This article is for everyone who is starting their exercise journey at university – and everyone starting their university journey as a bodybuilding fan!
Because universities are enormous institutions, we’re talking about their gyms. For some of us (including our editor), the gym is as much a part of a university decision as the league tables, the courses, and the social life.
I’m a big fan of university gyms and I’d like to give you my case for why you should consider joining your uni gym – as well as some of the drawbacks.
Roughly 1/3 off students join the gym within the first few weeks and there must be something about them worth paying your student loan out for!
I want to discuss a few major decisions we are all faced with:
- Should you join the university gym?
- Will it be an intimidating space if you’ve never lifted weights before?
- Is a university gym or commercial gym better?
- How much will it cost you and is it worth it?
- Do you have to be a student?
- Do you have to join in first year – or is it okay to go back in later years?
- What should you expect from the facilities, people, and culture?
By the end of this article, you’ll have a great idea of what you’ll find and what it offers. I’ll be touching on more than just those sweet multi-million gym rebuilds, looking at the experience of the uni gym, and even covering some of my (editor: our) experiences!
First things first, are we talking about a big or small gym?
Different universities have different priorities. Each university’s gym will look different, and even one university is likely to have a set of different gyms for different purposes.
Let’s take examples that show the most popular approach: a major gym dedicated to elite training and then a “lifestyle” type gym. We’ll be looking at their early-2010 designs because we’re old here at NaturalFlex and we don’t go to university anymore.
The Strength and conditioning centre gym
Most universities with a large sporting contingent or funding offer this type of experience.
It’s a high-performance strength and conditioning gym and the PowerBase at Loughborough is the most obvious (and gorgeous) example. These are quality gyms with a wide range of facilities that offer a comprehensive training solution.
You can find these kinds of gyms with different specific training facilities attached. These often cater to competitive BUCS sports and Olympic events, with many students representing their university or country. For example, Bath university has an indoor track used to great effect by their bobsled team, attached to the large S&C gym.
PowerBase at Loughborough is an easy example because it houses a wide range of training camps and elite facilities. This is comparable to the strength and conditioning gyms found in the United States where college football and other leagues are hosted in gorgeous, ‘gym porn’ type facilities.
These are usually either membership or by-invitation-only facilities. Many specialist training facilities are restricted while the large weight training and machine areas are publicly available. This may even involve specific, group-reservation facilities – so check out your local societies (we’ll discuss this more).
These are the more ‘normal’ gyms that you’d expect to find out in the real world. They’re a mixture of the normal training equipment and culture you’d see in any commercial or local gym outside of university towns/cities.
At Cardiff, it’s the Tal-Y-Bont gym. In Loughborough, the Holywell centre offers this same experience, and it’s reflected across the country. These are gyms that offer the typical experience and allow the non-specialist students to enjoy a different culture.
Both of these types of gyms tend to be friendly, but there’s a different intensity to the training in each. S&C gyms are for highly-disciplined and regimented training that is make-or-break for an athletic career. It’s not always nice to be around that if you’re still finding your feet in the gym and are looking for a more relaxed atmosphere.
These lifestyle gyms offer a milder experience and are very welcoming for beginners. They offer the kind of limited weight training experiences that are appropriate to health, fitness, and bodybuilding but lack the specialist weightlifting and elite sport training kit. This makes the culture more physique, health, and fitness based – and often involves more ‘normal’ cardio equipment like elliptical machines, exercise bikes (rather than WattBikes), and normal treadmills (rather than shunt treadmills).
For bodybuilding, you have the joys of working out at either, if your university follows this structure and has good membership options. They’re both workable, with a wide range of exercise options in both.
The great thing about bodybuilding is that it can be as complicated or simple as you like: anything works, from a barbell to dumbbells to machines, and it’s always possible to get bigger and leaner.
Equipment is rarely a major limitation, but some of the cool kit can be a real benefit like plate-loaded lever machines, oddly specific machines (shoutout to the V squat machine) and personal favourites (like the pullover machine).
So we get to look at the next few layers – the top 15 most important things to consider when joining a university gym.
