Dear Mark: Should I Join a Gym?

Dear Mark,

The last year or so I’ve been trying to get in better shape but have had to start from a pretty low level. With the help of some pretty major weight loss (thanks to the Primal diet) and a steady exercise routine I’m ready to kick it up a notch or two. I’ve thought about joining a gym but wonder if I should put my money toward some home equipment instead. I’ve been pretty basic up to this point. Where would you suggest I start? Is it worth it for a beginner like myself to join a gym? I don’t think there are any CrossFit clubs where I live.

I think everybody asks themselves this question at some point. I’ve always maintained that a PB-style workout is completely attainable without a lot of equipment, let alone an entire gym. Nonetheless, I definitely understand why so many prefer to join health clubs. I go to one myself for a number of reasons. For some, it’s about having an alternative to exercising in inclement weather where they live. For others, it’s about being able to focus better outside the home. For still others, it’s the variety of equipment or social setting that they feel keeps them motivated. In some cases, it’s about the additional perks (sauna, pool, etc.).

Let me say congrats on the progress you describe. The Primal Blueprint, as we say here all the time, is simply about the everyday effort and continuing progression of diet, activity, and lifestyle that will support your health over time. There’s no “bad” place to start (or re-start), no time table, and no upper limit no matter how long you’ve been in the game.

For relative beginners on the fitness scene, I guess I’d give this run-down on the gym question. First, the reasons to forgo the gym (or at least feel like it’s an unnecessary element)… Whether it’s about buying equipment or a club membership, the fitness commitment is all about ongoing personal motivation. An initial financial investment (piece of home equipment or membership) might be incentive to get us started, but it takes a lot more to stay on track long-term. It’s something, I think, we all intuit, but research studies support the point. It’s clear you’ve already sustained that commitment for an impressive stretch, enough for it to become an official habit, as the experts would say (usually a 3-6 month process). Totally revamping your practice all in one swoop might be counterproductive to the pattern you’ve established. For some, making a slower transition in adding workouts/additional settings is a better strategy. In other words, keep doing what you’ve been doing, but set goals for what you’d like to add in the next 1-2 months.

Unless the climate in your area makes it necessary, I usually don’t recommend that people go out and spend a big chunk of money on a cardio machine right away. If you’re able to get in low-level cardio and sprinting outdoors where you live, I’d argue that there’s little need for the big machines that tend to be budget-busters. Make smaller, more versatile investments first: a good mat, a medicine ball, some free weights, slosh tube, sandbag, kettlebells, etc. As for shaking up other parts of your workout, check out my past posts on sprints and plyometrics, as well as full workouts you can do anywhere.

I recently came across this run-down of exercises in the L.A. Times. Definitely worth checking out. While the parkour routines tend to be more advanced as we’ve said in the past, I really like the “trail full-body workout” they offer with ideas like hill skip repeats, uphill lunges, hill sprints and incline push-ups. It’s a great set of practices for anybody interested in a moderately challenging routine or just interested in getting a good outdoor workout. (Personally, I prefer being outdoors.)

As for the pro-gym perspective, I’d say this. For a lot of people, a gym can offer (at least) three important additions to their fitness endeavor: a variety of new ideas, a variety of equipment, and a new means of support and community. As for the new ideas, a lot of readers have commented on the fitness classes they take. Whether it’s the set time and group, the instructor motivation or the education opportunity for a totally new option (e.g. Tai Chi), a class has been integral to their overall routine. In terms of new equipment, a gym perhaps offers the best “try before you buy” possibility. You have the chance to get a sense of not only what equipment you enjoy using the most but what weights/sizes work the best for you. Finally, a gym can offer not just personal trainer expertise for learning new equipment basics and form. It often offers people a real community and sense of social support for their health goals. I’ve made some close friends at the gym, and some of the folks there continue to be incredible sources for tips and new ideas (not to mention inspiration). My experience has been that people really love doing what they can to help other people out – showing them the ropes, offering encouragement, etc.

The question about gym/home gym is timely not only because we have so many new readers onboard for the PB challenge, but because it’s actually a question that’s been in the news lately. With so many people looking to tighten their financial belts, what health related industries are taking a hit? How are gyms, for example, faring? It seems like a mixed bag. (I’m curious about what others are thinking. Has the economic downturn made a difference in your decision to join or renew? Doing some more comparison shopping for a club?) We’ll actually offer more on the health and “recession” theme this week. Stay tuned…

In the meantime, I’d ask everyone here what helped them ratchet up their workouts. What equipment, what class, what kind of workout environment/community/partnership made the difference for you?

