Gyms, for us, it’s as important of a decision as choosing a school for your child or a place of worship if you are religious. Iron is our religion and gains are our children, and for these reasons, the institution we decide to spend our money on to pursue and nurture these things requires very strict evaluation.
How much time do you spend at the gym?
Think about it, besides your home and work, where else do you spend most of your time? If you’re serious about your physique and health, then the answer is probably “the gym.
If you go to the gym just 5 days per week (5 days on 2 rest days = 7 days/1week) and you average about an hour (including warmup and workout), multiplied over a year, you will spend approximately 720 hours in that gym! If you prefer to think of it in days, working out for 5 days a week, an hour a time, you’d be working out the equivalent of 30 days straight in that gym!
So, if you’re asking yourself that most important of questions “what gym should I join?“, then read on and by the end you will have everything you need to make a confident, informed decision as to what gym membership is best for you.
Things to Consider Before Visiting
If you’re serious about your fitness goals then a gym is more than just a place you “have to visit for 30 minutes at a time” but instead a place you look forward to spending potentially hours at working towards your goals and making friends in the process.
Good gyms not only provide the equipment you need to achieve your goals but they foster communities that support one another and motivate one another (you should never struggle to find a spotter in a gym with a positive community) to be the best that you can be.
For these reasons, it is worth taking the time to do some online research (read reviews) and visit the physical locations for a tour. Just like buying a car, you should never sign up for a gym membership without actually visiting it and checking it out in person.
Signing up at a new gym can be a little intimidating, but just remember, everyone there is chasing similar goals, these are people who understand discipline and hard work and likely have more in common with you than most of the people you encounter on a given day.
So with that said, let’s dig into what seasoned pros consider to be some of the most important factors to consider before jumping in and signing a new gym membership contract!
Top 9 Things to Check Out When Gym Shopping
While everyone is different, for example powerlifting vs Olympic weightlifting vs bodybuilding, and may thus have slightly different varying needs, the below are criteria that are generally transferable between weight lifting styles and good for anyone considering a facility membership to at least consider before purchasing.
Proximity to Home/Office
One of the biggest pitfalls for bodybuilders and weightlifters is not being able to maintain consistency with their exercise and diet program. One of the biggest hurdles in consistency is the barrier between you and the gym.
These barriers can be physical (distance from your home and gym, how long you have to drive, if you are able to easily find parking) as well as mental (the time/effort required to get from your home/office to the gym). If the distance and/or barriers to getting to the gym are too high it will make it easier to not be consistent.
I’m tired and don’t really feel like it plus I’d have to drive all the way over there and I don’t want to sit in traffic anymore I think I’ll just take an extra day off and watch some Netflix… -every failed bodybuilder ever
Now the above quote is a bit extreme, we all know that recovery is an essential part to building the biggest gains possible, but the point is, if you are already mentally or physically tired the added barriers in time and distance can make it very easy to skip gym days, especially if they fall on Mondays or involve leg training (we see you leg day skippers!).
Of course, being tired and exhausted are two different things. Exhaustion warrants a deload week and/or extended rest periods as well as re-evaluation of your program to avoid over-training. Tired in this article means you “could” work out but are struggling to build the motivation needed.
If your gym is within walking distance, or under 20 minutes driving it is much easier to force yourself to just get there than if it’s a 30+ minute commute and we all know, once you get in there and the pre-workout kicks in you’re set.
So, try to find a gym that is as close to your home or office if you plan on working out early in the morning so that it will be easier for you to maintain consistency in your program over an extended period of time, which just so happens to be the equation required for achieving a superior physique.
Has Most Essential Free Weight Types
Right at the top of the list with location is the type of weights. We listed it second as most gyms will have the essentials and you can swap out various exercises to create a fulfilling workout program. If we had to choose between a gym with slightly less equipment vs a gym that was very close to our home/office we’d choose the later.
If you are a professional and compete, then perhaps these first two priorities may be reversed but for the average gym goer, location is probably most important because if you don’t get there it doesn’t matter what equipment the gym has.
That said, if you have multiple fitness centers within similar distances then the next criteria for selecting which to sign up at should be the free weight selection. Free weights are the most versatile types of equipment. Between dumbbells, barbells and power racks you can effectively work out and exhaust every muscle group in the body.
The amazing classic physiques of the golden era of bodybuilding weren’t built on super high tech modern equipment. They were forged out of pure hard work and determination in dirty basement gyms with solid iron plates and cast iron dumbbells. It wasn’t always pretty but it sure did work.
For this reason, if you are into bodybuilding, you need to find a gym that has a nice selection of these free weights. Machines are great but free weights are absolutely essential. The more the better because some popular weights, like the 30lb curl bars or the 25lb dumbbells or the 45lb plates are often in high demand from average lifters.