If you’re on-campus, or in a city that prioritises student accommodation around the university, the location of a uni gym is key. This goes for a wide range of universities because you’re already there and it’s easier to fit training around your schedule if you’re training nearby or on-site.
There’s a good chance that university gyms are right in the thick of it, either on campus or very close by to student areas. This saves you the hassle of trudging across town between seminars and work obligations to get in a workout.
If you can avoid repeated trips into and out of the gym, by simply being there throughout the day, it can be a major time-save. That means more time spent doing sweet, sweet sessions instead of walking.
You can block out the day of eating, training, and studying very easily using a university gym.
- It’s like a second home
There’s a deep familiarity to the university gym setup that makes you feel at-home not only in the gym, but also the university and the city. It’s a place where people with similar interests pursue those interests.
It’s a regular place for seeing people you recognise, building up a closer relationship with the place you’re living and studying. For first-years, in particular, this can be a very helpful anchor to a new city and set of habits. It’s likely that your uni gym will feel more like home than your student flat by the time you finish your course.
The facilities are reliably clean, useful, and well-maintained. Those fat university budgets go towards maintaining better standards and a familiar environment.
Just like home.
- An all in one centre
The best university gyms are all-in-one training centres.
The University of Leeds as an example in the UK has invested 12.5 million in their facilities. That’s what most big universities can provide you with, a massive complex centre! This includes activities such as a gym floor, a swimming pool, squash courts, badminton courts, and effectively a whole leisure centre alongside the weight and cardio rooms.
You might not need or even want these facilities if you’re here for bodybuilding and physique training. However, I can promise you that having them at your disposal is better than lacking facilities. You might not think you want to play badminton now but it’s great to have cheap access for mates, dates, and cardio sessions.
Some activities can complement each other like gymming and swimming. Many students will like to have a work-out to then jump into the swimming-pool and relax the muscles they’ve trained. You are basically paying to have it all – and at a far lower price than you’d get buying different memberships.
Leeds university swimming pool
University of Birmingham gym center
- Discounted membership
Most university gyms are a discounted offering as part of the health and wellness commitments of universities. Or just as a way to get more students of high quality through the door.
The price of university gyms relative to their offerings – in terms of quality and scope – are ridiculous. Most university gyms end up costing maybe £20-30 a month, even if you pay annually, which is a huge saving compared to the average gym fee. Even budget gyms tend to be that expensive with a much smaller offering (and far worse gym culture, in my opinion).
When looking at all the facilities described above with some big racks and top equipment like technogym on the gym floor and a big swimming pool, there’s enormous value for money in uni gyms.
What does a university gym cost?
Most of the universities will work around the same prices for their students. Here are a few examples of what a yearly membership will cost you as a student in these famous universities:
For example, at the university of Leeds, you can for 290£ sign up for one year.
At Birmingham university, you sign up for 338£ the year.
Pretty cheap considering all the facilities and convenience that this type of gym can offer. Just be aware that some times may be blocked off for team use and other events, depending on the status and location of your university and its gyms.
- People care about you!
We can’t prove it scientifically, but most university gyms are friendly environments. They run along the same kind of sociable, accepting lines as the university itself. In my experience, the staff are a little bureaucratic but well-meaning and you have access to PTs and experienced trainees around you if you make friends.
This is particularly useful for first-time gym-goers at university gyms. It takes a little of the sting out of some local and commercial gym cultures. The former can be a little hardcore, while the latter is too clinical and sales-y.
University gyms always feel like a good mid-point between the two: they have nothing to sell you and they’re typically quite friendly – often being worked by the 2nd and 3rd year students who desperately need to find a job to pay off their living expenses (such as nights out and oddly-expensive accommodation costs).
University gyms are quite aware of the needs of students and do their best to beat ‘gymtimidation’ and offer introduction courses. Not every gym has one, but if you get in touch with someone at your uni gym, there’s usually a good pathway to membership and gym-confidence.
6- You make tons of friends!
Most gyms are very social spaces, if you’re socially-inclined. All it takes is a word or two – maybe just a single spot on bench press – to start making friends. Everyone is there to improve and there’s generally a spirit of mutual help and development.
