Beat the Crowds at the Gym

If you have a gym membership, you know how frustrating it can be when the gym is too crowded for comfort. Isn't it tough enough to muster the motivation to head out the door to exercise? Then you arrive, dressed and ready for a workout, only to find a fitness center so crowded that the waiting time for an elliptical is longer than the line for a morning latte. When you join a fitness club, you quickly learn that timing is everything.

Like many businesses, gym traffic ebbs and flows with the seasons. Certain times of the year—like first four to eight weeks of every year—are busier than others are. The slower times of the year always seem to be the warmer months, because folks spend more time exercising outdoors.

After 20 years of working for the YMCA and other fitness facilities, I learned that gym usage follows a predictable daily pattern. The busiest times of the day, and therefore the worst times to hit the gym, are mid-mornings (between 8 and 11 a.m.) and early evenings (4 to 7 p.m.). Almost any time of day is less busy than these prime times.

If you get there to work out before 8 a.m., some morning people will be there, but you should be able to use the equipment of your choice. While lunchtime seems like it would be a busy time, most working professionals don't leave the office to work out during the day. Therefore, if you can get away from a midday workout, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. is a great time to do so. Prefer an afternoon workout? At many fitness centers, you can see tumbleweeds roll past the treadmills between 1 and 3 p.m. And while evenings are busy, the gym quiets down considerably after 7 p.m.

The real question is how can you make sure that you spend your time at the gym efficiently—by working out instead of waiting in line? These nine tips will help you beat the crowds and maximize your gym time.

Be flexible with your routine. It's easy to get upset when something interferes with your routine. Let's say that you like to use the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes and then strength train. If you arrive to find all the ellipticals in use, don’t just stand around with your arms crossed and wait. Perform your strength exercises first and come back to the elliptical.

Mix up your strength exercises. One common misconception about strength training could cause you to spend more time waiting than exercising: the belief that machine weights are for beginners and free weights are for the "serious" exercisers. While most experts do recommend that beginners use machines, there's no rule that beginners have to use them instead of free weights. To make the most of your gym time, learn some different exercises that don't involve machines. For example, if you are used to using the chest press machine, learn how to do a chest press with dumbbells or a barbell. If you are used to using a bicep curl machine learn how to perform dumbbell curls. When you arm yourself with these different options, you'll have plenty of alternatives when "your machine" is not available.

"Work in" between sets. If every gym member practiced this exercise etiquette tip, we would all save time and frustration! If you are performing two or three sets on a machine, you need to rest 30-60 seconds in between sets. If someone is waiting on you, offer to let them "work in" with you, which means they exercise while you rest and vice versa. Sometimes people will just sit on the machine while they rest, not getting up or offering to let someone else work in. If that's the case, simply ask, "Can I work in with you?" Usually, he or she will say yes.

Go for the unconventional. The most popular pieces of cardio equipment are treadmills and elliptical trainers. If those are occupied, get on the stationary bike, stair climber, or—my personal favorite—the rowing machine. Many gyms have large, open areas with aerobics steps, jump ropes and other small pieces of equipment that you can use. Don't be afraid to try something new or ask for help using a piece of equipment that might be new to you.

Use the group fitness room. If your gym has a group fitness room that isn't in use, find out if you can use it yourself. Many fitness centers will leave these rooms unlocked, often with access to smaller weights, resistance bands, jump ropes, and even Spinning bikes. If it's open and there's no class going on, take advantage of this room when the gym is crowded. If your fitness center locks the group fitness room when it's not in use, talk to the staff to work out an alternative.

Take it outside. Treadmills full? Take a walk or run outside. Consider hitting the open sidewalks, city streets, and roads instead of waiting on the treadmill. Warm up on the gym stairs or by taking a few laps around the building instead of waiting on a bike, for example. What parts of your workout can you complete at home or outside before heading to the fitness area? It beats waiting around!

Consider a 24-hour option. Even though I can't imagine working out at 1 a.m., some gyms are open 24 hours. For someone who works nights or any other non-traditional schedule, that may be the best time to work out. Longer hours allow people to exercise whenever they want. If your gym doesn't open early enough or stay open late enough, talk to the manager. If enough members make the same request, it just might happen!

Avoid prime time. Stay away during the late morning and early evening hours if possible. Obviously, this is the most convenient workout time for most people. Take a closer look at your schedule and see if you can find a better time. Could you take a longer or even a later lunch and use it as your workout time? Can you go to work later to work out beforehand? Can you come in to work earlier so you can leave early to hit the gym? Even though it might not be as convenient as some of the prime times, it might be more realistic way to work out in the end.

Talk to the staff. Too many times, I've encountered people who had cancelled their memberships because they could not make it to their favorite class or find an open treadmill. Instead of giving up, let the staff know of your problem. Fitness centers want to keep your business—and that means keeping you happy! Let’s say you love the 6 p.m. Spinning class, but it's always full by the time you get there. Talk to the staff about the problem you are having. Could they offer another class in a separate area at the same time? Could they add more bikes or additional classes on the schedule? Work together to find a solution so you can take advantage of the classes and services you're paying for each month.

The bottom line is that you pay a monthly premium for a gym membership, so it's important that you get the most for your money. If you aren't able to use equipment and classes the way you had hoped, talk to the staff to find solutions. Every new year brings dozens of new members to a fitness center. You can use the tips above as much as possible to make your workout experience better, but gyms usually stay crowded for several weeks. Be patient--it will pass!