Illustration by Elnora Turner

How to Choose a Gym When There Are... So Many of Them

If you want to start working out, figuring out where to go and what will fit your needs can feel overwhelming.

Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.



I love your philosophy for getting fit(ter) and want to follow it; but I need some advice. I have a few choices of local gyms; I’ve made a spreadsheet:


Which one do I pick? I want to follow your powerlifting plan but not spend too much time/money, also I’m old, so I don’t want to kill myself. Do I need to have a trainer, or can I use a camera to self-critique? What do I do? Any help is appreciated. --Lovely

My sense is that, not that long ago, gyms used to be more or less all the same—sweaty dudes yelling at each other in a box with a lot of weights. Now, we have vastly expanded the definition of what a 'gym' is, for better and worse. In terms of Google Maps, it's mostly for the worse: You might be looking for a more specific thing than you realize when you look up a local "gym" hoping to get in a workout, only to arrive and realize it's a room full of, say, Pilates machines designed only to be used with strict directions from an instructor, or four walls of hand- and footholds for learning to rockclimb. This is nice for anyone who wants to learn to do different things, but in a time when there are lots of different kinds of gyms, it's hard to figure out which kind of gym you want. If you're looking for that more classic gym experience, it can be a challenge to isolate those spaces from the more liberal interpretations of a "gym." It looks like you've already done some of that work, which is good, but doing a quick search for a more specific term like "powerlifting gym" or "strength training gym" or "barbell club" can put anyone on the right track.


To address you instruction question: You might be able to get more out of watching some videos and doing some practice reps yourself than you think, but yes, you can also film yourself and try posting the videos in purpose-built forums for other people to comment on and offer tips. I'm sure it won't come as a surprise to hear that you won't get to perfect this way, and a dedicated coach will always be better (there are great online coaches!), but you can lay the groundwork this way. None of the gyms you have listed here will offer more useful instruction than a coach can, unless they have dedicated "Learn to Strength Train/Powerlift" classes (in which case, go for those). But because you have laid out such a beautiful list, we can run through it quickly to assess the potential for weight-lifting to happen at each location. In order of least suitable to most.

Chain kickboxing place

You say they don't have weights so I'm not sure why you even have it on here, to be perfectly honest. It might be fun to take some classes here, but if you want to follow a powerlifting plan, you won't be able to do that when all you have are punching bags and rage. Pass.

Planet Fitness

This McGym is not really a gym, but more like a soft, edgeless playplace. Can you get sweaty here? Yes. But you can get sweaty anywhere, including your own home, if you must, so that metric is not super relevant to your needs. Planet Fitness does provide a climate-controlled environment to do cardio and some dumbbells, but not a whole lot else. Machines that have the weights tightly controlled on a greased track will not build your strength as well as the free-moving weights that force you to support them and stabilize them with your body. Not only that, but they can actually build unnatural movement patterns that can ultimately make you more prone to getting hurt; no one wants this. Furthermore, Planet Fitness prides itself on its no-tolerance policy for banging weights or grunting; many locations even include a "lunkhead alarm" meant to shame people who are lifting too heavy. I understand the goal here is to make a safe-feeling place for people who are intimidated by macho dudes and aggression, but some of the knockoff effect is that we teach people, which includes women, people of color, and LGBTQ people that there's a right way to take up space, and it begins with self-regulating one's attitude and noise level. I reject this wholeheartedly; heavy weights are fundamentally different and produce fundamentally different results than light ones. They are loud, and they take effort, and effort means that sometimes the people lifting them make noise. It doesn't mean you're going to turn around and physically attack someone. For these many, many reasons, I'm out.


The local Crossfit

What I can say for Crossfits is they tend to have abundant and good-quality equipment and lots of space that can be used to lift; you're not trying to edge your way around a football field of treadmills. They can actually be great spots to stop in when you're visiting a new town or city, since they are pretty ubiquitous and consistent in this particular respect. However, the problem with Crossfits is that what you are really paying for is the classes, which makes the whole operation very pricey (sometimes $200-300 per month, depending on the size of your city). They sometimes hold "open gym hours" when you can do whatever you want, but they are limited and kind of random. The classes, despite what the word "class" would suggest, but much like most fitness classes, are less about instruction or providing a base of knowledge and more about putting you in a room with someone who is motivating you by telling you what to do, when, and for how long. To many people, this has value! Though Crossfit often uses pretty heavy weights (and the people who do Crossfit professionally can do the workouts with very heavy weights), the workouts are ultimately more endurance-oriented than a progressive strength-building program is. If you are trying to build strength, you will build it better and faster just by focusing on that, as opposed to doing other things. Just my two cents.

