Choosing a GymChoosing a Gym
Somewhere in the 1970s and early 1980s, gyms changed. They became less the kind of place where a crusty Burgess Meredith coaches a down-on-his-luck Sly Stallone, and more the kind of place where a buff John Travolta meets a perfect Jamie Lee Curtis. Solid chunks of metal and leather in the form of barbells and punching bags were supplemented or replaced altogether with ergonomic, hydraulic, cantilevered, LEDed marvels of technology. Training sessions on how to land a left hook were transformed into classes in which women in leotards and leg warmers jumped around to perky tunes from Wham. Gyms became health clubs.
This sounds like a lament, but it's not. What the fitness boom has given men is options. In the old days, if a man wanted to go someplace with more equipment than he had at home, he had to surround himself with street fighters, kids at the field house of his alma mater or whomever the local YMCA attracted. He couldn't be guaranteed staff to help him, access to reasonably up-to-date equipment or a clientele with whom he felt comfortable. There are still no guarantees with health clubs, but there are plenty of choices, which means far more control over the environment in which you train. Just ask any of the 19.2 million people enrolled in the 15,000 health and sport clubs and YMCAs nationwide.
Perhaps paramount in the sheer proliferation of fitness establishments is the option to go someplace that's actually close to where you live or work. This, in fact, is the first element to look at when thinking about joining a gym. "The rule of thumb is that if it's more than a 10 or 15 minute drive away, or—if you're in the city—further than ten blocks, it's too far," says Liz Neporent, president of Frontline Fitness, a consulting firm that sets up private and corporate gyms in New York City. Most people won't regularly attend a club that's more distant.
Is This What You Want?
To further foster regular attendance, it helps to lay out clearly what you expect from a club and what you're willing to pay for. That way, you'll find the greatest support for your goals and be less inclined to squander your money.
Health clubs are categorized in two basic ways, according to Cathy McNeil, spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
Fitness-only clubs provide the basic amenities you should expect from any commercial gym: resistance training equipment, often with both machines and free weights; cardiovascular equipment such as stationary cycles or stair-climbers, and an aerobics area where classes are offered.
Multipurpose clubs offer everything fitness clubs do, in addition to sports facilities such as swimming pools and/or tennis, racquetball, squash or basketball courts. These clubs are usually bigger and more expensive. Often, they're more oriented to family activities, some of which may be organized by the club (these might include after-school swimming lessons, summer camps and seasonal parties).
Do you need all of this? If you just need some of it, which features are you likely to use most? Are you just looking for a place to heft dumbbells or ride a stationary cycle? If so, investing in home equipment may be what you need (see Setting Up a Home Gym on page 312). Just don't overlook what McNeil identifies as the main advantage clubs have over home gyms: people. Trained staff will be able to help design your programs and make sure you're using equipment to maximum advantage. Plus, McNeil says, there's a benefit to being around other exercisers. "Exercise is harder to do on your own," she says. "The research suggests that even when you already have equipment at home, if you join a club, you're more likely to exercise in both places."
What to Look For
Location and cost aren't everything. After all, it's common to find several choices available within a given geographic area and price range. How to choose? One way is to personally visit each of the clubs you're considering, suggests McNeil. Only by being on site will you be able to conduct the following evaluation.
Appraise the staff. There was a time when just about any muscle-bound ape could get a job in a gym, but increasingly, you should expect club staffers to have credentials. Standards set by IHRSA require club supervisors to have at least a bachelor's degree in exercise science or certification by any of a number of organizations, says McNeil. The greater number of staff members that are certified, the better. Certifying agencies include the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise and the Cooper Fitness Institute. Beyond that, IHRSA requires that at least one staffer be trained in CPR. If the club is an IHRSA member, that's a good sign, she says.
Credentials are just the start. "The thing I see most clubs fall short in is service," says Neporent. If staffers answer the phone rudely or ignore clients so they can continue blathering to each other about last Saturday night, put a black mark in your mental book. Expect staff to be friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. And make sure that their first order of business is having you answer a questionnaire about your health and goals, which they should be eager to see if they're to tailor your program, says McNeil.
Inspect for cleanliness. Pay particular attention to showers and locker rooms, where moisture can foster growth of bacteria and fungi. Don't write off a funky smell as an unavoidable by-product of too much sweat and too little deodorant. Look to see that soap is available in dispensers (not bars) and that the dispensers aren't crusted over. Make sure that shower stalls are free of scum, drains aren't clogged with hair and countertops are wiped down. "There's no excuse for dirtiness," Neporent says. "Even the machines should gleam."
Note equipment condition. "Under Repair" signs on equipment aren't necessarily a bad sign: It may indicate management's swift response to even slightly out of whack machinery, says Barbara Baldwin, information services director for the American Running and Fitness Association. But it's wise to ask how often this happens, or how long equipment tends to be out of action. And check the free-weight area: Are plates returned to storage locations or left mounted or lying around, requiring you to search for what you need or undo somebody else's setup?
Check out the crowd. Visit the gym at the same time of day you'll be using it, to evaluate crowds, waiting time and atmosphere, which vary at different hours, says Baldwin. Ask the staff how many members use the gym, and find out when the place is most and least busy.
Talk to members. If possible, cut yourself loose from the guided tour and talk with club members out of staff earshot, Baldwin says. Ask for their honest impressions of the facility, equipment, staff and clientele.
Ask for a trial workout. Any club worth its salt will let prospective members take a free trial aerobics class, and most will allow you to work out on the equipment, under supervision, at least once before signing up. Be leery of any club that won't, says Baldwin.
