Ditch The Chain Gym, Lift Locally
You’ve been lifting consistently for a few years now at a the local chain gym and let’s face it, it’s severely lacking in a certain Joie de vivre. And frankly, who can blame you? Chain gyms are designed for the general public (who probably show their faces in their profile pics on twitter — couldn’t be me).
This is not to say however, that chain gyms don’t serve a purpose. I spent the majority of my time over the last 10 years in chain gyms and have relatively few complaints. One of the major upsides is the usefulness while traveling. If you travel often and can afford it, belonging to at least one chain gym is a game changer.
Hell, depending on the chain gym, the equipment isn’t half bad. It is to say that you may be ready for the type of environment with a bit of charge and high energy. Before getting into those gyms, let’s break down exactly why your chain gym is failing you.
The Limits of Chain Gyms
Low T Energy
There of course is the extreme example of Planet Fitness and the infamous “Lunk Alarm.” — the purple alarm that goes off when a person “grunts, drops weights or judges.” Still not exactly sure how an alarm can detect “judging” but we all get the idea here — this is not a gym for gym bros.
But chain gyms in general have an air of low intensity. I’ve often felt like I was lifting in someones living room while a member at LA Fitness. Something low-T about the thin carpets and tan color scheme.
You wont find Arsenal, Prime, Panatta, or Atlantis equipment gracing your gym floor, that’s just the nature of the business. Most equipment is locked in from the day they open their doors.
I don’t say this to suggest that you have to be an equipment snob. You can get the job done just fine with lifestyle brand and other common movers. But it does mean that the gyms that do provide the latest and greatest will attract the die hards and it means that your variety is capped pretty early on. Most chain gyms don’t add new equipment very often, especially top of the line brands that don’t have a partnership with the chain.
Feedback Doesn’t Go Far
The people running the show at chain gyms are usually never the owner. Local high school students are often staffed at these gym. While this is good for the local community, it does little to benefit the gym itself. The owner is way more likely to be involved in the day to day, as well as the overall vision of the gym itself, at independently owned local gyms.
”Would be great to have a posing room”
”The weights aren’t being put back by other members”
”We could really use a pendulum squat”
”People aren’t wiping down”
Try telling this to a chain gym employee and watch the confused looks you’ll get.
Shirts = ON
Okay, I admit this is a good thing at chain gyms and kind of a double edged sword considering the latest immodest fitness fashion trends. Not many of us want to see the average public shirtless on a treadmill nor do we need the distraction of every female butt-crack — I get it!
But hear me out. In the right environment, with a body that has earned the right to be uncovered, there is a primal experience awaiting you that needs to be experienced to understand. This could never happen in a chain gym.
Types of Independent Local Gyms
There are many types of local gyms. In my many years of experience I’ve run into quite a few them and they’ve actually been quite different from one another. Let’s go over the pros and cons of each type of gym I’ve encountered in my 15 years of training. 4
The Average Independent Gym
This is the type of gym that do a great job of getting the job done however it’s not quite a gem in the rough you’ve been looking for. These gyms can usually be found in old strip malls. Let’s go over the pros and cons of these locations.
These gyms a bit grungier and attract some local talent who have no other options in terms of gym selection. So, the vibe is definitely a bit more masculine. So grunting is totally allowed, and if a shirt comes off for a selfie, it’s unlikely to cause too much of a stir.
The owner is definitely running the show so feedback is more likely to be heard if you’re the type to give it.
The equipment is not locked in and is usually better than the chain gym. You’ll find a lot of old but gold machines with some rust on them (get your tetanus shots people) but they’re refreshingly effective.
It’s a hit or miss as to the size of these gym which limit the amount of equipment. This can also make crowd sizes less than ideal.
They can be dirtier and less well kept. Some grunge is a double edged sword in that way.
There is no promise the equipment will be good so, pick carefully.
Local Grunge Gyms
In many cases, these gyms are hold-overs of the 90’s and early 00’s. There is a long history of serious bodybuilders that have passed through these doors. In my own experience, local WWE guys in the boonies of Florida.
The vibes are palpable. Graffiti on the walls, juice heads afoot, rusted old equipment. If the environment alone doesn’t get your T levels up, maybe Weenie Hut Jr’s is the play for you.
There are typically A LOT of equipment to use spanning many eras of bodybuilding. Most of it, tried and true. You may not get the latest and greatest, but this gym isn’t about that. It’s about busting your ass with what you have. It’s almost it’s defining feature.
People respect the gym. It may smell like 20 years of blood sweat and tears, but the regulars keep things in fine order. If you don’t, expect dirty looks from scary mother f****s.
Full-time access. These spots are many times open 24/7. Cant sleep because you’re just too much of a badass and feel like getting a lift in at 1 AM? Use you keycard to get in and enjoy the solitary vibes. It’s a pretty unique feeling, I’ve done it.
The gym owner is probably somebody well respected in the sport. This ensures good decisions get made and feedback is heard.
The smell of blood, sweat, and tears isn’t for everyone — if you’re a B****!! I kid, I kid. Truly, this kind of environment should be experienced a least once in your gym tenure. But it’s not for everybody and can be overwhelming if you’re not in the right headspace.
You wont typically find the latest and greatest equipment. Although never say never, these gyms are relics of a bygone era. The silver lining is that the gym owner is likely willing to consider your feedback so, hey give it a shot!
These gyms are a relatively recent phenomena and are VERY controversial. They very often toe the line between incredibly cringe and “easily the best gym ever.” I currently go to an “influencer gym”. Let’s discuss…
The aesthetics are immaculate… for Instagram. While this is a subjective point, these gyms objectively film better than no other. The dark color scheme and strategically placed overhead lighting make for a really slick lifting and filming experience. Seeing as we are creatures of social media, get ready for selfies that look something like this…
The equipment is the latest and greatest. No expense is spared on the equipment in these gyms. If you’re dying to experience the majesty of Arsenal, Prime, Panatta, or Atlantis movers, well this is the gym for you.
The owner is likely someone who uses their own gym and is heavily invested in creating something that attracts the top bodybuilders in the world. You’re probably in good hands in terms of how the gym is run.
Local Powerlifting Gyms
In my experience, these gyms may provide the best balance of all independently owned gyms. If you’re into powerlifting/strength training, these are where you will train.
Specialized equipment. Powerlifting gyms typically have specialized equipment that is designed specifically for powerlifting exercises. There are no lack of squat racks, bench press stations, deadlift platforms, and other strength training tools.
Strength training expertise is more common. There are often a lot of trainers and coaches at powerlifting gyms are often very experienced in the sport. This makes asking questions of the regulars a far better experience, especially if you’re into powerlifting.
Fraternal community vibes are big here. Powerlifting gyms tend to attract a tight-knit community of like-minded lifters with a shared passion for strength training. They’re often far more supportive of one another than at bodybuilding gyms. A lot of people make friends here and help to push each other further. It’s truly unique in this way.
Competition. If you’re looking to compete, these gyms often host or organize those looking to compete in powerlifting and strong man competitions.
The equipment can be limited outside of powerlifting. While often not terrible, you wont find the top of the line machines like you would in an influencer gym, for example. So if you want to train like a bodybuilder, this may not be your spot.
While chain gyms may serve a purpose, it may be time for you to upgrade and pick an independent local gym. If you've been lifting consistently for a few years and find yourself wanting the firm kick in the ass that comes with a high-energy environment, it may be time to explore the options we went over in this piece. Understand why your chain gym is failing you, and make the informed decision on which gym best aligns with your fitness goals and personality. Environment goes a long way, choose wisely my friends.