Boston Sports (Club)

This place looks like it has the same owners as New York Sports Clubs, which can vary a little in quality but tend to be generally welcoming of lifters and have dedicated weights, racks, and barbells. They seem to range from $30 up to $100 per month, but the equipment is generally well-kept and of good quality. I know lots of lifters who go to them. Per your chart, it's also open late, which is a plus. It looks like it's a little farther away, so it may make sense to compare some of the amenities with your last (and to me, best) option, which is…


The dude-bro lifting gym

Now, you can probably picture this place even if you've never been inside. The equipment is not only not new, but probably "well-loved" by its adherents, i.e. beat to death, the paint scarred through to the chrome. The plates may be rusted and the stuffing is probably coming out the seams of the padded benches and seats. The dumbbells may not be in the racks, but instead scattered all over the floor. Men with enormous arms are propped up against the walls, their faces contorted in agony as their gym buddies bellow at them to keep pumping out more curls; that is, when they are not staring down their own reflections in the wall mirrors. There are at least a couple elderly people on the only elliptical and recumbent bike in the place, respectively. One of the TVs is permanently stuck on TNT because no one knows where the remote is, and the other one has broken closed captions and the display is one-half scratchy static. It is either silent like the grave (other than the yelling) or plays the latest hip-hop releases streamed from YouTube and SoundCloud on the staff's phones. The lighting is uneven and fluorescent. Everything in the bathroom is wet, and the only six lockers look like they were once thrown down a flight of stairs. If you cannot already tell, I love this place and I've never even seen it. It's my living room and my Disneyland all in one. I started lifting in exactly this place; it cost less than $20 per month and I loved it. Well, I learned to love it, but sometimes that is the best kind of love, because it took a lot of unlearning of my fears and biases, and teaching myself how to take what I wanted from a place like this, and that was a great thing to do for myself.


I can't help but notice your dude-bro-gym chart entry seems to have the perfect combination of attributes: it's close, it's open all the time, has all the freeweights you could ever want, AND it's cheap. This means its only negative is self-contained in the name: it's where the dude-bros are. But I want you to try this on for a minute: You, too, can be a dude-bro. I know the stereotypical dude-bro has some downsides. But in my experience, they are nicer than they look, and they love, love, love lifting. Do they do it all correctly? Not all the time, or even usually. But they are passionate for physical activity, which can actually be such a pleasant change of pace from what seems like the majority of people, who would rather sever their head from their body and roll forehead to chin from place to place, if they could.

Most people don't really understand why they work out, they just sort of know that they should, kind of hate it, and think people who like it are anti-intellectual dumdums. Most of them seem confounded by the fact that discussing the latest Noah Baumbach movie can't count as gym credit. And look--I know lots of people are not encouraged to appreciate their bodies (because I was one of them); usually they are taught to resent their realities, their decay, their inconveniences and embarrassments. We don't give people who don't have a lot of natural ability very many chances to develop any kind of good relationship with their physical selves; we make them play kickball and tell them to "eat a balanced diet" and "love themselves" and then shove them into the real world.

But there does exist a basic pool of knowledge about how bodies work and move, and essentially anyone can grasp these fundamentals if they put in a little time and effort into practicing them. They can teach us to move with our legs and hips so our lower backs and knees don't hurt so goddamn much, or how to pull and push with our whole backs and shoulders so we don't hurt our arms and elbows and wrists. This has nothing to do with being born strong or good at sports. The strongest people in the world are really talented and committed athletes, but just like you don't have to be Flannery O'Connor to write a sentence or Einstein to do some basic arithmetic, you don't have to be Hafthor Bjornsson or even Arnold Schwarzenegger to do a deadlift.

So anyway, back to this gym. I know they can be intimidating due to the loudness and the big guys and the inevitable dinginess. But how often do we get to embrace mess and noise and chaos and just roll around in it like a blissfully happy dog? People are paying real money to go to rage rooms and bang things around; here is your rage room. It will take some getting used to; the first few times you go, you won't know where you should stand to do different exercises, but after trying some things out and watching other people, you'll get comfortable and eventually be strolling around like you own the place. Fear not the dude bro gym; you already know it's your best option. If you embrace your inner dude bro, you will see it's exactly where you belong.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.