How Does Your Gym Stack Up?

chalk
Photo: madscientistlabs.blogspot.com

A few days ago, I read an article called No Chalk Allowed! written by Shaun N. Jafarian for Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength website (it was actually published back in May 2012).

The article is a “no holds barred” analysis of some of the more popular gym chains in our nation. The descriptions, for the most part, weren’t pretty. For instance, Jafarian’s depiction of 24 Hour Fitness includes:

An example; The Kegel machine. At least that’s what I’ve always called it. A few seconds wasted on Google indicated this repugnant piece of hardware is referred to as an adduction/abduction machine. A middle aged trophy wife can usually be seen occupying this ridiculous contraption, legs spreading and closing ever so rhythmically while her ipod fills her head with the sounds of Michael Bolton. Henceforth this machine will be known as… the Kegel machine. If your gym has more Kegel machines than power racks, it’s time to find a new one. There is absolutely no functional reason whatsoever to apply resistance to one’s hips and inner thighs in this manner. I’ll leave a refutation of this statement to the more imaginative.

But this next part interested me:

This 24 Hour Fitness was home to a single power rack. Next to it was an angled squat rack, while two Smith machines sat in close proximity. The Smith machines were occupied with people doing whatever it is they do with that thing while the power rack was empty. I was happy to see some round plates mixed in with the 12 sided rubber-coated ones that always dominate these clubs. There was no dedicated deadlift platform, but that was no big deal since the power rack and round plates were all I needed. This rack did not include a pull-up bar at the top. No chalk was offered anywhere in the gym, but this was no surprise. I had brought my own, and I also noticed a few faint remnants of past chalk use on the bar. That’s a good sign and one that would be absent in some of the other clubs I’d call on.

My gym has only a single squat rack and a single smith machine in very close proximity to each other. In fact, if two people tried to change the weight plates in the space where the squat rack and smith machine are closest, they’d collide. Not a good sign.

I’ve never seen anyone use chalk at my gym and only have seen one person use wrist straps to lift heavier weights without having to rely on his grip to hold the bar.

To continue…

In total I would visit 4 different 24 Hour Fitness locations. One of them had a dedicated deadlift platform, none of them had more than two power racks, one had a single rowing machine, (my preferred warm up routine) and two of the four had nothing but 12-sided plates.

All of the plates at my gym are the standard round ones, so that part is good. I’d never even heard of a dedicated deadlift platform in a gym before reading this article. I just figured you did deadlifts on the floor and that was that. We do have a couple of rowing machines, but I prefer doing cardio on the elliptical. As far as warm ups, I warm up doing the exercise I plan to start with, just at lighter weights.

crossfit
Photo: productpeel.com

From here, the writer moves on to CrossFit, the powerlifting rage in this nation today. But will that mean he’ll grant them a bit of grace, or ream into them just as he did the previous gym chain?

Speaking of CrossFit, it has found its way into almost every gym, corporate or otherwise. Much like venereal disease, it spreads voraciously, is difficult to get rid of and can really ruin what should have been an enjoyable experience. Furthermore if not stopped in its tracks it can lead to hospitalization and/or personal disfigurement.

Well, no love there. But he goes on to say…

I discovered a small, privately owned gym in the Midwest that I initially had high hopes for. While definitely not a dedicated CrossFit gym, it certainly was friendly to true believers despite the total absence of Olympic lifting equipment.

But then…

This should have been my cue to make a hasty retreat, but I figured I ought to get my training for the day accomplished, and I must admit I couldn’t pass up the chance of witnessing some epic train wreck – maybe a crossfitter doing deadlifts on roller skates merged head-on with a guy doing Turkish get-ups in the Smith machine. Alas, it didn’t happen – at least not while I was there. I was doing high bar Olympic squats in the power rack when some strange little man approached mid-concentric to offer up his unsolicited training advice.

“You’re squatting too low bro, gonna hurt your knees.” This was one of those moments my years in the U.S. military paid off. It had made me an expert in completely tuning out obnoxious noise and meaningless drivel. I continued my set as though my uninvited coach weren’t there. He took the hint and moved on, to his other trainees I presume. This gratuitous instruction offered up by strangers is a great motivator for building one’s own home gym.

By the way, this is a very long article, which is why I am quoting from it at length, just to give you a representative sample of the author’s writing style and his rather candid opinions.

As far as CrossFit is concerned, Jafarian made the “true believers” sound more like cult members than athletes or even just people who work out.

gold's gym
Photo: wesleydesigninc.com

Next, he took on Gold’s Gym which at least historically, was the gold (no pun intended) standard of bodybuilding. I’ve got both a Gold’s Gym and an Axiom Fitness Center within a short drive of my home, and in the past, I’ve considered moving to one or the other if, for no other reason, than to gain access to more free weight equipment, or more specifically, more squat racks and bench press benches. But what would Jafarian have to say about the all-time legend of gyms?

