Do I Have To Spend Money On A Gym?

Images: Jeff Tidwell and Christian Dembrowski

Hi Swole Woman! I have recently dipped a tentative toe in the ocean of swoleness and begun lifting at the gym in my apartment building. I was hoping to take advantage of this free resource to get stronger and supplement my current yoga-only routine without having to sign up for a whole expensive gym membership I might never use.

HOWEVER, my building has one of those shitty building gyms that only have free weights and like, a sad elliptical. I know dumbbells are supposed to be Bad because they’re more dangerous and harder to stabilize and larger jumps in weight mean it’s hard to make gains and blah blah. But given that I am very lazy and this gym is literally RIGHT downstairs and no one is ever using it…is it possible to become swole without the bar?

—Dumbbell Dunce

So, ok — it is possible to divide getting into lifting into a few different problems: developing a routine around working out and learning all that it can do for you, to the point that you like it and it becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop; AND, just learning how to do it, how to squat, how to bench, how to deadlift, etc. There is also a sort of subcomponent to that second one of trying to break through the social dynamics of this kind of working out, which is a particular challenge for a lot of women, because the weight room feels intimidating, aggressive, and sort of competitive, filled with dudes who are already huge. For any or all of these things, Greg Nuckols at StrongerByScience has an excellent and thorough guide related to lifting specifically. You seem to have the workout-routine bit pretty down so let’s talk about the other stuff.

The Complete Strength Training Guide * Stronger by Science

I suspect (and know, because I have heard the words right from people’s mouths) that for a lot of people, the dynamic is probably the biggest contributor to “a whole expensive gym membership I might never use.” Time and money are valid objections, but given a reasonable amount of resources, you can hardly spend your time or money better than on or in a gym. Be honest with yourself about this.

Even if you have a gym, starting to go to the weightroom part is like starting at a new school; unless you are a particular kind of very assertive person, you probably hang back and lurk around the edges and observe the rhythms of everything, learning where and when people do things and how they interact with each other. It feels like a lot, and it’s uncomfortable, but this is also just how it is. And this phase ends! You develop your routine and even make friends. After a finite number of times, you do become as comfortable as everyone else was the first time you walked in.

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If this is something you struggle with, it’s worth talking about with your therapist. As we’ve discussed before, “simply” going to the gym can actually represent a whole morass of hangups and issues. If this is you, again, be honest with yourself — if it’s something you want, you owe it to yourself to take it seriously mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.

To answer your question in a practical sense — anyone can “work out” anywhere; our nation’s threshold for what qualifies as exercise is literally just walking for 30 minutes five times a week. Workout videos, running, doing stuff in any basic gym. If you are not very strong to begin with (I wasn’t) and can’t handle a standard 45lb barbell for all the lifts (I couldn’t), dumbbells may be all you need at first to start building strength. Here are dumbbell variations of all the basic lifts:

Dumbbell bench
Dumbbell squat
Dumbbell row
Dumbbell deadlift
Dumbbell overhead press

How ev er. You can’t build strength without what is called progressive overload (in short, you have to push your physical limits in strength in order to get stronger). Being relatively weak means you can become much stronger relatively quickly, and most beginner programs have you adding a small amount of weight to your lifts every workout.

That means if, say, you start out doing just bodyweight full-depth squats and add 5lbs every workout, you are going to be able to squat the barbell in three weeks. In six weeks, you’d theoretically have to be heaving a 45lb dumbbell onto each shoulder; I’ve been doing this for years at this point and I don’t know that I could do that. By that point, you’d also have lost three weeks you could have spent practicing correct form with a real barbell. If you did decide at that point you did want to go to a real gym, you’d probably have to backtrack your weights (you probably will anyway, because the dumbbell versions are different enough from the barbell ones that the skills won’t translate directly, but spending longer with them will just make it worse). So, if you are starting from zero, having that fancy gym for the first few weeks wouldn’t make a difference either way; you’d just be using their fancy dumbbells instead of your apartment gym’s. But if you have at least some strength, you’d be spinning your wheels not giving yourself the tools you need.

