Planet Fitness: Judgement-Free or Progress-Free?

If you’ve never heard of a gym called Planet Fitness, let me fill you in quickly.  This purple-and-yellow fitness center prides itself with being a judgment-free, intimidation-free zone for those of us who don’t want to deal with the weight-slamming and grunting other gyms might allow.  

And surely they’ve tapped into a large market here. Getting in shape is something we can theoretically all get behind, but stepping foot into a gym can be an overwhelming experience for many novices. Lots of elderly folks, women, and children can be turned off to the implicit messages most gyms send out, and if you’re going to be spending hours a week somewhere, you would want it to be somewhere you can feel safe and relaxed.  Plus, $10 a month as a flat fee for membership is an enticing offer. So what’s the catch?

Planet Fitness is...Different

Planet Fitness sets itself apart from most other gym facilities in more ways than just their color scheme.  Below are just a handful of examples:

 Photo credit: Osseous (Flickr)

Photo credit: Osseous (Flickr)

The Lunk Alarm

The cartoonish lunk alarm Planet Fitness boasts is an alarm system that is activated whenever noise levels exceed a certain decibel range, presumably signifying that someone is slamming weights or grunting too loud.  Planet Fitness members will claim that this is more of a lighthearted feature that gives everyone a good laugh, but this is patently off center.

First of all, ignoring the irony of trying to solve the “loud noises” problem with an even louder and more obnoxious noise, this is a pretty insulting and humiliating solution to what is really a non-issue.  Members who spend their entire workouts walking on the treadmill or doing machine tricep kickbacks won’t have to worry about this too much (unless they make too much “noise” in response to exercise-induced asthma or worse), but for those in the free weight area, there is a constant threat of siren harassment if one so much as drops their weights too suddenly.  

But beyond that, depending on the specific PF location, it is not uncommon for members to be kicked out, or even have their membership revoked, for violating this rule.  So, no, this is not some light-hearted joke of a feature they use just to “brand themselves.” The lunk alarm is a nonsensical attempt to police volume levels, and although most anecdotal reports indicate it rarely goes off, it really is the Panopticon effect of having the constant threat of it going off where the problem lies.

Strict exercise/clothing rules

While specific rules and cultures vary from one location to the next, the rules about which exercises you can perform are fairly hardline through and through.  This includes no deadlifting, T-rows, overhead presses, or clean and jerks. Oh, and no supersetting. You also may not bring your own gym equipment, use any chalk, “slam weights,” or grunt.  And then there is the ambiguous catch-all rule of “No powerlifting!”

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but this whole model seems to work out eerily well for Planet Fitness.  Banning people who will use the most gym time and cause the most gym wear and tear is an extremely smart marketing move, which means equipment maintenance and repair is markedly cheaper than most gyms.  

And because the founders of the gym have presumably never stepped foot inside any other gym, they have banned what are essentially caricatures of “intimidating gym atmosphere.”  No tank tops, jeans, do-rags, bandanas, or boots.  It would seem the Rondeau brothers watched one too many episodes of Jersey Shore and have never visited an actual gym.  And because nothing is scarier than a well-hydrated gym-goer, gallon water jugs are also strictly forbidden here.

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Free food

A commonly cited problem with how PF runs their business is the food they keep around.  Free Tootsie Rolls and other candies can be found on most desks around the gym, while every week includes a “Pizza Monday” and “Bagels Tuesday.”  Because of the understandable backlash when this became policy, PF decided to repost an article from Shape that defended the decision. The article missed the point in a million and one ways, making the totally correct claim that you can’t undo a workout but missing the entire problem.

“Keeping them fat so they keep coming back” is a crude but true phenomenon here.  No, one or two slices of pizza a week will not “set your efforts back,” but promoting that kind of a diet (by making candy available constantly and offering energy-dense, nutrient-void foods) will encourage eating that way in other surroundings.  If nothing else, it will work pretty well to sabotage any dieting efforts you are currently undergoing.

Complacency is not non-judgment

None of what you have just read constitutes non-judgment, as the creatives behind the “Judgement-Free Zone” would have you believe.  To explain this, let’s explore what non-judgment even means.

 Photo credit: Peter Hale (Flickr) [same credit for the thumbnail]

Photo credit: Peter Hale (Flickr) [same credit for the thumbnail]

Non-judgment really means:

  • You care about your members and see them as people

  • You believe in your members

  • Everyone is accepted, regardless of age, race, gender, creed, etc.

  • Everyone is held to the same standard (proportionally)

This is markedly distinct from complacency, which means:

  • You don’t believe in your members

  • You benefit from people plateauing

  • You aren't cared for; you're babied

Now, certainly, there are gyms out there that match up to the stereotypes PF aims to fight against (which they broadcast pretty regularly on their commercials).  There are gyms that preach judgment and bullying, where every day is a pissing contest and nobody is free to be their authentic selves. I know, because I’ve been to those gyms.

But let’s be clear.  This is a problem largely found in underground “bodybuilding gyms” which don’t go out of their way to reach new clients anyway.  It is still found in small traces in some commercial gyms, via insecure trainers and members, but, again, the problem here is not the deadlifting or the do-rags or those horrific, terrifying gallon jugs of water.  The problem is toxic gym culture, bad trainers, and the entire “commercial gym” business structure.

To help understand this spectrum of gym judgment, I have created a nifty little scale to help clarify matters.  See if you can guess where PF falls on this, and then see if you can guess where a gym like TFN falls.

 My scale of gym atmospheres.  As you can see, there is a bit of a horseshoe effect as we move from "Judgment" to "Complacency."

My scale of gym atmospheres.  As you can see, there is a bit of a horseshoe effect as we move from "Judgment" to "Complacency."

Anti-Complacency, not Anti-Planet Fitness

This article refers specifically to Planet Fitness because they have branded themselves by taking the commercial gym approach to the extreme.  But they are not alone in their efforts. What this article is truly standing against is a taught sense of complacency and its false allure.  Gyms should 100% be about non-judgment, and harassment and belittlement has no place in any gym anywhere (if you’re the type to take videos of people lifting incorrectly, please do us all a favor and put the phone away and start focusing on yourself).

This is why True Fitness & Nutrition exists in the first place.  Our vision is to break down the barriers most people have standing in between them and their fitness goals.  At TFN:

  • There is no judgment

  • Everyone is pushed to be their best selves

  • Everyone is shown love just for walking through these doors and working to better themselves

  • Disrespect and harassment are prohibited.  This is not an externally enforced policy, but a result of having cultivated this type of accepting and inspiring environment.

You see, this is where most gyms get it wrong.  Our non-judgment does not come from patronizing or babying; it comes first and foremost from a belief in humans (all humans) and what we’re capable of.  

Whether you’re a young, fit athlete; a 70-year-old grandmother; an 8-year-old who has never touched a weight in his or her life; or an experienced powerlifter, you are not just welcomed, you are part of a family of lifters who come in here multiple times a week to better themselves and achieve their goals.  Our trainers train from a place of empowerment, and our nutritionists coach from a place of positivity and excitement. Now that is a judgment-free zone.