Update 8/14/20. Let's talk about scams that occur in fitness centers. I've seen too much and heard too many stories from too many people over the years to keep quiet any longer. Joining a gym is a great place to get in in shape and make friends. Most are staffed by knowledgeable people but are also gym facilities where things occur that I do not agree with. Granted, some of the things you'll see below are not scams but, rather, just things you should be aware of. Other things, however, are downright inexcusable and one of them might even put you in the hospital. I'm not kidding. If you are thinking of joining a gym to get in better shape, keep reading, and let me help you avoid these pitfalls and find a fitness center that is best for you.
1 Be Careful With EFT
These days, many fitness centers prefer you to pay for your membership with a debit or credit card. This is sometimes called “EFT,” which stands for electronic funds transfer. The advantage of paying with a debit or credit card is that you don't have to come in each year to renew your membership. Your gym membership is automatically renewed. Sometimes you are even “locked in” at the rate you started with. So your membership never goes up.
EFT has its advantages, but let me give you some advice.
Never use a debit card when paying for the gym membership -or anything else. If you do, then you are giving strangers DIRECT ACCESS to your bank account – and your money. What happens if they take out too much? You might get hit with overdraft fees from your bank!
I've gotten many emails from people who made the same mistake ordering “free samples” of dietary supplements too. It's in your best interest to not use debit card for reoccurring purchases.
Instead, use a credit card. The credit card is a barrier between your money and those who want it. Also, some credit cards may offer perks for purchases (airfare miles, etc.) and even fraud protection just in case things don't turn out as you hoped. Generally, credit cards offer more protection than debit cards do.
Bottom line: Don't give anyone direct access to your checking or savings account.
2 Get A Receipt
Those who don't like credit cards, often prefer to pay for things in cash. This includes gym memberships. There is nothing wrong with cash, but always make sure you get proof that you paid – get a receipt. Fitness centers can be complicated animals with lots of things going on and lots of employees who need to communicate with each other for the facility to operate smoothly.
A receipt to prove you paid for your membership will help you a lot if there is a problem. If possible, have the gym email you the receipt. That way, you have a backup just in case you lose the paper copy. For added protection, take a picture of the receipt of your cell phone too. If you have Google Photos installed on your cell phone, you get free automatic cloud backup of all pictures.
Bottom line: make sure you have proof that you paid for the membership.
3 Beware The Super Low Membership Rate
A friend, who used to work in the fitness business, told me the story of a gym that mailed out coupons offering new members the opportunity to join for a very low rate. This generated a lot of new members who took advantage of the deal.
Soon after getting all these new members, the club closed forever.
Scams like this are few and far between and less likely to happen without warning at larger fitness centers. The moral of this story is if you are offered a super discounted rate on a gym membership, do some online sleuthing and see if you can discover anything. Search for phrases like the name of the facility and “gym closing,” “bankruptcy,” “financial troubles,” and similar phrases and see if anything shows up.
Bottom line: if it sounds too good to be true, you know how the rest goes…
4 How Hard Is It To Cancel?
When you join a fitness center, you are usually signing a contract. It's often legally binding. Be sure you know exactly what to do if you ever need to cancel your gym membership. This is often spelled out in the contract you sign but has the salesperson show it to you and explain it to you also.
Some fitness centers make canceling as simple as walking in the door and saying, “I'd like to cancel my membership,” while others may make it more difficult. For example, you may be required to write a letter and send it via certified mail it to their corporate office. Some gyms might charge you an extra month's dues even after you have canceled your membership. Still, others might even charge you a cancellation fee.
Some gyms may be very strict in who they will let cancel. Years ago, a friend of mine nearly died when he was hit by a car crossing the street. After the accident, he was not able to work out and tried to cancel his gym membership. Yet this fitness center would NOT let him out of his contract.
They eventually agreed to let him freeze his membership for a year, but that was only after months of back-and-forth calls and letters. After the year was up, even though he still was not able to exercise, they began charging him again. This continued until membership was up.
Bottom line: Like all contracts, be aware of what you are signing.
5 The SalesPerson
It's the salesperson's job to sell gym memberships. So, they will tell you all the great amenities and benefits the facility offers. This is their job, and like all salespeople, there is nothing wrong with this. The fitness center is a business, after all.
They do have to make money.
But, walking into a new facility for the first time can be overwhelming. So, I recommend you first research the gym online. Look at their website and write down anything you might want to bring up when you take a tour of the facility.