Image: Esöteric

You asked about becoming swole. Barbells, plates, and racks are going to make things much easier and quicker for you, especially for the latter. You may be like, “but 45 pounds is a lot! Maybe that’s all I want to lift!” Ok, but, 45 pounds is actually not that much when you are using your entire body to move it. You walk 150-ish pounds around all day. You are built for more than that. You will feel stronger, probably, by the time you get to 45 pounds. But your body is capable of building so much more strength, if you give it a chance! Even if you are after aesthetics more than strength, spending several weeks giving yourself a chance to build a strength base will let you work with heavier weights and give you faster results. And last but not least, getting strong relatively fast feels extremely satisfying, and nothing will make you believe in the beautiful mechanics of your own biology than just letting the system work.

This doesn’t mean you can never use your apartment gym. But those types of gyms are more for filling a gap than for regular use week in and week out. Snowed out from commuting anywhere? Nursing an injury? That gym is perfect. But if you want to get strong in the medium term, that gym will, ironically, make it harder for you.

Dear Casey/Swole Woman,

How do I find a gym?

I was lifting for about a year with a trainer (yay for a job that subsidized the fancy gym membership with a trainer) and loved it. I could squat and deadlift 200lbs, which seemed incredible to me. Then that job stopped (and I got an RSI [repetitive strain injury] from typing that killed my grip for a while) so the lifting ended.

I can work out at home with dumbbells but I really miss the squat rack. How do I find a friendly gym to lift at? I’ve tried lifting classes at CrossFit “boxes” but they seem like afterthoughts (and are really focused on snatch/jerk lifts). New job doesn’t subsidize (expensive) trainers.

I just want to 1) squat heavy and 2) not hurt myself. What do you recommend? (Your instagram gym looks great, btw.)

Thanks for your help and inspiration!

This is tough, I know. It seems only a few decades ago that most gyms catered to heavy lifters, and then when things started to get commercialized we were overtaken by The Machines, and now we have all the Planet Fitnesses and LA Fitnesses and etc overrunning all of the gym-mindspace. Add to that that plain ol’ black iron-type gyms, or even bodybuilding-type gyms, don’t often market themselves that well, and you sometimes have to do some digging just to find a place that will have a squat rack. I’m still turning up gyms in New York that have been around forever and have all the equipment I need but don’t advertise themselves as such.

Image: Kei Noguchi

One popular resource for finding equipped gyms is — they are not very comprehensive, in my experience, but will give you some ideas. If none of the places it turns up are close enough to you, I’d try talking to the staff at one of the listed gyms and see if they know of anything close to you. You can also try your luck asking around or searching on forums:,, may be able to help. Key terms if you’re trying to just Google: “squat rack,” “power rack,” “black iron gym,” “barbell club,” “powerlifting gym,” “weightlifting gym.” If you can crack the local lifting community, they will be the best resource for not only telling you where the gyms are, but which ones are good.

Some commercial gyms are not dedicated to lifting but may have the equipment you need. Retro Fitness is one such mini-chain in the New York area; some Crunch gyms have racks, and some do not. I’ve seen some beautifully equipped YMCAs and some more measly ones with only a single slippery bench and a single squat rack with unusably high safety arms.

Image: Amber Karnes

As you mention, Crossfit “boxes” are equipped for heavy lifting — I found out recently that there are three times as many Crossfits in the US as there are 24 Hour Fitness, Planet Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and LA Fitness locations, combined. But there are many reasons you might not want to go there — the hours are often terrible if you’re not making a point of attending classes, which do not allow you to just work on what you want; most have “open” hours, but they are short. They also tend to be wildly expensive, two or three times more so than even the most expensive gyms around, in my experience.

Your mileage may vary, but if a Crossfit’s open-gym hours work for you, you might try negotiating an “open gym time only” rate (I don’t know that they specifically endorse this at a company level and haven’t asked, but these places are run pretty independently, and I’ve done it and seen others do it). Let them know you are experienced with lifting and just want to do your training and are not interested in classes; at least some Crossfits are willing to accommodate this. The discount might not be big, but it’s better than nothing if your only other option is a commercial gym with only Smith machines (death to the Smith machine).

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