Up next, the quintessential bodybuilding altar, Gold’s Gym. While it doesn’t quite boast as many members as 24 Hour, this ubiquitous club has over 700 locations worldwide and was made famous many years ago by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a host of other celebrities whose names adorn the walls of each location. Like the other corporate gyms, a free trial was just a few clicks away and I soon found myself enduring another guided tour and scripted sales pitch. The pillar of this peddling was the “personal training” they offered. For some asinine amount of money beyond the standard gym fee I could have my own personal parrot to echo cliché phrases of encouragement speckled with staccato technique tips. Now, to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for those just starting a fitness regimen, providing the trainer’s education on the matter is sound. While I cannot attest as to whether this was the case or not, I will say based on how hard the salesman was pushing the issue that it must generate a lot of revenue.

Well, at least Jafarian doesn’t think personal trainers are completely useless. Naturally, not all people want or need one, including Jafarian who seems to know what he’s doing. On the other hand, I got the distinct feeling that Gold’s Gym has gone downhill from the must-go-to-gym for serious bodybuilders and weightlifters to a corporate chain sold to the uneducated and out-of-shape masses.

The buzz kill for me was when he described the “gimmicks”.

Cardio Cinema. As we approached the closed, windowless double doors I could hear a low, deep rumbling coming from within. Inside, Transformers played on a giant screen in the dark theater filled with stationary bikes, elliptical riders and stair masters. I was a bit mesmerized at first. I mean despite the fact that I’d probably never step foot in here again (unless they were playing some flick I desperately wanted to see, but then I’d rather sit on a couch or something as opposed to a stationary bike – perhaps I could affix three giant rubber balls together with one of those big rubber band thingies that seem to be everywhere to construct a makeshift Lazy Boy), it’s a brilliant marketing idea.

cardio cinema
Photo: wsj.com

I can put a treadmill in front of a television and do the same thing at home. In fact, at my gym, there are television sets all over the place tuned to a variety of channels. Even some of the cardio machines have monitors that play various stations, though not full-length feature films in a darkened environment set up like a movie theater. Who needs it and who needs to pay for it?

Beyond the expensive juice bars and game machines, this next part got my attention:

This Gold’s had only one power rack, a couple of angled squat racks, and no less than five flat benches. It’s always “chest day” at Gold’s.

Over equipped in one area and woefully underequipped in another, very important area. Gold’s Gym has fallen far. And it looks like the Gold’s Gym that Jafarian is describing has something in common with my gym:

When it was my turn with the rack the first thing I noticed was the proximity of the angled rack to the right and the Smith machine to the left. No more than 12 inches separated the equipment, so little that the notion of lifters loading or unloading barbells simultaneously between adjacent racks was totally impossible. In fact, a few times I was concerned that the ends of the barbells could strike each other if I wasn’t extra careful.

This is exactly what I mentioned above about the proximity of the squat rack and the smith machine. I know the gym owners are trying to maximize the amount of equipment for a limited space, but this probably represents a safety hazard as well as a pain in the butt.

Here’s one area where I disagree with Jafarian:

The proximity of the racks to the wall of mirrors was not ideal. A lot of folks really enjoy looking at themselves while they lift. I’m not one of them, and I find mirrors a potential distraction while squatting, particularly if the rack is positioned right up against one. A mirror is not a strength training tool, it’s a grooming tool. I realize that a lot of the people in these places do not discern a difference between these two activities, so mirrors abound.

He’s right about the potential for distraction. I’ve been distracted more than once in the squat rack because the mirror right in front of me was showing some activity behind my back. But I also really appreciate being able to check my form and the nearness of my butt to anything I might be trying to sit on to improve my performance. He probably doesn’t need the help, but my level of experience is years or more likely decades behind his.

planet fitness donuts
Photo: facepunch.com

Next, he continued his review, this time on Planet Fitness.

If Gold’s was the most usable and tolerable fitness chain for strength training that I’d investigated, then Planet Fitness was the least.

I’ve heard nothing but bad about Planet Fitness. If it were the only gym on earth, I’d find a way to build a home gym suitable to my needs. But let’s find out what Jafarian’s beef was with them.

I’m pretty sure I’m physically weaker just for having stepped into one of these. I must reiterate – one of these. That’s all it took. I’ll never go to another one, and I may just avoid any business located on the same block for good measure.

