The process of joining a gym has the potential to overwhelm you because of the seemingly endless list of considerations you need to make before singing up: hours of operations, available cardio & strength equipment, personal trainers, contract length, joiner's fees and monthly dues. Once you decide on which features are important, picking the right gym becomes much easier. This guide walks you through the process of making this major fitness decision in a less painful way.
Step 1: Find Local Gyms. The first step is to find local gyms. The easiest way to do this is with Google Maps (or any other on-line map service - does anyone use MapQuest anymore?). Search for gym, health club or any other combination of keywords more specific to your needs (for example: Crossfit, tennis club or swimming pool). Narrow down the entire list to a few choices based on distance, on-line reviews or recommendations from friends. If you turn out to be disappointed with the initial list, expand the search later.
Step 2: Gym Features. The next step is to figure out what features you need out of a gym: hours of operations, personal training options, group exercise classes, child care services, equipment, locker rooms, 24/7 access and any other amenities you may need to make your fitness goals a reality. Separate these features into must-haves and nice-to-have. If you love squatting but swim only a few times per year, a squat rack is a must-have while a pool is nice-to-have.
Step 3: Call/Visit Your Gyms. You now have a long list of potential gyms and features. It's time to narrow the list down. Calling potential gyms is a great way to start. Ask general questions about the major features you're looking for; if group exercises classes are a must-have, ask about how many classes they offer per week. If they don't offer a must-have feature, or are closed during the time of day you need access, cross them off the list. Phone calls allow you to narrow the search without time consuming visits. Phone calls only help with basic features such as hours and amenities.
Visiting a gym allows you to gauge important factors such as: quality of equipment, friendliness of staff, cleanliness of the gym, figuring out busy periods, knowledge of the trainers and prices. Most visits turn into a sales pitch. Avoid joining a gym before you've seen the competition. Get a feel for what the gym has to offer and visit a few more before making a final decision.
Step 4: Prices/Contracts. The price of a gym is made up of much more than monthly dues. Membership costs include initiation or joiner's fees (an upfront payment due at signing), contract length and fees for using special amenities such as personal trainers or group exercise classes. Gyms sometimes have a basic monthly fee which gives you access to equipment, but charge extra for other services. Ensure you know what monthly dues include.
There are several different ways to pay for a membership. Gyms either get you to pay month-to-month or force you to sign a long term contract. Here's the difference:
Month-to-Month. Monthly memberships are typically more expensive than signing up with a longer term contract. Since you are able to cancel the membership at anytime, you are potentially generating less revenue for the gym. In exchange for allowing you to cancel at anytime, the gym charges a higher monthly rate and/or an upfront initiation/joiner's fee.
Longer Term Contract. To get a lower monthly rate and avoid paying a joiner's fee, some gyms try to persuade you to sign a long term contract ranging from 12-36 months. This limits your ability to cancel the membership without paying an early termination fee. In exchange for promising to stick around for a longer period of time, the gym should offer a lower monthly rate.
Which is better? If you don't sign a long term contract and pay month-to-month, you'll most likely be stuck with higher monthly rates or a hefty upfront joiner's fee. If you sign the long term contract, you're stuck at the gym for awhile unless you pay an early termination fee. Keep in mind that month-to-month customers are open to renegotiate their monthly rate at anytime (given they are ready to cancel their membership) while long term contract signers are not. If you think you'll switch gyms, go month-to-month. If you're set on the gym and don't see yourself leaving, sign the contract.
Negotiate & Sales. The best route to take with pricing is to either negotiate for a better deal or join when the gym is advertising a special: reduced monthly rates, no joiner's fee or no contract requirements.
Step 5: Free Guest Passes & Trying. Pricing allows you to narrow the selection down even further. Once you have two or three options left, the next step is to get free visitor passes; try before you buy. Most gyms give out some sort of free guest pass to serious prospective customers. If a gym is hesitant about letting you try their facilities before committing, you should also be hesitant about signing up. The only way to find a gym's major flaws (quality of equipment, busy hours, cleanliness) is to try it out first hand. You wouldn't buy a car without a test drive, don't join a gym without a test workout. A walk-through doesn't go far enough.
Step 6: Deal or No Deal. After testing out the final gyms, it's time to make a decision. If you're happy with the price, fees and contract length, there's no negotiating. If you want to propose changes to what the gym is offering, sit down with a salesperson and let them know what you want.
Negotiating to join a gym is nowhere near as difficult as bigger purchases (buying a house or car) because the stakes are much lower. Gyms have very low variable costs; it costs a gym a certain amount to stay open each month and this amount does not vary much with increasing or decreasing membership numbers. More members do not add more costs because the gym is selling access to a facility, not a physical product or even much of a service.
Every new member a gym signs up is almost pure profit. This means that you have much more power than they do. If they refuse your terms, simply get up and walk out. In most cases, they will accept your offer.
Another way to get a better deal is to force the gyms to compete against each other. If Gym A is offering better rates than Gym B, see if B is willing to beat the deal you're getting from A.
Step 7: Read the Fine Print. Once you finalize the terms, make sure the details are clearly spelled out in the contract you're signing. If the verbal deal isn't in writing on the contract, getting the gym to honor those terms later on will be very difficult. Everything you agree to verbally MUST be WRITTEN in the final contract you sign.
The Bottom Line
Joining a gym is a simple negotiation. The gym needs you as a paying member more than you need to join (as long as you live in an area with multiple gyms). Doing research before committing to join is the best way to become a satisfied customer and guarantee your long term fitness success.