An Overview of 4 Popular Gyms and How to Choose the Best Membership

There’s no club quite like a gym.

Everyone in there is working towards something, whether it’s losing weight, building bulk, training for a competition or making friends.

But for someone who’s new to gyms or took a long break from the hallowed halls of gymdom, it can be a really intimidating experience. And it’s not just the fitness fanatics clothed in the latest workout gear that’s overwhelming. It’s the contracts, what’s included in the membership and the fees – all of this can be a little too much to handle.

So, we’ve done some research on some of the most popular gyms in the country. We’ve checked out their membership fees (monthly, sign-up, annual), perks, various membership tiers and outside reviews to get a sense of what each gym is like.

Also, we’ve thrown in a little consumer psychology to help you understand why you might be drawn to one gym over another.

Once we provide you with all the information we just listed, we’ll give you our perspective on which gym is best for which kind of person.

A Quick Review of the Gym Industry

In our first post on gym memberships, we discovered that more than 50 million people are gym members. That huge number of people creates a revenue stream of more than $25.8 billion for the 35,000 gyms across the country. 

Huge industry, right? Business owners have recognized how much we love a good gym, so they’ve done their best to woo customers to their workout epicenters.

Gym owners have recognized how much we love a good gym, so they’ve done their best to woo customers to their workout epicenters.

They put familiar, easy-to-use machines at the front of their gym and in front of windows. So, when you walk by or walk in, you see a treadmill and elliptical instead of monstrous mountains of weights. The less intimidating, the better.

A Quick Review of Confirmation Bias

Another thing that’s important to keep in mind is the concept of confirmation bias. Let’s say you’ve heard from a few friends that the chef at your local bistro uses a little too much garlic in her food.

Then, out of the blue, a coworker invites you to dinner … at said bistro. You sit down and order your meal. You take the first bite of your shrimp alfredo, and, lo and behold, there’s that garlic flavor. I knew it, you think as you suffer your way through your meal.

You look over at your dinner mate and she’s enjoying the same dish. No winces from garlicky burn. No crinkled noses.

After your meal, you chit chat about the food. She’s thrilled with her meal. You, not so much. When you get home, you check Yelp to read reviews. No mention of garlic.

Alas, you’re the victim of confirmation bias. In your mind, you believed the food was over-garlicked without ever having tried it. But at that first taste of the stuff, your mind said, See, I told you! The food here has too much garlic!

In reality, the chef wasn’t bad. Her food was actually quite good. But because your confirmation bias limited your ability to process new information, you shut down any notion of praise after that first bite.

Gyms work in the same way, and even more so in today’s age of online reviews. Everyone’s got an opinion about gyms. If you dive too deep into the black hole that is the internet, you’re bound to come out with some seeds of doubt that could make you pass on a perfectly acceptable gym.

For instance, you read a review that says, “Hated this gym. Super cheap, but the bathrooms were dirty and I saw hair on the floor in the tanning room.”

You go to the gym to check it out and, during your tour, you see a random hair on the floor in the tanning room and you notice bits of dirt here and there that you wouldn’t normally see if you weren’t already biased toward it.

Ha! I knew this gym was dirty, you think to yourself, when, in fact, it’s pretty clean compared to the next gym you go to.

A Basic Overview of What You’ll Get When You Preview a Gym

Now that you’ve gotten your briefing on confirmation bias, it’s time to start whittling away at some of the finer points of gym memberships. Keep these in mind as you get your tour of the gym: fees, free amenities, perks and add-ons.

Gym Membership Cost

Nearly every franchised or national chain of gyms will have three separate fees they’ll charge you: a monthly fee, a one-time initiation fee and an annual fee charged once a year.

Free Amenities

Pay close attention to what’s free at the gym you’re previewing. At the very least, you’ll have access to all workout equipment, showers and lockers for free. Some gyms will offer free training, free classes or free access to pools and saunas.

Perks

These are the fringe benefits you’ll get as a member of a particular gym. The usual perks include discounts at certain fitness-oriented clothing stores as well as other workout-related stuff.

