Rushing into signing a contract at your local gym might be a big mistake. There are many things to consider, from location to cost to your workout habits and even your travel plans. Plus, some fitness chains cater to different audiences, so not every location will be a great fit.
The key to finding your perfect workout spot is checking out the best fitness chains of 2023 and choosing the one that fits your lifestyle and gym goals the best.
How to Choose the Right Gym for You
Figuring out what you want and how you’ll work out can help you determine which fitness chain is best for you. You want to ensure your fitness spot helps maintain your motivation, is comfortable to visit and work out in, and that it’s convenient to your lifestyle and preferences.
Quality Helps with Motivation
If you rush into signing up for a gym that you ultimately are not happy with, then you are much more likely to lose motivation to go. With a gym that you enjoy, where you feel invigorated and motivated, hitting the weights (or exercise bike or anything else) becomes something to look forward to.
Comfort & Community
If you visit a gym and feel unwelcome or uneasy, it will likely continue to feel that way. It is worth spending extra time to find the right gym, especially if you plan to go there frequently. You might want a gym that focuses on cardio machines rather than heavy-duty weight lifting or if you’re into bodybuilding you’ll want more weights than cardio machines.
Or, maybe you prefer a gym that’s tucked away in a basement with solid iron weights and loud metal music rather than one with full-pane windows on the front of the building. Decide how and where you feel comfortable working out and don’t settle.
Community and being comfortable, or feeling “welcomed” is a big part of maintaining consistency in training over the long haul as that same community will help hold you accountable, help spot your, and generally give you a sense of belonging.
Factor in Convenience & Location
Going out of your way to go to the gym is less than desirable for most. Your gym must be close to your home or workplace to avoid excuses. Make sure it will be open when you need it to be, too. Some gyms are open 24 hours these days (it’s even in the name), but for full service or classes, you’ll want a gym with set hours.
If you want to exercise when you travel, it can be worth looking into fitness centers with many locations. Regardless of where or when you work out, convenience will be crucial for keeping up with your fitness goals.
Getting Specific: Cardio, Crossfit, Bodybuilding, or Strength Training?
Between cardio, CrossFit, bodybuilding, and strength training, figuring out where to start working out can be overwhelming. Plenty of people say that one is better over the other, but it is not always that simple.
A healthy balance is vital in any workout routine, so your gym should have a handful of options to get your fit on.
Cardio Focused Gyms
How many calories you burn increases with cardio more than with many other exercise types. Weight loss then occurs more quickly while you build endurance and improve your heart health. On top of all that, cardio tends to be fun and is relatively straightforward.
Because cardio has such a significant effect on the heart, though, it can sometimes be too much. It is easy to overdo cardio, and you can impede any potential muscle gain. Take it at your own pace, but try to stick to a well-rounded exercise regimen.
CrossFit Focused Gyms
Thanks to its demands for mobility, cardio, strength, overall fitness, and stamina, CrossFit can be intense. It is a challenging regimen, especially at first, but finding a community to connect with can help you reach milestones.
Something to consider in regards to CrossFit is that frequently, people gain weight when starting the regimen. Additionally, you need to take it slow at first. But with the right support and a well-equipped facility, you can enjoy CrossFit safely and effectively.
Bodybuilding Focused Gyms
Fitness does not have much to do with bodybuilding. The main goal is to improve your image and build muscle. Bodybuilding focuses on working with all muscle groups and on both sides of the body. There are different degrees, and each gets more and more intense.
But bodybuilding can also be ego-driven and time-consuming. It can be easy to get caught up in an unhealthy comparison cycle. However, if you find the right community, it can be worth a shot.
Strength Training Focused Gyms
When it comes to building muscle and sculpting the body, strength training is an ideal regimen. With an increase in both the long and short-term burning of calories, it makes the body more resilient to injury. However, endurance and aerobic capacity do not get many benefits from strength training.
What to Look Out For When Evaluating
During a visit to a potential gym, there are several things to keep in mind that can make or break your experience. Keep an eye out and maybe keep a list of things that do not meet your criteria.
The bathrooms and locker rooms are probably the most critical areas when cleanliness is concerned. Check the corners for dust bunnies or anything dingy. You will also want to see employees wiping things down often.
A strict policy of wiping down the machines after use is something that has never been more important. Ensure that there are gym wipes or spray bottles with towels to do your own disinfecting of equipment. And that people use them.
