Is a $10 Gym Membership Ever Really Worth It?

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There are many ways to start an exercise routine, and as we indicated here, it’s not always worth sweating over the details. But does it matter what kind of gym you join? Gyms with squats and barbells give you many options for getting strong, but it’s rare to find one with dirt-cheap prices. Meanwhile, boutique fitness studios, Crossfit boxes and yoga studios are often ridiculously expensive. How much are you really sacrificing by going with something like Crunch or 24 Hour Fitness?

You won’t get any fancy extras, but you might not need them either

Buying a barebones gym membership may give you access to equipment for certain hours and nothing else. If that’s all you need, you’re good to go.

Luxury gyms and the upgraded memberships at cheaper gyms will have more benefits. These include towel and laundry services, 24/7 access to the gym, the ability to go to multiple locations of a chain, the ability to bring a guest, access to group classes, free sessions with a personal trainer or sauna or swimming pool use. Expensive gyms can also have more expensive equipment. If there’s something specific that’s important to you, ask about it before you sign up for a membership.

But if the main reason for going to the gym is to pick up some weights or jump on a machine, you can do without the rest. It’s not the end of the world if you have to bring your own towel, or even if you have to shower at home because you have chosen a place so basic that there are no actual changing rooms. I trained at a gym like this for years and it went well. You can too.

Dumbbells aren’t everything

As a person who primarily trains with barbells, I understand the urge to scoff in a place that doesn’t have one. Longtime readers may remember that: I’ve put together an exercise program for our senior food and editor, Claire Lowerwhen she needed to get stronger to hunt moose. Her gym was a Planet Fitness at the time. Uh-oh, I thought. But she had already joined, so we had to work with this.

What was available? Cardio machines, strength machines, cable machines, Smith machines (which look like a squat rack, except the bar is permanently attached), and a bunch of dumbbells. YesI thought, we can get started with this† This selection is pretty typical of low-cost gyms; you can also find a few kettlebells, resistance bands and other miscellaneous items.

Here’s the good news: This is fine. If your goal is to become stronger and/or healthier, you can do that with this equipment. You don’t need dumbbells. If your goal is to participate in a barbell sport like powerlifting, or if you want to use barbells because you just think they’re cool, then you should indeed find a gym that has them. Otherwise you can stay where you are.

Machines can make you strong

Cheap gyms usually have machines instead of dumbbells because it’s a lot easier for beginners to walk up to a machine and figure out how to use it without hurting themselves. They’re also easier for gym staff to keep tidy: no hunted plates and collars getting all over the room.

Let those things benefit you too. You can discover machines just by looking at the pictures on them, and if you get really stumped, you can look them up on YouTube. (We also have collected instructional videos for 10 of the most common fitness equipmentif you’re curious.) It’s perfectly normal and fine to do a workout that makes full use of machineswithout free weights.

Smith machines, in particular, get a bad rap from people who don’t know how to use them properly. If you try to squat in a Smith machine like it’s a squat rack, you’re going to feel super uncomfortable. But if you know to put your feet in front of the bar and lean back on it, you can train your legs easily and effectively. There is a similar trick to bench press in a Smith machine. You may want to read our Smith machine guide here

Also don’t sleep on dumbbells

Another important feature of cheap gyms is that they generally have a good selection of dumbbells. If you are very tall and strong, you will find that the dumbbells don’t get heavy enough; they can come in at 75 or 100 pounds each. If you’re a big person, and you get really strong, you might outgrow the equipment that your small gym has to offer. But if you are a beginner or just a smaller person, you can be happy with that selection for a long time.

There are plenty of lifts you can do with dumbbells, and yes, there are dumbbell-only workout programs† In addition to the obvious presses, curls, and rows, you can also do dumbbell lunges, step-ups, Romanian deadlifts, and more. Lifting a pair of dumbbells is usually more difficult than lifting a barbell of the same weight, so don’t be fooled by the numbers.

View the pricing structure

Since cheap gyms are so cheap, they often get their income from other places in addition to the $10 (or whatever it may be) monthly fee. There may be additional levels of membership or add-on services that offer benefits not included in the basic membership, so be prepared to withstand the upsell.

They may also try to trick you into a personal training contract. While it’s great to pay for personal training if it appeals to you, read the fine print on your contract and make sure you have reasonable options to cancel if it doesn’t work.

And don’t forget the hidden costs. Some gyms charge an entry fee or an annual renewal fee. But if you’ve priced everything out and feel you’re getting your money’s worth, enjoy! Even a basic membership will give you a lot to work with.

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