Look for as long a rack of dumbbells as possible, as many plate weight stands/racks as possible and as many power racks as possible. A gym with 1 power rack will mean you will struggle to ever get any time on it, which will limit things like overhead pressing and squatting, exercise essentials for building out fully developed physiques.
Amateur lifters LOVE machines. We presume this is because A) they don’t have to think as much as most machines only function in one plane of motion so using them is quite obvious and B) they have comfy seats for sitting on and playing on phones.
There are definite benefits of machines but they can never replace the versatility and sheer effectiveness of free weights. Make sure the gym has a healthy ratio of their space dedicated to free weights. If not, you’ll quickly bore of the machines and your progress will eventually plateau.
Peak Capacity/Crowding/Space Available
-popularity/capacity (visit during the times you plan on going to measure capacity, chances of having to wait for machines)
Great, you’ve found a gym close to you and with a nice amount of free weights, but it’s in a tiny 20X20 foot basement and it’s always full of professional competitors. Now you’re paying $xx/month and unable to actually use it.
Fitness is exploding in America, some may even call it a fad (thanks Instagram!) and for this reason many fitness centers and gyms around urban areas are becoming ever increasingly packed. While we love the idea of America finally getting its act together and getting in shape, we are also aware a large percentage of fad joiners never fully embrace the discipline required to achieve substantial fitness goals.
The result is a gym constantly full of people wondering around, standing around, taking selfies in the mirrors, and sitting on equipment playing on their phones. If the essential equipment you need for achieving your own bodybuilding goals is always taken, then you’re going to always be in a pretty shitty mental state waiting for people who don’t understand the importance of busting out your sets and moving on to the next exercise.
To avoid this purgatory make sure to schedule your gym tour during the hours you plan to actually work out there. Yes, you can definitely adapt your schedule if there are “rush hours” at your prospective gym of choice, but going during your preferred hours will give you a better idea of what it will actually be like after you sign your contract and get into your program.
Rush hours are usually in the morning and then again right before and right after dinner in the evening. So if this is the only time you can work out these should be the times you choose to go evaluate your gym options. It’s also worth asking the staff point blank what their peak hours are. They want to maximize everyone’s accessibility because the more spread out the attendance the more members they can successfully enroll without over-crowding and for this reason they are usually pretty honest about what times are busiest, allowing you to better understand whether that location will work for you.
Yes, price is only the 4th priority on this list. No, we’re not rich. Yes, we understand memberships CAN be quite expensive. The logic behind listing cost as the 4th priority is that we are assuming you are a serious lifter who sees bodybuilding as a life-long hobby. If you are in it for the long haul and place your physical health above most other things in life, then you know you HAVE to work out, which makes price just a matter of finding the best.
Price is also 4th because a goldilocks zone gym (great equipment, close to your home, that is not busy) can easily justify a premium over a gym that is further from your home and/or lacks equipment.
For example, a gym with ample space, a wide variety of free weights, Olympic weights/bumper plates, and specialized bodybuilding machines and say, showers and full sized lockers can easily justify a 100% premium over a bare minimum Snap Fitness/Planet Fitness style chain.
Additionally, your budget should be flexible. We all have things we can easily cut out of our daily expenses that could easily cover slightly higher gym dues if necessary. Cutting out a few Starbucks trips or cutting one extra TV streaming service you don’t use much can quickly anti-up and make high quality gyms more accessible and if it is between zero-value add expenses like TV and huge value-add expenses like a gym membership the cost cutting should be an easy decision.
This isn’t to say more expensive places are always better. Often times more expensive gyms just mean more “premium” building locations or fancier lighting/TVs, or extra services you may or may not use like childcare, spa, massage, TRX/yoga facilities, etc.
So, first check off the first 3 criteria for this list and then, if you have multiple contenders you can use price as a deciding factor at the end. There are definitely a lot of great very cheap gyms out there, so don’t worry too much about not being able to afford something that will help you achieve your goals.
Management & Staff
So you’ve found a few gyms that have good equipment, aren’t too busy during the hours you intend to use them, and have fair pricing structures for their memberships. Now, how is the management?
Gyms where weights are always left on the floor, equipment is constantly broken and takes forever to get fixed, and things are just generally dirty are gyms that are poorly managed.
Good management is strong management and strong management is what is required to enforce rules. There are always slackers in every gym and given the opportunity they will trash it just like they trash their own homes and ultimately this will make it harder for you to achieve your goals if you’re always having to move around/pick up weights that get in your way.
