About a year ago, the growing and much maligned Planet Fitness gym chain opened a new location near my Chicago home in Wrigleyville. They advertised a rock bottom $10 per month membership, and “24/5” hours: Open 24 hours a day on weekdays, from midnight Sunday/Monday until 7pm on Friday (then open 7am-7pm on Saturday and Sunday). Other locations have different hours, and many are open 24/7.
Planet Fitness is known, and to many notorious, for their misnomered ‘no judgment’ policy. The policy creates a strict set of rules designed to curb/deter fitness-bro behavior that is deemed intimidating to general gym-goers.
- No grunting
- No gallon jugs
- No wearing stringers/crop tops
- No deadlifting
- No dropping or slamming weights on the floor
- No bags on the gym floor
There are other restrictions, but those are the major ones.
The key feature to Planet Fitness is the presence of the Lunk Alarm, which is set off by staff when a violation of the above policies is clearly observed. This can result in staff intervention and ejection for the offending party.
To a lesser extent, staff may at their discretion quietly confront individuals exhibiting similar behaviors, though this doesn’t typically happen.
Fitness-Bro culture is nowadays very popular, built around the idea of lifting heavy and getting a bigger upper body through low rep, close to max weight compound workouts like this and this. They abhor any aerobic exercise beyond brief, high intensity interval cardio, typically eat a low carb, high protein diet with supplements designed to build muscle, and judge fitness largely on max lifting strength as well as upper body size and definition.
I can address this topic another time, but the above prevalent approach is basically a one dimensional definition of fitness and tends to promote a one dimensional lifestyle. I do not have a problem with people lifting for strength. I have a problem with the implication that it’s the only valid, useful way to work out.
So, needless to say, that crowd doesn’t like Planet Fitness. And because Bro Culture has done a terrific job of using the internet to promote their niche culture as a much larger demographic and voice than they actually are, they have long since successfully crafted a negative cultural movement towards the Planet Fitness brand.
I’m not going to claim all their reservations are unjustified. There are a lot of complaints about Planet Fitness that in some contexts are important. The gym is definitely not for everybody, and certainly not for the 5×5/SS/Stronglifts disciple whose fitness goals revolve around their upper body measurements and their one rep max in a handful of key compound lifts.
There are however a variety of positive, worthwhile fitness goals that are not that. And there’s a variety of ways to build strength and upper body definition that Planet Fitness can productively serve.
Is Planet Fitness in itself bad? You may sense my answer from my prior tone: No, it is not inherently bad. I say this as someone has worked out plenty and had positive experiences at other, more conventional gyms, as well as Planet Fitness.
I have nothing much to gain from putting Planet Fitness over. In fact, I have many of the same reservations and concerns about their restrictive policies. If anything, I’d prefer that I don’t attract more interest in the gym, because it’s already fairly busy and I’d hate to see it so full I couldn’t work out.
That said, I also know a negative niche agenda and bias when I see one. Much of the criticism Planet Fitness receives comes from that, rather than an objective perspective. This makes me as skeptical of the criticism as it does towards Planet Fitness itself.
Depending on your goals, yes, Planet Fitness may not be a good option. But for many, Planet Fitness can still provide a lot of value and positive growth. Planet Fitness is not assured to stunt your fitness development And yes, while it can be useful in the present, you can eventually outgrow Planet Fitness.
I think both sides in the debate have some issues. I think Planet Fitness, however well meaning, has its issues and limits. I think detractors feed off a misguided agenda built from their own selfish views and egotistical issues.
While many argue the gym’s strangely restrictive policies are designed to keep people away… the Planet Fitness near my home, since opening, has been very popular at most hours and consistently utilized, both on their treadmills and their weight machine section.
It’s also worth noting that the policies aren’t ever strictly, zero-tolerance enforced. It’s 50/50 whether grunting during exercise or dropping a weight on the ground triggers the lunk alarm. Employees aren’t walking the floor acting as security or enforcement. People are generally left alone as long as they’re not being unduly disruptive to anyone else. And all that said, a lot of the bro-ish “lunk” behaviors on the list are hardly ever seen, even though plenty of muscled dudes are clearly focused on serious weight workouts… thus there’s often no reason for staff to bother anybody about the rules.
If the chain’s goal is in fact to create unused memberships by driving people away, they’ve done a poor job of keeping the gym unused and unattended.
Most aspiring weight trainers get their news and info from conventional content aggregators, like Reddit or the Gawker family of websites. Many gravitate to hardcore weight training sites like T-Nation.
These forums and their thought leaders provide a one-dimensional perspective on how to work out, and their predominately young-adult demographic tends to fall into the trap of seeing their way as absolutely right and converse points of view as absolutely wrong.
