What Expensive Gyms Taught Me

It all started so innocently. I was browsing the internet one day and stumbled into CrossFit.

I had heard of it before but didn’t know much about it. I thought only elite athletes did CrossFit. I started watching some YouTube clips of Rich Froning lifting huge amounts of weight and doing pull-ups for days on end. I admired his body and developed a bromance for this maniac.

Then I started reading about how anyone can join CrossFit to get stronger and faster. After I found a good affiliate gym on Yelp I gave the owner a call and scheduled a free one-on-one workout. This would determine if I was a good fit to join or not.

I looked at it like an Army boot camp and assumed I would be banished from the gym if I didn’t put up respectable numbers. After warming up I was asked to do as many sets of seven wall balls and seven burpees as I could in seven minutes. I think it’s known as “Seven Minutes in Hell.”

Throwing a ball against a wall and doing an air squat didn’t seem too hard. And a burpee; that’s basically just a push-up with a jump on the end. This workout seemed easy enough but I wanted to make sure I crushed it and was accepted into this exclusive fraternity.  

For the next seven minutes I gave all I had. My strength has always been a much bigger issue than my cardio but after just a few minutes not only was I gasping for air, I had to start doing push-ups on my knees! I had never worked that hard in my life and when the coach yelled, “TIME,” I rolled onto my back like a dying animal.

After I got up the coach told me I did a good job and asks if I want to join but first I would have to take 6-12 private sessions to learn how to lift properly. I was a little taken aback. Even though each session was discounted to $40 an hour, this would cost me a significant amount of money before I even joined! And besides how hard could these dirty sounding (snatch, clean and jerk) lifts be?

I slept on it for a couple of days before ultimately deciding to sign up. After my six sessions I would join a regular class and attend 3-4 days a week, paying $160 per month. I’m used to paying $10-40 for a gym membership but figured the classes were never more than 12 people so I was getting lots of private attention for about $10 per session.

After the first couple of classes, I was hooked. I had never got a workout like this before! The weightlifting portion makes you much stronger and class dynamic makes the MetCon (metabolic conditioning) extremely intense.

I started losing some fat in my stomach while my thighs and chest grew noticeably bigger. I looked better in a T-shirt but had to donate some skinny jeans/pants and extra slim-fit oxford shirts and buy some clothes a bit roomier.

My lifts started to look respectable. Initially, I was squatting 135lbs but by the end of my first 12-week cycle I could do 185lbs. Twelve weeks later I squatted 205lbs.

For as much as I loved CrossFit there were certain aspects I hated, which is ultimately why I searched for something else.

CrossFit Pros:

  • Class dynamic will motivate you to push yourself.
  • You will get stronger and faster.
  • Your confidence will grow.

CrossFit Cons:

  • Rushing Olympic lifts (or any lifts) can be very dangerous.
  • There are many injuries (mostly shoulder), especially for amateur athletes.
  • Kipping pull-ups and handstand push-ups look ridiculous.
  • Classes start at a certain time so you cannot just come as you please.
  • Thigh growth will force you to buy some new pants.
  • It’s expensive.
My CrossFit squat rack.

My CrossFit squat rack.

Nine months after joining CrossFit I got burned out. I didn’t enjoy the Olympic lifts and felt like I hit a wall. I also had to wait around for my class to start so I would hit traffic on the way home. Around this time, I stumbled upon StrongLifts and decided to give it a try at the local globo gym.

I joined a gym called City Sports for $35 a month. It appeared to have everything I needed including luxuries such as a pool, jacuzzi, sauna, racquetball and basketball courts. But after two weeks of lifting there, I hated it.

As its name implies, StrongLifts pushes you to get stronger. You are doing squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, rows and pull-ups. To do these workouts you need a squat rack, a deadlift platform and circular weights. City Sports only had three squat racks which were almost always in use. This forced me to start coming in when the gym opened; 5am on weekdays and 8am on weekends! Also deadlifting was not encouraged because the weights are shaped like hexagons and there is no platform to drop them on.

