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A health club will typically offer an atmosphere focusing more on the casual exerciser who is interested in general fitness. In these clubs you are more likely to find someone exercising and talking on a cell phone than to find huge bodybuilders flexing in the mirrors. The cost for these facilities can be as much as $100 and up per month, usually with a fairly large initiation fee. Also, most likely you will need to sign up for some period of time; typically they don't offer month by month contracts. These facilities will have a huge variety of equipment, weights, classes, swimming, gymnasiums, etc., so no one will be left out in terms of finding an activity they enjoy. Health clubs are also especially good if you enjoy socializing while you work out.
There are two main types of workout facilities you will encounter, health clubs and gyms. In general, health clubs tend to be more costly, offer more amenities, are more oriented towards service, and therefore tend to cater to more upper class, middle aged individuals. On the flipside, gyms tend to be less costly, offer fewer amenities, and cater more to younger middle class individuals who cannot afford a fancy health club. There are pluses and minuses to both which you should be aware of which I will address in other tips.
Health clubs offer many amenities including, but not limited to child care, a cafe where you can buy sandwiches etc, juice bars, towel service, swimming pools, saunas, hot tubs, gymnasiums, racquet ball courts, tennis courts, outdoor volleyball, aerobics, pilates, martial arts, boxing and other classes, private lockers, toiletries, and much more. There also may be recreational sports leagues. Some of these services and items will have to be paid for as you use them, and others will be available with just your membership payment.
Some facilities will be very high pressure in terms of getting you to sign up the first day for a long term contract. Be wary of these types of places. Never sign-up immediately. Always try to use the facility once to see how it is; inspect the locker rooms and other areas to see if things are well maintained. If a place won't let you review the contract and membership details and come back later without a large hassle, then it's probably not the place for you. If all else fails and you just don't feel comfortable, walk out, you can always go back later. In general these high pressure tactics will be found least in high-end facilities as these facilities are focused on service not sales.
Depending on the size and cost of the facility you will see proportionately more or less cardio equipment. At a bare minimum they should have treadmills and bikes, and in addition most will have stair climbers, and elliptical trainers. Some will also have rowing machines, stepmills, different types of stationary bikes and possibly a variety of elliptical machines.
Cardio equipment is pretty standardized, but there is a greater variety of strength equipment you may find at a gym you are considering joining. At a minimum they should have adequate numbers of flat, incline, and decline benches with racks attached. There should also be a good number of independent flat, incline, and decline benches for dumbbell and other work. Look for at least one high-low pulley system set up with areas for lat pulldowns, triceps pressdowns, curls, crossovers, etc. They should also have power cages, a smith machine, a quality set of dumbbells going over 100 lbs and plenty of barbells and plates. They should have machines which will allow you to work all the different muscle groups.
Typically "gyms" will be more limited in terms of amenities. They will more than likely have a wide selection of free weights, as well as machines for strength training. They also will probably have a decent selection of cardio equipment. "Gyms" cater more to the bodybuilding weightlifting types, and people looking more for fitness without all of the fancy extras like massages, pools, snack bars, tennis etc. Therefore you will typically pay less to be a member, however the service may not be the 5 star kind a fancy health club will have.