What are the benefits of a studio vs. a big box gym environment

Thinking of signing up for a studio membership or a big box gym? Here’s your list of pros and cons for each environment today.

First of all, let’s start this out by saying that you get major props for considering either option and caring about your fitness routine — it’s important. And taking the first step into a studio or a gym and signing up can be so intimidating, so that’s a big part of the battle. Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is actually work out.

Let’s do a quick explanation …

What is a studio?

A boutique studio environment would be any private or franchised studio that only offers classes and usually only in one format, such as SoulCycle, Orangetheory Fitness, Barry’s Bootcamp, CorePower Yoga, Pure Barre, or even local studios.

What is a big box gym?

A big box gym would be any health club or chain that offers a gym area with free weights or cardio equipment, as well as group fitness classes and training, such as 24 Hour Fitness (this is where I work out frequently and also where I teach group classes), Equinox (I used to work here as a personal trainer), Life Time Fitness, Crunch, LA Fitness, YMCA, or even a university or local gym.

What are the benefits of a studio vs. a big box gym environment

What are the benefits of a studio vs. a big box gym environment by A Lady Goes West

Alright, let’s get to the pros and cons. And I have to give a big shout-out to all the awesome peeps who weighed in for this post. I posted a call for input in the A Lady Goes West Friends Facebook group and on Instagram too. I will say that the results were pretty even on which wins out. Here are the details …

Benefits of a studio environment …

Classes are usually specialized and structured. The thing that boutique fitness studios really deliver on is structured classes in whatever focus they specialize in, whether that’s yoga at CorePower Yoga, barre at Barre3 or cycling at FlyWheel. Because these studios usually only offer one format, they can really excel in that area, and hopefully, they do it well. If you know you want to improve in a format, or you know you enjoy a format, then a studio is the place for you.

You always get a full workout, even if you aren’t self-motivated. When you go to a studio and attend a class, you know you’re going to get in a workout and this is helpful when you’re low on inspiration, motivation or an idea of what you want to do that day. Classes take the guesswork out for you, and that’s so important when you don’t have the time or energy to think about what your workout should be that day.

The opportunity to book and reserve class spots ahead of time keeps you accountable. When you want to take a class at a studio, you usually have to reserve your space ahead of time and prepay. Once you’ve booked your class, you add it to your calendar and do your best to keep that commitment — I’ve heard many people say that when you prepay, you are much less likely to skip or cancel. Not to mention, if you get the chance to reserve your spot, you know that you have a place in class and don’t have to worry about showing up and being told the class is full.

More personal attention in classes. Oftentimes, studio classes are delivered by instructors who quickly demo moves, then float throughout the class to correct form, rather than staying in the front of the room to do the whole workout with the class. This time spent correcting form in the room is always helpful for attendees who may need some hands-on assistance.

Chance to get to know the instructors better. Instructors at boutique studios often teach a lot of classes at that same studio, so you get to see them more often. If you start to fall in love with an instructor, it’s a good motivator to continually book into the classes they teach to stay consistent.

Studios build strong communities, and people know your name. While not every boutique fitness studio has a community vibe, a lot of them work really hard to offer events, products and other amenities to keep their members excited, involved and coming back. It feels good to be part of something, especially if it’s a chain studio with multiple locations, because you feel like you belong and are more likely to stay loyal and consistent. And you know what feels really good at a studio? When both the front desk staff and instructors know you by name!

What are the pros and cons of a studio vs. big box gym environment by A Lady Goes West - August 2019

Downsides of a studio environment …

More expensive for class rates or packages. The number-one downfall of boutique studios is the price. Classes can run from $20-40 per session, which is sometimes not much less than the monthly membership at a big box gym. While there are often membership or package rates, when you pay per workout, you end up paying more. Can you imagine paying for a $40 class four times a week regularly? That’s out of reach for the average person.

The class schedule can be limiting, with only a certain number of classes a day. Boutique studios only offer classes when classes fill up, so that means before work, mid-morning, lunch and after work are typically the only times you can get in a class. While that works for most people, not all people have a regular schedule. So if you’re a nurse or a shift-worker and need off-peak workouts, you won’t be able to get in a class at a studio.