Basically, you want to discover if the facility suits your needs. To help you decide, here are some questions you might want to ask:
- When is the gym most busy?
- What are the hours of operation (weekdays and weekends)?
- What is the parking situation like?
- I'm biking to the gym. Where can I lock my bike?
- Do you offer childcare? How much is it?
- Are exercise classes included in the membership?
- How many treadmills (or whatever you're interested in) does the facility have?
- I may need a personal trainer. What does that cost?
- Do you offer new members a complimentary pack of training sessions?
- Can I see a list of all the personal trainers with their qualifications and specializations?
As I discuss in my book about personal trainer marketing, most salespeople are aware of the “#1 rule of sales”: people don't buy products. People buy the benefits of the products. The benefits solve a problem the person is dealing with
This is why 99% of the salespeople I've seen ALWAYS show women (but not men) the machine called “the inner/outer
thigh machine.” This machine works the muscles located at the inner and outer parts of the thighs. They show women this machine because many women think this machine will burn fat from the inner/outer thigh areas.
For the record, it doesn't do this at all.
When presented with all the great benefits, a fitness center has to offer, ask yourself, “Do these benefits matter to ME?“ For example, a pool is a great benefit but if you don't swim, it's not a benefit to you.
Bottom line: Do your homework first. Write down relevant questions to ask beforehand and focus on what matters most to you.
6 Beware The Sales Person / Personal Trainer
There is an old saying in the fitness biz: It's easier to make a salesperson into a personal trainer than a personal trainer into a salesman. As I said above, fitness centers are a business. They need to make money if they are to stay in business. So they hire salespeople to sell gym memberships. Some even require personal trainers to have knowledge of sales before they hire them too.
Over the years, I've had several gym salespeople in the personal trainer classes I teach. Fitness facilities pay to have their sales staff try to become personal trainers.
The reason is because a sales person who is also a personal trainer can generate more money for the gym than a fitness trainer who is not a salesperson. They can sell the memberships and often keep the person as a personal training client for a long time.
That's all fine and good. But…is the salesperson really a personal trainer? Or are they just somebody who studied for a bit, passed a test, and never tried to maintain their fitness education?
Or, do they just look like they are a personal trainer?
While I am sure there are some who can do both if you join a fitness center and the salesperson says they are also a personal trainer and offers to give you a complimentary workout (see below for more on this) or help you get used to the equipment, ask them these questions:
- Can I see your fitness certification (take notice of the expiration date)?
- Are you CPR/AED certified (ask to see those certifications too)?
- How long have you been training people?
- Can I speak to some of your other clients first?
- Also, ask these 5 critical questions too
It's possible the salesperson is also a great personal trainer. It may also be that the salesperson thinks they can be a personal trainer because they like to work out. The only way you know is to ask questions.
Bottom line: make sure the salesperson really is a personal trainer before taking them up on their offer.
7 Beware The Manager/Personal Trainer
The managers of fitness centers are often salespeople – not fitness trainers. Like the salesperson/personal trainer scam mentioned above, be very careful of any fitness manager who offers to sweeten the deal by taking you through a few workouts in exchange for you joining the gym.
It's my experience that sometimes the manager -even fitness managers – do not have personal training certifications or knowledge of exercise. I have heard of cases of people getting rhabdomyolysis from the overly aggressive workouts these uneducated “trainers” put people through.
This can put people in the hospital.
Just like with the salesperson who says they are also a personal trainer, you should quiz managers before you let them train you. ALWAYS ask them what they know about rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo) and ask to see their personal training certification and CPR certification.
Unless the person can demonstrate that they are a real personal trainer, I would not trust them.
In my opinion, managers pretending to be personal trainers is one of the biggest scams in the fitness business.
Bottom line: Even if they claim to be a fitness manager, ensure they are a personal trainer and have experience helping people with your particular needs and health issues.
8 No Health History Form/ No PAR Q
We live in a litigation-happy society. Everybody is afraid of being sued. This includes fitness centers too. This has to lead to an unfortunate trend that I've noticed, namely, fitness centers that do not give new members an adequate health history questionnaire prior to joining.
Knowing someones health history can sometimes point people to the right types of exercise for them and hopefully avoid exercise complications like injuries or even heart attacks during exercise.
Another important document fitness centers don't seem to be using anymore is the PAR Q. PAR-Q stands for the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire. It's basically a list of 7 questions. Answering yes to any of those 7 questions means you should go to your doctor before exercising.