Variety of Machines
If you are looking for more weight and powerlifting setups, look for fitness centers with the right layout and equipment. If cardio is more your speed, be sure to check out what types of ellipticals, treadmills, and other machines the gym has to offer.
Machine cleanliness and maintenance are essential as well. If the equipment looks like it is falling apart, it probably is. Look out for ‘Out of Order’ signs as well, especially if they seem to stick around for a while.
Level of Member Activity (or lack of)
A significant thing to check out is the gym’s activity level when you would be there to work out. Standing in line for a machine always sucks, especially if you are busy and only have so much time to workout. Visit a few times during different parts of the day and observe how many people are around using the machines.
Positive Member Culture
Sometimes, a gym or fitness center has a specific audience to which they cater. For example, a gym for seniors will have an aquatic center. Weightlifters might find a gym that has more for them than a casual one would.
Pay close attention to how people treat each other as well. A positive environment is much more fulfilling and motivating than one that is uncomfortable or judgmental. First impressions always matter, so if the place does not seem like a good fit, it is probably best to go with your gut.
Fair Contract and Discounts
When signing up for a membership, read the entire contract before signing. You will also want to ask about any member perks, local business partnerships, or even training on specific equipment. First-time member or initial sign-up bonuses may be available as well.
Discounts during different times of the year are standard, too. These sales tend to happen around New Years’ and the beginning of the school year. It might be worth waiting for those times if you can, but deals are often available during any time of the year.
Best National Fitness Chains of 2023
Below are the biggest fitness centers with multi-state footprints across America and sometimes even across the world. The list is not ordered from best to worst but is instead random, with a brief summary of what makes each brand unique.
Established in 1989 in Greenwich Village, NYC, Crunch Fitness blends fitness with entertainment for an experience that keeps you going back. With a no-judgment policy, it began as a small gym that accepted a diverse group of people. They have several payment options but do not require a long-term contract or commitments.
Crunch is a great place for beginner and intermediate lifters. Advanced lifters can work out here too and some locations do lean that way, although if you’re into serious weightlifting or powerlifting you may want to look for a more specialized gym with predominantly free weights.
Created with a diverse membership base’s emotional and physical health in mind, LA Fitness began in 1984 in Southern California. They maintain a dedication to meeting each community’s unique needs. With personalized and group training available, there is a reason this gym has locations all over the US and Canada.
LA Fitness offers a more 90’s vibe of traditional athletic club-like atmosphere. Perhaps because of the nice accompanied amenities like saunas and yoga rooms the average age of these centers seems to be slightly higher, which depending on your goals, may actually be a good thing.
Years of great effort allowed VASA Fitness to come to fruition. A single mother with a love of fitness wanted to share her passion with others. This fitness chain has classes for everyone and personalized plans for each member.
VASA works to build a sense of community and inclusive environment. So if you are someone who struggles with motivation then this is the perfect option.
If you just want to put on your headphones, blast heavy metal and build the biggest muscles possible by lifting the heaviest weight possible then there may be better options out there for your preferred style.
In 2005, the founder of Retro Fitness wanted to create a strong community both inside and outside the gym. Here, the smoothie bar, massage chairs, a retail shop, a sauna, and tanning facilities are all the more reason to check it out. There is even a kid’s club, where kids have supervision and an enriching, innovative environment.
Retro is a great balance between affordability, versatility and comfy athletic center vibes. An up and coming chain, relatively new compared to some of the competition, Retro Fitness is definitely worth your consideration regardless of what skill level you are at.
Since 1965, Gold’s Gym has kept true to its core tradition of weight lifting, even since expanding its fitness services. Originally a space for bodybuilders and weightlifters, their popularity grew after the first location had a feature in Pumping Iron with Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their gyms have the most up to date services and equipment for anyone to feel welcome.
While Gold’s in California has become almost as much of a tourist destination as it is a gym there are still always old-timers and regulars putting in the work on the daily basis.
May of Gold’s members are either retired professional athletes/bodybuilders or they are active professionals. For this reason the atmosphere can be quite intense, which is a good thing if you are a headphones-on, head-down, heavy weight lifting kind of guy/gal.
Gold’s would be the best option too if you are a serious bodybuilder or hybrid weightlifter looking to take your already advanced game to the next level as the amount of cumulative lifting knowledge in that gym on any given day often rivals the collective knowledge of all the other gyms on this list combined.
