by Sean Kelly T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Planet Fitness: The gym for people who don’t really want to get in shape, owned by people who really can’t afford for the members to be there.
- A survey of over 20 different Planet Fitness locations in 12 different states revealed that they provide no nutritional guidance. They do however supply candy and pizza.
- Planet Fitness seems to promise that health and fitness will ultimately be comfortable and not involve any real effort.
- Planet Fitness is a big, purple-colored adult daycare marketed to people afraid to go to an actual gym.
- Many Planet Fitness members do want to make progress of course, but the gym’s own rules and operating guidelines seem to dissuade this.
“We’re Not a Gym.” Obviously.
I’d heard things about Planet Fitness gyms that I found hard to believe. These stories included strict rules disallowing heavy weights and the presence of a “Lunk Alarm.”
I’ve also seen the commercials, which try to instill fear into the average person and scare them away from other gyms. According to the TV ads, all non-Planet Fitness gyms are filled with “gymtimidating” meatheads and beautiful women who’ll make you feel bad about yourself by fat shaming you with the mere presence of their perfect bodies.
You will, according to the commercials, possibly be prison-raped in the locker room and bullied by big scary bodybuilders from the 1990s.
So I decided to investigate Planet Fitness and pay them a visit. It was worse than I’d imagined. Far, far worse. The dumbbells are limited to 60 pounds. The heaviest fixed barbell is also 60 pounds. They had 95 assorted cardio machines – rows and rows of them. They had isolated resistance machines with laughably light weight stacks.
The did, however, have 33 large-screen TVs, some of which were affixed to the wall in front of water massage beds. They even hosted monthly pizza nights and bagel mornings. Free Tootsie Rolls was available at the front desk.
Despite the playground-esque vibe, there were lots of people attempting to get in shape, or at least trying to get less out of shape. This, at least, gave me a positive impression. It seemed that these were people who, had they not found this “unthreatening place,” might otherwise not be exercising at all.
A deeper look revealed a rather devious reality hidden just underneath the surface.
Planet Fitness seems to represent a sort of “fitness methadone” concept. It looks like the real thing and it kinda-sorta feels like the real thing, but it’s not the real thing at all. Instead, it’s a fascinating place where getting people into shape simply isn’t the primary goal. In this regard, Planet Fitness turns the very idea of a “gym” completely on its head.
A typical gym generally represents a form of linear progression. That is, you go there to improve physically, but no doubt there are people there who started before you, have more experience, eat a healthier diet, and/or have great genetics.
So there are likely going to be folks who are in better shape and some who are in worse shape than you, whether you’re comfortable with that or not. It’s generally understood though that people are at the gym to improve physically.
I stepped into my first gym as a pudgy, weak 17 year old. It was filled with bouncers, cops, athletes, serious bodybuilders, and assorted meatheads of all kinds. It was intimidating. The old metal dumbbells went up to 200 pounds. It had a reputation for having the most weight and the biggest, strongest members. And that’s exactly why I joined.
Yes, *******s weren’t a rarity, yet in the few years I went there, the owner and most of the bigger, stronger guys taught and motivated me enough to get bigger, stronger, and in better shape than I could ever have imagined. This would never have happened at Planet Fitness. It simply wouldn’t have allowed any of my youthful aspirations to be met.
The impulse might be to cut Planet Fitness some slack and label it “gym training wheels,” where, after a time, a trainee would learn enough about training or feel confident enough in his own abilities to join a “real” gym.
Oddly though, it seems to be Planet Fitness’ policy to purposely blunt and highly discourage this natural progression of less fit to more fit. This discouragement is oppressive and pervasive throughout the establishment.
As far as thoughtful, proven, and effective training methods and an environment within which to practice them, there’s far too much about Planet Fitness to critique.
No Effort Allowed
Consider the famous “no grunting” rule. What is a grunt, exactly?
