As one who’s worn a lot of different hats (overweight member, highly fit member, group fitness instructor, personal trainer, and manager) in many different commercial gym settings my overall perspective on gym culture is quite unique.

I recall once being asked to respond to a press release out of Richmond, California, detailing the experience of a Bay area woman asked to cover up while working out at a local Planet Fitness. Apparently the belly exposing sports bra she wore was ‘intimidating’ to other gym patrons.

I responded by simply saying, “I’m not at all surprised.”

After all, the request itself was in direct adherence to Planet Fitness’ highly publicized “no judgment” policy, which doesn’t allow members to wear certain clothes or even perform certain exercises on the gym floor.

In other words, no “gym intimidation” of any kind is permitted.

For anyone who likes to wear what they want to wear and pretty much do what they want to do in the gym, the culture within Planet Fitness probably wouldn’t be the best fit.

But, I totally get the premise upon which their established policies are based.

Many large chain gyms have a strong presence of highly fit, athletic, able-bodied men and women which, in and of itself, might intimate others who are less fit. So much in fact that novice exercisers often feel the need to stay outside of these gyms—That is, until they make some sort of physical transformation.

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That’s gym culture—And, it can vary greatly from gym to gym.

Now, it would be irrational for me to suggest that one learns all about the ins and outs of gym culture prior to purchasing a membership.

However, it’s certainly not unreasonable to recommend that certain steps be taken when joining a gym in order to ensure a happy, healthy experience, as opposed to one similar to girlfriend’s in Richmond.

To make the process a bit easier, here are three steps you can follow when choosing a gym to patronize.

1. Try Before You Buy

Before you even think of joining a gym, it’s absolutely critical that you first try it out. Most gyms will give you up to a week to try out their spot during which time you can get a real feel for the goings on of the place.

If you find yourself embarrassed, intimidated or even annoyed after trying out a gym, chances are these feelings aren’t going to change so it’s best to move on to the next gym.

This is a step that was likely not taken in the Planet Fitness situation I described above. With just a little research on the web you’ll quickly learn that this chain doesn’t take lightly to any inkling of gym intimidation or even vanity.

If you’re new to working out, I’d advise that you start by checking out the fitness center at your local YMCA or park district. Such facilities tend to be reasonably priced and housed with a team of caring, encouraging staff trained to work with individuals of all age groups and fitness levels.

If you enjoy working out with a group for motivation and support, try some classes at a boutique fitness studio.

After doing so you may find that you don’t even want a commercial gym membership.

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2. Get Your New Member Orientation

Regardless of which gym you choose, be sure to get your new member orientation. As a paying member of any gym, you are entitled to a “no obligation” orientation free of charge. During this time, you will more than likely be offered some sort of personal training package. It’s important to understand that you DO NOT have to purchase a package to take advantage of this service.

Most, if not all, large chain gyms are profit-based, established with the sole purpose of selling you a bunch of ‘value-add’ services you don’t need. Don’t fall for that.

During your new member orientation, ask a lot of questions to ensure you get exactly what you need. Both novice and experienced exercisers alike struggle with certain basics like proper exercise selection and execution, even though they believe they’re doing things right. Working out is not rocket science so long as you put in some effort to learn the fundamentals.

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3. Be Steadfast and Stay Focused

This is by far the most important step to enhancing your gym experience and it starts with setting realistic goals for your workout routine. When establishing your initial goals, I recommend focusing on the reason(s) you’re exercising in the first place.

Identify your expected benefits and create a ‘big picture’ for yourself.

Doing this will help you stay on course throughout your journey and keep you motivated as you experience setbacks along the way.

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Defining and setting your goals will stop you from being intimated by the so-called “lunks” and “meatheads” in the gym. Knowing your goals will inhibit you from spending valuable time watching and emulating those who appear to be more experienced.

Staying focused on your goals will ensure that you mentally and physically transform into the person you wish to become making your regular visits to the gym completely worthwhile.

At the end of the day, your gym experience is all about what you make it.

If you’re easily swayed by meaningless gym culture, chances are your mind is not in the right place.

A former client of mine said it best when she said: “I don’t look at anyone when I’m in the gym because I know that we’re all at different phases of our journey…I just do me.” I couldn’t agree with her more!

Following these three steps will help ensure that you experience long-term success in achieving your health and fitness goals, regardless of which gym you choose.