Reddit’s Fitness thought leaders in particular have crafted and operate upon a specific agenda built around a specific set of concepts on how to strength train and what your goals should or shouldn’t be. This agenda has influenced other platforms and driven a lot of derision towards Planet Fitness.
Not only are their specific principles or “recommendations” not right for everybody or even most people, but most beginners are nowhere near the physical condition needed to safely attempt and routinely do heavy compound exercises like low-rep high-weight bench presses, squats and deadlifts. (Talk to a serious NASM-trained personal trainer sometime, and they’ll probably point out how most of these lifters skipped past the important stabilization phase of training, going right to the strength phase.)
Most can’t lift anywhere close to their bodyweight with any muscle group, plus have multiple muscular imbalances that would inhibit their ability to do so either way. Plus, the mechanics of the popular compound exercises may conflict with the individual joint/bone structure of their bodies, which can facilitate long term injury. This never minds most’s lacking command of proper form, technique, recovery between workouts, dietary choices, etc.
It would make more sense for novices to first develop some basic bodyweight strength with basic total body stabilization exercises e.g. planks, cobras, progressive one leg balance exercises, etc… done with safe and proper form, and to develop fundamental balanced strength within individual muscle groups (shoulders, back, chest, glutes/core), before considering max-level weight work in the more popular compound powerlifts. Most shouldn’t even attempt low-rep high-weight barbell exercises before mastering the form and finding muscular balance within each of the individual components of those exercises.
And, if their bodily structure produces uncomfortable joint/bone friction and shear when they do the exercise, then it may make sense not to do the heavy lifts at all. In fact, a lot of people depending on their goals and their body’s composition shouldn’t even be powerlifting. It should be a selective, contextual goal, rather than a standard passage.
This is where I think Planet Fitness can come in handy. A beginner isn’t going to get much more value from a conventional gym’s machines and Olympic-caliber weight training area. Even an intermediate trainee may not yet have the strength to move along to benches and deadlifts. They’re just going to pay more to either do the same more-appropriate exercises, or to get injured lifting beyond their capability.
A key note: A common fallacious argument against machines is that they make you lift in a straight motion whereas humans naturally lift things in a curve, which can lead to injury.
However, if you look at the motion path of most of these machines, most do require you press/lift/move the weight at a curve. Plus, when seated, the seat and placement is often at an angle that facilitates arc-movement.
Also, a lot of barbell lifters, whether or not they’re taught to do so, end up doing their lifts in a straight line path anyway. So conventional lifting doesn’t outright avoid the problem. In fact, the machines may do a better job of preventing it.
I think Planet Fitness for most can be more valuable than other gyms, until you outgrow it. And most people aren’t at the point of having outgrown it.
To Planet Fitness’ credit, lifting beyond one’s safe capability is actually why so many lifters grunt and slam weights.
They don’t have safe, proper command of the weight they’re trying to push. They’re extended beyond their capabilities, and they have to red-line themselves just to complete exercises, plus they’re not completing them with full command and proper form.
If these lifters had command and capability to lift the weight they were attempting, no grunting would be necessary, and they could quietly put the weight down instead of being forced to drop or slam it.
All this never minds people who slam and grunt for effect, to peacock around other people. I honestly don’t think there’s many of those. But the emphasis on pushing unsafely beyond one’s means comes from the same misguided and egotistical place.
You don’t break through from consistently overexerting yourself. You break through habitual work below and near your stable limit at an exercise, and then practicing sound diet/rest between workouts. And then you exhibit growth from testing your limits, not trying to lift beyond them.
Someone starting out can get a lot of mileage out of Planet Fitness beginning with weight they’re capable of lifting, and gradually improving until they max out every machine and dumbbell.
Say what you want about their capability to exhibit max-gainz at a real gym. Maybe they’ll graduate to a big gym and struggle to bench press the same weight they max out on a machine, needing to take the barbell weight down some.
But they’ll be a lot closer to getting there after maxing out Planet Fitness than they are when they start. Isn’t progress the stated goal of lifting in the first place?
This also gets lost: Your fitness isn’t a primary function of the max weight you can lift. That expectation is a simple minded social construct that’s been culturally forced upon people by said Bro-culture.
It doesn’t honestly matter in the big picture exactly how much you can lift unless:
- You have a job that requires you lift that much weight.
- You are a competitive powerlifter whose wins and losses come down to how much you can push.
If your goal instead is bodybuilding, to improve your physique, there are a variety of ways to optimize your physical training for that aside from max compound lifts (which honestly are not efficient for bodybuilding beyond generally training major muscle groups). And the specialized machines may better facilitate that development. Not everyone who wants to look better wants to maximize their gains.
