I have been a gym rat for a long time. More than 10 years, by my count, so it was hard for me to say goodbye. My hometown recreation center, my college gym, the YMCA, and several army gyms — each was like a second home.
Now that I'm not given access to gyms as a result of my employment (student, teacher, soldier), I've come to realize that they can be expensive. My odd blend of minimalism, frugality, and social anxiety (while working out), made me a good candidate to try and stay in shape without gym access.
I decided to use several criteria to compare the two approaches to working out, and I picked a winner in each category. Here's what I discovered.
Gym memberships can be expensive, but so can building your own personal gym. I opted for a Jungle Gym and The Bible of Bodyweight Exercises, by Mark Lauren. The two items combined only set me back $100, or about 5-6 months of access to my local gym. I looked at lots of home gym gear, and I decided on these two items because of cost and freedom of movement. The Jungle Gym is easy to move and isn't too bulky for travel, and the e-book... well, it's an e-book.
Winner: No gym, because I can resell equipment, and only buy what I like or need, with no contract.
Some people like the gym culture, and some don't. Every gym has its own unique vibe. I loved my old YMCA, and loathed one of the Army gyms. I like to listen to ridiculous music, and I usually don't yell and scream when I work out, so the Y was great for me unless I felt like yelling. Working out in my own place has its own set of culture challenges too — like, is my roommate around? Will I wake up the neighbors? Will I accidentally put a hole in the wall? Will the door support my weight (yes)? Will this broom stick support my weight (no)?
But working out at home has the added benefit of being private, so when I'm trying something I've never done before, I'm much more focused on doing it right than on how silly I might look. For me, going to the gym was a great motivator, but working out out home has forced me to try many new movements, so there is...
No winner. Tie.
I like to do a wide array of things: swim, climb, bike, run, strength training, yoga, and hitting a heavy bag are all good times for me. Finding a gym that has classes or spaces for all of these can be tricky, but it can be done. On my budget, finding a place to live with these options is out of the question, and since I don't like to be over-encumbered with stuff, it's very impractical. I can, however, bike to work, run in my neighborhood, do yoga just about anywhere, and find ways to improvise the other activities.
Winner: Gym, for being an easy and convenient place to do lots of different things.
If your gym is convenient to get to, (before, during or after work for most people), then location isn't a problem. If it's part of a chain, you may have many possible locations, making it even more convenient. Home is one of the most convenient places to work out if you have space, and it doesn't take much. The hardest part seems to be dedicating a space and prying yourself away from other things to work out. At the gym, you're there to work out; at home, you're there to live. If you can create a workout space and are dedicated to starting a workout at home, then it can be the best location for you. It is for me.
Winner: No gym.
Again, large gym chains can be very useful for travel, as well as hotel gyms, but for making sure your regimen is uninterrupted, a home routine with no (or minimal) equipment can help keep you in shape on the go.
Winner: No gym.
Refueling after a workout is very important, and most gyms have some sort of foodstuffs available, like bars, shakes and even hot meals. However, they tend to focus on lots of animal proteins, which I avoid, so they don't do me any good. Since supplements are pricy and there are only a few manufacturers I trust, I generally avoid them. Working out at home means I can have a soup simmering and can be doing jump squats in between adding ingredients, or I can make a big salad and put it in the fridge until I'm done. Better yet, I can make a frozen fruit smoothie as soon as I finish.
Winner: No gym, because I'm in complete control of my nutrition, and can avoid quick and easy (inferior) temptations. I'm looking at you, protein bars.
Your results depend on your inputs, and your goals. That said, after switching to mainly body weight training, I feel stronger faster (though I haven't timed myself on a run, or raced in quite a while). I'm also less bulky than when I was weight training. I did strive for bulk with weights, but now that I'm less bulky, I like it, and size is no longer a part of my goals.
For me, I'm surprised to say the winner is no gym
After a few months of working out on my own, I'm not sure if I'll ever join a gym again. I might, but only if I fall in love with it, or own it, and I'm rather surprised with how much I like bodyweight exercises. I had no idea how much diversity, intensity, and satisfaction bodyweight exercises could offer.
If you love your gym, I'm not telling you to quit it, but I do suggest everyone, gym rat or novice, try working out at home and on the go, for at least a few weeks. I was first inspired to do this because of Mark Lauren's new book, and I discovered the Jungle Gym by reading Brendan Brazier's book, Thrive Fitness. It's a change I'm glad I made.