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How to choose the right gym for you? 7 key tips from Stouffville's Personal Trainer

February 24, 2011

By Claudiu Popa, PTS, OAS

The perennial question for both gym owners and members is simple: "what makes a great fitness centre"? We're all initially seduced by flashy marketing with action shots and toned bodies. We're tempted by package deals and limited discount pricing, but all these tactics do little more than commoditize something that should be tailor-made for each and every one of us.

Indeed, it's far easier to spend oodles of cash on attractive mass-marketing than to cater to the discerning tastes of specific niches, but ultimately 'the gym experience' is about satisfaction. It's about how members feel when they set foot in the place, and about how they feel when they leave. Some people look for a family atmosphere where they can feel right at home, while others prefer the near-clinical feel of new machines and automated access. For some, "the gym" is a social experience while for others it is a surgically carved slice of their day – or their hour – that needs to fit precisely within a hectic schedule.

And then there's everyone in between: kids, older adults, overweight men, overweight women, the cardio people, the groups, the loners, the neat freaks, the muscle heads, the recovering patients, the complete novices and the list goes on, and on. But what really are the key factors that play the most important roles in member satisfaction and retention? Whether you're an owner or a member, these 7 'usual suspects' make all the difference between a long-lasting relationship and a short, frustrating experience:

  1. How's the staff? Look for more than just a large grin and a friendly demeanor. People who participate in running a gym should live and breathe fitness: from the professional qualifications that demonstrate their expertise, to their outward appearance and neatness.
  2. Equipment choice and safety: Don't assume that the 'standard' equipment that's in a gym is either safe or effective. Learn about each individual machine, because you – or your members – are paying for each one. Don't dilute your membership – or your service offering – with ineffective machines and unsafe equipment. Learn, ask for opinions and listen to those who know best. Safety and effectiveness are among the top 3 items on every member's 'wish list' for a gym.
  3. Is this a safe place? No one wants to go to the gym and trip over equipment, get into arguments with people or fear going down to the parking lot. Identify all the risks and underline the security features of the facility to let members know that they're safe. Alternatively, members should also speak with management if they feel any discomfort arising from anything as simple as a bucket and mop left unattended. The gym should not present a health hazard – or the perception of one – to anyone.
  4. Comfort and Facilities: the success of new gyms is largely due to the fresh, clean and new feel of a large facility. Established fitness centres must strive to preserve that new look and feel, and insist on constantly improving their facilities. Members who see dusty, carpeted floors, insect infestation or unfinished 'renovations' should probably realize it's time to leave the facility, but it's fair to bring these matters to the attention of management first. For gyms that do care about proper maintenance, it also doesn't hurt to trumpet those improvements each month, to show members how much attention is paid to the little things.
  5. Services and Features: speaking of the little things, free training sessions, new programs, interesting new classes and offers of services that people like are great ways to differentiate one gym from all the rest. It's also a great way to show that staff know more and care more. 24/7 is a very popular feature at many gyms across North America right now, but is it safe? It's a risk calculation you may have to make. Do you see young people under 18 using the facilities unsupervised? The facility may not be insurable if there are, yet it may be ill-equipped to effectively filter out unauthorized members during unstaffed periods.
  6. Got respect? All too often, employees forget that they're in the service industry. No one enjoys seeing absent-minded staff go through the motions, be it to sleepwalk through a new member tour or to respond to a question. Do your employees know what policies and operating procedures are? Can they explain them without offending members? Does anyone respond to suggestions? Can they be reached by email? Are members valued and their presence genuinely acknowledged? Members are customers, and they should receive all the respect they can handle because they're the reason the gym is there in the first place. 
  7. The Magic Sauce – How does the place look overall? Is it neat and tidy or are there Stick It notes everywhere? Are signs consistent or are they hand written? Is the equipment loud and creaky? Is it too hot, or too cold? Does it smell like a cafeteria or army barracks? The feel of the place will tell you about the establishment's self-respect, which in turn shows would-be members whether they're going to be appreciated or simply ignored.

Ultimately, choosing the right establishment to spend hard earned dollars – not to mention precious time and energy – comes down to an emotional purchase. But that emotion should be intelligently based on the above factors, your personal risk calculations, and not on superficial marketing or the urgency of 'a great deal'.

About the author:
Claudiu Popa is the founder of Workout Smart and the author of the WinterSmart Safe Activity Guide. As a certified personal trainer and Older Adult Fitness Specialist, Claudiu enjoys strength training and fitness conditioning, designing mobility and balance programs for active living, working with exceptional clients and collaborating with outstanding businesses to deliver incremental value to the Stouffville community.

Follow him at and on He can be reached directly at

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