What is going on inside commercial gyms?

I have a number of clients that come to me from commercial gyms.  They tell me that they “work out regularly”; some of them say they “have worked with a trainer.”  One of them worked with a trainer for several years before coming to me.  What do they all have in common, you ask?  Well, on their first day with me, I usually ask them to perform a few basic moves, just a simple assessment.  Bodyweight squats, planks, split squats, glute bridges…you get the point.  At first, I was surprised when I saw these new clients were unable to perform most of these moves properly.  I figured, after months or years with a trainer, they would have mastered these basic movements.  After all, I wasn’t testing their strength, just their ability to control their body and move safely and efficiently. Unfortunately, I was way off base!  It turns out that spending time at a commercial gym, even in the care of a private trainer, is no guarantee that a person will have good movement skills.  The strength situation is even worse, especially for women.  It seems that these trainers spent little or no time getting their female charges any stronger. 🙁


Now, you may say that maybe these clients are just poor movers or have naturally weak constitutions. I say this: AS IF!  In just a short period of time, usually about 6-8 sessions in, all of these awesome clients were able to progress through these basic moves, add loading to them, and tackle more challenging training after a few sessions, weeks or months, depending in the individual.  So what magic do we perform here that seems to elude commercial gyms?  Nothing much, really. We just work with people on developing their skills, instead of just walking with them from one machine to the next. And here, in my opinion, lies the problem.  I am certainly not the first to point out that exercising exclusively with machines is a poor way to develop neuromuscular skills.  And since I am on the receiving end of people exiting the commercial gym world, I notice this on a daily basis.


So what goes on inside commercial gyms?  A lot of machine training.  While there are certainly benefits to using machines, especially for detrained populations or rehabilitation, for most of the population out there, this kind of training does not seem to result in improved movement qualities.  And in my book, good movement is the cornerstone of any training program.  When I start working with someone with a goal of improving his or her strength, my first thoughts are toward testing, and usually improving the way he or she moves.  I am not about to place a loaded barbell on someone’s back if they cannot squat their own weight with good mechanics.  So, good movement first, strength immediately after.  This should make sense to anybody interested in improving their performance in the real world.  You know, the one in which you have to move your own body (and sometimes additional weight) through space without injuring yourself and often trying to beat someone else at it. 🙂  Machine training, puts the cart before the horse.  It tries to get you stronger without requiring that you develop any movement skills.  And that is in the best case scenario, in which machines are used in the context of a progressive overload system, designed to get you stronger.  For most people at commercial gyms, the reality is that they just go from one machine to the next, using the same weights week in and week out. They end up no stronger after a year than after the first month.  And they still can’t squat. 🙁

Wrong. And more wrong.

One positive aspect of machine training is that it can be performed pretty safely by someone without any professional supervision.  It might not be terribly effective, but at least it is reasonably safe. Now, let’s say you are feeling pretty good these days and have made a little progress by training on your own but you want to take your training to the next level. So, you hire a trainer.  You would think that now, with professional assistance, you would be able to perform exercises that are more effective, but may have previously been out of your reach due to lack of instruction.  Makes sense, right? What happens in reality, though, is that your shiny new trainer walks you over to the same machines and puts you back on essentially the same ineffective workout you were doing on your own.  Except he has a clipboard… and a Bosu ball.  Wow. Something has gone horribly wrong.

Gimme a set of 20.

Sometimes you get lucky, and after a hard set on the pec dec machine, your trainer will take you out for a set of walking lunges on the gym floor.  More often than not, this ends up looking like a kneecap waiting to explode.  This trainer may have good intentions, but has failed to nurture his client’s movement skills.  You cannot just throw a few sets of walking lunges in between leg extensions and the outer thigh machine on leg day.  As a trainer, you have to develop the client’s ability to control their body, especially with weight, through proper progression.  With the walking lunge, for example, you would probably have to work through half kneeling chops and lifts, split squats (in place), reverse lunges, front lunges, etc, before you would take your client on a lunging walk of the gym with a dumbbell in each hand.  It just makes sense, right?  But it doesn’t happen like this very often.

I just liked this picture.

So what happens? Invariably we find that most of our clients come to us frustrated and confused.  They have been training, sometimes for quite a while, but are not seeing the results they were promised.  They are starting to think that this whole exercise thing is not for them; that it doesn’t really work.  But then, after a month, sometimes six weeks, they notice themselves making progress.  Those split squats are getting easier, and walking up the stairs, all of a sudden, does not culminate in a panting session.  Daily chores are not so taxing, and they start looking forward to their deadlifts.  What happened?  These are people who never looked forward to the leg curl machine!  But when training their hamstrings is done in the form of a basic human movement, one they can relate to and against which they can measure themselves, they find out that they do like exercising after all.  It was all that silly stuff they didn’t care for.  Nobody gets excited over the prospect of a heavy set of leg curls.  But tell a fifty-something woman she just picked up over a hundred pounds, and you just made your client’s day.  Now, if only trainers at commercial gyms realized this…  But then, we might be out of a job 🙂


6 thoughts on “What is going on inside commercial gyms?”

