Serious Gyms: The Real Judgment-Free Zone

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The expression “you cannot judge a book by its cover” applies to many things in life, including fitness centers and gym. In the last couple of weeks, in discussing training and diet with a couple of folks, each of them, when talking about the gym I train at, mentioned they have heard of that gym and were “afraid” of it. I have heard that several times before…and “afraid” is actually the word used by them. The gym I train at and train people at is a serious facility called Destination Dallas (formally Metroflex Plano) in suburban Dallas. It got me thinking about the “you cannot judge a book by its cover” wisdom. Because it is friendly to people who compete in various iron sports (bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, and so on) or people building strength for high school or college football, track, and hockey, many on-line references to the gym feature videos of lifting sessions with top-level and pro competitors, particularly on the physique and bodybuilding side. Despite the appearance, however, places like this tend to be the least judgmental when it comes to new members.

Today, many large fitness center chains promote themselves as being a “no judgement” zones. The leader in this is Planet Fitness, which oddly enough has an environment that is quite judgmental. Those gyms, decorated in Barney The Dinosaur purple, cater to a mostly female and out-of-shape clientele who fear being judged by other gym members. As such, this chain discourages any sort of serious or fit person from working out there – no heavy dumbbells are available, pictures and TV advertisements mocking people in shape abound, people who work out “too hard” (lifting too heavy, doing movements like deadlifts, etc.) are encouraged to leave at some locations, etc. One even wonders if they want their members to get fit since they do not want people to work out hard and make Tootsie Rolls and pizza night a staple of activities.

Certainly, there are large upscale chains, as well, where women are dressed in designer sportswear and have no issue watching and judging others.

However, when you go to a “hardcore” training facility, you often get quite the opposite response. If you come to a serious gym and actually train hard, do it consistently, and make progress, you end up becoming part of the gym family. My gym has a large number of people that compete in various iron sports, but even with a higher rate than most places, the majority of members do not actually compete. So, there are lots of members who just come in to work out hard to achieve whatever their fitness goals are. We have members in their 60s and 70s, some members who are 50 to over 100 lbs overweight, and so on. And no one really judges them. Quite the contrary – we have a couple of members who have lost over 100 lbs through a lot of hard work and the gym family could not be more proud. When you work out seriously and make progress, the other folks working out seriously respect you. In small gyms, that makes you part of the family. The only ones I have ever seen mocked are ones who come in and spend their entire workout texting, taking selfies, and walking around with invisible lat syndrome…in other works, taking up equipment and not actually doing any work.

There has been lots of negative press on Crossfit lately, but part of what has made it popular is that, in many cases, it is an environment like my gym – the opposite of a Planet Fitness. Most Crossfit gyms are smaller, independent operations where people go to work hard. When you go at the same time most days, you see the same people. They see you work hard, make progress, and get to know you. You become part of that gym’s family. So, when you achieve a new personal record, everyone is happy and are there to root you on to the next one.

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