As I approached the front desk I noticed a large stack of Krispy Kreme doughnuts there for the taking. I would later learn that they offer pizza on other days, and bowls of various free candies are always available. This chain claims to cater to people who are new to “working out” as well as the more experienced trainees, however their gimmick to help get people in the door is to offer up the most calorically dense foods on Earth for free upon arrival. The words, “Judgment Free Zone” were painted in giant letters on the wall, in addition to an utterly precious “Planet Fitness= No Critics.” The entire place is painted in a stomach turning combination of purple and yellow, the colors of royalty and cowardice…

That’s worse than I thought. Decades past, I went to a dentist who used to hand out candy to her child patients and she joked it was to ensure repeat business. Is Planet Fitness trying to keep their own customers fat, weak, and helpless so they’ll keep coming back for more. What’s the point of working out then loading up on donuts and pizza on the way out the door?

Jafarian’s description sounds like something Ron Swanson would say if Swanson believed in exercising.

And then I saw it. A sign fixed to a pillar that read “No Chalk Allowed!” Honestly I found it curious that they would even need to post such a sign. The place is disturbingly clean.

Anyway, there must have been a chalk-related incident recently to warrant the sign. As it turns out, “incidents” are not uncommon in this chain – they made the news not too long ago over the most preposterous of their policies. The now famous “Lunk Alarm.” I don’t know which soulless piece of human debris on the board of directors came up with this one, but it pretty much sums up the atmosphere this corporate franchise offers its members. Whenever a patron does something in this place the handlers disapprove of, an actual alarm will sound. Another axiom on the purple wall: “Lunk = One who grunts, drops weights, or judges.” My piss began to boil at the shear hypocrisy. If a person does anything that resembles actual strength training he will be immediately judged as being a “lunk,” and critiqued with a blaring alarm. The few people I saw screwing around with the dumbbells looked as though they were handling fragile porcelain figurines, concentrating more on quietly placing them on the rack than actually using them.

lunk alarm
Photo: tribecacitizen.com

Need I go on? Planet Fitness is described, not as a gym where people want to challenge themselves and become more than what they are (building lean muscle and strength, and losing overabundant body fat in the process), but as a clinic for enablers and the enabled, who gain the “satisfaction” of “working out” and not feel “judged” when it has no positive impact (and chowing down on free pizza and donuts on each visit, how could anything positive come out of this place?). And according to Jafarian, he was told that you weren’t allowed to deadlift at Planet Fitness.

I’m done. Next.

Only there is no “next.”

This is where we’ve arrived. The days of the privately owned, friendly gyms where people go simply to get physically stronger are coming to an end. Of course they still exist now, but mainly in circles where true strength training is an athletic necessity. Those of us amateurs who lack access to professional facilities often find ourselves making do with what these conglomerate fitness chains have to offer. It is possible to accomplish strength goals in these places, but it requires a little bit of flexibility and creativity. Above all it demands tolerance for exceptionally silly nonsense. G. K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” While perhaps a bit extreme in this instance, the idiom is not without merit. When one finds himself training at a gym that doesn’t fully suit his needs, the process of either finding or creating an ideal setting should be as critical as the physical progression itself

So you’re lucky enough to have access to a gym suited for strength training, have a home gym that meets your requirements, or, in all likelihood, you’ve found a gym that isn’t entirely up to snuff but you can still work with…

..like me.

Under the latter condition, Jafarian suggests bringing with you what you need that the gym doesn’t provide, such as a chalk sock, support belts (and my gym has several available, though I don’t use them), and a weight-bearing belt.

Jafarian says that of the gyms he’s visited, CrossFit gyms will have all of the necessary strength training equipment, but typically they are way too expensive. His final recommendation is just to save up and build a home gym.

Two years worth of dues at a commercial fitness chain would be more than a healthy start on a home gym. So what would define my perfect strength training facility? It’s incredibly simple: some type of rack to squat with, either power or stands like most Olympic lifters use, a flat bench, a pull-up bar, some dip bars and maybe a rowing machine to loosen up with. A platform for the Olympic lifts and a decent array of bumper plates, a bucket of chalk and a distinct lack of mirrors

home gym
Photo: t-nation.com

I don’t have the space to build a home gym and I’m pretty sure that dragging a bunch of weight equipment in and spreading dust and chalk around would send my wife into orbit and me to a homeless shelter. Did I mention that we just had the carpets cleaned and she chewed me out yesterday for getting a little flour on one of the kitchen cabinets (no, the kitchen isn’t carpeted)?

The gym where I train isn’t ideal for strength training. I’ve already mentioned the lack of adequate equipment as well as the inconvienient proximity of the squat rack to the smith machine. It’s always a struggle to get a good workout in while worrying about whether or not the next bench or rack I’ll need will be occupied before I get there. That’s one reason why I try to get to the gym early and get to the squat rack right away.

But the other gyms in reasonable driving difference are no better, including Gold’s Gym, Axiom, and 24 Hour Fitness. Guess I’ll have to settle for what I’ve got and make do for the present.

How about you?

Better to be strong than pretty and useless.

Lilith Saintcrow, Strange Angels

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