Add-Ons

Depending on which gym you visit, you’ll notice that they offer certain classes or conveniences like childcare for an added cost per month.

A Quick Word About Membership Fees

Remember how we said you should always keep a close eye on your gym’s contract? That’s because each company has different rules about how they charge you, when they charge you and how much you have to pay (or not pay) to cancel your membership.

Unless you’re signing up for a month-to-month membership, you can anticipate paying an early termination fee, just as you would a phone contract.

Unless you’re signing up for a month-to-month gym membership, you can anticipate paying an early termination fee.

Always Try It Before You Buy It

The four gyms we’re going to talk about all have free passes you can use to get a feel for their facilities before signing on the dotted line. We encourage you to take advantage of this option because it gives you an honest look at the gym.

A Few Big Names in Gym Memberships Near You and How They Fit You

Narrowing down the biggest, most popular gyms in America is a tough thing to do. So, we pared down the long list to four gyms you’ve probably heard of before. For each gym, we’ll cover fees, free amenities, perks and add-ons.

We’ll also give you an idea of what other people are saying about each gym; take those opinions with a grain of salt (more on that later). 

Planet Fitness: The Budget-Minded Option 

Planet Fitness is a popular club that’s been around since 1992, when two brothers started the company and eventually turned it into a big-box gym for newcomers to the workout world.  These days, there are more than 1,000 clubs in the United States. 

Their mottos are “No Gymtimidation” and “Judgment-Free Zone” which means they try to create an atmosphere where hulking weightlifters aren’t walking around scaring off people who just want to get a little cardio in before work. Clubs are open 24 hours a day, except on certain holidays. 

Planet Fitness Membership Fees

PF memberships come in two tiers: the $10 per month option and the Black Card options, which is $19.99 a month. Startup fees vary depending on when you sign-up, but can range from $0 to $10. Annual fees are $29.

Planet Fitness Free Amenities

The $10 membership gets you unlimited use of equipment as well as free personal training sessions. Those sessions aren’t super complex; each location has a daily schedule (abs, arms, legs, etc.) of training sessions you can sign up for. All members also have access to showers and lockers.

Basic members get access to one PF location, while Black Card members have access to all PF locations across the country.

Planet Fitness Perks/Add-Ons

Black Card members get 20% discounts at Reebok stores, as well as a 10% discount at the PF online store (gym gear with the PF logo). 

PF’s only add-on is the Black Card, which gives members exclusive access to hydromassage tables, massage chairs and red-light therapy. They also get discounts on a few items from the gym’s beverage cooler. 

Planet Fitness Free Pass? 

No.

Planet Fitness is Perfect For:

People who are intimidated to go to a gym. Their cheap monthly membership fees make them a great bargain. However, their amenities are really limited compared to other gyms. 

If you want a low-cost option where you can do cardio and lift some weights in a low-pressure environment, PF is a good option, in our opinion. However, if you want an elevated gym experience with classes, swimming and other nice amenities, there are plenty of other options out there.

LA Fitness: Good Value for the Perks

Though the name says “L.A.”, you can find their clubs at more than 300 locations across the country, with most of them in Florida, Pennsylvania, New York and California. 

LA Fitness started in 1984 in California and has since grown to both coasts. Their gyms offer a variety of amenities and add-ons.

LA Fitness Membership Fees

At the time of our research, LA Fitness was offering memberships for $31.99 per month with a $99 initiation fee. What you pay may vary slightly depending on where you live, so we decided to do a test run for an LA Fitness in Jacksonville, FL.

The results were consistent with what we saw on the LA Fitness website. To start, you’ll need to pay the first and last month’s fees along with the startup fee.

LA Fitness Free Amenities

Every LA Fitness offers cardio machines, weight machines and free weights. You’ll also have the luxury of an indoor heated lap pool, saunas and a whirlpool. Fitness classes are included, too (click here for a list of what they offer). Like most gyms, you’ll get access to showers and lockers. You also get access to all LA Fitness locations across the country, except for “Signature” clubs, which have higher fees. 

