5 tips for choosing a gym


Ladies and gentlemen, I have a coach.

“Dear Kate”, the email reads. “You are cordially invited to become my running slave”. Words “running” and “slave” in the same sentence? How could I say no?

Coach Mike will help me to get these luscious buttocks back into their running shape in time for the marathon in October. [Just to clarify for fiancees and partners involved: “Luscious buttocks” – my words, not Coach Mike’s. :)]

What does this mean?
1. Suunto and I will be very close friends.
2. I will start running again.
3. I will get a taste of OCD-fest that is Training Peaks.
4. I will probably stop liking Coach Mike very soon. [Fortunately, he’s quite content with this prospect as long as my performance improves.]

I have also decided to join a gym. Like an actual mortar and bricks (or whatever the hell they are using in construction these days) gym.

Playing around at Bang Fitness – an awesome gym downtown Toronto.

In an all-out attempt to get my fitness back on some sort of track, I also visit a large gym close to my house. It’s a chain – lots of cardio machines, lots of people who seem lost. The usual.

The last gym I belonged to went out of business quite unexpectedly, and one day I simply showed up to a closed door. Since then, it was my condo gym, CrossFit, swimming pool – fitness promiscuity all around.

I get permission to give myself a tour, and walk around with a critical eye. I think it takes about two minutes for someone to ask if I’m working there. Must be my walking gait, or something.

One of the bonus features of this particular gym is an almost normal pool – 22m (as every triathlete reading is currently rolling his/her eyes). When I ask about lane swim hours, I get a quizzical look from staff. Got it. No lanes, and as long as pool is open, it’s a free for all. Awesome. Well, I’m sure if I swim into any children or elderly, they will just bounce quietly off the edges.

Another plus – access to any location of the chain. Given my sporadic driving around the city, this may actually be beneficial.

I am given a schedule of group classes. I give it a cursory glance – spinning, hot yoga, hip-hop (that may be interesting), body sculpt. “Wow”, I smile at the receptionist. “It’s been a really long time since I belonged to a large gym”.

“How long has it been since you’ve last worked out?”, he wonders politely.

I glance down at my watch. “About an hour”. The back of my neck is still wet.

“Oh”, he laughs. “You never stopped training then?”.

I guess not.


1. Every gym has an atmosphere. Make sure you like the atmosphere at the gym you are considering.

  • Garage like look. Loud music. Guys wearing cut up tanks and sipping protein shakes.
  • Family gym. Offers daycare. Free weights section is always empty.
  • Community centre. Retirees. High school kids.
  • Stepford wives. Plastic. Aerobic classes. Botox clinic in the basement.

2. Timing.

  • Is the gym even open when you need it to be open? My old gym did not open until 9am on weekends, and then closed as early as 5pm. It drove me bonkers, as I could never get a workout in before my day started or after my day ended.
  • On the other hand, consider if you truly need to pay extra for a gym that is open 24 hours. It sounds nice. But unless you are working shifts, or suffering from insomnia, it may simply not be relevant. I will never be working out at 3am. Thank goodness. [Never say never, but I have a feeling that if I’m running on a treadmill in the middle of the night, the operating hours of that particular gym would be the least of my problems.]
  • Assess what the gym will look like when you will actually be exercising. A tour of a clean and quiet gym on a Thursday morning is not helpful, if you are planning to work out at 5pm on weekdays. Ask the front desk staff which days and times are the busiest. Usually Monday to Wednesday 4pm to 7pm would be the busiest time at an average gym (as people feel guilty for overindulging on the weekend).

3. Convenience will be the primary factor in whether you will go or not.

  • Make sure your gym is on your way to work, on your way home, on your way to school, on your way to a grocery store. On your way.
  • It does not matter how shiny, cheap, or amazing the gym is. I don’t care if they hand out free running shoes at the entrance, if you have to be stuck in traffic for half an hour or more to get there, you are simply not going to bother.

4. What kind of equipment are YOU looking for? 

It seems that the sales staff always rushes to tell me about their brand new cardio equipment, and weight machines. I am more interested in whether they have rowers, Olympic squat racks, and pull-up bars.

  • If you like group classes, check whether the gym offers extensive group fitness schedule at the times that you can attend.
  • If you are lifting heavy, make sure they have enough plates and dumbbells that are heavy enough.

5. Consider others non-fitnessy factors.

A gym is not just about the price of the membership and the amount of equipment. Gym can be different things to different people.

  • Are you an in-and-out exerciser, who walks in, already wearing your workout clothes, and walks out, dripping in sweat, in a hurry to shower at home? In that case, you may want to look for a gym with central location and lots of parking nearby to facilitate fast entry and even faster exit.
  • If you will be going to the gym on your way to work, then you want to make sure that it has decent shower facilities, and lockers.
  • A gym may also be a place to relax, an opportunity to have your own time away from work, family and other obligations. In that case, you may want to look into whether there is a sauna, a Jacuzzi, a steam room – anything else that would facilitate relaxation after a tough workout.

Do you have a gym membership? How did you pick your gym? What other advice do you have for picking a gym? 

Signing off,

Posted August 8, 2013

15 responses to “5 tips for choosing a gym”

  1. Convenience is a big factor for me – my Goodlife is less than a block from my office. I’m in a perpetual hangover most weekends, so proximity to home isn’t as important – and running to the gym is always an option when I’m actually in good shape (god I sound like an alcoholic).