The lack of equipment, not to mention the abundance of people, led me to discover a local powerlifting gym. This gym had all the equipment I needed. Three squat racks, two deadlift platforms, two places bench press and a huge American flag on the wall! The gym was rugged and small but it had the best basic powerlifting equipment out there including $500+ bars! There were less than 50 total members so you never had to wait to use equipment. 

The past three months I’ve been going to this new gym. I thought I had great lifting form after doing CrossFit but I was mistaken. There was an “open gym” price where you could just drop in and lift but I wanted some good training so I opted for the $150 per month program which was tailored to me and included help at any point during my lifts.

My new coach corrected my form which allowed my lifts to increase dramatically over the first 6-week cycle. I went from a 205lbs squat to 245lbs. My deadlift jumped from 255lbs to 315lbs!

However, in the end this gym wasn’t for me either. I was encouraged to get bigger, even if this meant adding fat to my body. You see the bigger you are, the easier it is to become stronger. I didn’t want to gain much weight though. Some guys who I looked at as obese were praised for their strength. But I want a body like UFC Champion Jon Jones, not his Super Bowl winning brother Art Jones.

Powerlifting Pros:

  • You will get much stronger than CrossFitters.
  • You will learn to lift properly.
  • You will gain confidence in your new found strength.
  • You are encouraged to eat a lot.

Powerlifting Cons:

  • Getting fat to get stronger is encouraged.
  • No cardio component.
  • Can be expensive.
  • You are encouraged to eat a lot.
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Deadlifting platforms at the Powerlifting gym.

So Now What?

These past twelve months I’ve spent over $2000 in gym membership fees. That’s a ton of money, especially for a personal finance blogger! However, I think I got a lot of value out of it. I pushed myself to places I never thought possible. I’m in better shape now at 30, than I was at 20. I can run a mile faster than I could 10 years ago due to my legs being much stronger. I got a proper weightlifting education which will serve me well the rest of my life. It should keep me strong and uninjured for years to come.

I included eating as both a pro and a con in the powerlifting section. Personally I don’t want any fat around my belly, no matter how much I can lift. But this is just me and it’s a major factor in deciding to lift on my own. I also don’t want to get injured doing dozens of snatches or kipping pull-ups in CrossFit!

So yesterday I joined the local Gold’s Gym. I was amazed at how cheap a basic membership was, only $25! Here I will get back on a version of the StrongLifts program which very similar to the powerlifting program I was following. I should be less stressed with the lower gym cost and will be able to do cardio whenever I like! For what my new gym lacks in amenities (no pool, sauna, basketball or racquetball courts), it makes up for in weightlifting equipment. There are five squat racks and five deadlifting platforms. As long as I go right after work or during the weekend I should avoid the crowds.

Gold's Gym squat racks and deadlifting platforms.

Gold’s Gym squat racks and deadlifting platforms.

These past 12 months have been quite a journey for my fitness. I’m feeling stronger than ever and look forward to the future! Do any of you go to an expensive gym? What kind of workout programs have worked well for you?

This article has 4 comments

  1. Fervent Finance Reply

    StrongLifts was the first program I ever ran over 2 years ago. Great program for sure. After a while the monotony of 5×5 will get old but then you can just hop onto the next program that sparks your interest (which I did). I’ve loved my last 2+ years of power lifting. While my gains aren’t happening as fast as they used to, I love just getting in the gym and lifting heavy shit. Helps offset the 10 hours a day I sit at my desk looking at two monitors. Also my body looks better than ever too 😉 The GF ain’t complainin’.

  2. Julie @ Millennial Boss Reply

    My fiancé is an Olympic Weightlifting Coach at NCFit. I luck out because I don’t have to pay for coaching and programming. We also have some equipment although we sold most of it (platforms, bars, plates) when we moved because we couldn’t find an affordable place with a garage in the South Bay. Overall I think spending on your health is not the worst thing you can do. You could always make a platform if you have a garage and access to tools. We made our platforms and bought used equipment from friends.

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