While that big guy squatting 220kg may look intimidating, he’s probably going to be super nice if you talk to him. He’s probably thinking about his post-workout meal, not ways to shame or judge you. Most people are staggeringly friendly if you just treat them well and don’t bring your ego to the gym.
At a university, this also comes with a range of characters. You’re not just interacting with boisterous 18y/o bros and final-years who use the gym to escape their dissertations. You’ll run into mature students, post-grads, and a wide range of other people at the uni gym. Whoever you are, you’re not alone – it’s a diverse little environment.
I find that the people in the gym are easy to make friends with because the regulars are just nerds about exercise. Most people in the gym will get started talking about their training with very little prompting and back-and-forths are easy places to learn and socialise.
There are countless stories of students meeting housemates, partners, and best friends at the university gym. These friendships endure beyond the convenience of studying together, and often out-live those “friendships of convenience” that come from living in the same halls or doing the same modules.
Gym friends are good friends, if you take to it.
7- Meet your potential significant other?
Making gym-friends? What about making more than just friends?
Gym couples can be corny, we all know it, but that’s also what a happy couple looks like. People at the gym being sociable can become more important to you than just someone you hang around with and that one guy who provides a great spot (do not touch the bar on bench unless I am near death).
The people at the gym tend to have more overlap with each other’s interests and personalities than out in the normal world. It’s okay to make friends and develop relationships through these places, as long as it’s not creepy, and it’s not interrupting anyone’s workout.
If you make gym friends, you’re likely to meet more people, and perhaps even a significant other. Just remember there’s a lot more to it than getting a devastating arm pump every time your gym crush is walking by. Don’t ego lift, it won’t be hot when your spotter has to save you.
Be sociable, be respectful, and be open to meeting people from all walks of life in the gym.
8- Different groups and activities of sport clubs/societies
We can’t discuss uni gyms without the societies that glue them together. There are various sport and fitness societies out there that have a long and happy history of bringing together people with niche interests.
Barbell clubs, bodybuilding societies, MASS (muscle and strength societies), and sports clubs all offer ways to get stuck into the social side of uni. Many of them are drinking clubs, especially in the non-first teams, but they’re good people and you can engage on your own terms.
Most big universities offer a wide range of societies and clubs that have their own social side, informal social ties, and gym-related events.
Here are a few examples of which clubs and societies you can join if you were a student at the University of Leeds: rowing, cycling, athletics, ultimate frisbee, boxing, aikido, and 63 others. That’s pretty normal and sporting universities often offer development coaching and other support systems for student-athletes (even the beginners).
If we take the example of Sussex university, there are 49 sports societies which you can join!
9- It’s not your hardcore type of gym, and it has its advantages
Typically, uni gyms – even the elite sport areas – lack the kind of hardcore vibe of a dungeon gym.
You know the stereotype: dirty, nasty, dungeon gyms that have hardcore attitude and a lot of shady characters that will try and sell you bathtub steroids when you complain that you’re not as big as you’d like to be.
We love a good dungeon gym – there’s culture and history – but it’s intimidating to a lot of people. Many university gym-goers are just softer around the edges and lack this same kind of “us and them” mentality that makes hardcore bodybuilding gyms so intimidating to general fitness enthusiasts.
There are also going to be a lot more natural bodybuilders and athletes in uni gyms where steroid use is more taboo. Don’t get me wrong, it happens everywhere, but it’s more hush-hush and secretive in uni gyms where most people don’t openly discuss it or involve themselves in sales to younger people.
Uni gyms are a good “nursing pool” for your gym journey. A great place to build confidence, results, and good habits in a supportive environment before you head out into the real world. The consistent turnover of people means that the uni gets to control the culture somewhat, and it tends to be a nice one.
10- There’s almost never a day off
Despite the many commitments of a university, the uni gyms tend to not take too many days off. The only time this can be a problem is during major holidays like Christmas, where things shut down – but that’s the same everywhere.
