As you might have realised by now, I’m a huge fan of bodyweight exercises. You can use them for a great workout almost anywhere, but that’s not to say they aren’t without drawbacks.
For instance, it’s difficult to work your back and biceps without using a TRX or a horizontal bar of some sort. That means that if you want to do a full bodyweight workout, you really need to head out and find a playground. The alternative is setting up some sort of horizontal bar at home or in your hotel room.
But if you’re going to go to all that trouble, it could be worth trying to find a gym that you can use in the area.
Gyms aren’t necessarily superior to bodyweight workouts, but they do make it easier to progressively make your workouts harder, which is the single most important factor in improving your levels of fitness. Whether you want to build muscle, lose fat or improve your aerobic capacity, you need to apply the all-important principle of progressive overload to constantly improve.
Additionally, gyms offer a variety of ways to train which can make your workouts more fun, and also challenge you in new ways.
Personally, I love training with barbells because they are an incredibly effective way of building strength. So whenever I’m on the road I will try to find a gym that offers a free day pass, or has a small fee for using their facilities for the day.
I know that won’t always work out though because I will only pay to use a gym if it has the facilities I’m looking for – otherwise I would rather do a bodyweight workout.
What To Look For In A Gym
Whether you’re looking for a gym close to home that you are going to use regularly, or a gym that you’re going to use as a one-off, you need to know what you’re looking for.
There’s a lot of different equipment in a gym, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for it can be overwhelming.
Generally speaking there are:
- Machines – Machines allow movement in only one plane and direction, which isolates a particular muscle group. These can be useful for some rehabilitation programs after an injury, but are not generally as efficient as free weights. Examples of machines include the leg press, smith machine, leg extension, machine fly (or ‘pec dec’), and leg curl.
- Free Weights – The use of free weights demands the use of multiple muscle groups, balance and co-ordination to complete a given lift or exercise. As I explain in this post, focusing on free weight exercises that use multiple muscle groups is the most efficient way of working out. Examples of free weights are barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.
- Cardio Equipment – Cardio equipment can be useful for anyone who wants to burn fat and build aerobic capacity. It can also be useful for rehabilitating an injury. But my recommendation is to save your money and head outdoors and do some sprints or another form of cardio you enjoy. Examples of cardio equipment are treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes.
Bodyweight exercises are so effective because they require you to use multiple muscle groups at once. For example, when you do a push-up, you are not only using your chest, you are also using your triceps, certain muscles in the back, your core, and your glutes.
You are training your body as a unit, not just a collection of isolated muscles groups. Just think how long you would have to spend working out if you tried to train all of those muscle groups individually. Free weight exercises are so effective for this exact same reason.
If you think strength training is something you would like to have a go at, here’s what to look for in a gym:
- Olympic Barbell and Plates – An Olympic barbell is the most important piece of equipment when training for strength. It can be used for squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, and rows. Olympic barbells weigh 20kg, and the plates usually weigh different denominations up to 25kg (or 45lbs).
- Power Rack or Squat Rack – A Power Rack or Squat rack is used for holding the barbell at a certain height to begin your lifts. A power rack will usually have safety bars and other attachments such as a pull-up bar, whereas a squat rack may not. They are usually used for squats, bench press and overhead press.
- Dumbbells – Dumbbells are more commonly found than barbells and racks. They are more useful for beginners, and you can perform most upper body exercises using dumbbells, but you will not be able to lift as much weight as they are not as stable. You will also not be able to do heavy squats using dumbbells.
- Pull-up Bar/Dip Station – Usually this will be an assisted machine, but I recommend you don’t use the assist and do negative reps instead. If you don’t see a pull-up bar right away, you might find one in a power rack, or could alternatively set the bar high in a smith machine.
- Benches – Benches are one of the most used pieces of equipment in a gym, so it’s always good if there’s 3 or 4. Some benches will be adjustable, and others will not. Obviously, adjustable benches will allow you to perform a greater variety of exercises.
- Kettlebells – Kettlebells can be an amazing tool for burning fat and building strength, if they are used right. Some people train exclusively with kettlebells in programs such as this one by RKC instructor Chris Lopez, and have incredible results. If you’re serious about kettlebell training, look for gyms that have kettlebells up to 70lbs (or 30kg).
You won’t always be able to find all of that equipment, but access to at least some of it will enable you to do a variety of great exercises.
Many gyms offer a variety of classes such as yoga, some sort of dance-fitness, or boxing. Personally, I don’t enjoy classes all that much, but I’ve noticed that they are helpful for beginners because you have to get there at a certain time and stay for the duration of the class.
Usually these classes are free for members, but won’t always be free with a day pass. If you’re interested in classes then you’ll need to find out which membership options include them in the price.
Some gyms offer facilities that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
If you’ve been doing bodyweight workouts in your hotel room or a playground for a while, then you might want access to an air-conditioned facility or a pool, for example. Some gyms even offer childcare and women’s only areas, while others have saunas and spas.
Consider what’s important to you. But if these are the sort of facilities you are interested in, be prepared to pay a bit more.
If you’re looking for a gym that you are going to use regularly, the location of it should be the most important factor in your decision.
There’s no point paying for a gym with amazing facilities if you’re never going to use it because getting there is too inconvenient. Instead, you should be looking for a gym that you will be able to go to regularly, so consider the following:
- Is it on the way to work? Will you have time to go before or after?
- What are the opening hours? Does it open early enough for you to go in the morning?
- Will you be able to get there easily on the weekends, when you’re not commuting?
When you’re travelling, on the other hand, it pays to be flexible.
