The Goldilocks Question: Is Your Gym Too Big, Too Soft, or Just Right?

If you’re trying to select a gym and don’t know how to choose, the childhood storybook character might have a lesson for you.

Yesterday, I had reading time with my three-year-old son. When I asked him which book he wanted to read, he brought over to me a dog-eared, tattered copy of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

As I read the familiar story, my mind drifted from recounting the breaking-and-entering activities of a little blonde girl in an ursine domicile, and pondered a question.

The Goldilocks Syndrome

As Goldilocks tries out the bears’ chairs, beds, and bowls of porridge, she finds that Papa Bear’s things are too much, Mama Bear’s are not enough, and Baby Bear’s are just right. In the world of sporting activities, owners, teachers, and members all face a similar question. When is a facility, club, or group the right size? When is it too large or too small?

The answer is different for everyone. While Papa Bear’s bed may have been too hard for Goldilocks, perhaps Papa Bear had a stiff back and needed the extra support. On the other hand, perhaps Mama Bear wanted the extra warmth that a deep, soft mattress can provide. I’m not them, so I cannot say. Fitness is the same.

Let’s talk about some of the potential benefits and drawbacks of groups or gyms of certain sizes.

Papa Bear

You’re big, you’re bad, and everyone knows who you are. In the fitness world, you probably have t-shirts emblazoned with your name or logo being sold at shops all over the place. People who have never stepped within your doors may be rockin’ your gear. You might even have endorsement contracts with suppliers who market clothes, supplements, and perhaps even action figures with your name attached.

For members, the advantages of being a Papa Bear are huge. Members have access to large-scale membership in a wide range of locations. You could get a lift in at home in California on Monday, and get your next lift in on Thursday in Seattle, all on the same membership card. If certifications are your thing, being accepted nationally or even worldwide carries its own advantages.

In addition, a huge gym chain can offer a plethora of options for varying tastes, such as family members who do not all participate in the same activities. When I was a member of a large chain gym, I could lift in one section and do three different types of cardio classes, in addition to training on my own, swimming, and playing basketball, all while my wife enjoyed yoga and Pilates classes. The economy of scale allows such options that may not be feasible at smaller gyms.

On the other hand, Papa Bear groups have disadvantages as well. The first and most damaging is the “trend towards beige” that large gyms or groups have. Once a certain size is reached, the intense passion and the personal connection that fueled Papa Bear’s rise to prominence passes away. Accountants become more important than passion when the bottom line is measured in dollars rather than in pounds, minutes, and seconds.

Secondly, many Papa Bear gyms experience a loss of personal connection. It’s hard to have a commitment to a facility that cannot recognize you by at least your face, and has to swipe you in using a barcoded plastic tag, just like cattle.

Mama Bear

This classification tends to be associated with the boutique gym, especially the “ladies’ fitness centers,” by whatever brand name they call themselves. Of course, there are advantages to such places. I understand it is hard to get a workout in when you’ve got men who treat the gym like a singles bar. And hopefully the staff is attuned to the uniqueness of training women as opposed to men.

On the other hand, the biggest flaw I see with Mama Bear gyms is being “too soft.” Just because your gender is female does not mean that you are physically incapable of lifting more than thirty pounds. While the leverages may be different than a man’s, that does not mean women are confined to hydraulically-resisted pink padded machines, or that working hard and grunting is anathema to the gender. And of course, the lack of results is also a pretty damning feature. I have yet to see anyone who could be classified in the top ten percent of fitness who got there via a Mama Bear gym or group.

Baby Bear

For Goldilocks, Baby Bear’s stuff, much to his disadvantage, tended to be just right. In the real world, being a baby animal is a pretty nasty situation. Only one in about four cheetah cubs survives to adulthood, and the odds are even worse for other species. The same goes for gyms. I’ve lost count of the number of small gym managers who have closed their doors after a few years due to financial or stress reasons. At my own gym, I’m the head instructor, as well as marketing staff, maintenance, janitor, and other positions. The Baby Bear gym you join today just may not be here next year, or even next week.

That being said, there is a passion to small clubs and gyms that larger facilities usually fail to replicate. Gold’s Gym Venice circa 1974 was on another level, passion-wise, to Gold’s Gym Venice 2014. To use another wildlife analogy, lone lions (youngsters without their own pride) are much more aggressive than pride leaders, who tend to let the females of the pride do all the hunting. This sort of passionate atmosphere can definitely provide that shot in the arm, especially if you are passionate about your training.

In addition, the small gym tends to be specialized (for good or ill). You will find the best lifters and most knowledgeable trainers in the world working in relatively small gyms or in niche markets, not at any gym that boasts 100 locations, or has any sort of family discount membership plan. Heck, some of the strongest people I know lift out of their own garages.

Which Should You Choose?

So, what’s better for you? It truly is going to depend on you, your goals, and your life situation. For me, I am what can best be termed as asocial when I am working out. It’s not that I’m going to be hostile to you or anything. I just don’t want to be bothered. I train alone. I want to work out at my pace, with my focus and my intensity. I don’t need to have my groove screwed up by being asked if I have many more sets to do before I get off that bench, bro.

If you are looking for a social group as well as a sporting activity, a larger gym might be ideal. If your pocketbook is your most important consideration, the lower cost contracts that larger gyms can offer will most likely beat your local musclehead factory. On the other hand, if your dream is to eventually be holding UFC gold, you might have to ante up the money to pay for an American Top Team or Jackson’s MMA. I cannot answer to your particular situation. And of course, there may not be a “just right” for your situation, and you might have to make do with “good enough,” at least for a while.

A final word of caution, coming from Goldilocks herself. Remember that she ended up breaking her “just right” chair and eating all of her “just right” porridge. The same holds true for you. What may be just right today may not be just right next year. It’s a normal part of life. In the meantime, evaluate your potential options, and try to select what is just right for you.

Photo 1 courtesy of Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1863-1935) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo 2 courtesy of KudzuVine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Shutterstock.

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