New ways of working out

Gyms are diversifying to provide 24-hour access, fast workouts and specific types of workout, like CrossFit. Which one is right for you?

Fitness à la carte

Once upon a time gyms provided classes, weights and machines, and took all and sundry - but it seems that wasn't enough. Now you can take your pick of gyms offering fast workouts, special CrossFit gyms, 24-hour gyms, and even women-only gyms - not to mention outdoor training and "boot camp" sessions. CHOICE explores some traps becoming evident as these enterprises mature, as well as tips to keep in mind wherever you work out.

24-hour gyms

Some people want to go to the gym at 9 or 10pm after finishing work or putting the kids to bed, or at 5am before work. Then there are some who want to work out at midnight, just because. Just as convenience-based and on-demand services are becoming the norm, gyms have moved to adopt the 24/7 model of service. These gyms are ideal for people who are willing to trade the bells and whistles of group classes and tailored programming for the convenience of 24-hour access, and possibly reduced costs.

While there are gyms that operate specifically as 24-hour gyms, with major chains including Snap Fitness, Stepz and Anytime Fitness, many existing "full-service" gyms have added 24-hour (or at least extended-hours) access, comprising staffed and unstaffed hours.

"Typically, the facility will offer all of the services and facilities associated with a traditional facility including group fitness, personal training, and so on. However, they also offer a membership category which gives 24/7 access to dedicated areas of the facility," says Joel Perricone from Fitness Australia.

Safety and security concerns

Aside from accidents involving gym equipment, there may be other personal emergencies such as a heart attack or hypoglycaemic event, or perhaps dangerous behaviour from a fellow patron, to consider.

Safety and security measures can include:

  • card access, so that only members can enter during non-staffed hours
  • secure parking with member-only access and CCTV
  • CCTV over the gym floor and at entry to (but not inside) change rooms
  • fixed and personal alarms, which are worn on a lanyard and can be activated in the event of an accident
  • access to first-aid kits and automated defibrillation machines
  • restricted or modified equipment

New members should be inducted with fitness testing and instruction on how to use the equipment safely and with correct technique.

"It's important that the consumer asks questions and gains an understanding as to the safety measures in place before joining any facility, whether it offers 24/7 access or otherwise," says Perricone.

Despite these measures, a staffed gym does have an advantage over an unstaffed one in emergency situations - trained staff can quickly assist should a barbell fall on a patron's chest when they're doing a bench press, for example, or give first aid. Proponents argue that unstaffed gyms are no worse than using a home gym, cycling lonely roads or jogging on bush tracks by yourself – all settings where there's no-one to help in the event something happens to you.

Express workouts

Also tapping into the time-poor market are gyms, or programs within gyms, that promise a 30-minute or other "fast" workout. This flies in the face of the typical expectation that you need an hour or more to have an effective workout, whether it's a group class or working your way around the cardio and resistance training machines.

But a well-designed 30-minute circuit or class will probably produce better results than wandering around the gym for an hour using different pieces of equipment with no particular plan. It also fits with the move over recent years within the sports training and fitness industries to higher-intensity, shorter-duration exercise. And it's much easier for most people to fit a half-hour session into their daily routine - meaning they're more likely to actually go!

Government guidelines for physical activity recommend 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five times per week, but according to Perricone, "Structured exercise with the appropriate intensity tailored to meet the needs of the individual will exceed the government-recommended physical activity requirements of the individual. However, consistency and external contributors to fitness, such as diet, sleep and lifestyle, will also contribute to their overall health and fitness."

The Fit n Fast chain offers different fast workouts, such as boxing or martial-arts-inspired workouts, a workout based on hydraulic machines, or a combination of cardio machines and resistance training. Women's gym chain Curves has a 30-minute circuit including strength training, cardio and stretching.

Receiving training in safe and effective technique is important for these fast workouts, as you try to maximise the number of lifts or the intensity of the cardio workout. An effective program that takes into account what you want to achieve - fat loss, increased fitness or stronger muscles - will also help you make the best use of your time. A personalised program may be provided when you join, or included on a regular basis in the membership fees, or you may have to pay extra for a personal trainer. It's important to have your program regularly revised and updated so you don't fall into an exercise rut.


Originating in the US in 2000, CrossFit has become big business, with over 5000 affiliated gyms worldwide and copycat workouts popping up in other gyms. The CrossFit workout involves a mixture of high-intensity weight lifting, gymnastics, body-weight work and aerobic work, with a competitive element introduced by recording weights and number of lifts for you to compare with others, as well as track your own progress.