    Side note. I don’t know what possessed me to do it – but I signed up for Tough Mudder in September. I’m fairly certain at this point that I might die. Warrior Dash was scary and took me like an hour and quarter and it was only FIVE KILOMETERS. I might die.

    I have re read your tough mudder tips about 8 times, and still convinced I’m going to die. Only valid question I’ve been able to come up with so far is – where do you store your fuel on an obstacle course like TM?

    Also, its been nice knowing you – I’m apparently passing on Sept. 28th. Gulp.

    • admin says:

      Sarah, it HAS been nice knowing you. Rest in peace, sister.

      ok, seriously. 🙂 You (probably) won’t die. Give me a shout by email, I’ll straighten you out.

      I store fuel in my hydration pack usually, or for shorter courses in a little pouch that Lululemon pants have at the front, and my Salomon racing trail tights have a zip pocket in the back, enough for maybe 2 gels. Keep in mind you get bananas at TM, usually.

  2. Matt says:

    For me, convenience is #1 consideration. It’s 10:19am right now and I’m sat at my desk right typing. As soon as I hit Post Comment I’m going to the gym. I’ll be there, warming up, by 10:32.

    You didn’t mention “quality of coaching”, which is #2 consideration for me. I suspect most people train without guidance and feedback on their form (other than by looking in a mirror), and it shows in their results (and injuries). Also, a lot of people get their programming from a website, a book or just do whatever they feel like when they get there. That may be appropriate for *some* experienced athletes but at my level of skill and experience having an expert on hand at least 50% of the time to help me learn to squat, press, jump, or whatever *correctly* is key. Getting some guidance on programming from someone other than proteinjunkie1987 on the the t-nation.com forums is also money/time well worth spending. If I’m spending 4 or 5 hours a week in the gym working my ass off, I want to make sure I’m getting maximum gains for my efforts.

    • admin says:

      So how was the 10.32am workout?

      Quality of coaching is essential. Or, in most cases, some coaching period. Men (no offense) are especially guilty of this, I find – there is a stereotype that males are somehow supposed to naturally know how to work out. You’ll see these “badass” looking guys strutting towards a rack only to squeeze out a couple of atrocious looking squats. Your wife would just strangle herself on a jumping rope, seeing form like that.

  3. Jean says:

    Have had a membership for almost 16 years. I knew nothing about picking a gym when I joined; I was under duress and luckily picked one I could stick with. Strictly enforced lane swimming hours, whirlpool, steam room, sauna. Immaculately clean showers, day use lockers. Extensive free weights area with three lifting stations in addition to cardio and weight machines. The best part is a general management attitude of ‘whatever’ so long as you’re not endangering yourself or damaging the facility. There are tires, sledgehammers, sleds, kettlebells and…freedom. Freedom to pursue fitness *your* way.

    If you know how you want to use your fitness, make sure the gym visit includes a discussion of your preferred training methods. If you want to be a powerlifter, don’t train where lifting heavy/grunting is a violation of the rules. If you want to train strongman, a row of treadmills isn’t where you need to be. Find a place that supports your goals.

    • admin says:

      Jean, that sounds like a lucky pick to me! I guess you are still at that gym?

      I love the gyms that allow you to do your own thing. I often get stares when I use machines or equipment in a different way from their prescribed use – like walking backward on a treadmill, or using a bar for inverted rows.

  4. Johanna says:

    Thanks for sharing, this are very important points. The most important to me is number 3, it have to near and convenient to get to it. I am usually pretty focus in my exercise routine and don’t really pay to much attention to what’s going on around the place LOL..! as long as I have my ipod/music I am in the zone 😉 . The gym I go to is pretty easy going, pretty much every one is focus, friendly, mature. I feel comfortable.

    • admin says:

      Yes, Johanna. Feeling comfortable is huge. Sometimes I just feel out of place at certain gyms, not sure why, but that’s how I know it just won’t work out between us. 🙂

  5. Dimitriy says:

    HA! Having enough weight plates – I remember that one.

  6. Goss says:

    I’ve been at my rec centre for 2.5 years. It’s a great atmosphere, cheap, and I get the option of one on the way home, and one closer to work (plus any other across the city, although those are my mainstays.)
    Unfortunately, I have a hard time getting there within their hours and have been hunting for a new place. I found one!
    It’s a powerlifting gym with a million racks and lots of functional movement equipment as well. It is 24hr access by key card (staff is daytime only). It’s <1mi from my house. Just slightly more expensive than the City. Most importantly, the attitude there is of serious lifters who are expected to help each other out and build community. Aaaaaaah.
    Basically, it's a dream come true. I totally agree with your list of considerations: convenience, atmosphere, equipment that you need.

    One more thing: caveat emptor regarding contracts that turn out to be impossible to get out of. I'm sure we've all heard the horror stories in this industry…

    • admin says:

      Goss, yes, I remember you quite enjoyed your gym. Once you got over the horror of having to work out inside. This new gym sounds great!

      And emphatic yes on the getting out of contract. Thankfully, my gym membership is pretty easy to get out of. Unlike my cell phone contract…

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