Planet Fitness: Friend or Foe?

Opinions on Planet Fitness are as widespread and diverse as opinions on CrossFit. If you’re a part of the fitness world, you’ve probably either heard of them or have an opinion of your own. Before this past weekend I had never been to any of their gyms so, up to this point, I have maintained a snarky yet distanced perspective. I do my best not to talk a lot about things I don’t have personal experience with, but I had heard and seen enough to develop some initial perspective.

Between the lunk alarm, a heavy reliance on machines, and no barbells, I believed that Planet Fitness was nothing more than a cardio farm that mocks real strength training and punishes those who work hard. I went to one of their gyms for the first time with a friend this weekend and found my experience relatively humbling. I would never choose Planet Fitness as a gym for myself but I now clearly see the niche it fills.

This is not a comprehensive analysis of Planet Fitness and everything it offers. I’m simply providing my impression and opinion based on what I observed in the gym myself.

What I Like:

A regular membership at Planet Fitness costs just $10 per month, which is very inexpensive, and they tend to have 24-hour operation. The company operates on a philosophy of being “judgement free” and providing an environment that is safe and accepting of all people. The majority of their training facility uses exercise machines, both cardio and strength, and there are multiples of every piece of equipment to limit wait times. The use of machines simplifies exercise because every machine has instructions and they all operate within set patterns. This reduces the “risk” of looking stupid and uninformed or performing exercise unsafely. The accessibility, ease of exercise, dress code, etc eliminate many of the barriers that commonly limit sedentary people when it comes to developing an exercise habit.

In addition to the equipment on the main gym floor, the facility has two cookie cutter training areas for members to use. One section is a 30-minute total-body workout area while the other is a 12-minute ab area. The majority of the exercises are performed on machines but they are in a particular order and there is a constantly running timer to help guide new exercisers through a full body or abdominal workout. While the exercises used may not be the best, for an individual with no training experience, a simple guided program may get them moving when they otherwise wouldn’t.

The last thing I really liked was member bagel and pizza day. I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this but I believe it to be a positive message. The gym only has bagels and pizza once per month, each. This sends a positive message that health and fitness isn’t all or nothing. We shouldn’t teach people that they “can’t” have pizza, bagels, or any other food. The best lesson is one of moderation and balance.

What I Don’t Like:

Now that I’ve highlighted what I liked, it’s time for the negatives. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was that there was absolutely ZERO open floor space to exercise in. For example, the only way I could jump rope or do a full-body dynamic warmup was if I moved the benches out of the free weight area and took the entire space over. This severely limits the availability to perform athletically focused exercise. It is clear that this was by design as those movements are “intimidating” to new exercisers and the company focuses on machines for most exercise.

As I stated before, I think the use of machines early on in a person’s training is beneficial, but their utility is limited for a variety of reasons. First, most weight training machines are operated from the sitting position. This significantly reduces core activation during training and further perpetuates the negative effect of a sedentary lifestyle outside of the gym. In a world where we sit to travel and sit to work, we should not sit for the majority of our exercise too.

Another way machines limit the long term development of health and fitness are by shifting the locus of control away from the individual. When the only exercise a person knows is with machines, how do they stay active when they don’t have access to those machines? What if there’s bad weather and they can’t get to the gym or they’re traveling and don’t have access to a full facility? Using machines as a primary method of training limits the potential for true knowledge and skill acquisition that lead to a more resilient, powerful, and aesthetic body.

My biggest point of contention is the lunk alarm. In Planet Fitness culture a “lunk” is described as “one who grunts, drops weights, or judges”. I fail to see how someone who grunts because they’re working to their maximum, or drops the occasional weight, is a threat to other people who are working out. Most people who train hard have the utmost respect for those who choose to take time out of their day to invest in their bodies and health. They don’t judge them for trying or focus on what anyone is doing. They get in, put their headphones on, and dig into their own work. They aren’t there for anyone else and they don’t worry about anyone else.

With all of that said, my biggest issue with the lunk alarm isn’t that it exists; a business has the right to accept or deny service from any individual they choose. My issue is with the hypocrisy of being a “judgement free zone” and maintaining that through severely and harshly judging others. When someone sets off the lunk alarm, a big light on the wall turns on and a siren plays in the gym. Everyone then looks for that individual to single them out. I find that practice utterly disgusting and incredibly offensive.

Lastly, this cult like mindset and culture of exclusion can lead people to believe there is only one right way to work out. I find this unfortunate because there are many different athletic skills that make a healthy functional body. Cross-training is incredibly important for the acquisition of diverse athletic skills and I don’t believe Planet Fitness offers this option to their members.

Overall Impression:

The environment at Planet Fitness is definitely different than I’m used to. The complete lack of floor space and heavy prevalence of machines made me anxious and uncomfortable because I was unable to train in the methods I was accustomed to. It was a humbling experience to feel that uncomfortable in the gym again and was a great lesson in how new clients must feel their first time training with me. That definitely had value.

Anyone who knows me knows I absolutely LOVE strength training. Squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, pressing, kettlebell swings, etc are my bread and butter. Even still, I don’t have a problem with the lack of barbells. There are plenty of ways to train without working true maximal strength, although I think it’s super important, especially when there are dumbbells available up to 85#. I actually have a bigger issue with the lack of open floor space because that limits people to training while standing, or sitting, still. My biggest point of contention is still the hypocrisy of judgement. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

With the low cost, ease of access, simple to use equipment, and guided exercise sections, I believe Planet Fitness is excellent as either a starter gym for someone who is hesitant about working out or for an extremely casual exerciser. I believe it would operate best as a “gateway gym” which can help an individual develop a habit of exercise and then they can move on to somewhere else once they ceiling out. If someone is ready, inspired, and motivated to train I would recommend they go somewhere else with quality coaching and guidance, regardless of their level of experience.

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