The CrossFit franchise centres have a standard one-hour workout that includes a warm-up, a training session to learn a particular skill, the main session called Workout of the Day, a cool-down and a stretch. The emphasis is on natural, functional movements using large muscle groups (such as squats), rather than using machines, which CrossFit proponents argue involve unnatural positions and movements.

The competitive aspect of CrossFit-style workouts will appeal to some, as will the promise of getting fitter, leaner and stronger. However, it can be riskier than other strength-training workouts. A small 10-week study of men and women undergoing CrossFit training (combined with a "paleo" diet) found significant increases in aerobic fitness and loss of body fat. However, 16% of the group dropped out due to overuse injuries, and the authors suggested that given the relatively small improvements in fitness and body composition among the above-average athletes, it may not be worth the risk.

Joel Perricone says, "CrossFit, instructed correctly using the fitness industry strength-training guidelines, isn't better or worse than any other tailored workout. It's simply another option for gaining and maintaining health and fitness. However, if not instructed correctly, the high intensity can add risk to the individual and should be a factor when considering a program that suits their needs."

It's recommended that anyone who undergoes the training learns proper technique, varies the type of exercises and the amount of weight lifted, and keeps an eye out for niggling pain or twinges that could become potentially serious injuries.

Outdoor fitness

If air-conditioned comfort isn't your thing, structured outdoor fitness classes are proliferating in parks and on beaches around the country. Outdoor group training, particularly boot camp-style workouts complete with yelling and pushing to the limits, is conducted by personal training companies or individuals, or affiliated with regular gyms.

More recently, informal or casual groups have sprung up, often organised by social media or on websites such as Meetup. The idea is that anyone can come along, and they often emphasise the social as well as the physical aspects of exercise. Some involve costs, and some are free, with people taking turns to devise workouts.

They can be a great way to introduce variety and fun into an exercise regime, but organisers or leaders aren't beholden to the same health-and-safety standards as registered professionals, and may not have liability cover. Your best bet, according to Perricone, is to ensure that exercise professionals hold a current qualification, registration, and appropriate insurance. "If the exercise professional is not appropriately credentialed then there is a higher risk of liability and injury," he warns.

Women-only gyms

Women-only gyms have been around for many years now, including the leading chains Fernwood and Curves. More recently, many large gyms have introduced "ladies only" areas, largely in response to a perceived market need. The idea is to provide a non-intimidating exercise environment while still delivering the services and facilities associated with a large fitness centre.

Beware the 'no contract' contracts

"No contract!" scream the ads. With gym contracts rating high on the alarm-bells scale, alongside emails from ousted Nigerian prince businessmen with loads of money to share with you, the idea of a gym membership with no contract is very appealing. But is there any such thing?

Technically, no. If you're going to join a gym, you'll almost always have to sign a form authorising the gym to direct debit your bank account or credit card. That's a contract. You'll also have to agree to the terms and conditions of using the facility – that's another contract. The only way to use a gym without signing a contract is to pay per visit.

What this claim likely means is that you don't have to sign a long-term contract – in other words, you don't have to sign up for a full year, or some other fixed period. Instead, they just debit your account monthly until you tell them to stop. This can be a good option if you don't know if you want to commit - although if you are prepared to commit to long-term membership, it may be cheaper per month, and they'll often waive joining fees and provide other benefits (such as regular program reviews).

Before signing up to anything, including "no contract" contracts, check the cooling-off period, their cancellation policy (how much notice you have to give, and whether it has to be in writing or in person), conditions and allowances for putting membership on hold (illness, injury, holiday and so on), and any financial penalties for breaking a term contract early.

What's next?

Fitness Australia points out that the fitness industry is constantly evolving, with different niche markets developing. Joel Perricone predicts that while the industry will always have full-service facilities, some of these services will also branch out to include on-site allied health services, such as physiotherapy and podiatry. Some have already branched out into on-site beauty and health services, such as facials, waxing and massage – and that's only the beginning.

More information

Fitness Australia is the main peak body for the fitness industry in Australia; the other is Physical Activity Australia. Member gyms and fitness professionals agree to their codes of conduct.

Find out how much and what type of exercise you need for good health by checking out the National Physical Activity Guidelines.