  1. Great blog post! I couldn’t agree more with you. I just started training a new client who has “trained” with a “trainer” for 8 years 2x a week. She could barely hold a plank, couldn’t perform a single pushup, and stubbled with body weight squats and lunges in our initial assessment. It’s great to see other professionals creating change, and most importantly talking about it. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Whitney,
      Thank you so much for the comment! You client sounds exactly like my client who came to me from a trainer of 8 years. It took her almost two months to be able to perform a birddog properly, let alone a plank. I was frustrated, appalled and embarrassed all a the same time. She is on the right track now! I just checked out your website…I wish you were not so far away! 🙂 I see that you also have a dance background too. I have studied dance since age 7 and currently dance with a modern dance company here in Maryland. It is nice to know that there are more dancers out there reaping the benefits of strength training and helping others find their true potential. I would love to keep in contact with you. I found your Facebook page and liked it so now I can stay in touch with you this way. I look forward to reading more about you and Taylor. Thank you for connecting! 🙂

  2. I just had to comment on this post – well written! I am so confused when clients come to me that have been working out for years (many of them with trainers), and cannot perform basic movements. I wonder what the heck they’ve been doing all those workouts! I go to a commercial gym to workout sometimes. I like to be anonymous (I feel eyes on me when I workout at the gym I train at), and I really like to observe. I watch people working out on their own and I watch the trainers with their clients. It can be almost painful to watch and so aggravating. I wish both clients and trainers were more educated and aware as I’m sure the trainer isn’t trying to just take their client’s money and truly wants to help them! As people are becoming more de-conditioned with increasing amounts of chronic disease (or at high risk of developing them), I can only hope that the day comes where the minimum requirement for trainers increases and competency exams become mandated to prove you are continuing your education. Just wanted to mention I’m a former dancer too 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment Ashley!!! And always nice to meet other dancers who are just as passionate about this as I am! I was and am still truly amazed when people come to me who have been “working out” with a trainer for months and they cannot perform basic movements. I want to find that trainer and shake him or her…hard, hoping it will knock some sense into him/her! This is a subject that cannot be discussed enough….when will these big box gyms just go away? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  3. I couldn’t agree more! I work at a commercial gym and am constantly educating members that there is a better way to work out then just moving from machine to machine. My philosophy on training is that everyone should train like an athlete. It doesn’t matter if you are 18 or 80 years old. I think everyone needs to work on balance, stability, coordination, flexability, core strength, agility, and work out with an elevated heart rate as much of the time as possible. Why not work on all those things while you are building strength and trying to lose weight. It is a… much more well rounded work out, and you get better, faster results. This way you are working on all the things that need to be worked on, and not just one or two aspects of a successful program. I believe the best way to do this is to get off of machines and do the stabilizing yourself. Most people aready sit all day behind a desk at work. Do exercises with multi- joint movements as apposed to just isolating single muscle groups. Do things standing instead of sitting, make yourself unstable in one way or another. Not only is it more fuctional, but you also burn more calories because you are working more muslce groups at a time, and you keep your heart rate up for most of the workout because you are moving around a lot more. You also strengthen the stabilizer muscles which helps prevent injuries. With this style of workout you are working your core through out the entire workout and not just on the last sit-up machine or exercise that you do at the end. Changing up the workout as much as possible is also important. That keeps you from plateauing and getting bored. Training like an athlete will help you be more prepared to pick up some healthy hobbies like running 5 k’s, playing recreational basketball, hiking, etc. If you want to look like an athlete then train like one!

    1. Thanks Nikki!!! You are one of the few and far between who actually give a damn about the well being of your members! I was just telling someone the other day that it would be so awesome if a trainer at a big box gym decided to buck the trend and put together a weightlifting class for women incorporating barbells – squats, deadlifts, press, etc. Hold it once a week during off -peak times so they could use the weight room without all of the benches being taken up by all the “bros.” But does this happen? Will it happen? Women gravitate to the machines because they are easy to use..but a barbell is easy too as long as someone empowers you to use it. I am sure there are some who have tried this or may even being doing it but it is not happening enough and most likely won’t because there is no money to be made by educating people. You are one of those trying to empower people. Keep it up!!! 🙂

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