University gyms are typically excellent facilities that run through summer, reduced bank holidays, and very few sporadic days off. It’s down to the individual facility, but it’s a great trend.
11- A real follow-up for those who wish
Most university gyms are associated with therapeutic practitioners: physiotherapists, masseuse/masseurs, and other restorative services. At the very least, they’ll be able to point you to well-regarded services in the local community.
These are services more people should be using and may be an amazing investment if you’re willing to put a small amount of money into better quality training. The same applies for PTs, sports coaches, and nutritionists – all of which can be accessed through the university’s extensive local service registers.
Here are a few options we came across looking at university websites:
Birmingham University Gym Services
Leeds University Gym Services
This surely comes at a cost but not more than any other practitioner. If you like to have it all in one place, university gyms are a great place to start for your health and wellbeing needs. They will also be used to receive a lot of students and often offer discounts for alumni.
12- Job opportunities
It’s not for everyone, but you could become one of those students working at the uni gym and soaking in the social side of fitness. Whether as a practitioner, a PT, or just desk staff, uni gyms offer the same friendly and convenient work as they do training options.
These are some of the most sought-after roles and come with a supremely nice time. It’s a great job and – if you’re anything like me – is a key part of paying your way through student life.
At the University of Liverpool
Most of the universities have a career page on their website and are looking for students to support their gyms (and their culture). If you want to become a personal trainer, maybe you might end up finding an opportunity there since you have been a regular gym member – many universities even subsidise this kind of training program.
At the University of Birmingham
13- Regular opening times are usually good
At Birmingham University
Not all gyms have the same opening times. If you are at a big university, chances are the opening times are early in the morning and late at night. Your uni gym won’t be 24/7 most of the time but it typically offers great daily opening hours.
With typical opening hours of roughly 6:30 to 10:30 (or 7 to 10) there’s usually ample time before and after studying hours for training.
Smaller university gyms might not have the best opening hours but memberships typically involve more than one gym in their fee. In this case, the question between your uni gym or the local one is legitimate, but for the so many advantages discussed above, it’s still a great gym setup.
Heading over to America in San Francisco, we find similar opening hours for the Koret Health and Recreation Center.
14- Busy or not?
One of the main problems people have with university gyms is that they can get very busy. This is the other side of all these benefits and the sociable atmosphere: sometimes they can get cramped and overrun during peak hours.
This is a major problem if they start to be too busy for their equipment. However, these typically only land during major peak times like Monday at 5:30 – international chest day. During these sessions, it’s usually necessary to make friends and work in on popular equipment.
These gyms are also very quiet during other periods, so it’s a good trade-off – typically weekends and off-peak hours. They’re also very quiet during intense study and examination periods and, of course, when most students go home. There are plenty of great chilled hours for relaxed sessions – and you don’t have to socialise if you’re the shy and reserved type.
If you are not a student, you will be able to enjoy very quiet periods for almost half of the year which is not something you will find in the local gym where it is always busy at almost any time of the year.
15- You don’t have to be a student
Speaking of non-students, gym universities are open to everyone. They just cost more for non-student, “community” memberships – though slightly less for graduates of that university, often.
At Leeds university, you can expect to pay £50 monthly as a member of the public for a premium membership, while the university of Liverpool offers community membership at £31 per month.
These are still cheaper than many larger, or local, gyms that offer sub-par facilities compared to a university gym.
Conclusion: final thoughts on university gyms
Should you go to the university gym? You should definitely take it very seriously – it’s almost always a great choice.
There are many more advantages to going there than inconveniences. The only issue you might come across is that the gym gets busy, but that is true for any other gym, too. And as mentioned above, it’s well worth all the social advantages you will come across (friends, environment…). Just adapt your weekly routine in these periods, if you can.
The university gym will probably make it much easier for you to build a great physique and chase goals in a friendly and supportive atmosphere. There is a starting guide you can read if you are only putting your first steps into your bodybuilding journey!
Other than that, the university gym will offer far more than any local gym can offer you in terms of friendliness and environment. It’s a huge facility worth millions, available at a relatively small price, and usually with a great culture and cast of regulars!