(Also, going back to NASM personal training guidelines: Max strength is usually the 4th phase of a 5 phase development program. You’re generally not even supposed to address trying to max out until you have worked on stabilization (phase 1), endurance in strength (phase 2), and as needed or desired hypertrophy aka building bigger muscles (phase 3).)
Speaking of hypertrophy, bodybuilding is also largely a function of your diet and recovery anyway. Your chest only gets bigger from strenuous exercise if you eat the nutrients and get the rest that facilitate its growth. Your abs and other muscles only show once you’ve lost all the fat hiding them.
So I don’t mind the Planet Fitness no grunt, no slam policy (whether or not a given location enforces it consistently). Never mind slamming weights being unsafe in itself, and never mind grunting being disruptive (and perhaps needlessly intimidating). Grunting and slamming weights shows you’re outside of your body’s pay grade, and you’re not physically ready to safely do what you’re doing.
Putting a weight down safely without straining is just as important as picking it up and pushing it without straining.
How do the lighter-weight strength machines at Planet Fitness promote novice strength training over a more loaded gym? Simple. If it’s challenging for you to lift, without being dangerous for you to do so, it provides strength training value.
If you’re too strong for the equipment at Planet Fitness, then you should be able to max out their free weights and machines. If you max them out, then sure: Run away to a bigger badder gym and don’t look back. You will get more value out of the big gym.
There are a lot of people who regardless of how they train are too far along for Planet Fitness. There is nothing wrong with the facilities at conventional gyms, or those SS/5×5 workout plans in themselves. They just are more useful to a particular type of person who has grown to a certain point, has a certain makeup, or has a certain set of goals ideal for their needs.
Most who have a use for Planet Fitness either aren’t close to that yet or won’t be that. As long as Planet Fitness has weights on the floor you cannot lift, and settings on the machines you can’t safely push, there is still potential in strength training in that environment.
Obviously, it’s important that you challenge yourself enough to spur growth during recovery. That’s one other gripe about Planet Fitness, that it’s such a soft training environment that people don’t effectively push themselves to grow.
Sure, if you aren’t pushing yourself enough at Planet Fitness you’re not going to grow. And that would be the case at any gym. If you’re going to not push yourself at a gym, you can either spend $10-20 a month for limited growth at Planet Fitness, or much more money than that for limited growth from the same training habits at another gym.
Being around people showing out before/during/after grunting out 1RMs and 3RMs isn’t going to better motivate people to work out. That’s not how positive habits are formed. Only one person can motivate a person to improve, and that person looks back at you in the mirror.
And of course, if you feel you need a coach, teacher or personal trainer to push you, then go ahead and pay for one. No, a friend or random guy spotting your attempt to bench weight that’s too heavy for you is not an acceptable or safe substitute.
Planet Fitness is not a reason people aren’t suitably motivated. And this never minds the people who aren’t even working out to begin with.
Another substantial criticism is Planet Fitness’ horde of cardio machines. Never mind that every gym has the same horde of cardio machines (even more so in most cases) and never draws the same derision.
If you have a fundamental issue with people doing too much aerobic exercise, I don’t think Planet Fitness is the dragon you need to slay. Maybe walk across the floor to your gym’s treadmills and start there.
That said, people use cardio machines for a variety of reasons aside from optimum fitness or weight loss. For example, I personally am a distance runner and I don’t use the treadmill or run outside for weight loss or “cardio” for its own sake. I have distance running goals that are personally important, and at times the treadmill can help meet those. This and other machines allow me to work on my aerobic fitness, of which I need a lot more than the typical person… who might do just fine with some periodic brief running or high intensity interval training.
Obviously the person who walks or lightly jogs on a treadmill for 20 minutes for the sake of “cardio” or “fat burning” is not going to get much from it. But they probably weren’t going to get much from a bigger gym either, nor was the presence of a squat rack going to get them to lift.
So, in conclusion, some people can get positive value from Planet Fitness. Some people can get more positive value elsewhere.
I can see and understand valid issues with the Planet Fitness business model, and legitimate limitations to the value they provide. The policies, however well intentioned, can be ham-fisted. Calling their policy “non-judgment” is inaccurate, since clearly in enforcing these policies they are judging people (just like anyone else who claims non-judgment… to say so or point it out is in itself an act of judgment). The Lunk Alarm will always come across as an over the top method for dealing with issues.
But slamming Planet Fitness is mostly a misguided product of an agenda from an over-represented niche culture whose way of life is merely one view among many, rather than absolutely correct. Both sides err in their own ways.
As with any gym or workout method, you get out what you put in, and how much you get out of Planet Fitness or any gym is a matter of what you put into working at it.