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Back to the Gym

The minute the calendar page turns to January 1, it seems like gyms nationwide immediately fill up with new — or newly recommitted — members. However, whether you’ve had a gym membership previously or are considering joining for the first time, the options (Which chain? Trainer or no trainer?) can be as overwhelming as the holiday dessert tray. So after digging into the treats this winter, dig into our handy guide to finding your fitness.

Pick Your Gym

While cost is certainly a consideration, finding a gym you actually enjoy walking into can be the key factor in your fitness success, so search long and hard to determine the one that fits best. Most gyms offer free trials and tours, during which you can talk with staff and even personal trainers about your goals and the types of equipment and programs available. Take advantage of those, and if you have enough locations nearby, with a bit of planning you might even eke out nearly a month of “free” gym time.

These days, there are gyms to fit nearly every need. Here’s a quick guide to a few you might find in your neck of the woods:

For the Family
If you’ve got kids in tow, you’ll want to consider a family membership. One good option: the YMCA. Locations dot the country, with dozens of kids’ programs — from swimming and sports to arts, crafts, science and even theater — to get your children moving and learning while you work out. Most also offer free or very cheap drop-in child care while you hit the treadmill so you won’t be limited to early-morning or late-night workouts. For those with younger children, there are even day-care programs to consider. Similarly, Life Time Fitness locations have added dozens of similar kids’ programs, so shop around on offerings.

For the (Once and Future) Gym Rat
Maybe you worked out all the time in the past, so you know exactly what you want from your gym and won’t be intimidated by the strongman the next bench over. If that’s the case, Gold’s Gym, whose Venice Beach, Calif., location remains the “Mecca of Bodybuilding,” or other big-box chains like 24 Hour Fitness or Bally Total Fitness might be to your liking. They’re not all grunts and grit, either. Even Gold’s long ago expanded its offerings to include spinning, yoga, Zumba, boxing and other popular group classes for those who want to mix up their programming.

For the Beginner
If you aren’t a fan of the sweat or grunting that are often the side effects of others’ heavy workouts, an immaculate, clean and quiet Planet Fitness gym could be your ideal location. With its “Judgment Free Zone,” limited selection of free weights and barbells, and extra perks like free pizza nights and bagel mornings, it can be a good place to ease your way into a workout program. Moreover, Planet Fitness gyms offer free unlimited group or personal training sessions so you can get a program tailored to your needs. And you can’t beat the price: Most locations come in at about $10 per month, with a $29 to $59 startup fee.

For the Weekend Warrior
If you’re looking for games and leagues to hold your interest and keep you focused on your fitness goals, find a local gym or recreation center that offers a variety of sports for various skill levels. Availability can vary greatly depending on your location, and if you can’t find anything suitable, remember that the slog of the weight room and treadmill also will benefit your weekly ballgame.

For the Alternative Exerciser
From yoga and Pilates to kettlebells, mixed martial arts and the latest fitness craze, CrossFit, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of alternatives to the standard treadmill/bench/weight-machine fare. Talk to your toned friends and colleagues about their favorite spots and tag along to more free sessions to find the classes or studios that grab — and hold — your attention. 


Equipment. Check.

As you’re perusing the local gym scene for the perfect fit, keep a rough count of the equipment available for use. Obviously, the requirement varies greatly on the fitness program you’ll choose to follow, but keep in mind what your goals are as you scope out the equipment scene.

If you’re not yet certain, the best option would be to choose a gym that offers a good mix of free weights and weight machines like Cybex, as well as treadmills, ellipticals and other endurance equipment, even rowers. This will give you the greatest freedom to choose a program and switch up that program as your fitness goals and plans change. A wide selection to choose from also can stave off workout burnout.

However, anecdotally, the trend among gyms lately is either to move completely away from free weights in favor of machines to offer a modern, sleek feel or embrace free weights, kettlebells and racks in a bid to encourage a more “rustic,” hardcore approach. Keep an eye out for which direction the gym seems to have chosen and which style most appeals to you.