LA Fitness Perks/Add-Ons

Based on what we saw from the test run we did, you have three options: a $5 courts fee (to use racquetball and basketball courts), a $20 guest fee to bring guests with you and a separate contract and fees for personal training sessions. 

Members can also pay for child care and swim school. Many LA Fitness locations also include a juice bar. 

LA Fitness Free Pass?

Yes, for three days.

LA Fitness is Perfect For:

If you want a complete gym experience at a reasonable monthly rate, LA Fitness seems to be a good fit. The difference in amenities between LA and PF are pretty drastic, particularly when you compare PF’s $10 per month membership.

The day care perk is a great option for families with one car or schedules that put a time crunch on when one parent or guardian can work out.

24 Hour Fitness: Around-the-Clock Workout

24 Hour Fitness has been in the gym business for more than three decades. They’re based in California and have more than 400 clubs in 17 states. According to their website, they have more than 2 million members.

24 Hour Fitness Membership Fees

24H memberships are split into three categories: month-to-month, contract or prepaid. We did a test search of gyms in San Diego to find out how fees differed between the three categories: 

  • Month-to-month: $149 initiation fee, $34.99 per month, $221.10 due on signing, $44.99 annual fee
  • 12-month contract: $35 initiation fee, $29.99 per month, $95.95 due on signing, $44.99 annual fee

We noticed that, for the location we searched, there was no option for prepaid memberships. We also noticed that the site offered the above plans for access to more than 300 clubs. They had a “Super-Sport” option that included access to more than 450 clubs. Prices were, on average, $10 to $15 more per month.

Two other access levels are available – Active and Ultra Sport – but information on those programs was not available at the location we searched. 

24 Hour Fitness Free Amenities

Most 24H clubs include some group fitness and spin classes, all cardio and weight equipment, a whirlpool, sauna, steam room and a pool. However, like other clubs, amenities vary from location to location, so make sure you’re clear on what your location offers. 

24 Hour Fitness Perks/Add-Ons

24H has a pretty impressive list of add-on fitness classes, including high-intensity workouts (TC24) and the gym’s GX24 group classes. 24H also offers, for a fee, daycare for kids between 6 months and 11 years. Cost varies per club.

24 Hour Fitness Free Pass?

Yes, for three days.

24 Hour Fitness is Perfect For:

The night owl who wants more perks than what’s available at Planet Fitness.

For budget-conscious fitness enthusiasts, 24H’s varied pricing structures are more likely to fit a wide variety of financial situations as compared to LA Fitness.

Gold’s Gym: Lots of Bang for the Buck

If you feel like the name is familiar, you’re right. Gold’s Gym used to be a haven for hardcore weightlifters back in the day. The gym is the oldest of the four business we cover in this article. Despite its sinewy origins, the gym has changed its business model and now appeals to a wide variety of people. 

Gold’s Gym Membership Fees

Gold’s is very similar to Planet Fitness in that it offers a $9.99 (Fitness Only) and $19.99 (Gold Card) per month membership. The gym also has a Gold+ membership for $29.99 a month. Each membership carried with it a $10 up-front processing fee.

We noticed that for the Florida location we researched, the added fees varied for each level of membership:

  • Fitness-only members paid a $49 enrollment fee and a $37.07 annual fee.
  • Gold Card and Gold+ members paid no enrollment fee and had a $28.03 annual fee.

Over the course of one year, fitness-only members end up with about $58 more in fees than Gold Card and Gold+ members.

Gold’s Gym Free Amenities

Gold’s offers a unique perk you won’t find at the other three gyms in this article: cardio cinema. Members of all levels can ride a variety of cardio machines while watching a movie on a big screen. Aside from that, each Gold’s has the standard collection of cardio machines, weight machines and free weights.

Gold’s Gym Perks/Add-Ons

The perks at Gold’s are tiered according to membership levels. Fitness-only users get access to all equipment and the cinema room. These amenities are similar to what you’d get at PF.

