Most people who want to get fit make the mistake of signing up for a gym membership as their first action. That’s a big mistake, especially if it is because you got lured in because of a promotion that seems like it was a great deal!
It’s never a good deal if you don’t go, hate the place, and don’t get results. No matter how cheap the initiation fee or reasonable the price, if you aren’t getting what you want out of it, it’s wasting your money. Even worse, it might make you feel like a failure. Both are not good.
Gyms can be a great tool to help you get fit, but there are important things to do before joining one to assure you get the results you seek. I want to give you some tips gathered from guiding people through the process for over a quarter of a century.
Here are 10 things you should do before signing up for a gym membership:
1. Figure out your goals
Having clear goals is proven to increase your chance of success. But few realize it will help you figure out what type of gym, if any, would be best for you.
If your goal is to get as strong as possible, then a gym without several racks, lifting platforms, and rules against dropping weights won’t be a good place for you. If your goal is to meet some new people while being active and trying some new things, then a gym without group training or excellent classes won’t work either. If you want to improve explosive power and agility, a gym cluttered with machines lacking any free space will be a problem.
If you struggle with sticking to a program, don’t know what to do, or need to change your diet, then selecting a gym isn’t what you need to focus on at all. It’s like choosing which school to send your kids to based on what the library looks like. (More on that below).
2. Determine if you need one
Regardless of what your goals are, we all need to exercise. But we don’t all need a gym to do it.
The 2 things you need to know when deciding if you even need a gym membership are:
- What equipment do I need?
- What environment do I need?
Few realize that a gym is just a place that has exercise equipment. You can put exercise equipment in your yard or basement as well.
Some people don’t need much equipment at all. I have many people that perform comprehensive workout programs in hotel rooms and bedrooms with little to no equipment at all.
Very fit people as well as more deconditioned people do well with such home programs. Strong people who can do chin ups, clapping pushups, and split squat jumps can do challenging workouts on the beach or in their back yard, as I often do in the summers when I want maximize time with my kids
Less strong folks can get a great workout from doing some chair squats, angled pushups on their counter, and some band rows in the door.
Of course, getting in a run, paddle surfing, and skiing are great ways to get some endurance work in without hitting a gym
Most people can outfit a gym in their basement. In less than 200 square feet, I have a squat rack, lat pull down, lifting platform, exercise bike, elliptical, chin up bar, and 600lbs of weights and bands. It all cost me less than $800. It is plenty to keep me in top level shape. Plus it allows me to squeeze in a workout without saying goodbye to the family, cuts down on the commute, and even lets me workout with the kids when they feel like joining me.
Some people don’t want to go through the hassle of designing a space and shopping for equipment to outfit a home gym. But many are sensitive to their environment or are easily distracted. Even with my home gym, I still need to get away from the distractions of having the family and my home office nearby. That’s why I have both a home gym and a gym membership. If you are easily distracted (ie dogs/kids/work interruptions) then don’t think twice: go get a gym membership.
Also, many will need specific apparatuses that would be feasible to have in the home. Folks looking to perform Olympic lifts will benefit from high ceilings, bumper plates, and industrial strength racks that most gyms will have.
Others who need a variety of equipment due to injuries or limitations. For example, if you have a severe forearm or elbow injury but are very strong, it can be hard to do many upper body or lower body exercises when you can’t hold onto or grip. But a gym that has a hip thruster, yoke bar, and belt squat machine allows you to do heavy leg workouts without holding onto a bar or belt.
Or consider if you are too weak to do chin ups, and band pulldowns at home are not challenging enough. A lat pull down machine or graviton pullup machine are great options available at most gyms.
If you love basketball, rock climbing, swimming, or saunas, you’ll have another reason to consider getting a gym membership.
Knowing your environmental preferences and equipment needs helps you easily determine if a gym is best for you.
3. Write out your barriers
This is a crucial step to undertake before committing to a gym membership.
Take a look at the goals you wrote out above and ask yourself: what will stand in the way of me getting to these goals?
The usual suspects are time, injuries, motivation, and knowing what to do/how to do it.
Here’s how this effects your gym membership decision:
If these things are holding you back, purchasing a gym membership is a mistake. You’ll be throwing more money away on a commitment you can’t fulfill.
