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Gym Pickin's
Looking for the perfect place to work out? This five-step checklist will help you easily choose a gym that fits your needs.

Finding a health club is a bit like dating. Sure, the first night out may be memorable - great looks, interesting conversation, completely compatible in your interests. Next thing you know, you're on a second date, and a few weeks later you're exclusive. Then the real test begins. You find out your schedules don't quite match up, her friends are a pain in the butt, and all that fun stuff you did on the first few dates were just a ruse. Action movies? Nah, really don't like them - and bowling or the bar, forget it! Can't we just stay in and watch "Sex and the City" reruns? Now, picture this: You need a place to work out, so you open the phone book and head to the nearest club. You're offered a quick tour around, and all the equipment looks shiny and new, the weight area isn't really too crowded, and it seems to be everything you need. Before you know it, you've signed a year contract. Flash forward a few weeks. You realize the facility closes too early on weekends. Your workout is spent maneuvering around gabby nitwits on cell phones. On chest day, you're often fighting for the one (and only) bench press station. That damn contract all of a sudden looks like a deal straight out of a Bear Stearns portfolio. We hope this doesn't sound familiar, and we've caught you in time to offer you this five-pronged checklist on finding the right gym for you. Because where you work out is not only as important as finding the right significant other, it may be more important. After all, you could be a member of a gym for years - compared to that, how long has your average relationship lasted? Yep, that's what we thought.

While you don't want to settle for the nearest gym to your house if it's otherwise mismatched with your needs, the general rule is, the closer the better. Convenience is a huge consideration for your gym choice - there may be a spectacular club an hour away, but realistically, unless you're a pro bodybuilder whose job it is to work out, how often can you give up two hours of your day just for your drive to and from the gym?


It would be nice, but not all fitness centers are open 24/7. A quick glance over the hours of operation isn't enough: You'll want to try the gym for at least a week so you know firsthand the hours are not only attuned with your schedule, but that the traffic on the gym floor isn't overwhelming during the time you want to go. While at any club, the crunch times are usually 7-10 in the morning and 5-8 at night, some get much more congested than others, a simple equation of too many members converging on too little space. If it's irritating for you at the start, imagine how over it you'll be by month three.

If you're an experienced trainer with a workout plan, bring it with when you visit, or at least make a list of the equipment you require. If you use a lot of free weights, make sure the weight area isn't just some afterthought, tucked in a dank corner to make way for row upon row of all manner of machines. If you have specific pieces you swear by, take a close look - for instance, some gyms have phased out barbell military bench stations. Others may only have one Smith machine. Believe it or not, more than a few only have either a standing or a seated calf machine, not both. If you have a choice between two gyms that are otherwise similar, equipment may indeed make the difference between which one you ultimately select.


If you're a hard-nosed, serious trainer, trust us: You're gonna hate working out among a bunch of WASPs and wannabes who spend more time chatting (while lounging on the equipment) than curling. When you try the gym, take a look around - no, you don't have to make friends (although it helps when you need a spot), but if you're ready for some good old-fashioned heavy lifting, complete with a grunt or two and maybe even a touch of chalk here and there, who wants to deal with the dismissive eye rolling and complaints to the manager?


Does the facility include a basketball court, pool, and cardio classes? This can go one of two ways: If you're going to use them, then by all means try to find a place that has them. However, if cost is a principal concern, remember your membership is priced to pay for these amenities, whether you exploit them or not. There's no need to sign up at a full-service, upscale health club if all you really want is a weight pit and a loud stereo, so keep that in mind. Take this list and go into your tours armed with the questions and observations to make a smart buying decision. As a final hint, we urge this: Don't ever sign up for a long-term deal on your first visit (and don't ever sign up for more than a year). As suggested in #2, if the membership agent is unwilling to give you a pass to try out their place for a week or so, move on - any reputable club won't apply a high-pressure sales tactic, and should gladly offer a test run. That way, you can find out firsthand, with no strings attached, just how compatible you and the gym really are before you make the commitment. Ahhh, if only your dates had the same policy.