletes and very experienced exercise enthusiasts may not need a coached fitness program. But, special circumstances aside, almost everyone will benefit greatly from having a coach. Being left to your own devices in sea of equipment is rarely a good start.
For a coached program, you should expect to pay more than a membership at a chain gym.
Regardless which way you go, when you look at pricing, consider these points:
Compare the right rate. Look at each gym’s standard pricing, not at short-term “specials” or “introductory discounts.” And compare the programs and facilities they offer. You are going to compare overall value, not just today’s price. A gym that’s a little more expensive may offer a much better value for you and your specific needs and goals. Once you choose your gym, then definitely ask about discounts or special offers. But don’t be lured in by temporary or one-time discounts.
Compare terms. Some gyms only allow you to work out so many days each week or month while others have unlimited plans. Make sure you know what you are paying for. Also be wary of sign-up fees, cancelation fees, and other charges. Be sure to get a total cost.
Standard discounts. Many gyms offer standard discounts for military, law enforcement, firemen and paramedics, students, teachers, and so on. Be sure to review all discounts to see if any apply to you.
By the way, if a gym doesn’t post prices on their website, cross them off the list. Or, at least put them at the bottom of your list. Not posting prices is a lame ploy intended to force you to come into the facility, where they will try to hard-sell you into signing up. Reputable gyms are up front about their pricing. The only ones who can’t post their pricing are those that make it up on the spot, by checking out your clothes and the car you drive to guess how much you might be willing to pay.
#8: Meet the Coach
First, if the person who will be coaching you only has a Level One of anything, you may be able to do better. While it’s no guarantee, a more advanced certification is often a sign that the person is more serious, more dedicated, and more experienced.
You should know:
- Most systems award levels to their coaches. CrossFit, for example, has four levels, and Level One only addresses coaching individuals, one-on-one; there’s nothing about coaching groups. But CrossFit Level Two is all about group instruction; coaches certified at this level have passed a standardized critique for safely and effectively coaching a class. In general, the higher the level, the more thoroughly the coach has been evaluated and tested.
- There are hundreds of certifications available, and quality varies greatly. The better ones involve testing and practical training, and the best ones require periodic re-certification.
- Again, it’s not a guarantee, but a more advanced certification in whatever system the gym or coach is espousing is usually better than just the basic.
Beware of “Specialty” Certifications
Many coaches boast Olympic lifting certifications, nutrition certifications, and a vast variety of other “specialties,” but there are some things you should keep in mind.
- Consider whether their specialized training will improve their ability to coach the classes you will be taking. Or, does their specialty only make sense for special classes that you may never take?
- If their specialty in an area you want or need extra help, be sure to double-check that the coach is not only “certified,” but also experienced with your particular needs and wants. It’s all too easy to get a weekend certification and claim expertise these days. And, if a coach has specialty training in areas that aren’t pertinent to you, that might be a sign that the coach’s interests don’t align with yours.
Coaches should have experience… including life experience. Does the coach seem like they have life experience? Will they be able to relate to you?
The fact is, the coach is where the rubber meets the road in a gym. If you feel like you are in good hands, you have a good chance of sticking with the program and making good progress. If you have doubts about the coach, just go elsewhere.
There are many outstanding gyms and coaches out there. And there are plenty that are mediocre, and too many that are outright bad. It can be hard to sort them out at a glance. The best plan is to be thorough in evaluating all your options. Don’t be lured in by flash or give in to the hard-sell approach. Often, the best gyms and coaches are the least flashy and are not pushy. And you know why? Because they don’t have time for that nonsense; they’re too busy helping their members get fit.
Set your goals:
Be a good coach:
Sell Less, Coach More