When you tour your prospective gym, try to find broken equipment. One piece of broken equipment shouldn’t be a deal breaker, as mechanical failure is inevitable in this industry, but if you see multiple pieces of broken equipment that is usually not a good sign as things usually don’t all break at the same time (statistically speaking) and it may be an indicator the owner/management are lazy when it comes to repairs.
Broken/out of use equipment is equipment you can’t use and thus should be avoided at all cost. Cleanliness is also a good indicator of the mindset and ethics of the management. Sure, dirty basement gyms are cool if that’s what you are into, but even smelly hardcore gym basements wash their mirrors and sweep their floors. Take note of general cleanliness during your tour.
Finally, take stock of the layout and equipment selection. Is everything laid out logically? Is there enough space between machines to safely unload/load weights? What kind of weights do they have? Useful round edge plates or stupid octagonal plates that shift position every time one of the edges hits the floor? Are the weights metal, plastic, hybrids? Is everything stored away conveniently and easily accessible?
As you walk through the gym you are considering try to visualize yourself going through a typical upper body/lower body routine and make sure there is enough equipment and space for you to do everything you normally do. If there are gaps in space or tools then this may not be the right gym for you.
Specialized bodybuilding equipment is the greatest. Bilateral seated low row machines, lat pullover machines, specialized cable attachments, heavy stretching and resistance bands, there are a multitude of fantastic new machines and accessories that help serious bodybuilders target muscle groups like never before. Specifically targeted row machines are some of the most prominent and commonly found in gyms and can be great for more quickly developing hard to see/measure areas of back muscle groups.
While we contest that free weights are the most essential tools, which is why we listed them higher on this priorities list, there is no denying the pleasure that comes with laser-targeting a muscle body with a specialized piece of equipment.
Serious lifters love these types of tools as serious lifters care about bringing up their weak spots to build overall complete physiques so if a gym has unique specialized equipment that is a good sign that management knows what they’re doing AND that the members are serious lifters and not perpetual phone addict machine squatters.
Things like stair stepping machines, not generally popular with the poser crowd are fantastic cardio options for bodybuilders. This is one type of machine that would indicate the gym knows what they’re doing and where to spend their budget dollars. Arm growth tools like arm blasters are another great piece of specialized equipment bodybuilders love. Other specialized equipment like elevated weightlifting platforms and rubber-edged bumper plates for power cleaning and deadlifting are also fantastic elements.
Versatility & Variety
If you’ve gotten this far down the list then no matter what you choose you’re going to have yourself a good time. From here on out everything could be considered “nice to haves” vs “must haves” for gym shopping criteria.
But, if you are spoiled for choice, then considering the versatility of the space and variety of exercise options is something worth thinking on. For example, is there a substantial powerlifting setup with precision squat machines and benches? Are there ample multi-grip pull-up options? Are there large full-length mirrors for evaluating your form and/or posing? Is there a dedicated posing routine room? Are there boxing heavy bags for unique and fun cardio options? Does the gym have a swimming pool and sauna for recovery and therapy? Are there vending machines? Protein smoothie stand? Ample water bottle filling machines?
If you’ve taken inventory on the essentials like free weights, cleanliness, logical layout, then you can start tallying up the “bonus features” listed above that will both introduce a greater variety of options and thus allow you to develop more advanced workout protocols. A wide variety of features can also help you maximize your membership.
Personally speaking, after trying a gym with steam room, dry sauna and pool, this author can say he spent almost double the time compared to his previous gym that was more basic in its offerings. Because pools and saunas can be cost prohibitive to build into your home (compared to free weights/squat racks which can be affordable) then finding a gym with these expensive features can be a huge bonus and make working out so much more pleasurable over the long term.
Facilities & Recovery Features
Accompanying facilities are nice to haves, but not essential. For example at the time of publishing this author goes to L.A Fitness. They have showers and a dry sauna but the showers are always so dirty and the sauna so full of amateurs (leaving the door open/letting heat out) that they are facilities that I just never use. Home saunas and wraps are more attractive options at this point vs the stinky slimy facilities of my local gym.
Also, since the gym is under 10 minutes from my home I prefer to just drive home and shower in my own bathroom. This saves me from having to haul soap, shampoo, towels, and a change of clothes to the gym every time.
That said, there are definitely gyms that keep their showers clean and have good management that forces members to follow rules so that everyone can reap the benefits of things like saunas and steam rooms.
Additionally, locker room areas that are not overly cramped are nice, especially when it comes to finding places to set your gym bag and change in/out of your workout clothes. Lockers that are big enough to hold a full change of clothes and shoes are optimal. Lockers with big lock loops are nice as they will fit a larger variety of combination locks. Lockers with built in combinations/keys are even better.
Some gyms even have competitive bodybuilding nice-to-haves like dedicated private posing rooms to practice your stage routine and/or tanning facilities to get the right color before competing or doing photo shoots.
