There are many to choose from in each metropolitan area, often with very competitive rates and features. Yet one element is rarely, if ever, discussed when comparing facilities.
What To Check For
It is the first component that a potential member should check - the one most likely to determine your happiness and long term success in a club.
It's not the newest piece of cardio equipment, the juice bar, or even the cute gal behind the counter. We're talking about the actual bars and plates in the weight training area.
All weights are not the same! It never ceases to amaze me that so many million dollar clubs will spend limitless amounts on fancy equipment, while investing the bare minimum on cheap bars and plates.
What's the difference, you ask? Well, if you have only frequented your typical 'chain' clubs, you might not know. They seldom have more than one or two decent bars in the place. A quality bar makes or breaks your attempts to get stronger.
A top notch bar is balanced and stiff, with deep knurling, and a solid feel. You simply cannot do heavy lifts with a cheap bar. They bend, they're slick, and they spin and fight you when you need to be concentrating on the lift. When you are going for a record weight, the only thing you should be concerned only about is applying maximum force to the bar.
|What Is Knurling?
A grooved or roughened area along the length of a bar to increase the ease of gripping or to lessen the tendency to slip.
The bars in most franchised clubs are fine for lifts up to about 300 pounds, after that they begin to bend and sway, and the knurling is insufficient to grip.
Plates and dumbbells can be nearly as important as the bars. If you are one of the few and rightfully proud Olympic lifters out there, you need rubber coated 'bumper' plates for your training.
This is because the bar must be dropped from overhead often, and without the rubber the plates would crack and the floor along with them. Other than these elite folk, no one needs rubber coated weights.
Iron vs. Rubber Plated Plates.
They are the popular thing these days in high dollar gyms, much to the dismay of serious iron pumpers. Gym owners like them for insurance reasons. They tend to absorb shock and minimize damage if dropped. So why not use them?
The foremost reason is size. Rubber coated plates are considerably larger. This means that a barbell loaded with 300 pounds of coated plates takes up more room than conventional plates.
This matters because the further out the plates are loaded, the more the dynamics of the lift change. This may sound overly technical, but it's true. The main reason why serious lifters don't like them is more aesthetic: rubber coated weights look and sound bad.
What is more satisfying than the characteristic 'clang' of a new plate being added to the bar, or the 'tic' of dumbbells tapping together at the top of a successful repetition? Who wants to pump rubber?
Dumbbells combine the requirements of plates and barbells in a smaller package. You don't want rubber coated dumbbells, period. They are much larger and even more cumbersome than normal. This may not matter much when you are using 30's, but compare a pair of 130's and see the difference.
The larger dumbbell will require you to very noticeably change the arc in which you lift them in order to clear your body of the bloated rubber encasement. And again, at the top of a PR (personal record) lift, how satisfying is rubber thudding together? Ugh.
Quality Of Equipment
Do not neglect the quality of the actual bar, either. There are several new styles of tapered handles on dumbbells now, and they all stink. Go with the tried and true. A heavily knurled straight handle is the way to go, and if you find some with slightly larger than normal handles, even better.
One last note: investigate the maintenance of the dumbbells in particular. They should be tight. The plates should not revolve freely for safety reasons. Also discount any gym where the members are dropping the dumbbells. This damages them and makes the likelihood of an accident while the next guy using them, namely you, much higher.
If the place has good dumbbells, they should nearly castrate anyone they catch dropping them. If they don't care, then this tells you their equipment is junk.
A Word On Brands
In the opinion of most gym rats, there are only three names when it comes to bars, plates and dumbbells.
York is one of the oldest and best lines out there. They are reliable and the most inexpensive of the three. This should be the brand of choice for nearly all clubs. York equipment is tough, durable, made to last.
The next brand would be Ivanko. Though their stuff isn't any better than York, it looks a bit nicer and often has better knurling. It can be a price jump however. A few clubs carry Ivanko; a lot more should.
The gold standard in plates and bars stands out clearly - the name is Eleiko. Competitive weightlifters will train and compete on nothing else, period. No other brand is allowed in international competition because only Eleiko has the reputation of unsurpassed precision, quality, and safety without a single fault.
If a club has even just one Eleiko bar, you know you have found a winner; a serious establishment that understands the needs of the true gym patron. Eleiko equipment is not necessary for the average gym rat, however. If you plan on learning the Olympic lifts, you will eventually need Eleiko equipment, if not; York or Ivanko will do fine.
So, when the guy behind the desk at your prospective gym is showing you around, skip the glitz and glamour of all the machines and head for the guts of the place. Check out those bars.
At the least, pick it up and feel it. Is it solid? How is the grip? Is it bent? Can you find a brand name on it, or a load rating? Put it in the power rack, or on the floor, and roll it to see obvious bends or shaking.
If the bar is decent, look at the plates that go with it. Are there matching sets? Are they a brand you can trust? You will be shocked at the poundage variance in cheap plates.
Are they placed in order or thrown about on the floor carelessly? Look at the dumbbells. Are they in order? Are the plates tight, or do they spin around the handle just waiting to fly off? If the guy showing you around questions why you are so concerned about the bars and not his five thousand dollar treadmill, remind him of this:
If you are weak and plan on staying that way, a junk barbell will suit you fine. Otherwise you need quality.
Quality bars, plates, and dumbbells are the bare minimum requirement of any gym - no exceptions. They are like the engine of your car; no matter how nice and shiny the body is, if you don't have it where it counts you will not go far.
Make finding a facility with quality bars your first priority. It will form the foundation of your lifting career. We are talking about lifting weights here, after all, so find the best weights you can. Do not sacrifice this most essential of elements in your quest for a new gym.