Thanks as always for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

I Like Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Shake Your Gym Addiction. The Outside World is Waiting for You.

Tips for Sprint Training

LA Times – Gyms Are Slashing Prices

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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30 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Should I Join a Gym?”

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  1. The support and community aspect is one of the biggest reasons for me not to get a gym membership! Gym politics is something I could happily go the rest of my life without ever being subjected to again.
    Support – Too many self proclaimed “experts” trying to tell you that you are doing it wrong or how you could do it better.
    Community – Around here, that community is largly jerks, jocks, fighters and chodes. No thanks.
    I also find it hard to motivate myself to commute to the gym. By working out where/near I live, I never have an excuse, be it time or exhaustion.
    That is where I stand on the gym. Some people love it though 🙂 Different strokes.

    The SoG

  2. As someone who used to belong to health clubs but now works out at home I know the advantages and disadvantges of each. I definitely prefer to work out at home.

    I’ve been working out at home since I moved into this house nearly nine years ago. The main reason was that there weren’t any health clubs conveniently located nearby. Do not join any club unless it is very convenient to get to either from the office or home. The thought of getting in a car and driving 20 minutes or more to do a workout is hugely demotivating. (Sometimes its a struggle to motivate yourself to walk downstairs to do a workout!)

    I’ve also spent thousands of dollars on fitness equipment over the years, much of it that has ended up collecting dust. Tony Horton, the P90X fitness guru has said “All you need to get a great workout is gravity and a floor”. And that is so true. I do use my pull up tower and my Bowflex dumbbells and I have a yoga mat and block and a TV with a built in DVD player to do my P90X workouts, but I’ve made great progress just doing bodyweight exercises. I’m now incorporating “primal” exercises that I’ve learned from this site and am breaking through plateaus.

    While learning how to work out properly can be daunting for newbies there is no guarantee that the trainer at the gym knows what he or she is doing. When I started training on Nautilus equipment years ago the trainer taught me everything wrong! I spent months working out and making very little progress. Then I stumbled upon a Nautilus training book and learned how to do it properly. I made more progress in six weeks than I had in several months doing it the wrong way.

    There is a wealth of information and resources available via the web, DVDs, and books and you don’t have to pay a health club a lot of money, or buy a lot of fancy and expensive equipment to get or stay fit. I only wish I had learned that lesson several thousands of dollars ago.

  3. SoG, I do see a good deal of the jerky jock-chodes at my gym as well (like the guy who patrols around in his muscle shirt, talking on his cell phone, but never actually lifts weights. What’s up with that?!). But, the motivation factor is actually one of the reasons I like the gym. At my gym there’s no cell phone (I leave it at home), no computer, no TV, no friends, no excuse to hop off the home treadmill. The gym gives me one-on-one time with my good buddy “fitness.”

  4. The gym I visit usually has no more than a couple of people so there is never really a big community. I prefer to workout at home, specializing in the most intense bodyweight exercises I can do (1-arm pullups and pushups, pistols, burpees.)

    The support and community as SOG comments on can be quite irritating even in my miniscule gym. The people usually do long, boring cardio and they never pic up a weight heavier than 5 lbs. The trainers are absolute morons that instruct the clients with doing nothing more than bicep curls and lateral raises. I never give advice since find it annoying when some meathead tells me I am doing something wrong, but I just want to hand everyone a copy of the Paleo Diet or a link to this website.

  5. I joined gym over a year ago to get me started. Once there, I did the usual machines. then I started doing the Les Mills Bodypump class. That (besides being a pretty killer workout) taught me that all I really needed was one bar and a few plates to go on it. I pay close atention in class and once my membership is up for renewal, I’ll continue with the free weights at home, Bodypump style. Currently at home I do the “gravity and the floor” method.

  6. Chiming in here because I love the Gold’s Gym I go to. Haven’t seen any meatheads and people do not comment on each other’s workouts. The morning crew are serious about working out; the afternoon/evening crew is probably different, more of a meat market then.

    Piping in for the moms out there, but going to the gym also allows one to get a hot shower without constantly being questioned/needed by young children. That in itself is worth the price of my gym membership.

  7. Joining a gym is a good way to test out what kind of equipment works best for you so that you can later make a decision on what to buy if you go for the home-gym option. Although I agree with SOG that gym politics can be a pain, I did not have a problem with this in the early days because I was so pleased to be ‘part of the action’ and able to get advice from more experienced people. As it turns out, 90% of that advice turned out to be horse sh*t, but at the time it helped give me an enthusiasm that I perhaps would not have gained from working out at home.