Classes are always in the same format, so you get a lot of repetition and could risk an injury or plateau. Even if a cycle instructor changes their playlist and program every single day, you’ll still be doing cycling every time you attend class. The same goes for yoga and barre. And while Barry’s and Orangetheory switch up the actual moves and equipment frequently, it’s always a high-intensity mixture of cardio and weights. When you attend a studio regularly, you’re going to do a lot of repetition, which can not only causes overuse injuries, but boredom and plateaus too. I’ve spoken to many people who go all in at a studio and end up running their body into the ground because they keep repeating the same type of workouts every single day. The body loves variety, and not a lot of studios do a good job of offering members cardio, strength and flexibility too. Remember, studios are a business, so just because they try to sell you on coming in every single day, that’s not the best choice for your body and longevity.

The cancellation policies are usually very strict, and you can lose out on classes. Hit traffic after work? Have trouble finding a parking spot and show up too late to get in? No matter the situation, if you’ve prepaid for a class and don’t make it, you lose out on whatever you paid. While this is a pro in a way that it makes you stay committed, it’s also a con when things come up in life out of your control.

Small bathrooms and locker rooms, which make it hard if you need to get ready for work. If you want to get ready for work after an early morning class at a private studio, good luck to you. Because everyone else who is in that early class wants to hop in the shower and use the mirror and blowdryer too. When I was a coach at Orangetheory Fitness several years ago, I knew the people who would leave before the cool-down to get in line for the ONE, yes, ONE shower, that we had at our studio. That’s a major downfall, when you want to eliminate a trip home to shower up and then carry on with your day.

Rarely offer childcare. For all my parents out there, this may be the big thing holding you back from signing up for studio classes. I know it’s a huge downside for me, because I have Brady with me all day during the week — so I rely on childcare to get a workout in. None of the big chain studios have childcare (I’m looking at your Barry’s, Orangetheory Fitness, SoulCycle, FlyWheel, CorePower Yoga, etc.), and that’s a real shame.

The Assembly yoga class by A Lady Goes West -- December 2018

Now that we’ve covered studios, let’s switch gears to the big gyms.

Benefits of a big box gym or health club …

Freedom to take a class or work out on your own. The biggest benefit of going to a big gym is that you can choose your own adventure every time you show up. Slow cardio on the treadmill while reading a magazine? Grinding on the stair-stepper? Dumbbell weights circuit in front of the mirror? Cycling? Les Mills BODYPUMP group fitness class with barbells? Swimming perhaps? Whatever it is you want to do, you can do it.

Affordability. This was one of the biggest advantages that came up when I polled others, and that’s the fact that a monthly gym membership is typically cheaper than paying by class at a studio, if you work out regularly. While Equinox and certain regional fancier gyms do charge a pretty penny for a monthly membership, you still get access to so much with that fee and yet still pay less than a per-class studio rate. (I currently work at a Life Time, and it’s AMAZING!)

Group fitness classes are usually free and have a variety of formats. Most of the time at big gyms, unlimited group fitness classes are included in your monthly membership fee, and that means you can sometimes take two a day (don’t do this often!) without paying extra. Also, there is frequently a mixture of yoga, cardio, weights, cycling and even dance classes on the schedule each day. This is very beneficial for someone who gets bored easily and wants to try a lot of things. Also, personal favorite for me, you can do Les Mills group fitness classes at some gym chains (a lot of YMCAs, 24 Hour Fitness and more), and those are the best.

More space, bigger locker rooms and more parking. The thing with a big box gym is that it’s typically just all around bigger. You probably won’t feel as crowded by others when you’re working out on your own, or hopefully even in a group fitness class. You’ll have a better chance of grabbing a locker, shower and space at the mirror, because once again, there’s more space. And of course, if you go to the gym at off hours, you may even have the place almost to yourself, which is a major benefit if you like to fly solo and have a big personal space bubble. Did we mention parking? Although the parking at my big box gym is notoriously terrible (the kind where you have to go to the door and follow someone to their spot and potentially fight with other cars), in general, most health club-type gyms have a large parking structure, whereas studios can often be in urban environments with no dedicated parking spots.

Access to childcare for longer amounts of time. I literally don’t know what I would be doing with my life if I didn’t have access to childcare at my gym, so that I can work out and teach group fitness classes. Most big box gyms will offer childcare most days of the week, so you can know your kiddo is safe while you exercise. And, usually, you can get enough time in the childcare to work out and shower or check email or do a couple of things before retrieving your tot. This is a huge benefit.