It implies that to some degree, the Valsalva maneuver has been incorporated during physical exertion. This improves core stability when attempting to move a heavy weight and otherwise exert physical effort. The “grunt” is some of the air escaping from the lungs as this physical exertion peaks. It’s actually quite natural. Just think of moving really heavy furniture up stairs.
Now, physical improvement inherently involves continuing physical adaptations. The body adapts, so you must keep increasing (and changing) the stimuli for adaptations to continue. How do you create those new adaptations?
Well, simply put, by “trying hard.” Thus we have the occurrence of grunting as a natural expression of greater physical efforts. That is exactly why people in a gym trying to improve will be heard grunting during physical exertion.
That is also why, in trying to create these vital new adaptations, they will test their limits with both added resistance and/or additional reps. Testing limits (the “trying really hard” part) can naturally lead to the point of muscular failure where a weight is occasionally dropped involuntarily. This is one reason why most gyms have rubber floors or rubber coated weights. Yet, like grunting, dropping weights is also highly prohibited at Planet Fitness.
So, to disallow natural expressions of effort is to disallow the new adaptations to get physically better! These prohibitions present a major problem for people trying to build muscle, burn fat, and get stronger at a gym. In fact, they make it almost impossible.
Planet Fitness seems to prevent or, at best, limit new physical and mental adaptations, thus ensuring the failure or very limited progress of its members. It ensures this with the following flawed ideas and equipment:
1. Most of the floor space is dedicated to repetitive cardio machines. Mathematics involving the first law of thermodynamics and the excessive calories in our addictive and ubiquitous modern food demonstrate clearly that these machines will generally result in failure where fat loss is concerned.
2. The prevalence of low-load isolation machines may cause some beneficial physical adaptations, but these will diminish rapidly (generally within one to three months). A lack of adaptations results in a lack of improvement.
3. It’s universally accepted that the food one eats is an important part of losing fat and getting healthy, yet I either toured or called over 20 different Planet Fitness locations in over 12 different states and got the same answer. No nutritional guidance is provided since there are no trained nutritionists, and the trainers are there only to advise members on training and using the equipment – not food choices.
What’s worse, Planet Fitness provides its members with free candy at the front desk and free pizza and bagels monthly. Maybe the marketing strategy here is “keep them fat and addicted to junk food and they’ll keep renewing their contracts.”
4. Substandard information and guidance. The most effective, proven ideas on health and fat loss are literally disallowed. This creates an artificial atmosphere where the chances of permanent health and fat loss are highly unrealistic.
5. An alarming and almost complete lack of other “in-shape” members to whom other members may aspire, from whom they may learn, gain inspiration, or with whom they may work out.
The most insidious thing here is the long-term effect of Planet Fitness on the psyche and morale of its members, especially those who achieve some short-term success just by moving their bodies and perhaps restricting their calories.
Without permanent methods that get to the roots of the problem, these gains will generally and for the most part disappear. A sort of “learned helplessness” will occur for these poor members who have shown up and “worked out,” yet end up right back in the same physical predicament.
The Biggest Loser
Planet Fitness has partnered with The Biggest Loser TV show for the last four years. During the show, the viewer is inundated with intra-show commercials for Planet Fitness. Ironically, many of the more effective training methods the trainers use on The Biggest Loser would set off the “lunk alarm” and get you kicked out of an actual Planet Fitness!
Wonder how many people have joined Planet Fitness and then realized they aren’t allowed to train the same way the contestants on The Biggest Loser train in their Planet Fitness sponsored gym?
Judgment-Free: Unless You Look Like You Lift
Planet Fitness is marketed (quite successfully) to those who are afraid to join an actual gym. They promise “no critics” and “no judgment.” Unless of course you actually look like you work out, then you’re judged harshly, complete with stereotyping.
There have been several notable instances where members were asked to change clothes because (according to the members) they were told by staff that they were “intimidating” other members by being too fit. Planet Fitness denies this, stating that all shapes and sizes are welcome and these were simply dress code violations.