Look at the child-care area. If you plan to bring tots, you may actually want to check this out first. Here, cleanliness standards should be extra high, says Baldwin. "Ask if there are rules for parents, like making sure younger children are diapered before coming in, or not allowing kids in if they're sick," she advises. Evaluate crowding in the child-care area separately: When the weight machines are lightly used, the aerobics classes—and the day care—may be jammed. Is there a limit to how many children are allowed in? If so, you could end up tending your kids instead of working out. Is there always a caregiver present, or do you have to call ahead? "I've seen instances where the caregiver didn't show up, so the kids were simply unattended," says Baldwin.
Manners for Muscleheads
We don't care how big you are. We still expect you to abide by these essential rules of gym decorum—and you should expect the same from us.
Don't hog the equipment. A weight bench isn't a chaise longue. If you're done with your set, move on, whether somebody's waiting or not. If you have more than one set to do, let somebody else work in with you while you rest between sets.
Bring clean clothes. Empty your gym bag as soon as you get home and throw your workout clothes into the laundry. That way, you won't find yourself stretching already-ripe duds through one last workout.
Cut the chatter. Be friendly, but never talk to anyone who's in the middle of a set, and, in fact, talk very little the rest of the time.
Tote a towel. Use it to wipe the equipment off when you're done using it, so someone else doesn't have to.
Pick up after yourself. It only takes a few seconds to take the plates off the bar and return them to their racks. If you don't do it, the next guy does. If everyone does it, everyone's happier.
Most clubs relieve you of your money in two ways: First they charge an up-front enrollment fee (expect to pay at least $100), then monthly dues that generally range from $30 to $70. But there are plenty of variations on this scheme, says McNeil. Some clubs, for example, charge a much higher enrollment fee in exchange for much lower dues over an extended period. These are usually called lifetime memberships. Another twist is the "gold" membership, in which enrollees get more privileges than regular members (free access to racquetball courts, for example).
Many clubs will offer a choice of paying a year's dues from month to month or all at once. Some will deduct the funds directly from your bank, with your approval. As with any contractual agreement, there are good deals and not-so-good ones. Here's what the experts advise.
Ask about refunds. What happens if you move or get injured and want to revoke your membership? Some states require clubs to refund a portion of your enrollment fee if you move a certain distance away (anywhere from 15 to 50 miles) or are disabled. If there's no state law, ask what the club policy is, says McNeil. Do they have inactive memberships, in which you pay lower fees while you're living elsewhere but don't have to shell out another enrollment fee if you move back?
Also, find out if the club is part of a network in which members can easily transfer from one club to another, says McNeil. Such transfers are a selling point for large organizations such as Bally. With other clubs, ask if they belong to IHRSA's Passport Program, which may not necessarily allow easy transfers from club to club, but will allow customers from member clubs to use other facilities in the network for a small daily fee when traveling.
Finally, many states allow signatories to change their minds about a contract within anywhere from 1 to 15 days after signing and still get their money back. With health clubs, however, you can't back out after you've started using the club.
Avoid lifetime memberships. "They're almost always a rip-off," says Neporent. "You don't know where you'll be three years from now." Consider the case of Jack, a corporate prole in Manhattan who put down upwards of $1,000 for a lifetime membership in a wonderful club in nearby Westchester County. Dues were a paltry $5 a month. But he moved out of state two years after joining. After that, he kept paying his monthly dues year after year because the club allowed him to sell his membership, and he hoped to find a buyer. "It's a wonderful marketing scheme," says McNeil, "because it makes members part of the sales force." Since Jack joined his gym, New York and many other states have set limits for health-club contracts, usually to a maximum of 36 months.
Pay month to month. Never mind lifetime memberships; McNeil advises against paying even for one year in advance. "You're best off with the shortest contract you can get, unless you really know what you want and are sure you'll stick with it," she says. This isn't just to avoid blowing money on something you won't use; it's also protection against the club closing its doors and eating your prepaid dollars in bankruptcy court. "While some states have bond laws to protect consumers in the event of club closings, they are largely ineffective," says McNeil. "Individual members would actually only get a fraction of their money back."
Try to make a deal. Is there any way the club would charge you less? If you don't know, ask, suggests Neporent. Maybe there was a just-ended promotion that they'd be willing to extend. Or, some clubs are willing to charge you less if you agree only to use the club during the least busy hours of the day—an arrangement that allows the club to bring in new member dollars without aggravating the crowding during prime time.
Get it in writing. You've heard this before, but it bears repeating: Everything you've been told or promised verbally should be inked onto the contract—fees, payment terms and any understandings you have about refunds, buy-one-get-one-cheaper deals for couples or discounts of any kind, says McNeil. And if language is added to the contract, the salesperson should put his or her initials next to it.
Watch for red flags. The staff is friendly, appears knowledgeable, answers all your questions. It all seems nice. There's just one problem.
* They ask for your credit card number before you see the facility. This should set off your scam sensors, despite the smiles of the staff and their dismissing of this request as a silly formality. Even if they're willing to let you tour the gym later, says McNeil, your payment information shouldn't be an issue until you've told them payment is on your agenda.
* They won't let you try out the gym. Maybe they're especially sensitive to liability. Maybe you should wonder why.
* Staff is absent from the gym floor. What's the use of a staff if they're never on hand to help out members? You never know when you'll need a spotter quickly, or when a friendly pointer might keep you from hurting yourself, says Baldwin.
* Management reserves the right to sell your membership. Some clubs trade memberships like banks trade mortgages. The club gets a lump-sum payment and the buyer gets your monthly dues. "Now the club's financial incentive is to get new members, not to serve you," McNeil says.