Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How Not To Set Up Your Gym

Choice in just about everything can sometimes just be a plain distraction.

Take, for instance, the gym where I’ve been working out these last couple of months up here in Washington. There are, and I counted, five resistance machines that are variations on rowing, none of which can hold a candle to the bent-over row exercise that one can do with a good ol’ Olympic barbell set.

There are almost as many overhead pressing machines, none of which are as good as a standing overhead dumbbell press or barbell overhead jerk—but it’s tricky to find a place to do those at this particular gym, because the Olympic lifting platform area is, in a stunning display of inanity, located in the one spot on the gym floor with an unusually low ceiling. Meaning that the one spot in the gym where lifting large, heavy objects with great speed overhead is the primary goal has an eight-foot ceiling. The light fixtures tremble whenever I go over there, and I’m no giant, folks. A truly tall guy who wants to do some Olympic lifting has got to find some empty floor space amongst all those machines in the high-ceilinged area, which I’m here to tell you is pretty much impossible, cuz there ain’t no empty floor space to be found.

In the past, I’ve gone on exasperated rants about exercisers who go to all the trouble of carving out the time to exercise and then simply can’t seal the deal by actually putting in a real workout. That behavior makes no sense to me.

But now I begin to think that sometimes the health-club facilities themselves are set up to actually deter effective workouts. Contrary to what you might think given my profession, my workouts, for instance, are nothing particularly fancy. On days when I strength train, I use a combination of free weights, body weight exercises, Olympic lifts, a pulley-machine move or two, and some stretching drill. It’s a variation on the kinds of things you can see in popular fitness magazines like MEN’S HEALTH, which, at present, are not too far off from what you would have seen fifty-plus years ago in similar publications. They’re sort of “horse sense” workouts.

You would think, then, that given that these kinds of workouts are almost universally recognized as the best way to spend one’s gym time (quibbling over details aside), that weight room facilities would be set up to accommodate PRIMARILY those kinds of workouts, with a secondary emphasis on more arcane exercise methods. But they’re not. In my gym, for instance, I’ve got to walk through a sea of machinery to get from the bench-press station to that low-ceilinged Olympic lifting platform to perform bent-over rows. The squat racks—of which I suppose I can be grateful that there are any at all—are tightly crammed in, three in a row, such that two people using racks right next to each other would resemble a jousting tournament. The squat racks and Olympic lifting platform are jammed into the least inviting, worst lit, and most unsafely-configured area in the entire gym. Who would want to spend any time there?

Finally, there’s NO place to perform walking lunges, or plyometric jumps, or dynamic flexibility exercises, aside from the aerobics studio, which is almost always occupied by people taking classes. Nothing against classes. In fact, I’ve poked my head in there and seen some real sweat going on in there from time to time. But open space is important and useful in a gym, and this gym has almost none of it.

The other day I was warming up in the treadmill area, which overlooks the gym floor. Reflexively, I took a quick visual survey at what the people were up to in the gym below. What I saw made me almost cry with joy: the machines were languishing. No one was touching them. Instead, everyone was over by the dumbbells, benches, squat racks and chinning bars, putting in real effort off in the low-ceilinged, poorly-lit corners of the place. And these weren’t just the hulks, either: they were the older clients, the female clients, the people with a long way to go.

A fluke? Probably. Still, I wonder how much better these gym managers and owners could do--and how much better their clients’ results would be--if they set up their facilities to accommodate and encourage challenging, effective workouts, rather than subtly funneling everyone towards workout equipment whose effectiveness is sub-optimal at best and dangerous at worst?


Lou Schuler, of the indispensable health, fitness, and all-things-Schulerian blog Male Pattern Fitness has a totally different angle on my topic from Monday. Lou is the father of three active kids, a veteran of many sports teams, and currently a coach for one of his daughter’s soccer teams. As such, he’s got a different very slant on things than I do, and it’s worth a read.

Heck, his stuff’s always worth a read.


Lisa said...

Hi Andrew, I came to your blog through Lou Schuler's site and just wanted to say that I think it's a pleasure to read - one of the few strength training/fitness blogs that are both well written and funny. Thanks!

Scott Moore said...

I'll second that. I also came to your site via Lou. I have been reading your site for about 3 months and have really enjoyed it. I subscribe to an RSS feed just to be sure that I don't miss anything. Good stuff.

Rick Mayo said...

Great article! So true.

Aaron said...

I think you're onto something. The gym marketing mindset seems to think that getting people in shape would give them a reason to quit. It's like the people trying to figure out how to push gym memberships haven't experienced the benefits themselves.

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Cialis said...

Those were great tips on setting up a gym!

Elliott Broidy said...

Super tips!