If you ask your friends and family what their New Year's resolutions are, a fitness goal is likely to be included.
This, quite simply, is the busiest (and best) time of the year for gyms and fitness centers. The newly ambitious will be streaming in throughout January, supplementing the traditional gym-going crowd.
However, many of those people who will be at the gym in January won't be there in February. And fewer will be there in March. If you want to be one of the handful that's there in April, picking the right gym is crucial.
You don’t want to spend a handful of hours each week at a place you dread visiting. Or one that's filthy, unkempt or disorganized. So here are some things to look for from top fitness professionals as you look to find your perfect gym.
• Look for a gym that's on one of your familiar routes around your hometown.
"Don't triangulate," says Lou Schuler, author of the New Rules of Lifting.
"If you're trying to decide on the best location, pick a place that's either near work or near home, or at worst on a direct path from one to the other. If you choose a gym off that route -- creating a triangle between work and home -- you probably won't get there as often as you'd like."
• Feel comfortable. It doesn’t have to be an instant comfort, but you shouldn’t be intimidated as soon as you step inside.
"One of the most important and overlooked factors is simply the vibe you get when you enter the facility," says fitness professional Bret Contreras. "Some folks prefer hardcore dungeon-like gyms while others prefer fancy state of the art gyms, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Make sure you find a gym that floats your boat in terms of look and feel as this will increase your desire to get off your butt and hit up the gym."
Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance in Boston says clientele is just as important. "If you're an intimidated female," he says, "it's probably not a good fit if you walk in and see loaded of enormous bodybuilders and powerlifters. Conversely, if you're an athlete who wants to train heavy and needs spots/hand-offs and a good training environment, hitting up your local yoga studio isn't a good fit."
Plus, the facility shouldn't be dirty. If it's dirty in January when every day is essentially an open house, think of how it will be in December.
"How you do one thing is how you do everything. If the gym is not kept fairly clean, bathrooms and the gym floor itself, it probably is indicative that the owners and staff don’t take a lot of pride in the gym," says trainer Nick Tumminello.
• The gym you choose should also have plenty of the things you're planning to use.
"Ignore the stuff you don't use," Schuler says. "Swimming pools, saunas, and basketball courts are nice, but why pay for those amenities if you're only joining to use the weights or the cardio machines?"
And you should be planning to use plenty of free weights.
"Does the gym place a greater emphasis on quality free-weight strength training exercises over machine-based programs?" asks strength coach Jim Smith. "There are limitations associated with strength training on machines. Also, machine-based training is less efficient because it is typically associated with isolation exercises that target one specific muscle group.
• Don’t be afraid to interview the fitness staff at the facility, especially if you’re looking at hiring a personal trainer. Apply the same general criteria to selecting a trainer as you would selecting a doctor, dentist or lawyer. So yes, that means picking the trainer with the biggest biceps means isn’t always the smartest decision.
"Are the trainers certified through a national fitness organization?" Smith encourages you to ask. "Also, how many years experience do they have training clients? Does the trainer know how to teach basic compound movements to a variety of people at different skill levels? A trainer must gain experience through years of training clients at all skill levels and be knowledgeable across a multitude of different training methodologies."
And yes, sometimes trainers are better at training people with a certain type of goal. If you're looking to get lean, a trainer who trains mostly powerlifters may not be the ideal choice.
"Look for testimonials on the website or walls to make sure that gym is helping people with goals similar to yours. If your goal is to lose weight but the testimonials are all from athletes or celebrities, then you might want to keep looking," says Portland area fitness professional Christopher Bathke.
Picking a gym may not be as easy as walking into the first facility you see. But the time spent picking the right facility is a miniscule investment and will return incredible fitness dividends -- throughout the year.
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