  8. Conny,

    Amen to the mom perspective! Yes, the uninterrupted shower alone…

    In the same vein, getting out of the house allows me to focus on my workout in a way that I just can’t when I’m at home. Even if I try to work out after my daughter goes to bed, I keep looking at the messes that need to be cleaned up, the work that needs to be done (I work from home), etc. When I head out the door, I leave the distractions behind. I work out better, longer, and happier. And it’s such a pleasure to think of that lovely steam room and shower afterward. Pure heaven, especially now in the middle of a cold winter.

    As for the gym culture others have raised, I think I’m pretty lucky. I looked around when I was interested in joining a place. One place (L.A. Fitness) was way too meat market. I thought about a nearby women’s gym, but I got kind of a “you’re in, you’re out” sort of mentality – fine if you’re paying a Snap Gym kind of price but not what I would’ve paid for this place. Finally, I checked out a private neighborhood place and found it to be totally family friendly. Tons of classes, all age ranges, equal men and women, programs (not just babysitting) for kids, seasonal incentives, amenities, etc. (As or more affordable than the others I looked at – plus had insurance discount available.) I love the place. The trainers are so-so, but I’ve gotten some good tips from class instructors and other members. I’ve never seen the chode-crowd as described by others.

  9. I have built up a gym at home over the years and I couldn’t be happier with it. I feel like the money invested in mats, free weights, bands, a pull up bar, old tv/dvd player and my splurged elliptical are well worth it for the whole family divided over time. Getting to the gym was always and issue for me and contrary to the mom perspective, I like being able to shower in my own bathroom with all it’s amenities.

    In the past, if I needed an extra boost I would hire a trainer for a few sessions in my home or outdoors to give me a new perspective and a recharge.

  10. In the past I have belonged to a gym and I pretty much just ignore everyone there, so the “culture” doesn’t really bother me (I did have to laugh at the girls that came in wearing their designer “workout” suits, full jewelry, and their make-up totally done. They were clearly not about to get sweaty). However, I no longer have a gym membership – I work in an enclosed office all day and even though I try to get outside for lunch, that just isn’t enough time. So, weather permitting (which is most of the time since I live in So Cal), I work out outside – at a local outdoor track, on the beach, in my backyard. The fresh air totally rejuvenates me and pushes my workout to the max.

  11. I have exercised in my own little home-gym for the past two years. I have a yoga mat, dumbbells in five pound increments till 4, a bench, and a pullup bar.
    I find the whole entire idea of systematically exercising daunting. I’m fine with other people doing it, but I just feel like a hamster in a gym.

    Lately, I’m starting to peak with my two 40lb weights which is a hassle. The pull-up bar was definitely one of the best investments possible though.

    If I could reverse my dumbbell decision, I would definitely just buy a barbell and a rack of weights.

  12. I spent the $3300 to design my own home gym, with a full on Olympic bumper plate set, Concept2 Model D, squat rack, pull-up bars, kettlebells, rings…and the comfort of knowing I never have to share equipment, and I can do whatever the hell I want in my gym. I can blast what music I like, and I don’t have to watch people doing curls!

    Your modern gym has more metal than Metallica these days!

  13. Mark,

    This is a great topic. Obviously, the gym or no gym issue depends a lot a your personality. I think Son of Grok summed up my feelings about gyms pretty well.

    One of the things that motivates me personally is educating myself. Because I did a lot of reading on how most women don’t life heavy enough weights, I was motivated to change my ways. Luckily for me, my husband bought a Bowflex a long time ago. Even though I prefer free-weights, I definitely feel safer lifting heavier with the Bowflex, with no fear of getting seriously hurt.

    I, like Mark, would much rather work-out outdoors. And don’t let the cold weather deter you (unless it’s crazy cold, of course)! I live in Colorado, and we do get a lot of snow and some very cold days, but once you start moving, you warm up, I swear!

  14. I do both. My youngest has just started nursery school, and I get 2.5 hours of “Me” time twice a week. Heaven. So, I hit the fitness center (Military, so its free!) and spend time on the track, the bike, the arc trainer, in the weight room, in the sauna and have a nice long shower. I love it.

    I also have a gym at home with a treadmill, free weights, weight machine and elliptical set up in a little room. It’s more tricky, and I usually end up having many interruptions due to kids, phone “emergencies” (from kids) but I make it work. That’s why I look forward to my tuesdays and thursdays. I would love to incorporate at least ONE day of the weekend, but my family would fall apart in those hours away.

