On gym culture

Tank Green/ April 30, 2022/ Health

Recently I switched gyms and it was a terrible mistake. I was really happy at my little budget gym, but the HQ payments team kept fucking up my payments which resulted in me being locked out three months in a row. Once was a mistake, twice was irritating, three times told me that they had no interest in fixing the issue, so I threw my toys out of the pram and moved to a different gym.

The new gym was equidistant from my house, bigger, had more equipment, and was £4 pcm cheaper than my old gym; but still, within a week I knew I’d made a terrible mistake and wrote to my old gym manager to ask him to deal with the payments team on my behalf. Thankfully he did and I am back at my old gym and happy as larry again and getting clowned for being a dick.

What this experience taught me relates to relationships, community, culture, and the fact that not all (budget) gyms are alike. This might seem obvious to some, but when you live in a big city, sometimes we forget that these ‘soft skills’ matter. What I had not weighted strongly enough when I stomped off, was how profoundly the culture at my gym impacted on my enjoyment as a user. In the main, people at my gym are friendly and talk to each other; people at my gym put their weights away after using them; it is mixed in terms of race, gender, class, and disability; and if you say to someone ‘how many sets have you got left?’ they answer you with a smile and a number.

At the gym I switched to, asking someone how many sets they had left would result in someone spitting a hostile, non-response back like ‘I don’t work like that!’, as if sets and reps were an insult to their mother and not a normal way of training. It also had a women-only room, which I whole-heartedly support, but yet also means that the main gym areas are less mixed which leads to a rise of gym bro culture. (The women-only sections never have the kind of equipment an experienced gym user needs.) Finally, no one ever put their weights away which meant you’d spend 10 mins wandering the place in between exercises trying to find a matching dumbbell. I hated it, but I especially hated the mess and how unfriendly users were to each other.

Over the years, I have been a member of a great many different gyms and/or sports clubs. Many of them had appalling, often highly sexist cultures, some had no culture, and others were just meh. Honestly, until my current gym, I don’t even think I focussed on culture when I was choosing my gym. I focussed on equipment, facilities (spa!!!), or the skill I was seeking (e.g. muay thai, crossfit, boxing). Whilst I have left gyms for poor gym culture (see: most muay thai gyms I have been a member of) or poor facilities (all council owned, Better managed gyms), I never realised until now how a good gym culture can turn a place you work out into a community of warm and like-minded people.

So I am glad I made the temporary switch, because it made me see that the grass most definitely isn’t greener. More importantly, it demonstrated to me how good a job my gym manager has done in a) assembling a great team, and b) in creating a warm, inclusive, and friendly gym culture.

These two learning points are really the crux of this post. I want you, dear reader, to exercise because movement is fundamental to life, irrespective of age, gender, or disability. We all need to move (if we can). So if you are new to exercise and have walked into the kind of gym which has a poor culture, move on and try again. Many gyms nowadays do not lock you into contracts, so you are free to keep trying until you find your own gym-home. And remember, at a good gym, the other members are rooting for you and hoping you’ll stay for the long-haul. We want to know your name.