A Letter to Trainers: Gyms Are Not The Problem

Gyms suck.  Gyms are boring.  Gyms are impersonal.  Gyms are intimidating. Gyms are scary.  Nobody gets results at the gym.

Think about these phrases, and where you’re most likely to hear them.  In coffee shop conversations, hanging out with friends, on social media, even on social media, ironically.  Now, think about who often uses them.  It could be your frustrated friend, collapsing coworkers, fed-up family members.  For me, it’s fitness professionals.

I see more coaches and trainers complain about “gyms” than anybody else.

I get it, I really do.  Gyms can suck.  Gyms can feel like confusing industrial wastelands if you don’t know what you’re doing, where you swipe a card, pray you don’t see your exes, and try to do the least embarrassing workout possible.  There’s a reason why this picture resonates with so many folks:
hamster-wheel-448I’m going to pause for a moment to clarify; this is not how I feel in gyms.  I f*cking LOVE gyms.  I love massive spaces filled with massive machines, rusty weights, and plenty of turf.  Loud music and loud weights sound great to me.  If you don’t set off the Lunk Alarm, you messed something up.



Now doesn’t that look amazing?!

No, Harold; snap out of it. That looks HORRIFYING to most people.  It also looks like HOME to a smaller number of other people, and I’d be willing to bet that far more people would find the weightroom to be home if the “gym” could see the bigger picture.

Let’s be clear though, it is not the fault of a facility.  Crunch or 24-Hour Fitness isn’t to blame because you didn’t feel comfortable there.  I’m not here to reassign blame, rather I’m asking that we respect fitness spaces, regardless of their prestige or quality, as places where people can still be successful.  YES, you can be successful swiping your card, putting on headphones, and keeping to yourself.  To be honest, that’s my preferred way to workout.  You can be far more successful if you add two things that are often created in successful programs.

 Add community and education, and you can succeed anywhere.

Far too many people, trainers included, complain about “regular gyms” and I think that we’re selling them short.  Commercial gyms are a great place for you to train when you travel, they’re convenient for shifting schedules, and they’re highly cost effective when used 4+ times per week.  You may stumble upon a community, and it’s up to you to learn enough about fitness to be self-sufficient. If you’re willing to assume those last two will happen, go to town.

I don’t assume you’ll fall into a community or magically learn things while you go, which is why I’m excited to learn and pass on fitness information that I believe is beneficial to those who want the most effective and efficient training strategies possible.  I can also appreciate those who care less about cutting edge fitness, and would rather have the most incredible group experience of your life.  Both are important aspects of fitness success, and both are things that we should strive to add to the commercial gym experience.

One of the reasons that the “gyms suck” discussion amongst trainers grinds on me is that it may come with two assumptions.  One is that if “gyms suck” so bad, we might as well not even go to them.  Another is that if “gyms suck” so bad, the solution is only going to the recommended “solution” facility.  Those assumptions are hard to accept.

According to IHRSA, there are 30,500 fitness centers in the US as of January 2012.  The same statistics show that as of January 2013, there are approximately 58.5 million Americans who are going to fitness centers.  It’s highly unreasonable to expect each of those people to be in one-on-one personal training, a group class environment, or to enroll in a long-term coaching program.

I find it far more reasonable to assume that some people will always avoid coaching, some will always rely on coaching, and most would greatly benefit from intermittent coaching at appropriate levels of need.  That begs the question what is “appropriate” and I can assure you it’s not what we learned in kinesiology.


This doesn’t help you become fit.  This doesn’t help you run longer, throw a ball to your kids, orget off your high-blood pressure meds.  This reminds you that there are lots of words that you don’t know, about a body you don’t quite know.  Instead, we need to start with what people understand right away, and there is huge variety there.

Maybe it’s the most appreciable differences between moving and not moving.