Getting a gym membership doesn’t fix many of the most common problems any more than buying medicine and a scalpel would get rid of a tumor.
First you need skills and strategies, then you need tools. Too many people get this backwards.
Once you have these, then a gym may help.
4. Assess, don’t guess
Assessing your needs is more than thinking about your goals and your barriers to them. It is about having someone evaluate your movement capacities and risk factors.
Think about a kid from another country coming to the US to begin schooling. We aren’t sure what his reading comprehension skills are, or his math proficiency. How do his parents know what school or grade level to put him in? Doesn’t he have any special needs for which unique services would be required?
Testing by skilled experts would help determine this. Also, the parent could try purchasing various workbooks and seeing how their child performs.
When it comes to your body, investing the time in seeking out a coach skilled in assessing for performance, injury, and nutrition needs would be optimal.
To do this on your own, consider doing some basic movements like squatting, lunging, stepping, pushups, rows, planks. Any pain, asymmetry, or difficulties? Move your arms over head, out to the side, and reach behind your back. Try pelvic tilting forward and back. Then find neutral. Now try tilting your shoulder blades forward and back. Any difficulty with this? Any pain or limitations? Stand on one leg and see how long you can balance. Try it again with one your eyes closed. Could you do this at least 30 seconds?
These are just a few movements that can help identify your abilities, coordination, strength, and mobility. You can get some insights as to what issues to look out for and whether you should get some immediate attention. A trained eye can observe and tell you where to start based on these movements. Keep in mind most all of use have some difficulty with these movements. Don’t let this scare you away from moving, rather, use it to heighten your awareness so you can design a smarter plan.
Beyond movement, you should also assess other issues, like your sleep quality, nutrition, and body composition.
Start with logging your food and your sleep. After a week, it should be obvious if you should make some changes, and whether getting some help is best. For body composition, realize that the scale only measures weight. It doesn’t measure if you are gaining or losing fat mass. While all measures are estimates, some are better than others. Home scales that use bio impedance are very inaccurate and unreliable. Girth measures and skin calipers are better, but best when done by someone else.
Using these assessments will help you in being more precise with your plan, focusing where you should spend your time, and tracking the progress of your investment in a gym membership.
5. Get a plan
A plan can be as simple as recommitting to what days, and when, you will go to the gym.
This is super important, as it tells you exactly how you are going to use your trial membership (see below).
Your plan should get a little more detailed, laying out what you are going to do when you get to the gym. This will cut down of the paralysis by analysis feeling that hits you the first time you show up at a new gym. Not knowing where things are, let alone what you are going to do, leads most to the path of least resistance. This results are most people finding the treadmill and going for a stroll while watching tv.
This is fine by the way. Just showing up is a victory, and doing some movement of any kind is great for most. But if you want to get the benefit out of your gym, it’s best to avoid feeling overwhelmed and go in there with a plan.
It’s like shopping on Christmas Eve; if you just show up to the mall without a clue, you are gong to end up annoyed, overwhelmed, and settle on spending money on something you probably didn’t really like.
Next is to plan how much you are going to do. This is very important for 2 reasons. First, it helps set a limit on overdoing it. Many who are eager to take advantage of their new gym membership are known to let their enthusiasm take over, leading to unnecessary soreness and even injury. Second, it can help you set a baseline for tracking progress.
Having a good plan is very important before investing in a gym membership. Of course, a great trainer is helpful for this.
6. Make a backup plan
Many people believe that their fitness success rides on whether or not you show up to the gym. That’s completely untrue.
Even the most dedicated will have times when they can’t get to the gym. Don’t think of this as a failure. I have many weeks where I never make it to my gym. And I don’t feel even a little guilty for it. You shouldn’t either.
For me, getting to the gym is a treat. It is some time to myself to do something for myself. While my schedule sometimes means that my gym needs to take place in my basement or a hotel room, having a place that I can go to with different equipment and environment free from distraction is great and worth the investment.
You’ll enjoy your gym more, with less guilt, if you don’t link it to your only option for being fit. It’s a place, that’s it.
If you have a backup option to use when you can’t get there, then you’ll be able to stay with your fitness goals. You’ll be equipped with the strategy to handle the inevitable disruptions that get in the way of your gym plan.