Regardless, the message seems clear: Planet Fitness isn’t the gym for people who look like they go to a gym. And if you’re a female who looks great, don’t you dare “bully” other members by wearing workout attire that shows off your hard work.
Killing You With Kindness
My experience with Planet Fitness reminded me of what I believe “success” for a gym should really represent:
A successful gym should solve the diet, fitness, and health problems of its members!
Aside from cleanliness, friendly staff, and a reasonable price, this can be accomplished by following two awesome rules:
Awesome Rule #1: Use only the best, most validated information and equipment that will deliver optimal health, fat loss, fitness, and muscle in the most efficient ways possible.
Awesome Rule #2: Adopt a hyper positive, “judgment free,” and non-critical atmosphere with friendly and respectful people who are welcoming and supportive of beginners and especially to those who are out of shape.
Here’s the kicker: These two awesome rules are not mutually exclusive! In fact, for a gym to successfully help its members, it must apply both rules simultaneously. By forsaking and actually prohibiting Awesome Rule #1, a gym will doom its members to wallow in the very problems they came there to solve.
So, what can we learn from Planet Fitness? Well, they’ve applied rule #2 with amazing effectiveness. I was there. I’ve got to say, the staff and the trainers were really nice people. Planet Fitness has also provided an almost impossibly low membership rate, making the gym economically accessible to almost anyone.
Unfortunately, all of that positive stuff is rendered relatively useless if any real substance (Awesome Rule #1) has been completely discarded with extreme prejudice.
A Bad Drug at Any Cost
It’s interesting to take a closer look at that incredibly low $10.00 per month Planet Fitness base membership rate (less than 20% of the industry average). Consider that the average cost of a gym membership is $55.00 per month and that approximately 67% of people with gym memberships never use them.
If, as studies show, the average membership in a typical gym or health club is 1645 members, all things being equal and given the same average attendance rates, a Planet Fitness would need to have a roughly 5.5 times the number of members of a typical club just to attain average industry gym revenue. That would require (at a minimum) a mammoth 9,048 members.
Planet Fitness gym attendance would likely swell to the point of severe overcrowding if even the paltry 33% average number of members showed up regularly. Further, with the $10.00 monthly membership rate, any profit would turn to severe loss if a good number of members did show up with any regularity and total membership counts had to be restricted.
Indeed, this business model seems highly dependent on the vast majority of members not showing up at the gym with any frequency, if at all.
It seems obvious that certain micro-economic and psychological idiosyncrasies that pulse strongly within the target market are being exploited. These include the statistical reality that people have feelings of comfort and progress in belonging to a gym, even if not attending regularly, or at all. The low price makes that especially hard to resist.
This also includes the unreality that health and fitness will ultimately be comfortable and not involve any real effort. This combination creates an irresistible (if impossible) “Fitness Nirvana” for the most out of shape people who nonetheless long to improve physically.
Yet, from an improvement standpoint, it’s almost like moving the BMI standards higher because it’s just too mean and insulting for people to fall into the “obese” categories. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t change anything.
It’s difficult to look at Planet Fitness as anything more than a bad physiological joke. It’s a big, purple-colored adult daycare where the optimistic but overweight people who do show up waste hours completing repetitive, and in the end, relatively worthless movements.
I’m quite sure the Planet Fitness franchise owners are very happy. Blind to the realities of getting lean and healthy and without seeking an alternative, I believe most of their members will not be so fortunate. Yes, people want a friendly, non-critical room (who doesn’t?), but what they need (and also want desperately) is permanent results. The very health and well being of these members is at stake.
Planet Fitness generally defies all of our best information on the physiology of successful fat loss. Still, for those who are truly concerned with the success of people trying to lose fat and get strong and healthy, Planet Fitness does provide one benefit. When asked about the prolific greed, misinformation, and why the public just keeps getting fatter and less healthy, it now helps to summarize the situation with a two-word answer: Planet Fitness.