Founded in 2010 with high-intensity science in mind, Orangetheory is an hour-long workout tailored to all fitness levels. During the session, there is a focus on strength, power, and endurance training. With a heart rate monitor on screens around the room, the CPR-certified fitness coach leads members through the workout.
Orangetheory has been enormously popular on the coasts and in densely populated urban environments. What makes this work is their efficient class scheduling which means you get in, get your work done, and get out in time for the next wave.
This isn’t so great however if you prefer working out at your own pace or have a very specific goal in mind, like bodybuilding or breaking personal records in weightlifting. But for losing weight, getting toned and sticking with it, the community vibes of Orangetheory may be perfect for you.
9round is especially great for busy people with hectic schedules. There are nine stations with trainers ready to take members through short yet effective kickboxing workouts and no class times. Whenever members arrive, a 30-minute ever-changing class begins.
Keep in mind that 9round is kickboxing-specific, so if you’re more into bodybuilding and aesthetics then this may not suffice as your only gym option.
Excellent customer service and well-rounded fitness are the primary focus for Genesis Health Club. They provide personal attention for everyone with education and motivation to reach every goal. With various fitness classes and a few summer camps for kids, the entire family benefits from this health club.
If you’re looking for a more pampered traditional health club experience, similar to what you find at some LA Fitness centers, then Genesis should be worthy of your consideration.
Enthusiasts and beginners are both welcome at Snap Fitness. Here, the outlook for one’s well-being expands past physical fitness into mental health and nutrition. In 2003, Snap Fitness developed with the belief that fitness does not stop at getting adequate exercise.
Snap is one of the most prolific chains with locations scattered all around the country. They are also one of the most affordable which combined with the sheer variety of locations and options when travelling (you can work out in any Snap, not just the one you signed up at) make it a great option for those who travel a lot or are on a tight budget.
The entire goal, philosophy, and purpose of Planet Fitness were to create a judgment-free zone where anyone felt welcome. An encouraging, relaxed culture lets members go at their own pace and be comfortable testing your limits. They are open 24 hours and have a wide selection of equipment.
Since Planet Fitness goes out of their way to offer a non-intimidating beginner-friendly atmosphere it is a GREAT option for those just getting into fitness.
The same things that make it great for beginners though don’t necessarily make it the best for more advanced lifters that because of increased resistance, may be a bit louder in their lifting style.
So, Which Gym Chain Is Best?
If you’re looking for a single rule to apply to the whole world then sorry but you’re in the wrong place.
The best gym in one city may be LA Fitness and the best gym in another city may be Gold’s and the best in another country might be Snap Fitness.
The point is, either as franchises or just licensed independent gyms, 90% of what goes into making a gym great is not the corporation but the owner that runs the gym and the culture he/she fosters with members.
So, don’t write any chain off in your town until you do some more local research and/or visit your closest location to judge for yourself.
With that said, there are some clearly defined cultures that are promoted at some chains.
For example, Planet Fitness wants to foster a very inviting community and therefore will foster a culture that is different than Gold’s Gym for example, because the target demographic is entirely different.
That isn’t to say you can’t get a great workout in at a Planet Fitness with the equipment they have, you just probably won’t be setting any deadlift personal records.
Likewise, you can work out quietly by yourself in Gold’s too, members are nice and generally courteous. You may even learn a few things or two from some verifiable pros!
So as mentioned, try to define your focus, what you really want to excel at and once you get your focus you can Google Maps stalk the shit out of your local gyms for pictures to help give you an idea what that particular gym culture that location promotes.
Skinny Yoked Summary
Choosing a gym is a big decision that all too many people rush into. If you’re into working out for the long run (which you should be) then choosing a gym should be a very well-rationalized decision.
Take your time, don’t let sales people pressure you into making a decision, tell them you want to sleep on it, and carefully weigh all of the pros and cons of the options in your area.
Many gyms will offer 7-14 day trial passes which are great if you’re on the fence about a location and can’t feel out the vibe just by walking through. A trial gives you the opportunity to visit during a variety of business hours throughout the week to better gauge capacity levels and overall culture.
At the end of the day a gym membership is an investment in your health, and when you think about it that way it opens a whole new world of possibilities in terms of what you are “able” to budget as putting a price on your health and longevity is a tough one.
Remember you are the customer, they have to court you. There is nothing wrong with being picky if you are a courteous, clean, respectful lifter and you are expecting the same out of your gym.