It may be the difference between traditional ‘cardio’ and traditional strength training.  Perhaps it’s beginning with the simple six movement patterns of hinging, squatting, pulling, pushing, carrying, or crawling.  We start simple, then we evolve to more complex variations.  Provide sufficient challenge, yet ensure consistent success.  Create practical connections between how we move in a fitness setting and how we move through life.

Most importantly, create a relationship that transcends the walls of a fitness center. Go beyond prescribing exercises and counting reps.  You offered recovery help?  Awesome.  Have you asked about their son’s dance recital?  What about their daughter’s lacrosse game?  Great, you answered their e-mail about if that off-day workout would work, but did you introduce them to your other clients with similar backgrounds? All of these questions may apply to a coach-client relationship, but they should more importantly apply to a human-human relationship.

Fitness Training

I do an image search for “friendships at the gym,” and this is what pops up?  It looks SO inspiring.  (Note sarcasm.)

Every story my mom tells me about the gym is about her conversations with her friends. It may include a note about pushing the Prowler, or doing medicine ball slams, but it’s always about fun that she’s had with friends.  These stories should be told by everyone, but rather than sharing our communal experiences of enjoyment, we end up whining about the wait for the squat rack.  Yes, I’d love to hear about your PR’s, and I’d love for you to recognize your own progress, but damn is it important that you’re having fun most of the time.

We miss the point when we think that success means struggle, and that we must struggle before we succeed.  I believe we’ll see more people enjoying exercise and physical activity when we see less trainers and their “motivational” social media accounts reminding us that “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  No, it’s not, dick.  Let’s appreciate psychology a little bit more, shall we?

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 11.45.26 AM

It’s not greater knowledge that we need, but a better ability to implement and habitualize that knowledge.  Education and community can greatly improve the sustainability of habits, and health-enhancing habits can help drive community while better preparing you for learning.  While internet coaches are arguing that commercial gyms suck, or that Crossfit needs better technique teaching, they’re solving an equally challenging problem: The lack of community in the fitness environment.  Who’s going to respond to coaching or motivation more, people who feel uncomfortable with those around them, or those who are working towards similar goals with mutual support?  Exactly.

Commercial gyms can be intimidating, but for some people, it’s the best fitness solution that can work in their lives.  Rather than detracting from that, let’s add to it.  Let’s share the program that’s easily actionable for the first-timer.  Let’s provide quick workouts that breed comfort.  Let’s set-up gym buddies or training partners.  You may workout with a trainer once a week for guidance, or maybe start with one then ween yourself off.  Your friend may pick the workout one day, you may do it the next.  The possibilities are endless.  That’s a gift, not a curse.

Commercial gyms don’t suck.  They’re entirely useless and practical… for those with sustainable fitness habits.  My unifying goal in the health field is to educate people so that they feel comfortable being physically active on their own.  That may be to do a set with less coaching while they’re working with me, to workout on their own once a week, or to move from regular coaching into months of self-directed progress.  Autonomy is the endgame, and that should make coaching a conscious choice, rather than a need.

Cubes - 267 - AUTONOMY

I love commercial gyms.  I put it headphones, shut up, and blend in.  It’s not the norm, and it shouldn’t be.  Commercial gyms should be a place to feel a great social environment while getting a great workout.  Rather than reinforcing their impersonal institution, let’s help them out.  After all, that’s why you’re in fitness, right?  We’re here to help those who want it?

Go swipe your card.  Go make friends.  Go explore that new piece of equipment, or that exercise you read on your favorite fitness blog.  Do it again tomorrow, and get better.  We’re all in this together.

2 Replies to “A Letter to Trainers: Gyms Are Not The Problem”

  1. As a trainee (who’s comfortable in most gyms, and has never had a personal trainer), I completely agree. The social environment has a large effect on whether I like a gym. I wish it didn’t, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

    1. Jon, YES! I love when we find training environments that are environmentally supportive. It’s so varied based on people’s goals, and it’s sooooo underrated!

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