How to Spot a Good Hotel Gym (and Avoid the Shitty Ones)

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Photo: alexandre zveiger (Shutterstock)

On a recent vacation, I stayed in two different hotels. One had a gym that was a workout paradise, or as close as you can get without barbells. There was a dual cable machine, dumbbells up to 75 pounds, competition sized kettlebells(!), not one but two places to do pullups, assorted suspension trainers and medicine balls and the like, and, among the cardio machines, a genuine Peloton bike. The other gym? Nothing more than a small rack of dumbbells, a couple treadmills, and the climate control of a tropical swamp.

If I ever have the luxury of deciding between different hotels, I make sure to find out everything I can about the hotel gyms and use that in my calculus. But sometimes I don’t have much of a choice—maybe there’s only one hotel in the area with vacancies in my price range. I’ll still check out the gym before I arrive. Knowing what you’ll find can help you plan your workouts and figure out whether you might want to bring extra supplies, like a few resistance bands. And if you know in advance that the hotel gym won’t meet your needs, you can start looking around for gyms with day passes as part of your travel planning.

How to scope out a hotel gym

First, when you’re booking the hotel, take a look at all the photos. After you scroll through pics of bedrooms and conference rooms, there’s usually at least one shot of the “fitness center.” Save this pic, but then keep looking. Check Google Maps, where you’ll usually find the same professional photos, alongside photos that visitors have taken. Crucially, these photos tend to have dates on them. So if one photo shows a cable machine and one does not, you may be able to figure out whether the machine was added or whether it was removed.

After that, if I still haven’t found enough recent photos, I’ll look on hotel review sites and use Instagram’s map view. Usually I can get some idea of what I’ll encounter when I get there.

You can also call the hotel and ask what’s available. This is the most direct route, but the people at the front desk may not be able to describe the fitness center in detail, especially if they aren’t sure of the names of all the machines and equipment. This is, however, a good way to find out big-picture information, like whether the room has recently undergone renovations, or how many treadmills it has. Another important thing to ask: Is the fitness center open 24/7, or are there set hours?

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What to look for in a hotel gym

Looking at photos, I like to try to imagine myself in the room. I try to envision the four walls, and ask myself what is on each; and I try to mentally subtract the fisheye lens effect that makes photos of small rooms look bigger. Whatever you see, it’s likely going to be more cramped than the photo suggests. Don’t assume you’ll be able to find space to stretch or do floor exercises unless you see an indication of such, like rolled up yoga mats.

Here are the questions I ask myself as I zoom in on the photos:

  • What is the range of weights available? Dumbbell racks typically start at 5 pounds and may go up to 25, 50, or 75.
  • What are the weights on kettlebells, medicine balls, and the like? I’ve never seen a hotel kettlebell that weighs more than 30 pounds, but perhaps you’ll have better luck than me.
  • Is there a cable machine? If so, are the pulleys moveable? What attachments does it have?
  • Are there places to do pullups? (Often a cable machine will have pullup handles at the top.)
  • What cardio machines are available? Can you tell what brand, and their features?
  • What amenities are in the room? Often there will be towels, a water cooler, and perhaps even complimentary wired earbuds. Consider the possibility that the earbuds may be missing and the water cooler may only have those paper cones to drink from, which are impossible to set down in a handy place—so you’ll need to bring your own.

Ultimately, you’re looking for a rough match between the workouts you want to do and the equipment available. I like to make sure I can do some kind of push, pull, and leg exercises, in addition to cardio. For example, a pullup bar or TRX set is great for pulling exercises, and pushing is easy with dumbbells (do a chest press or shoulder press), but leg exercises are a bit tougher. If you’ve got a leg press machine, great! Otherwise you’ll probably be using dumbbells from the heavier end of the rack for lunges or step-ups.

How to make the most of a barebones hotel gym

When it comes to strength workouts, unilateral exercises are often the best way to work your legs. Consider step-ups, lunges, Bulgarian split squats with your back foot on a bench, or the single-legged version of Romanian deadlifts. I like to do these “kickstand” or “b-stance” style, where one leg is doing most of the weight and the other leg is just there for a bit of balance and support. Because you’re only working one leg at a time, you don’t need as much weight as if you were doing normal squats or deadlifts.

There are also a few things you can bring along to help round out your workout, if you suspect that the gym isn’t well stocked:

  • Resistance bands, for band pull-aparts. In a barebones gym your pulling exercises might be limited to dumbbell rows, so this gives you some variety. You can also use bands for assisted pullups.
  • A suspension trainer, which you can use in your hotel room or in the gym if you can find a safe place to anchor it.
  • Straps, which will help you hold onto dumbbells for all those unilateral leg exercises that you’re probably doing. This way your grip doesn’t have to limit how many reps you can get in.
  • Headphones (wired and/or wireless) to connect to the cardio machines if they have screens.
  • A water bottle, in case you get those little paper cones.
  • A towel, in case the gym’s supply is empty—but you can grab one from your hotel room if needed.

If you find cardio machines boring (or if the machines are broken or the room unpleasant), always consider going for a jog or walk outdoors. Some hotels will be able to recommend a convenient, safe running route in the area, or check out an app like Strava to find popular routes. Hotel pools aren’t usually great for lap swimming, but maybe you’ll luck out.

  

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