Ability to work with a personal trainer, maybe even a free initial session with sign-up. I used to be a personal trainer (I’m still certified, but don’t train one on one any longer and you can read about my NASM certification process here), and I’ve worked with personal trainers as a client too. Even though group fitness classes are WAY more fun and entertaining than personal training sessions, nothing is as tailored to your body like a one-on-one session. If you sign up for a big box gym, a lot of times you’ll get a free personal training session as part of your membership and maybe even a discount on your first training package. Working with a personal trainer is an amazing way to assess your movement patterns, see if you have any mobility issues or imbalances and address your individual goals and objectives with your fitness routine, while also getting to work out and have someone count your repetitions and correct your form. If you end up taking the more affordable route with a big gym, put some of that studio money towards a personal training package and see where that gets you.

What are the benefits of a studio vs. a big box gym environment by A Lady Goes West

Downsides of a big box gym or health club …

It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle and end up not using your membership. Although some people see freedom and lots of flexibility as a benefit, for other people, it can be a big downfall. In fact, one of the problems of joining a big box gym is that there’s nothing making you go, especially if you haven’t found a group fitness class you like yet and aren’t quite motivated to do your own thing. Because the number one goal of paying for a studio or gym is to exercise, if you’re not utilizing your membership at a big box, then you may as well not pay for it.

Sometimes the classes aren’t as good. So here’s the deal, I’ve been a group fitness instructor for 10 years, and during that time, I’ve taught at private studios, fancy gyms and regular old gym chains, and I’ve come across a lot of terrible instructors in every place. But, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with some amazing instructors in every place too — some of who may not have the Instagram followings of popular SoulCycle personalities, yet, they are so talented, hard-working and deserving of a lot more praise than they get, just because they teach classes at a big box gym, instead of a private studio and are paid way less too. As a whole, big box gym classes are not as specialized or as perfectly formatted as studio classes, and sometimes the freestyle classes, like a generic boot camp or cardio class, can be so different depending on where you go you have no idea what to expect. But truthfully, you can find good instructors in both places, if you keep looking. 

Usually require you to sign a contract to join. People love to hate on the contracts they sign with big box gyms. In fact, some brands like Planet Fitness have been known to have incredibly convoluted cancellation policies, and my own gym chain, 24 Hour Fitness, has been sued for charging members more than they signed up for. All this is pretty disheartening to someone who just wants a place to work out. You have to be careful what you sign up for at a gym. Make sure you read your contract, ask a lot of questions and be sure you are going to get everything you want out of the place before signing your name on the dotted line. 

Studios vs. big gyms by A Lady Goes West - August 2019

And there you have it!

Of course, there’s also the option of working out outside or at home too — two things that are not my favorite, but work really well for others. And if you want to work out at home, I highly recommend trying Les Mills On Demand for more than 800 amazing and safe workouts you can do anywhere, including my beloved BODYPUMP and BODYATTACK that I teach. If you want to try this service for 21 days totally for free, use my link for the free 21-day trial, and let me know how you like it. 

Concluding thoughts: It’s all about what YOU want

But back to the studio vs. big box gym …

There’s really no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing whether to join a studio or a big box gym. Most of my friends who are fitness buffs and have the budget usually try to keep a gym membership, then bounce around between 1 to 3 studios. But yes, that can be extremely pricey, especially when prices per class can be around $30 here in the SF Bay Area. Personally, I like to teach and take classes and work out at my big box gym, then pop into studios for boutique fitness maybe 2 or 3 times a month on the weekend when I have childcare at home through Dave.

You have to figure out what sounds like it’s going to work for you — try it for a few months, then change your mind if it isn’t ideal. (Side note: There’s also something called ClassPass in a lot of bigger cities, in which you can pay a monthly membership and hop around to a bunch of different studios.)

No matter what you choose, remember these things …

  1. You want to switch up your workouts regularly, and try to get in a good mixture of strength, cardio and flexibility each week. And that means, no, you shouldn’t do cycling every single day.
  2. You want to take a rest day (or 2 or 3, depending on how hard your workouts are) each week, and try not to put two super difficult workouts on back-to-back days.
  3. You want to do movement that you enjoy and feels good on your body.