There’s a big leap in access when you go for the Gold Card or Gold+ memberships. These two tiers get you unlimited group exercise classes, you can bring guests with you whenever you want and you get unlimited tanning. Gold+ members have the added advantage of free day care for up to two children.

You can also purchase personal training sessions, as well as entry into their high-intensity Boot Camp programs.

Gold’s Gym Free Pass?

Yes. Their VIP Pass gets you access for seven days.

Gold’s Gym is Perfect For:

Gold’s Gold+ membership, in our opinion, is an excellent option for parents/partners who have one or two children and want to work out at the same time. Rather than paying a sitter, child care is covered in their membership.

Reviewing the Four Clubs: Not Exhaustive, But Representative

The purpose in breaking down these four clubs is to give you an idea of what kinds of options, pricing and perks gyms offer their members. There are, as we pointed out earlier, more than 35,000 gyms in the United States alone, so offering details on every gym is pretty impossible. 

Here’s what you need to take away from our reviews:

Know the levels of membership inside and out

The gyms we took a look at fall into two tiers: budget (Gold’s, PF) and comprehensive (24 Hour, LA Fitness). Each of these gyms has their own levels of membership. Decide what you want out of your gym, write down a list, then compare your list to the membership levels at each gym you visit.

You’ll notice that some plans won’t measure up to your needs, but are very affordable. Step with caution, here; going for the bargain may leave you wishing you’d chosen a gym with more amenities.

Other plans are more expensive, but include all kinds of amenities and perks. However, if you’re just interested in cardio, you may not need a whirlpool, sauna or personal training programs.

Read the Contracts!

We want to mention this one more time. Gyms are notorious for making it difficult for you to get any money back on a cancelled membership. Know this going into it. And also know that, if you do cancel, you need to watch your bank account or credit card to make sure there are no further charges after your membership is over. Dozens of reviewers for all four gyms on Consumer Affairs have complained about these ongoing charges (click on the links in the next section to read specific compmlaints).

Gyms are notorious for making it difficult for you to get any money back on a cancelled membership.

Be clear on four things before you sign: initiation fees, monthly fees, annual fees and cancellation policies. If you have any doubts, ask direct questions to the employee who’s helping you. 

Be Wary of Reviews

We’ve waited until now to bring up reviews because we don’t want your confirmation bias to take shape. Gyms, in general, get terrible reviews on consumer review websites.

For example, Consumer Affairs reviewers gave:

We noticed that most of these complaints focus on billing and cancellations. So here’s our advice: plan on sticking with your membership for the entire contract. Opting out before your one-year anniversary could cause you headaches.

If you’re unsure whether or not you can stick with your membership for a year, you have two options. First, forego the gym membership and try alternatives like walking, hiking or in-home workout programs like DailyBurn

As for the low ratings these gyms get, remember that the majority of these complaints are billing-based. Except for the occasional rant about rude employees, there are few criticisms of amenities and classes. These reviews tell us that the clubs themselves are good, more or less, but the billing can be a hassle.

Finishing Up: The Wise Consumer Wins

If we could sum up this article in just a few words, we’d say, “Know your budget, the amenities and the contract”.

We believe that you’ll be happiest when you can:

So, set a limit on how much you want to spend, be clear about what you want from your gym and commit to a year of membership to avoid any billing surprises or headaches. 

Like we mentioned earlier, our examination of these four clubs is a good representation of what’s out there. You’ll find gyms offering memberships that cost way more than $30 or $40 per month; some boutique gyms can cost you nearly $200 a month.

But, in most cases, you can apply our classification method to just about any gym: fees (initiation, monthly, annual), free amenities and add-ons/perks. 

Final word of advice: Take advantage of free passes. It’s like a test drive for a car; make sure you feel comfortable with what you’re getting before you start a contract!

More on Gyms and Fitness:


J.R. Duren

J.R. is an award winning journalist who uncovers the hard truths about personal finance, health and fitness through in-depth research and interviews with experts.


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