That way, when you return to the gym, it won’t spark feelings of shame that you’ve missed so much. You won’t return only to be reminded of how much progress you lost because you skipped some workouts. Rather, you’ll come in with positive vibes knowing that, even though you missed your workout at the gym, you still got one in at home.
My favorite contingency plan for when you miss a gym workout is called the BTN. I’ve written about this much in the past. Click here where you can read more about in one of my past blogs or here for one of my more recent ones.
7. Get a real coach
The evidence is clear. Having a coach is proven to significantly increase your success. A great coach is invaluable, but most don’t know what a true coach really is.
A coach helps you clarify your goals, determine your why, assess your obstacles and abilities, plan out solutions, determine what to do and teach you how to do it, give you cues, feedback, insights, support, hold you accountable, reassess, tweak and modify as you change, and empower you with skills to sustain the changes you need for long term success.
A great coach needs to be able to help the behavioral, fitness, nutrition, and injury management side of things.
Don’t confine your search for a coach only to the gym you are looking to join.
Rarely are the most effective coaches at large commercial gyms. Many are found in studios, with teams, universities, clinics, or practice privately.
It is very common for my coaching clients to train at other facilities. Some train both at my facility and at a commercial gym. Others see me periodically, then do most of their workouts independently at their own gym. Others have learned that they can get tremendous results by ditching the gym all together.
The key point is that a coach will often make your gym membership more valuable, or help you avoid it all together.
8. Get a notebook
The most underutilized strategy of all gym goers is this: get a notebook to take with you.
Writing out your plan makes your workout simpler, as you just follow what is on your paper. No need to add to the cognitive load of memorizing all the settings, sets, reps, weights, etc. Just follow the plan and turn your focus on to the effort. It also helps track your progress, which is proven to be very motivating as you see yourself getting more fit overtime. Sometimes changes are hard to see unless you have documentation. Plus, it helps provide feedback to evaluate when it is time to make a change.
Going to the gym without a notebook is like going to class without a pen, or on a road trip without a GPS.
9. Shop on your own
When you are shopping for a gym, don’t evaluate it based on what gym your friend goes to, or where your husband wants to work out. While friends and family plans are nice, and going with a buddy can help, don’t tie your success to something that suits someone else. Make sure the gym reflects what you want. You’ll be more likely to go, enjoy it, and get what you need out of it. And if your friend or spouse flakes out, you won’t be stuck with a commitment to a gym that isn’t right for you.
Getting fit is about doing something for you, not someone else. Your gym selection should reflect that.
10. Get a 2 week trial
So now you have a goal, obstacles accounted for, a plan, an assessment, a coach, your notebook, and you’ve determined that you need a gym. The final step is to try one out before you commit.
The best way to do this is to call and make an appointment. You don’t want to wait around because a sales person is either busy with someone else, or not there.
Also, if possible, go there during the times that you intend to use the gym. Most people check out the gym on a Saturday afternoon. But this isn’t a good plan if you plan on using it after work Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The difference within one gym during the afternoon on a weekend vs weekday evening can be like night and day. So you want to assess your gym during the times and days that you will use that.
Next, insist on getting at least a 2 week trial. Follow your plan and give the gym a test run. Evaluate it based on how well the gym supports your plan. Many people place negative feelings on the gym because they don’t feel confident or clear on what to do. But this is a problem with knowing what to do and how to do it, not necessarily with the gym itself. So following the previous steps and you’ll get a proper assessment of the gym.
Finally, some gyms may offer free training. Based on what I mentioned above, you may think that I would discourage you from using a trainer at the gym. That isn’t the case, even if you suspect that they do not have the skills, expertise that you need. Many are eager to help while they are honing their skills.
They can still be of help. Here’s how. I often tell clients of mine who are going to the gym to take the plan that I’ve designed for them, and give it to the trainer at the gym with very specific instructions. Provide them with the plan, and during your introductory free training sessions, ask that they help you set up the cable row exercise as prescribed, or how to set up the smith machine for pushups, or find a proper location to do goblet squats. Most trainers will be competent enough to show you where and how to use the tools. Most will be more than happy to comply with the instructions. Those who aren’t, move on and ask for someone else. Almost all gyms have at least one person who is friendly and eager to help.
Hopefully now you have everything you need before you get a gym membership so you can make the best decision for you, and get the results you want.