So why are fitness centers watering down their health history forms and not issuing PAR-Q forms? To answer this question, I'll summarize a conversation I once had with a friend who used to run a well-known fitness center (you've all heard of them). She told me they no longer issue PAR-Q forms to new members because, in her words, “we talked to the lawyers,” who said, “the less you know, the better.”
In other words, you can't sue the gym if they did not know you had condition X.
I understand wanting to protect themselves but I always felt fitness was about putting people first?
Bottom line: Any fitness center that does not ask you to complete a health history form and PAR-Q before you start to exercise is looking out for them – not you.
9 What Happens In An Emergency?
I believe most fitness facilities in America do not have a procedure in place for medical emergencies. When I say the procedure, I mean an emergency protocol that is written down on paper, that is known by all staff, and by which the staff is regularly tested to follow during mock emergency drills.
By medical emergency, I mean anything from tripping and falling to someone having a heart attack or stroke.
Over the years, I've spoken to MANY personal trainers and group exercise instructors who work at popular fitness clubs everybody reading this has heard of. Many of these people tell me they were NEVER educated on what to do if someone dies or has a stroke, heart attack, sprains their ankle, etc.
I've heard this so many times from so many different people that I refuse to keep silent on this.
I suggest you do NOT join any gym if they cannot show you -in writing – their emergency procedures.
If you ask about this and the salesperson says, “yes we have an emergency procedure,” ask to see it. And then take a picture with your cell phone and email it to me! I want to see it too.
I also want to see proof that ALL staff is CPR/AED certified as well.
You may not think this matters to you. It really matters.
The guy working at the front desk did not know what to do!
There is no excuse for this.
I know there are fitness centers that are VERY well prepared for emergency situations (hint, JCCs, and YMCAs are usually the best prepared). You just can't assume this, though. You need to ask questions.
I know I've made many gyms, managers, owners, etc., very mad. They don't want you to know how unprepared they are. I also know I just made those who do have emergency procedures in place, very happy because it helps them stand out from all the others who don't.
Bottom line: Ask to see the emergency protocols. Your life may depend on it.
10 Gym Emergency Plan Video
Here's a quick video I created on this topic
11 Is the Front Desk Staff CPR certified?
The front desk person is the nerve center of the gym. Unfortunately, they are sometimes not trained as well as they can be. Ask to see the CPR/AED certs of the front desk staff. The gym has them on file. This is a red flag if they say they have them but can't show them to you.
If you have doubts, walk up to the front desk person and ask them.
I've been in fitness centers at night and on weekends when the only people present were the front desk staff. If there is ever an emergency, they may be your only help. They need to know what to do.
Bottom line: if the front desk staff isn't properly trained for emergencies, ask yourself who else isn't too?
12 Beware The Complimentary Training Session
This might be the biggest scam of all in fitness centers. Many fitness centers offer new members a complimentary session with a personal trainer. This is a great perk, but there is sometimes an ulterior motive for this. Here's the scoop…
Fitness trainers tasked with performing complimentary workouts are sometimes instructed to “beat 'em up.”
In other words, work the person so hard that they are super sore the next day.
Why would they do this? Why would they want to make people very sore?
It's a psychological trick to sell personal training sessions.
You see, if the trainer can make someone really sore the next day, that person will think they are out of shape. This makes the person more likely to hire a personal trainer.
To the gym management, members who hire personal trainers are more valuable than those who just pay their gym membership dues each month. That's because those members generate more money for the facility.
The personal training department is usually the #1 moneymaker in the gym. Sometimes bonuses are tied to how much revenue a manager can make and sometimes, the trainers also get rewarded for how much revenue they can make per pay period.
I'm all for capitalism, but I have really big problems with this make them sore policy. For one thing, it's UNETHICAL to try to purposely
make people sore. Fitness trainers are members of the health care system. Policies to hurt members are tantamount to doctors prescribing drugs for conditions you don't have.
The Rhabdo Connection
I also wonder if this stupid policy contributes to cases of exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, a serious medical disorder that I believe is increasing in gyms. Over the years, several people have told me they developed rhabdo after their 1st workout with a trainer.
Most personal trainers have not heard of rhabdo. The people who run fitness centers have also not likely never heard of rhabdo either. This sets the stage for this ugly disorder to become more apparent.
I know some people roll their eyes when I start speaking about rhabdo (I've been teaching people about it for over 10 years) but this is a real disorder. Anyone whose ever had rhabdo, knows how painful it is – and how much the hospital bills are too.
