Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shopping for a Gym

So far, this blog has no central theme, and that's mostly by design. I'm hoping that eventually I'll have enough posts that readers will be able to discern a definite character of this blog. Right now, I haven't said enough to really show much character. But when I originally (well, the second time anyway) conceived of the blog idea, I figured it would mostly be populated with things I think about most often: computer stuff (software and hardware), music, exercise and fitness, jobs and careers, and perhaps politics on rare occasion.

Today's post is health and fitness related: what to look for in a gym. For me, the ideal is actually a home gym. But living in a smallish condo, I don't have enough room for all the equipment I need. So I'm stuck being a regular in the public gym scene.

Since moving to Chicago, I've belonged to the same gym. In my opinion, it's quality has steadily degraded. Often, I spend too much time grumbling to myself about the stuff I don't like, instead of focusing on my workout. So I decided that, if I do switch gyms, I want to have prepared a checklist of things that are important to me, so I don't overlook something. Hopefully others will find this information useful.

A lot of these things are probably obvious, but there are some "little things" that I think are easy to forget. How important each of these criteria are is a matter of personal preference. So, in no particular order:
  1. Location. Probably very important or most important for a lot of people. But, think about how the location will affect you on a day-to-day basis. What is the gym's proximity with relation to your home? to your work? How about weekends, and days off, how will the gym's location affect you? Also consider the neighborhood: are you likely to get mugged coming in or out of it?
  2. Parking. If you drive to the gym (to which you must admit there is at least some irony), then consider parking: is there plenty of it? Is it conveniently located? Is it free? Keep your safety in mind as well, particularly if the neighborhood leaves a little to be desired.
  3. Equipment. Make sure they have what you need. This is obvious, but, the deeper question is: even if they have what you need, will you be able to use it when you want it? Is there more than one piece of the equipment you need? For me, the power rack/squat stands and Olympic barbell set are absolutely crucial. If that equipment was regularly unavailable, my gym would be worthless to me. For my fellow CrossFitters, here are some things you should look for that are less common in "mainstream" gyms:
    • Kettlebells
    • Bumper plates instead of iron plates
    • Plenty of squat stands/power racks
    • Plenty of chinup bars (and a policy that allows kipping pullups)
    • Dip stations
    • Concept-2 rowing machines
    • A Roman chair for glute-ham situps and back extensions
    • Jump ropes
  4. Availability. What are the operational hours of the gym? Are they conducive to your schedule? There is a gym I go to on occasion: I am not a member, so I pay on a per-visit basis. They recently reduced their weekend hours. If I was a paying member, I would be irate, since they reduced weekend afternoon availability---the only time I'm likely to go to the gym on the weekend! The point is, be careful if your typical workout time is at one of the extremes of the gym's open hours. I doubt many gyms would do this, but it would be worthwhile to get an availability clause added to your contract: e.g., if the gym reduces it's availability, your cost goes down proportionally.
  5. Upkeep. This is huge, and I'd wager that it often goes unnoticed. But how well maintained is the facility? Some things to consider:
    • Are the weights put away? Take a stroll around the weight room. At my gym, practically no one re-racks their weights. Every time I go to the power rack, the previous user has left his weights behind. Same for the flat benches. Same for the curl bars. Heck, yesterday, I saw a huge pile of dumbbells strewn about the floor---literally right next to the rack!
    • How clean is the equipment? The maintenance staff at my gym keeps the towels clean and available, the floors and mirrors clean, but I've never seen the staff wipe down the equipment. Never. At my previous gym, the staff regularly walked through and wiped down all surfaces on every piece of equipment. Are you willing to count on the courtesy of every other member to wipe down the equipment when they're done?
    • Is electronic equipment maintained? Most gyms have a lot of treadmills. Take note of how many are "out of order" before you sign the contract. Make several visits, and see how long the equipment stays "out of order". My gym has two Concept-2 rowing machines; for the last week, the displays have been non-functional on both. This to me is indicative of "reactive" maintenance as opposed to "proactive" maintenance.
    • Are the barbells oiled regularly? This isn't a show-stopper, but before you sign a contract, load and unload a few plates onto a barbell---you'll know if it's been oiled recently or not. If not, it's another sign that the gym might be on the "reactive" maintenance system (i.e., gym maintenance is somewhat your responsibility).
  6. Member Demographics. Take this for what it's worth. Maybe you don't care. But my current gym increasingly has the kind of people who stand around and talk more than actually exercise. It's not that bad, but I've seen worse. One gym I used to visit occasionally was effectively a hangout for young adults: the overwhelming majority of the people there were screwing around, rather than getting in a good workout. Also, there seems to be a strong correlation between the types of people that screw around and the types of people that don't re-rack the weights. Also, lookout for people talking on their cellphones while in the exercise area. This should be strictly disallowed, in my opinion.
  7. Music. Ask what the music policy is, then, when you visit (preferably multiple times), check that the music is consistent with what you were told. My preference would be no music; for the people that must have music, they can wear headphones. Instead, most gyms seem to take the opposite approach: for the people that don't like our music, they can wear headphones. (This is more of a mini-rant, since I hate the music my gym plays.)
  8. Policies. This may not apply to a lot of people, but, for those of us who CrossFit, it's an enormous consideration: a lot of the things we do are considered "dangerous", or at least sufficiently non-mainstream enough to be discouraged. A few particulars:
    • Chalk. Surprisingly, a lot of places simply don't allow chalk. If I can't use chalk, it eliminates about half the exercises I can do. I don't want to wear gloves, and my hands sweat profusely. A lot of people are offended by chalk, saying that it effectively makes the gym dirty. I don't equate unclean with chalk.
    • Dropping weights. I'll be the first to admit that this is annoying. However, it's sometimes necessary. With apologies to Bill Clinton, weight dropping should be safe, legal, and rare.
    • Kipping pullups. I've never seen this explicitly forbidden, but I've had "trainers" discourage me from doing them.
    • Olympic lifts. Some places simply forbid them. Avoid these places.
    • Improvisation. CrossFit is all about improvisation: it's general encouraged, but specifically when equipment is lacking. When you are pre-viewing a potential gym, and something is missing, ask if you can improvise. As an example: when I was on my honeymoon, the resort's gym didn't have a pullup bar. But there was a structural support bar. I used that for pullups. The "trainer" there gave me a lecture on improvising (although in all fairness, he did let me keep doing it).
Before signing any contract, I strongly recommend making at least a couple visits to the gym at the time you plan on being there. There is no sense in screening a gym on the weekend, if you'll usually be there during the week. Be particularly careful about more popular times, such as early morning, the evening (i.e. before and after a lot of people's working hours), and noon/lunchtime. Note that in my experience, the time of year also makes a huge difference: January always seems to be the busiest (I call that the "New Year's Resolution" crowd).

The ideal, I believe, is to buy a week (or perhaps a month) membership, and use that time to prove out your prospective gym. If you decide to stay, pro-rate the amount to your full-term membership; if not, you lose the cost of the abbreviated membership. I've never actually done this, and if I had to guess, I'd say that most gyms won't allow such a policy. But, if you talk to a manager, and are polite yet persistent, you ought to be able to negotiate such a deal.

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