08/25/2011 08:11 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

Gym Memberships: Are They Worth The Investment?

A membership to a gym can cost hundreds of dollars over the course of a year, and choosing the right gym for you is something that should be taken seriously.

For the past 15 years, I have worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach. When I am not traveling with clients, I sometimes teach "boot-camps" at various health clubs on the East Coast. Each time, I inevitably speak to people who have made, or currently are making, basic mistakes when managing a membership.

Most attendees of my "boot-camps" are either gym regulars, or former clients of mine who have been attending these classes for years and have greatly benefited from regular participation (which in my opinion is one of the best ways to get the most out of your money at any gym). However, I always learn of scores of people who sign up for a year-long membership in January, only to stop using the gym by mid-March and forgetting that they are still being billed from their credit card or direct withdrawal. While lack of motivation and lack of time contributes to loss of gym time, the most popular reason I hear for skipping out on a gym membership is dissatisfaction with the facility. I have spoken to countless people at these bootcamps who have settled into their current gym after disliking several gyms before that - and they are still paying for multiple memberships!

I have put together a simple list to guide you through getting the best bang for your buck at the gym.

My basic rules to selecting the right health club:

1. Survey the studios and eye the equipment: You need to make sure that your gym has at least one large studio where classes do not get overbooked. Also avoid over-crowded gyms that may only carry a few pieces 
of cardio equipment.

2. Think of your schedule: The time of day that you work out should play a major role in determining which health club you choose. For instance, if you prefer working out during your lunch-hour, it makes sense to select a gym that is close in proximity to your work.

3. Consider the children: If you have them, be sure to inquire about all child-related rules, benefits and accommodations.

4. Discover your options: Many health clubs allow for "freezing" a membership if you are going to be out of town for any length of time. However there are usually limitations on just how long you are allowed to freeze. Some health clubs take the standard one month. If you know you are leaving town for an extended period of time, it may be wise to forgo a year-membership and opt for a week or month pass.

5. Train yourself on who might be training you: Every health club has personal trainers and every facility feels that their trainers are the most educated and experienced. If you are thinking about using a trainer, be sure that the gym offers complimentary intro sessions. You do not buy a car without test driving it, so why should you use a trainer without forming a understanding of philosophies? Also, never let a trainer offer nutritional advice, unless they are licensed to do so. Interview each trainer before you begin any program. Let them ask most of the questions: Do you have any injuries? Will you pass a medical physical? Here are some certifications to look for: NSCA, ACE and National Academy of Sports Medicine (also, it's a plus if they went to college for their profession). Things that should not singly impress you enough to choose them: they train celebrities
, they are over-booked, they have a terrific physique (although, they should take care of their appearance), they are too aggressive or you cannot walk the next day. Things that should impress you: they are flexible with appointments, but they do have limits, they have a plan and take notes after each session, they do not have the answer for everything, and are willing to find out that answer with you and you are their only focus during the session. If they answer their phone, carry a coffee or shake, sit down while they are training you, talk with other clients or, lastly but most importantly, they are late or cancel on you, find another trainer. You expect the best 
for your program. So, hire someone who cares and has the business and health experience to assist you, not punish you!

6. Know when to go: The best day to visit a gym is Sunday. Why? There's less of a crowd, so you'll receive more personal attention. Also, sales personnel are usually more open to negotiate a deal. Pick three to five health clubs to visit and don't be afraid to let the sales manager that you have visited other facilities. Generally, they have to make a quota and they will do whatever it takes for you to join. Hint, hint! If they have a joining fee, see how willing they are to reduce it, or drop it off your whole membership. Remember, they want you and are willing to make a deal.

7. Take a test drive: Try the gym out before you commit -- and don't just settle for a free workout that day. Show up at a peak-time: 4-8 p.m. on weekdays, Saturday mornings and Mondays at lunchtime.

8. Feel out the front: If you are not properly greeted, go somewhere else. Some gyms opt to place highly professional individuals behind the desk. Others barely consider the role of the front door staff. Remember, it is hard enough to go to the gym -- something better make you feel great when you walk through the door.

9. Do some recon on the restrooms: You will spend a lot of time here. Be sure they are clean and have the needed materials (fresh towels, quick staff to open your locker, pump bottle soaps and no mildew). Also, ensure that they offer enough privacy -- it's not a good feeling having to change next to a sweaty body.

10. Judge wisely: If there's a spinning wheel or balloons posted at the door to increase membership, generally membership sales are suffering. Be wise and open. Just as automobile salesman are perceived as sharks, so are a lot of health club sales staff. Avoid giving your personal cell phone numbers to the sales person before you sign up or you will have a new friend reaching out to you all hours of the day.

So the bottom line is that gym memberships are worth your while, and your money -- if you choose them carefully. I hope I have caused little feathers to be ruffled for gym owners, trainers and managers -- my goal is to steer you away from those who feed off of the lack of education of the average consumer. More importantly, I hope that I have sparked interest in those of you who have felt that joining a gym was out of reach. Go for it!

Train safely and be well.