Bottom line: If you join agym and are offered a complimentary fitness training session, ask the trainer what she/he knows about rhabdo. If they can't tell you, request another personal trainer.
13 Beware Of Fake Personal Trainers
I've been told that some fitness centers hire people to work as personal trainers BEFORE they become certified. They actually let them work as fitness trainers before they are certified to do so! The person is usually given a time period by which they are supposed to pass a fitness exam, but that might take a few months.
During that time, people are hiring this individual to work them out. This puts people in danger of being injured by someone who does not know what they are doing.
Why does this happen? I can only speculate that because some gyms may not pay much, they have a high turnover of qualified trainers. Because of this, under pressure from those higher up on the food chain, managers may hire less qualified people to fill staff vacancies.
The result is a watered-down fitness staff.
And it's not just trainers working in fitness centers to watch out for. I've met self-employed personal trainers who are not certified too!
I understand a fitness certification does not always equate to someone being qualified. But, in the US, it's the only thing we have to level the playing field.
Bottom line: Insist on seeing the fitness certification (and AED/CPR cert ) for any trainer you hire. If you have any health issues, quiz them about their experience too.
14 The Master Personal Trainer…
Some fitness centers have personal trainers-and Master Personal Trainers. What's the difference? Technically, there might not be a difference – except the price you pay to hire them.
Fact. In the US, there is no official definition of the phrase “master personal trainer.” Some gyms use it as a marketing ploy to get people to pay more. You need to know that being a master personal trainer does not always mean a better personal trainer.
In my travels, I have met people who were not certified as master trainers who knew a lot. And I've also met master trainers who knew a lot less.
So, what should you do when trying to decide between hiring a master trainer and someone who is just a regular personal trainer?
Well, if you have a special health issue (like say diabetes) ask the trainer if they have experience working with someone like you? Master trainer or not, if they're not familiar with your health issues, they might not be right for you. Quiz them a little bit about the problems you are experiencing and see if they can give you satisfactory answers.
At the end of the day, go with the fitness trainer you feel is most able to help you. For what it's worth, I have a Masters's degree in exercise science (and a BS in chemistry/biology). I've never once called myself a master trainer.
Bottom line: master trainer has no official definition. Don't go by titles alone. Make sure they can back up that title with some knowledge.
15 Juice Bar Kickbacks
Most fitness centers have a juice bar. For people on the go or who head to work after a morning workout, a juice bar is a great amenity. Sometimes the juice bar is owned by the fitness center and sometimes an outside company rents space inside the facility.
Some fitness trainers have told me they have been asked to refer their clients to the juice bar where the client is sold supplements. The fitness staff receives commissions –kickbacks – for the supplements people buy from the juice bar.
One trainer told me she was making more from juice bar commissions than she was from personal training! There are several issues with this practice, such as:
- Use of supplements that don't work.
- Use of supplements that may clash with medications people take
Equally important is the quality of the supplement being sold. Several years ago I wrote a series of reports on a bee pollen-based weight loss supplement called Zi Xiu Tang. The FDA later recalled this supplement because it contained an illegal weight drug called sibutramine. This drug has been banned in the US because it was linked to heart attacks and strokes.
Bottom line: I like to see juice bars in the gym. Most are run very well. But if the gym staff keeps bringing up some amazing supplement that everybody is raving about, do some research first.
16 Equipment Maintenance Fees
I've heard that some fitness centers have started charging members fees to maintain the equipment. This fee may be charged to all members every 3-12 months. This fee is on top of the membership people already pay for.
To quote the robot from Lost In Space, “That Does Not Compute.” Think about it, if you have to pay an equipment maintenance fee, what the heck is the membership fee paying for? Instead of equipment maintenance fees, just raise the membership rate so people know the real cost. Can someone explain this to me?
Bottom line: I feel equipment maintenance fees are a total scam to suck more money out of people.
So Why Did I Write This?
I hope I did not scare you from joining a gym. This was not my intention. My goal was to give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what goes on in some fitness centers. To those who are going to ask me to prove this stuff really happens, I can't. I have no documentation to prove any of what I'm saying is true. This review was based on my own observations and what people have told me privately. It's up to you to believe it or not. I will say the shenanigans brought up in this review, certainly do not occur at every fitness facility, and my instinct is that most gyms don't do any of what I've described. Whether you believe any of this or not, hopefully, I've helped you find a gym you feel comfortable belonging to for many years to come.