Pumping Iron: What To Look For In A Lifting Gym

Back in May, I wrote about my complete and total infatuation with power lifting. I was happy to see that there were so many positive reactions to it, and so much agreement among women who also love to power-lift — but I was dismayed to see that some of you have had a hard time finding a great gym. Over the past two years that I’ve been lifting, I’ve been to three or four different gyms, and in April was finally was able to find one that checked off all the important boxes. Here’s what you should look for to have a quality gym-going experience if you’re looking to power-lift:

1. Multiple squat racks — and I don’t mean Smith machines. I’ve been to several gyms that have one or two squat racks and one or two Smith machines. That is never enough — you’ll always be waiting on the squat rack, which is the central piece of equipment you’re going to be using when you start powerlifting. You’ll want squat racks that have lots of slot heights for the arms of the rack so that you can start your squats and presses from the right height. The gym I go to now has four squat racks, each well-stocked with plates and with an extended platform for easy transitions to deadlifts, which is a godsend — there’s never a queue, and I can do everything I need to in one place without having to feel rushed.

As far as Smith machines go, I know they have their place! The issue I take with them is that one of the huge benefits of free barbell lifting is balance improvement that comes from training yourself to push, pull, carry, and lift weight that isn’t movement-restricted the way it is on a Smith machine. And too many gyms, in my experience, have too many Smith machines and too few squat racks.

2. Chalk. You need chalk in order to keep the bar from slipping in your sweaty hands, but lots and lots of gyms don’t allow it either for the sake of “cleanliness or perception,” as Mark Rippetoe puts it in Starting Strength. Chalk is a basic safety issue and its absence is a huge red flag. Yes, you can also use lifting gloves, but for one thing, you’ll be putting an extra layer of fabric in between yourself and the bar, and you can’t control that fabric; and for another, you should at least have the option of using chalk.

3. Cross-training equipment. Gymnastic rings, tires, a boxing ring, mats for martial arts training, kettlebells, and, of course, at least a few pieces of cardio equipment are all good signs when you’re looking at a gym. The best reason to lift heavy is to enable yourself to do things with your body that are challenging; it’s great if your gym gives you the additional resources to do those challenging things.

4. Super-duper friendly staff. One of the most common complaints I saw in the comments on my previous article was that gyms can be really unfriendly environments for women, or the people there can make women feel self-conscious. The gym I go to is patronized mostly by men, but I’ve never felt unwelcome or judged — and part of the reason I chose it is that the staff member I talked to when I signed up was friendly and didn’t think twice about the fact that I was a woman who was signing up specifically to lift. When I asked him if it’s a friendly place for women to work out, he said, “Oh, yeah! A lot of women come to the Wednesday night classes, and everyone’s cool. We’re not that kind of gym.” Great staff will not only set the tone for the patrons, they’ll also help you if you need a spotter.

5. Bonus points if it’s kind of dungeon-y. This isn’t a necessity — I’ve worked out in YMCAs and chains that were spiffy and it got the job done — but a small, no-frills gym can help you to get to know the people who work and the people who work out there. I’m pretty sure my gym used to be a garage; a third of it is dedicated to boxing and martial arts, there are maybe 15 total cardio machines, it’s super-simple. Everyone is there to work out effectively and get on with their day, and we all seem to be on the same page about what kind of exercise we want to be getting, so if I ever had to ask for advice, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable doing so.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler who’s almost back to her pre-injury squat weight!  You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.