Planet Fitness: Are They Right or Wrong?

Thu. January 30, 2014 12:00 AM
by Michael Elder

Ah, Planet Fitness. They sure are making a name for themselves. With more than 700 locations nationwide and nearly 4.5 million members, it has become the fastest growing full size health club franchise in the United States. While they are very well known for having extremely low prices, they have received even more attention for their much touted "Judgment Free Zone" and their "Lunk Alarm". The word "lunk" is a term they use to characterize body builders, athletes, or hard core fitness enthusiasts (in other words, people who take care of their bodies). If anyone in the club grunts or drops a weight, an alarm will literally go off, bringing much attention to the person who committed the "offense". This is the first issue that I take with Planet Fitness: they are actually attaching a negative image to those people who work out hard. It's one thing to cater to beginners and exercise novices- I get that. That makes sense. But to discriminate against an entire population and refer to them as "lunks" seems completely unnecessary and extremely judgmental. This is ironic given their "Judgment Free Zone". It seems to me that all they are doing is judging. But maybe I am wrong. After all, many people love Planet Fitness. Are they right or wrong? That is the question that I will try to answer in this article.

The purpose of any gym or health club is for its members to get in shape. Especially with a name like Planet Fitness, one would think that achieving fitness would be the goal. This is the exact reason that I was so perplexed recently after I read that several locations of the fitness chain had eliminated squat racks. Yes, you heard that right: no squat racks. As a long time personal trainer, I can attest to the fact that squats are probably the most effective lower body exercise that there is. Not only do they build and strengthen the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but the core is also actively engaged. It is also a highly functional exercise, meaning it mimics certain activities of daily living. So if fitness is the goal, why then would they eliminate one of the most fitness oriented exercises? It seems to me that this is doing a disservice. Deadlifts are another highly efficient lower body exercise, but you will not see deadlift platforms in any Planet Fitness location. I'm not sure how this is actually helping people, but let's move on.

Planet Fitness is also known for giving away free pizza, bagels, and tootsie rolls as an incentive for its members. Now, don't get me wrong; I always enjoy my cheat night. But to give away free, unhealthy food in a health club environment seems very strange to me. Again, if fitness is the goal, should we not be focusing on all aspects of fitness? Higher levels of fitness cannot be gained unless proper nutrition is employed. I believe that giving away this kind of unhealthy food is sending out the wrong message. Every calorie that was burned during the workout was probably just consumed again afterward by eating these foods. Again, I believe that this is doing a disservice. It is one thing to say that you are trying to help beginners. It is a different story when you are sending out messages and offering incentives that actually DO NOT help them.

I know it sounds like I am coming down hard on Planet Fitness, but there are some things about them that I do like. They do offer very low rates, which provide an outlet for those who are financially limited to start exercising. They also cater to a crowd who might otherwise be intimidated to join other gyms or health clubs. I am all for this because anything that gets people moving and exercising I think is a good thing. If they only focused on those areas, I think everyone would be happy. But it seems as though they go out of their way to make a mockery out of body builders, which I believe paints a very false picture. As someone who has worked out of gyms for the last fifteen years, I can honestly say that the environments in which I have worked have always been very friendly and inviting. There is no "attitude" like which Planet Fitness has described. Quite the opposite, most gyms and health clubs are very welcoming to everybody, experienced exercisers and novices alike. I believe that the image of every gym should not be on any "type" of person, but rather on health and wellness.

Most body builders also do not live up to the hyped image that Planet Fitness has portrayed of them. Of course there are always going to be exceptions. There are always going to be those few gym patrons who grunt relentlessly or even scream. Sometimes they will also drop their weights unnecessarily or sing along a little too loudly to their iPod. But these people are the minority- which is exactly why they stick out so much. Do body builders grunt? Yes, they do- sometimes. However, grunting is not really a bad thing. It happens naturally and provides a release of oxygen. It is perfectly normal and nothing to be intimidated by. I grunt quite often, but it is nothing over the top or distracting to other gym members. The same is true for most of the people in my gym. We are not the crazies we are depicted to be.

So is Planet Fitness right or wrong? I think they are both. As I mentioned before, I think it is wonderful that they are catering to beginners and to people who may have fears about joining a gym. I also think it is great that they provide an outlet for financially bound people. But I do take issue with their false representation of other gyms and health clubs as well as with body builders personally. And I certainly take issue with them giving away unhealthy foods as an "incentive" for their members and removing necessary pieces of exercise equipment for fear that they will be "too intimidating". For a franchise who offers a "Judgment Free Zone", they sure do seem to judge a lot.

Thanks for reading. Be healthy!

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last fifteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,