  15. I started running outside about a year ago as Texas weather is usually permissible, and found crossfit in August. Since then I bought some craigslist specials for $30 and have a beginner bar with about 260lbs worth of weight for my deadlifts. I do pullups and dips at the playground across the street. However, my family recently bought a full family package at the city’s recreational center which has a pool weights C2 rower etc. So I will start going there mostly for rowing and swimming I assume, as there’s not an area for Olympic style lifts. I’m watching craigslist for deals on equipment like bumper plates, which would be nice.

  16. I’m a home gym guy – I love working out outside and I don’t want to drive 20 mins to a gym and back.

    I recently purchased Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. This is by far the best fitness book I have ever purchased. I wouldn’t follow his diet advice, but the detail on the why and how to do different barbell exercises is staggeringly good.

  17. for some reason Im great at home cardio and not at home weights.

    I need the gym atmosphere. the energy in the air (even in an empty gym). whereas with cardio Im entirely motivated to grab a jumprope or hope on my exercise bike or go for a powerwalk.

  18. I prefer to work out @ home. I lift weights, run on my treadmill. I enjoy walking in the park. Some days i’ll go out in nature @ a park way out of town and ride my bicycle up and down the mountains, that is a workout in itself. I love to be out in nature bicycle riding.

    One thing i find with some people is some say finding a good friend that they enjoy being with to exercise together keeps motivation up and fun!

  19. I am in favor of working out at the gym because it provides me with much-needed structure. I find that there are many distractions at home, whereas at the gym my workouts are quick, efficient, and focused. There is no reason for me to be at the gym other than to exercise. At home I’m distracted by tv, computer, roommates, etc. Being in a space designated as one for working out keeps me from cutting corners in my workout– once I’m there, I’m sure to give my all during the workout.

    Going to the gym also helps me fit exercise into my schedule. The structure of leaving work or my apartment with the gym as a destination at a certain time seems like a less “skipable” agenda item in my day.

  20. I have to say that I agree with McFly. I like my gym membership for a few reasons. First, I can walk there so it’s a great way to get in around 2 miles of walking in everyday I go to the gym. Second, it gives me a chance to just unplug from everything. I don’t get cell service cause my gym is in a dungeon, so I’m technology free. It’s good for the soul. Also, you can find some nice people at the gym who are eager to hear your advice not to know what they’re doing wrong but so that they can get another perspective. I guess it’s all about where you workout.

    Thanks for the post and the links!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  21. Excellent post – primarily for the prison gym link. I have started using some of those exercises in my morning routine now. Thanks! 🙂

  22. Andrew,
    You’ve made a very good point! YES, it IS all about “where” you work out, and may i add, “WHO” you work out with. It’s like i say, i talk to people and they say working out with a “Good Friend” that’s high motivational makes it fun “no matter WHERE you work out!”
    Thanks Andrew for pointing that out, you’re so right!!!!

  23. Been thinking of giving up the membership actually. The classes were not much of a challenge and I was bored. My main reason for having the membership was to have a place to take the kids so I could workout.
    Now, I love my jump rope, running shoes, kettlebells, medicine balls and 1-2 really excellent DVD’s such as Runner-Core or Power Yoga.

  24. In my perfect world, I’d get all my exercise outdoors–rock climbing and mountain bike riding mostly. The two gym memberships I maintain allow me to keep fit in the real world of a full-time job, early sunsets and inclement weather. I don’t much care for the vibe at the “regular” gym where I swim laps but it doesn’t matter because I just get in there, put on my underwater music player and enjoy the zen-like solitude and bliss of my underwater world. The climbing gym is a totally different scene. I meet friends down there 2-3 times a week (arranged and impromptu) this time of year and always have a great time. I hear new music, visit, laugh, tailgate sometimes and always stretch, climb, hit the treadmill and/or do pull-up sets. As others have noted, there’s no cell or chores to distract me. And since my teenager is on the climbing team, she’s right there and I know she’s having fun and getting exercise, too. Climbing is great for strength building and very primal. Most towns of any size have climbing gyms these days. Check it out if you have one nearby!

  25. I like a mix of at home/outdoors and the gym. I don’t have the “heavy lifting” set-up of a gym at home (and no room for it), and I like to lift “heavy” with squats, deadlifts and the like. I really need a squat rack and full bar for some of it – the gym gives me that. Other days, my dumbbells, pullup bar or the great outdoors are plenty. Figuring out your needs and likes – including if you actually will get to the gym – is key.

  26. I would recommend that everyone join a gym, that atmosphere, the commradery and the drive that you get from seeing other people work out and achieve is immense.