These days, the question of "What gym is best for me?" can seem impossible to answer.
Never before has an athlete had so many choices. Name a fitness trend and chances are someone's opened a facility to capitalize on it: Hardcore sweatboxes like CrossFit, boutique studios like SoulCycle and FlyWheel, digitally innovative gyms like OrangeTheory Fitness, or massive "big-box" gyms with every piece of equipment imagineable. You could train with coaches who prepare NFL hopefuls for the Combine, enlist a personal speed or movement specialist, or go on a bucket-list destination yoga retreat.
Ultimately, though, when it comes to choosing a gym, we're all ultimately looking for the same thing: somewhere convenient, affordable, well-equipped, and not too crowded. Bonus points if the other folks there seem nice. Extra bonus points for clean bathrooms.
To help make the process a little easier, we've narrowed the search down to seven factors you should consider when you're searching for a new gym:
1. Your ideal type of workout
Women tend to prefer the group class experience. (That’s why guys like to take a spin or yoga class in a room full of women: The scenery alone raises the heartrate.) Spin and yoga also are effective for most guys who need to improve power output and flexibility.
Of course, lots of guys tend to prefer the choose-your-own workout experience of free weights. If this is you, go with a well-established big-box or local gym that’s no-frills but still well-equipped at an affordable price.
But gyms aren't just divided into "free lift" and "classes only." Some gyms offer both, so you can get a range of experiences, instructors, and workouts—from "broga" to rowers-only to treadmills-only to adventure training.
The cult of CrossFit has capitalized on guys (and gals) who want a straightforward but intense, no-frills workout that varies by the day with a coach monitoring everyone’s progress, though not at the one-on-one level. In that sense, CrossFit is the happy medium between group class, personal training, and working out on your own. It also tends to attract a younger demographic balanced between the sexes. You might feel out of place initially if you’re a guy over 40 with neither tattoos nor a Viking beard, but as long as you can bust out a WOD and the $150 or so monthly dues, you’ll fit in the CrossFit box.
2. Social atmosphere
People often underestimate just how much a gym's social environment factors in to how much they'll enjoy going there. What are the rest of the people there like? What's the male-female balance? Is everyone younger? Older? More jacked? More bearded? Covered in tanner?
When you visit a gym, keep an eye on people's body language and observe (subtly) how they interact with each other. Do people know each other's names, or does each person act like they're they only person in the room, with headphones turned all the way up?
Ultimately, if you can find a gym with people you don't mind being around—a place you can feel comfortable in your own skin—then you'll find yourself going more often.
3. Essential amenities
If your ideal workout involves nothing more than pounding giant slabs of beef in a walk-in freezer with Rocky Balboa, then there are plenty of old-school local gyms that'll offer that experience—no group classes, no digital add-ons, just iron and a few machines. They're typically a little cheaper, and the clientele is typically a little tighter, so it can be easier to make friends. One danger of these one-of-a-kind, privately owned facilities, however, is that they don't have the economic cushion of larger chain gyms. Our tip: Avoid any long-term contracts (which is a good rule of thumb regardless of facility).
If, on the other hand, you prefer modern design, post-workout nutrition bars, group classes of every sort—plus the latest in sound, video, and digital fitness trackers—there are plenty of big-box gyms that'll offer you that experience. And if you want to get really fancy, there are plenty of urbane, upscale newcomers like Equinox that'll shower you with goodies. Just plan to pay a premium for it.
4. Location and portability
Besides the inherent absurdity of driving a long distance to work out, no doubt circling the parking lot for the closest available space, you’re far less likely to frequent a gym regularly when it's farther away. Making it to the gym is challenging enough without adding to the degree of difficulty. As with any real estate, a key to picking a great gym is location, location, location.
If you’re on the road frequently, consider joining a big-box gym with locations around the country or at least your travel region. Make sure there’s a reciprocal arrangement with other locations and, if necessary, you have a membership good for the entire chain.
Some people are happy with remote fitness programs like DailyBurn and Strava, which offer video-guided workouts you can do right at home. (They're like your old Billy Blanks Tae Bo tapes for the digital age.) They're great if you're constantly traveling, or often stuck at home with young kids. But you should know that it can be difficult to motivate yourself to work out at home, where there are hundreds of other distractions to lure you off the mat and onto the couch.
5. The gym's hours
Gym chains like 24 Hour Fitness and Anytime Fitness have skyrocketed in popularity recently behind the notion that some people want the option of training at any hour of the day. (We can’t imagine why anyone would want to train between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., but if that’s your schedule, there’s a round-the-clock, affordable fitness option near you.)
Just about every big-box gym is open from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekdays with slightly more limited hours on weekends. If you train after work, test out a few gyms before committing to make sure the place isn’t overly crowded. The same is true with the 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. window, as people who work out at these hours are among the most committed and tend to train at this time five days a week, filling gyms quickly.
Bottom line: Whether you keep strange hours or head to the gym at peak times, make sure you pick a gym that'll work for you.
6. Trainer availability
Thanks to sites that provide unlimited training and workout advice like Men's Fitness, an ambitious self-starter can probably get by without a trainer. But lots of guys who want someone else to create the routines and provide guidance and specialized knowledge, along with accountability and the occasional kick in the butt. If this is you, go with a gym or studio that offers in-house trainers who might be a good fit—or at least allows you to bring your own.
Of course, a gym that provides trainers might be a reason for you to go elsewhere. There’s nothing worse for a self-starter than dealing with a gym that cordons off space for personal training or, at the very least, allows trainers and their clients to take priority during prime workout hours.
If a gym representative can’t break down pricing quickly in terms of monthly fees, move on to something else. For years, big-box gyms made pricing more confusing than that of phone plans and health insurance, with all kinds of add-ons, initiation fees, and other surcharges that didn’t kick in until you were several months into a membership. Thankfully, industry competition has made these annoyances (mostly) go the way of roaming charges and rollover minutes.
We now live in a world of $150 monthly CrossFit and $100 monthly yoga, to say nothing of $30-a-class boutique spin studios, which has inspired some of the newer big-box chains to raise rates accordingly. The good news? Some of the older chains are bargains at $30 a month. If you’re a guy who doesn’t need group or personal instruction and abhors the idea of overpaying for the latest overpriced hipster fitness trend, these well-maintained clubs are for you.
Ultimately, though, the best gym membership is the one you'll use—so if you're torn between a budget gym that never really makes you feel comfortable or a pricier (but still affordable) gym that inspires you to keep coming back, then pick the one you're most likely to stick with. Even a cheap gym membership isn't worth much if you never use it.
Pete Williams is a NASM-certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.