Nice facilities are icing on the cake. Bad facilities can mean you end up paying for things you avoid using which is a net negative so make sure to tour the locker room during your visit.
Culture, while important, is last on the list because if a positive one exists, it can be an amazing bonus, and if one doesn’t exist, it’s not a huge loss as you can always just pop your headphones on and work out in isolation.
Evaluating culture in one 30 minute tour can be hard, but if you keep your eyes open there may be some indications. Are people generally workout out or sitting around? Can you see people waiting for machines or is everyone being productive? Is anyone spotting anyone? Do people wipe down their machines after using them if they are really sweaty?
Are people working out and taking care to use good form or is everything being half-repped and cheated? Are there more selfies being taken then exercises being pushed to failure? Do the people look happy/focused or do they look depressed and bored?
A gym is 50% the result of what management wants it to be and what management spends on it and 50% the people that comprise the membership base. Even a great gym, if it is full of douche bags, can be a shit gym. Likewise a not so great gym with basic equipment filled with serious, dedicated, helpful members can be a great place to learn and grow.
Try to take stock as much as you can on the culture while visiting and check out online reviews over time to get a better idea. Don’t just read recent reviews as managers come and go and fake reviews are easy to buy online these days so by reading reviews over a year old help give you an idea as to what the long-term culture is at a given location and can help you make better informed purchasing decisions when it comes time to sign a contract.
Additional Tips & Things to Consider
If you check off the above list you will be in a great position to happily workout and achieve your long-term fitness goals. If fitness is a big part of your life and your identity then taking time to carefully select a place to lift weights is worth your due diligence. A few other things to consider/take into account when gym shopping include:
-Sleep on it: It’s easy to get distracted by promotions/sales people. Always sleep on it as giving yourself 24 hours for your thoughts to settle and your opinions to form will help prevent you from making an impulse decision that you’re regret later.
-Ask someone working out their opinion: When it comes to gym culture and getting an honest assessment it’s hard to beat just asking a current member their opinions. Don’t interrupt anyone, but in between sets or entering/exiting are great times to politely introduce yourself and say you are considering the gym and ask what their opinions are. If you open with something like “you look like a regular” or a similar soft-compliment you may increase your chances of getting a more lengthy/thorough review.
-Negotiate (2 year usually gets you a discount): 99.9% of gym contracts are negotiable, just like most other sales-heavy industries. Always ask about discounts and promotional offers. Mention you are considering that gym vs another local gym to communicate to the sales rep that you have options and that they need to sweeten the pot for you. Also, ask about contract length discounts. 1 year contracts may seem long but if you’re serious about working out and not planning to move out of town anytime soon then signing a longer 2-year contract could potentially come with significant monthly savings as well.
-Employment discounts/reimbursement: Similar to the above, during your contract negotiation period, check to see if the gym has any partnerships with local employers or schools. Often times community centers will offer exclusive rates for groups of people that aren’t openly advertised, especially if your employer is substantially sized/a pillar in the community.
-Insurance benefits/discounts: Review your health insurance policy if you have one to see if your insurer provides any subsidies for fitness memberships. Healthy customers equates to cheaper customers which equates to more profit for insurance companies so many offer financial incentives in the form of rebates or reduced policy dollars for those who prove they work out regularly and these cost savings can help off-set your total out-of-pocket expenses and/or open up more premium priced gyms that might have previously been slightly outside your budget.
-Timing (new year, end of year, fall): New years resolutions are the biggest new member acquisition period for gyms and since the resolution-mindset is depressingly fleeting many gyms offer discounts at this time of year to try to capture as many new members as possible. While this period often sucks for existing members as there can be large influxes of amateur/half-assed lifters it can equally be a moment of cost savings for serious lifters. Ask about seasonal promotions to see if you can further reduce your monthly dues.
Skinny Yoked Summary
This guide definitely became longer than originally intentioned but upon reflection, choosing gyms is a much more complicated and important process than most assume it is. Your gym will forge your physique and your physique is often a very large portion of your self-identity. In this way, choosing a gym is also about choosing who you want to become and what type of person you want to physically develop into.
You are the ball of clay and you are choosing the hands and spinning wheel that will ultimately mold you into the ideal you hold in your mind. If you have bad sculpting hands or a defective spinning wheel it will be much harder to achieve your dream ideal. With the proper tools your dream is no longer a dream but a certainty with effort and discipline being all that stands between you and dream realization.
Take your time, judge with a critical eye, do research, bargain and ultimately you will end up in a good place that will be the foundation of your future successes.
If you’re an experienced lifter or work at a gym and have any valuable insight that you’d like to share with other bodybuilders please let us know in the comments below as we want to provide the most useful educational resource we can!