Joining a gym for the first (or fifteenth) time is daunting. When you walk in, you're overwhelmed with thoughts that range from "I don’t belong here" and "I have no idea where to start" to "Where the hell are the towels!?" Even the most experienced exerciser can feel like a total outsider.
But letting that intimidation get to you is a guaranteed way to miss the mark on your get-fit goals (not to mention people DGAF if you don't know how to turn on the treadmill).
There's no better time to jump on the fitness bandwagon. Physical activity and fitness are at an all-time high in popularity, and for the third consecutive year, total health club visits have surpassed 5 billion, up 25 percent since 2009.* But even though getting fit is the it thing to do, an alarming 28 percent of the American population is still completely inactive.
To remove the intimidation factor and help you cut through the clutter, we talked to experts, gym representatives, and—most importantly—real people to get the inside scoop on the biggest national gyms.
There are five factors to keep in mind when deciding what gym to join, says Noam Tamir, who used to work at a national gym and is now the owner of TS Fitness:
- Location: Convenience and access are key.
- Suitability: Does the facility support your goals?
- Price: Is it within your budget?
- Staff: Are they qualified, friendly, and attentive?
- Reputation: Ask around. Nothing is better than a personal recommendation.
Most gyms will offer a free day pass—but ask for a free week to really see if it will work for your routine. Another insider tip: "Sales people have quotas, so negotiate rates or services and be willing to walk away," Tamir says. (Note: All prices and info listed below are only estimates and may vary by location.)
Got that? Good. Keep on scrolling to find the right gym for you.
If You're New to the Gym: Planet Fitness
Chances are you’ve seen Planet Fitness’s funny and totally relatable lunk alarm ads highlighting its comfortable environment and lack of “gymtimidation.” That's exactly what makes this "non-gym" perfect for anyone who's new to working out or intimidated by people grunting at the weight rack.
"We want everyone to feel accepted and respected whether they’ve been to a gym before or not. With our Judgement-Free Zone, Planet Fitness is perfect for all fitness levels,” says Brian Zehetner, director of health and fitness at Planet Fitness.
- 1,200 locations nationwide that are clean, well maintained, and spacious
- Small group classes are quick (30 minutes or less), total body, informative, and fun!
- Strong focus on educating members and providing a positive atmosphere
- Low cost, no commitment
- Lots of cardio machines
Relaxation area with massage chairs (for Black Card members)
- No one-on-one personal training
- An inexperienced crowd of people at the gym might not be motivating
- If you don't seek out classes or help, you could be left on your own
- $10 per month with no commitment
- $19.99 for a Black Card membership, which gives you access to any location and the option to bring a friend for free
- $1-$10 sign-up fees, depending on promotion
The Bottom Line:
If you've never ventured beyond a treadmill, you'll still feel right at home. Planet Fitness is super affordable, has everything you need to get in a good workout, and is well maintained. Group class lovers often use it in conjunction with a studio membership. But if you want one-on-one attention or are into heavy lifting, this isn't the place for you.
If You're Already Committed to a Holistic and Healthy Lifestyle: Life Time Fitness
You've been into health and fitness long before the #postgym selfie. You'll thrive in an environment like Life Time Fitness, which supports a holistic approach to health for you (and your fam).
"We are the healthy-way-of-life company, from the cafés to the programs to the trainers. We want to be your partner in health for life, not just your health club or gym. We want the experience to go beyond the physical—that's the superficial layer. The depth goes beyond that to you feeling happier, healthier, and more connected to yourself," says Rob Glick, director of Life Time Group Fitness Feature Formats.
- Sprawling, well-kept facilities that feel like campuses
- A variety of group fitness offerings that cater to every skill level, from "ex-ertainment" (fun classes) to "alpha" programs (extreme fitness)
- Family friendly; includes a child center with tutors and physical activity programs for kids
- Supports structured training for competitive athletes by sponsoring major races (like marathons and triathlons)
- One-on-one training as well as small group training for common interests (team boot camp, team yoga, team weight loss, etc.)