Big-box gyms should have plenty of equipment to meet almost any fitness need. But during high-use hours, even that multitude of machines can fill up quickly, so try to schedule a trial run during the hours you plan to regularly attend, making sure machines and racks aren’t overwhelmed. Ask during your tour when the gym is busiest — most gyms will be tracking that information and have it readily available — so you can schedule your workouts appropriately.

The Pros and Cons of Personal Training

The Good

  • Personal means personal. Your fitness program will be tailored specifically to your goals. Individually, your trainer will establish current health base lines and create a program to get you in shape.
  • Extremely motivating. In a paper for the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, researchers found that of individuals meeting once a week with a trainer, 73 percent were more motivated to exercise regularly, while just one somehow became less motivated.
  • Measurable, achievable goals. For those out of practice, setting appropriate goals for fitness programming can be difficult. A good trainer will help you set a range of short- and long-term goals — from weight loss to strength gains — pushing you in the right direction.
  • Constantly changing. A trainer can alter your workout midprogram to meet your changing fitness needs and can even jump in midworkout if an exercise isn’t working on a particular day.

The Bad

  • Expensive. The rate for personal training can vary greatly by person and location, but no matter how you slice it, $35 to $150 per hour is pricey.
  • Mundane. Because your goals won’t typically change rapidly, training sessions can get repetitive if your trainer isn’t consciously mixing up your program.
  • No teamwork. You will work alone with your trainer, missing out on the camaraderie of group classes that many people enjoy.
  • Dependence. Your individual success is highly dependent on the trainer you choose and on his or her ability to program correctly and motivate you to meet your fitness goals. (See Page TK for more on choosing a trainer.)
  • No music. One-on-one sessions tend not to have pumping house music or trainers yelling motivational and encouraging words over the beat to their charges. Admittedly, this also could be on your “good” list.

Finding A Trainer

If you opt to go for a personal trainer, there are several things to keep in mind when searching out the right one for you:

It sounds almost too simple, but you’ll want to find a trainer you get along with. “You need to connect with this person,” says Todd Galati, director of credentialing for the American Council on Exercise. “They’ll all have the programming skills, but they’re going to motivate you and interact with you a lot, so you need to find someone with the right personality.”

Everyone has slightly different needs and motivations, and trainers have different styles. You might like simple direction before getting to work or prefer a more educational experience while you train. “Look for the trainer who will key into your style of motivation,” Galati says. Many trainers and gyms offer free or reduced-cost introductory sessions, so use that time to get a feel for how your trainer operates. Another option is to attend a gym’s free group classes, which are often taught by those available for personal training.

Ask if your trainer has the credentials necessary for personal training, like from the American Council on Exercise or the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and that they’re up to date. Sports science changes quickly, so you’ll want to be sure your trainer stays up to speed on the latest developments. Galati recommends the certification be accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, which also accredits many health professions, but there are many options that will serve your trainer well.

You can find a certified trainer in your area and check whether his or her certification is up to date at, or at a myriad other professional training organizations.

If a trainer is working with a big gym chain, liability insurance shouldn’t be an issue, but it doesn’t hurt to ask how they are insured. And if you’re training at home, you’ll want to make sure you and your personal trainer are protected if something goes awry. “This is part of the responsibility of being a personal trainer,” Galati says.

You can learn all this by talking directly with your prospective trainer, essentially treating the session like an interview. You should even ask for client references and call them to find out what they like or don’t like about the trainer.

Top 7 Things Not to Do at Your New Gym

7. Don’t leave 200-plus pounds on your barbell after you finish a workout. We’re not a maid service.

6. Don’t forget to wipe your sweat off the machines. Again, not a maid service.

5. Particular to Planet Fitness: Don’t grunt, scream or struggle with heavy weights.

4. Don’t creepily ogle the hot chick on the elliptical.

3. Don’t creepily ogle the hot dude on the bench.

2. Don’t spill your protein shake all over the weights.

1. Don’t text or tweet a camera phone pic of yourself flexing in the locker-room mirror. Seriously.