If you can answer yes to the above statements, then you’re doing it right!

Thank you for reading this one, my friends! Have a fabulously fit day! I’m hitting up a BODYPUMP class (at a big box gym), hanging with Brady and doing two conference calls during his nap. Catch you soon!

Some other posts you may like …

I’ll see you over on Instagram, until we meet back here again! 🙂

Questions of the day

Which do you prefer, a studio or a big box gym?

What was your last workout?

What’s one format of exercise that you’ve been dying to try?

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  1. The cost at some studios can be a huge issue. Thankfully I get free memberships since I’m an instructor, but one of the places I teach charges almost $300 a month for an unlimited membership with full access to all of the classes and programs (with no childcare available).

    The big box gym I attended before becoming an instructor was $9.99 a month for the basic membership and $19.99 a month for the membership that included unlimited classes and tanning. I believe both included childcare. As you stated, that’s less than a per-class rate at most studios! While the gym did have tons of equipment and classes, I do find that you aren’t really part of a community like at a studio. I wasn’t working out as much, and I did feel like the quality of some of the classes was lacking.

    Nowadays, 90% of my workouts are classes. Spending so much time thinking of other people’s workouts leaves me with no energy left to plan my own, so I let the instructors take care of it for me! 😉

    1. Hi Dominique! Wow — your description of your experience fits these pros and cons to a tee, right? Thank you so much for sharing! And that’s worthy of an entirely different post — but I think instructors OFTEN are too tired to make up their own workouts, and as I teach more classes, I find that happening to me too hahahah! That’s AWESOME you are at a studio where you teach and can go for free — soak that up!!!

  2. This is a really good post with the pros and cons of both! I started off with a big box gym and at the beginning of my health journey, it just didn’t help with the motivation and I was so lost! When I switched to boutique fitness, that’s when I broke through the plateau. Now I go to a gym that’s smaller and a bit like crossfit which I would have never been able to find if I didn’t try out some boutique studios. I like to think everyone could benefit from a mix of both!

    1. Hi Virjinia! Thank you for sharing this — so helpful. I think your path is probably a common one, and that’s why it’s great we have the option of trying lots of places. Sounds like your current situation is meant to be for you right now. Do you take classes or just work out on your own?

  3. I’m definitely more into studios – can you call CrossFit a studio? It’s got the small groups, the community, the accountability. Basically, I like going to a place where it’s all programmed for me and all I have to do is the work.

    1. Hi Christine! Sure, I think a Crossfit can count as a studio. I agree it’s awesome to go somewhere and have everything programmed for you — makes life easier. I’ve never tried a Crossfit workout!

  4. Studios – small classes means it’s easy for instructors to make lots of corrections. I’ve also noticed that instructors make more of an effort to “get to know you” and learn your name which makes the experience more personalized. I’ve had instructs send me back to the weight rack to pick up heavier weights since they knew I was capable of challenging myself more. In my own experience, this didn’t happen all that often at classes I’ve taken at a gym– even when I attended the class week after week.

    1. Hi Anne! Your thoughts are totally correct — I think gyms sometimes have more of a rotating crowd (mine doesn’t, but many do), so that’s probably why the instructors didn’t get to know you as well. Also, gym instructors don’t have a registered class list with people’s names like studio instructors do hehehe — that totally helps them know your name. I miss that from being an instructor at a studio. Thanks SO much for saying hi and weighing in!

  5. I love the studies because of the community and usually if you keep going, you get to know the instructors and other people who regularly come, but I definitely love big box gyms more because of options. I really have a tough time doing 1 type of workout so a big box gym offers variety of classes for 1 price as well as a swimming pool usually. I used to weightlift 3x a week, swim 1-2x a week and go to zumba and yoga classes when I was part of a big box gym.
    Currently I live in a small town and while there is a local YMCA, the parking is awful and it’s out of my way so I belong to a small gym that focuses on weight lifting, but it has 24-7 access via fingerprint and it’s convenient. I do go to a yoga studio 1-2x a week.

    1. Hi Alicia — another good point — not everyone has access to lots of studio or gym options near them, so you have to make it work — like you’re doing right now. Thanks for weighing in!

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