- Atmosphere feels like a hotel, with new equipment, a pool, a café, a spa, and a lounge
- Limited locations (due to size)
- Not open 24/7
- Pricier due to amenities
- $59-$159 per month with 5 membership level options (Diamond, Onyx, Platinum, Gold, and Bronze)
The Bottom Line:
If you value a multiprong approach to health, can find a location that's convenient for you, and are willing to spend a bit more, Life Time will become your healthy home away from home. It has everything your little active heart could desire and acknowledges that health is about more than just physical fitness.
If You Hate the Gym and Love Variety: ClassPass
Gyms make you shudder. You freakin' love the #girlboss vibe at that boutique studio you tried but don't dig the price tag. Enter ClassPass, a monthly subscription service providing lower-cost access to a large network of small fitness studios and gyms.
"ClassPass makes working out more accessible and affordable, giving members unprecedented choice by offering a diversity of options, including cycling, Pilates, yoga, boot camp, strength training, dance, and more," says Ashley Hennings, a ClassPass spokesperson.
- Your choice of thousands of classes at more than 8,000 locations in 30 major cities in the U.S.
- Variety of options = you'll never be bored!
- Group fitness provides a sense of community
- An app that makes sign-up quick and easy, and offers reviews for each class
- Difficult to book classes at peak hours (6-9 a.m. and 5-8 p.m.)
- A 12-hour cancellation policy and no-show fees
- No physical gym that you can use as you please
- $30-$45 per month for 3 classes
- $45-$75 per month for 5 classes
- $90-$135 per month for 10 classes
- ClassPass no longer offers an unlimited option
The Bottom Line:
ClassPass is a great way to experiment with fitness and try a bunch of different workouts to find one you love. If you work odd hours, this could be the right fit for you. But it can be hard to build a consistent habit since you don't have loyalty to one location. Many use ClassPass to supplement an inexpensive gym membership.
If You Have a Crazy Schedule: Anytime Fitness
You work the overnight/red-eye/double shift on the reg, but you're still dedicated to fitting in workouts—even if it doesn't happen till 11 p.m. You need a gym that's open 24/7/365, just like Anytime Fitness.
"At other gyms, new members frequently give up and quit because they lack support and guidance from trainers and staff. Anytime Fitness’s personalized services help members achieve and build upon little victories, which motivates them to keep working until they reach their ultimate goals," says Mark Daly, the national media director for Anytime Fitness.
- Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (with some limited hours on holidays)
- 2,250 locations in all 50 states
- Membership allows access to every location worldwide, with no additional cost
- New members are given a free fitness assessment and free 30-day Get Started Plan to set them up for success
- Smaller facilities that feel more intimate than big-box gyms
- No luxe extras like fancy locker rooms
- Less group class variety
- Around $50 per month
The Bottom Line:
Anytime Fitness is not the cheapest gym in town, but you can also work out there at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night (or is it Sunday morning?). Members are loyal because they feel they get the support and guidance needed to achieve their goals.
If You Prioritize Wellness and Love Luxury: Equinox
"Everything we do is grounded in substance but elevated in style, making our programs, services, and aesthetic unmistakably Equinox. We make it our mission to reach beyond the four walls of our clubs and offer a holistic approach to healthy lifestyle that touches three key pillars: movement, nutrition, and regeneration," says Carlos Becil, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Equinox.
- Facilities feel luxurious
- A focus on one-on-one personal training services
- Wide variety of innovative studio classes at all locations
- An app that tracks performance and preferences, makes sign-ups easy, and connects you to other members
- Extras such as cold eucalyptus towels, a super-spongy mat stretching area, and Kiehl's products in locker rooms
- On-site juice bars
- Relaxation and recovery services at the spa
- Caters to urban high achievers located in big cities
- Overcrowding in peak months and during peak times
- High price tag
- An exclusive atmosphere that can feel intimidating
- $80 to more than $200 for a universal membership
The Bottom Line:
If you're into cutting-edge extras, Equinox is where it's at. Yes, it's pricey, but it offers original classes and a ton of great amenities (we've even used the showers and steam rooms on days we don't work out). But you will have to look past the fact that everyone there looks like a model.
If You Like Structure and Use Measurement As Motivation: Orangetheory Fitness
You've tried gyms but prefer a more structured workout. Orangetheory's heart rate-monitored, high-intensity interval workout is your answer. Is it a gym? Not really. It's more like a studio. But it's one that has taken the country by storm, opening more than 600 locations nationwide (including one in Alaska!) in just six years.
