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Pump up your pecs without bruising your budget

It's the time of year when gym memberships swell like Hanz's and Franz's pecs. To attract more of the people vowing to get in shape in the new year, most gyms will offer bargains.

"We get most of our business around this time of year," says Jennifer Wilson, senior personal training divisional manager for GoodLife Fitness Clubs. "There's always marketing to really get you motivated, get you committed, get you started in the club. This is the fitness industry's peak time, so believe me, we're capitalizing on it."

But getting sucked in to what seems like a good deal can be as painful as dropping a barbell on your toe. To get the most for your money, start by giving your brain muscle a workout, says Karsten Jensen, a strength and conditioning coach based in Mississauga, Ont.

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For starters, he says, make sure any gym you might join fits your schedule. "You really will want to have a firm idea of when you are available to train," he explains. "If you need to train from six to seven in the morning and your gym doesn't open until seven, then that gym obviously isn't an option."

As well, Mr. Jensen suggests visiting the gym during peak hours to see how busy it is. Having to wait in line to use different machines will only frustrate you and provide an easy excuse to stop going.

Of course, it's important to pay attention to money matters, starting with membership fees. Guidelines created by CanadianFitnessMatters.ca, a program of the Canada Safety Council, include making sure dues can be paid monthly, as opposed to an annual lump sum.

"It's law that you have to be allowed to pay on a monthly basis," says Patty Clark, executive director of the Active Living Coalition for Older Adults, who helped create the guidelines. Any club that asks for all the money up front is probably one you should avoid.

As well, prospective members should be able to get a few free passes to test if the facility is to their liking. "If they can't, I wouldn't join," Ms. Clark says.

The Canadian Fitness Matters guidelines also recommend joining a gym that has been open for at least one year. But David Patchell-Evans, founder of GoodLife and chair of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, says the number should be at least six years.

"That tells you if they re-invest in their equipment," he says. Paying bottom dollar for a membership at a gym that only has one elliptical machine from the 1970s with a left pedal missing is not much of a deal.

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You can easily get a membership to a decent gym for about $40 a month, Mr. Patchell-Evans says. High-end clubs can charge as much as $200 a month, but if you have that kind of cash to spend, why waste it on gym fees when you can stay at home lifting piles of money?

Finally, before you become tantalized by savings the way you are tantalized by doughnuts (I myself will do anything for doughnuts without ever reading the fine print), approach each offer with your own checklist (or print off a free one from CanadianFitnessMatters.ca). Is the gym close to home or work? Is it clean? Are the trainers certified? Does it have the classes you want? If one gym doesn't have what you're looking for, another surely will.

Above all, don't be afraid to ask questions, Ms. Wilson says. This is an investment, after all, and as with any sound investment, you want to make sure you know what you're getting into before signing on the bottom line.

But, you say, why not save all those monthly dues and simply work out at home? I've tried that and, trust me, it doesn't work. When the couch and TV are nearby, any plans to work out are quickly deflated. By joining a gym, I'm more likely to exercise since I'm paying for it every month. Call it the motivation of cheapness. That's what's going to pump (clap) you up.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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