While you will obviously find want to find a gym relatively close to wear you are, you won’t always be able to find one with the right facilities right on your doorstep. Since it’s only a one-off though, I’m always happy to travel a bit further to find the right gym. Doing this also gives you the opportunity to explore more of the area you are in.
Depending on where you are, actually finding a gym (and then finding out if they offer day passes) isn’t always as easy as you might think. You can always do a Google search, but there are some tools that make it easier.
First up is PayAsUGym.com, which is only available in the UK at the moment.
This website is ideal for our purposes, and it’s a shame they aren’t operating internationally. But if you’re ever in the UK be sure to give it a go.
They’ve partnered with thousands of gyms (including major chains) up and down the country to offer day passes to their users. You simply enter your location, and the results will return a number of gyms in your area. You can then filter them by rating, distance, facilities and price.
Gymsurfing is a similar service that is available in the US.
Gymsurfing works in much the same way as PayAsUGym. It finds gyms in a given city and lets you purchase a day pass. Unfortunately, the selection of gyms is extremely limited, and the passes are often expensive. Hopefully as the app becomes more popular this will change though.
You can download the app for free on your iPhone or Android.
Outside of the UK and US, Google Maps is the best tool available (that I know of) for finding gyms on the road.
I wanted to embed a map here with a search box, but it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought! Nevertheless, you can head over to the website and search for a gym anywhere in the world.
This method takes a bit more leg work because you have to click through to the gym’s own website to find out what facilities they have and if they offer day passes, but you should still be able to find somewhere pretty quickly.
Plus, you can use the directions feature to make sure you don’t get lost on the way!
Getting A Deal
The tools above are great for finding gyms that offer paid day passes and other membership options.
But they won’t help you find a free day pass.
The fact is that most gyms offer free day passes because the want you to try their gym and sign up instead of going elsewhere, but they don’t always advertise them. Before you pay to use any gym, make sure you check their own website to see if they are offering them, or ask about it directly.
Here are some of the biggest gym chains in the world that are currently offering free passes:
|Name of Gym Chain||Country||Link To Free Pass|
|Equinox||US||Get Free Pass|
|Anytime Fitness||Worldwide||Get Free Pass (7 Days!)|
|24 Hour Fitness||US||Get Free Pass|
|Crunch||US||Get Free Pass|
|Gold's Gym||US||Get Free Pass (7 Days!)|
|David Barton||US||Get Free Pass|
|LA Fitness||US/Canada||Get Free Pass|
|LA Fitness||UK||Get Free Pass (3 Days!)|
|Fitness First||Australia||Get Free Pass|
|Virgin Active||UK||Get Free Pass|
If you travel between big cities, you might even be able to regularly use free passes to go to lots of different gyms without ever actually having to spend any money!
You can also use free passes to try a number of different gyms and find one that you really like. If you eventually settle on one and want to start using it regularly, you’ll probably need to sign a contract.
Contracts can put a lot of people off joining a gym because they see it as a big financial commitment. It definitely can be, but if you know exactly what you’re getting into you won’t have a problem.
Before you sign anything, make sure you look around for deals. For example, you can get a 2 year membership for 24 Hour Fitness from Costco for $369. When you break that down, it’s around 50% cheaper than what it would be if you walked in to buy membership. It’s also worth checking sites like Groupon and Living Social.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate, either. I’ve never known a gym in the UK to negotiate on their contracts, but it seems to work pretty well in the US. Besides, the worst they can say is ‘no’.
After you’ve got a good deal, here’s what you need to look out for when signing a contract:
- Is there an ‘out’ clause? What happens if you move, lose your job, or otherwise won’t be able to keep using the gym? You can usually get out of a contract if you move a certain number of miles from the club without having to pay a fee, but you will be required to pay an ‘early termination fee’ in any other circumstances.
- Can you freeze your contract? If you’re going to be out of town for a while you don’t want to pay while you’re not using it. This is particularly important for people who take long trips or Muslims who participate in Ramadan.
- How long is the contract for? Don’t just look at the monthly cost. Think about how long you are going to want to use the gym for, and the total cost that you will pay over the course of the contract.
- Is there an activation fee? If you join in the middle of the month you will sometimes be required to pay for the remainder of that month (pro rata), but other gyms require an activation fee on top of your membership fees.
- Is there a maintenance fee? Some gyms have a clause that enables them to charge you a fee for maintenance. This also allows them to close for extended periods while you carry on paying for your membership.
Getting Your Money’s Worth
You don’t need to join a gym to get in shape or get healthy.
You can always stick to bodyweight exercises, work out at home with some simple bits of equipment, or head outside and do some sprinting.
But if you do want try something new, or use facilities like a sauna or pool, you can use the methods above to find a great gym anywhere.
Personally, I like going to the gym because it is my time to exercise. It’s my time to forget about everything else and focus on my workout, so I always make an effort to find a gym in any new location I go to.
Finding a gym is only half the battle, though. When you get there it’s crucial that you have a plan.
If you’ve been doing lots of bodyweight exercises, my suggestion is to focus on heavy strength training for your back and legs. The reason for this is that the back often gets neglected in bodyweight routines (because it’s hard to train without equipment), and the legs respond particularly well to heavy squats and deadlifts.
You can learn more about these exercises here, but if you’re going to be using a gym regularly I highly recommend LGN365 by my friend JC Deen.
JC is one of the few individuals in the fitness industry I really trust, and he gives you everything you need to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. You get a complete guide to 7 different training programs, video demonstrations, a nutritional guide (with calculators) and interviews with other smart people in the fitness industry.
If you’ve gone to the trouble of finding a great gym, make sure you make it count!
What do you look for in a gym? Did I forget to mention any handy apps or websites?
Let me know in the comments!