"Backed by the science of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, Orangetheory's workouts are designed to get participants within the target training zone of 84 to 91 percent of their heart rate, which stimulates metabolism and increases energy. Skilled coaches incorporate endurance, strength, and power elements through a variety of equipment including treadmills, rowing machines, TRX suspension, and free weights. The end result is more energy, visible toning, and [afterburn]," says Scott Breault, director of marketing for Orangetheory.
- More than 600 locations in the U.S.
- A challenging workout (every time!) that can be customized to your personal fitness level
- A focus on proper form during strength training with cues and visual examples displayed on big screens
- Timely mini challenges to keep you motivated
- An encouraging community with some friendly competition
- Limited space to stretch or cool down in some locations
- Not all trainers provide an equal experience
- Individual sessions start at $28
- $99 is the average for all memberships, prices vary per location
- Memberships are month to month with no contract and allow the purchase of additional sessions at a discounted rate
The Bottom Line:
It's a great way to shake up your usual weights-treadmill-weights routine, and is especially popular as a supplement for outdoor enthusiasts (hey, trail runners!) or people who deem CrossFit boxes a bit too intense. If you're a newbie, build up to this one.
If You Can't Decide Between a Gym or a Boutique Studio: Crunch
The endless line of cardio machines at the high-volume, low-price gyms just don't do it for you anymore. Graduate to Crunch, which aims to be a one-stop shop for fitness that's fun.
"Whatever you would look for in a fitness facility, we like to think we have all of that under one roof. We have private training, variety and options, dynamic group fitness, and early-morning to late-night hours. Plus, we invest time, effort, money, and strategy into making sure that experience is good," says Frank Pasquale, regional director of sales for the East Coast at Crunch.
- Locations are tidy and well maintained
- Innovative classes fuse fitness and entertainment with unique options like Barre Brawl, Tread n' Shed, and Laugh Your Ass Off
- Bliss Spa products and clothing steamers in locker rooms
- Strong community with monthly open-house events featuring food, smoothies, or DJs.
- App allows sign-in and class sign-up (25 percent of class slots are held for within-the-hour walk-ins)
- Trainers attempting to get new clients can come off pushy
- Large facilities can be overwhelming and tough to navigate
- $80-$100 per month
- $100 or less enrollment fee (watch out for promotions throughout the year)
- Most memberships don't require a long-term contract
The Bottom Line: Cardio, classes, weights, trainers, equipment—with a touch of fun. You can pretty much mind your own business. Get in, get a good workout, and get on with your day.
If You Love a Bare-Bones Gym and Heavy Lifting: Gold's Gym
All you need are heavy things and a place to lift them, bruh. You don't care about what kind of soap is in the showers—the grittier, the better. Gold's Gym is the stuff of legends: It was founded in Venice, California, on training principles from Muscle Beach and is famous for producing bodybuilding champions (looking at you, Arnold).
According to the website, Gold’s Gym has continually evolved its profile by equipping gyms with the best amenities, the latest in cardio and strength-training equipment, and the most dynamic group exercise programs. You’ll find an energetic, supportive environment full of all kinds of people who are committed to achieving their goals.
- Locations in 38 states
- Full sets of free weights, cardio equipment, and high-tech strength training equipment
- Two free starter sessions with a trainer
- Trainers are friendly and give free advice or form correction if you ask, but don't hound you for business
- A separate, spacious functional training area with turf, equipment, and room for bodyweight exercises
- An evolved focus to include a wide range of classes, including the Les Mills program, so instruction is consistent
- No-frills gym
- No strong sense of community
- "Big-muscle" members can be intimidating (or welcoming!)
- As low as $9.99 per month for one location and no classes
- $20 per month for access to 3 locations
The Bottom Line:
This is a classic strength and lifting gym with bodybuilders galore. If you want to get swole and don't need a ton of amenities, Gold's Gym is for you. But if your focus is on cardio, classes, and a diet of more than just protein shakes, you might want to explore other options.
*All numbers are up to date. 2016 statistics will be released in spring 2017.