Choosing the Right School or Gym

Whether you're beginning your training in fitness & martial arts (or anything for that matter), you're getting back into it after some time off or if you are just looking for a change, it's really important to know what to seek out and what to avoid in a school and/or teacher. I've been in and seen some amazing places and also some truly bad ones. 

Before we get into all that, it's vital to first understand that YOU need to be comfortable and confident in wherever you go and whomever you're learning from/with. Don't settle or feel pressured into anything! Your training is for you. Your time, money, effort, energy and safety are paramount to all else. So ask questions and leave no stone unturned. 

There are a few main factors I look for in a school and as a teacher, do my best to provide. 


I don't care if you're training in a basement, a park, a garage, a backyard, a strip mall or a state of the art facility, IT HAS TO BE CLEAN. To hell with that nonsense "romantic fantasy" of training in some dilapidated, jagged rusty-edged, bacteria infested meat packing plant with a cranky old man who spits on the floor and smokes cigars while making you bench press car engines. That's fine for the cheesy movies but in reality, that's just a sure fire way to get staph or a hundred other life threatening infections and diseases. 

Regardless of what kind of school it is or what kind of space you're training in, it needs to be clean. If you're outdoors, in a park or backyard, it should be swept, free of animal waste, trash and debris. If it's an indoor space, be it a garage or commercial space, the same thing applies. If there are training mats, they need to be cleaned everyday. Staph infection is very common and people die from it. That's not a myth or something to play with.

Now, after that, everyone's level of cleanliness and tidiness varies. You need to decide what you're comfortable with. I am not a fan of places that share boxing gloves or shin pads or whatever. Legit places don't do that. It just spreads bacteria, increases the risk of infections and adds a general funkiness overall. Every person should have their own gear. If it's a gym with workout equipment, it should be wiped down after every use and cleaned routinely, at least once every day. 

What I find very common in so many schools and gyms is gross restrooms. I hate that! Depending on how bad it is and how good the training is, it's not necessarily a deal breaker but there is a limit for sure. Restrooms are vulnerable areas and need to be clean. It seems crazy to even have to say that but it needs to be said. You can tell a lot about a place by it's restroom.

Aside from the hygiene aspect, there should be pride and effort in the appearance of your gym/school. A dirty or sloppy space shows a lack of care, effort and respect on behalf of the owner and members.

The students/members need to be clean and hygienic as well. Especially in a martial arts school where you're going to be rubbing all up on each other. People need to bathe and wash their training gear/clothes regularly. 

Health, fitness and martial arts are endeavors of discipline, respect and understanding. It takes so little effort to be clean, so I don't have much patience or respect for dirty or sloppy schools/gyms/people. 

Where you train should be a clean, inspiring and focused atmosphere. Simple as that  


We just addressed some safety issues with cleanliness but there are other safety requirements that a good school/gym should meet. 

I've been in places with exposed live electrical wires, nails sticking out of the floor, things falling off shelves or walls constantly and equipment stored or mounted improperly or in precarious positions. Additionally, I've been in schools where the equipment itself is massively unsafe and falling apart. You should not have to worry about tetanus or a center beam falling on your head in order to learn martial arts or workout.  

There's this silly notion in fitness & martial arts where some people think it somehow makes you "tough" or "cool" to train in terrible conditions. Obviously that's ridiculous but even if any of that were true, if you get hurt or sick, you can't train. If you can't train, you can't get better or stronger. It's such a simple concept that is sadly ignored often. 

The biggest issue with safety usually comes from the head of the school/gym and the students/members. As a martial artist, I've trained in places in which students were intentionally trying to harm other students and I've also had the same experience where the instructor is trying to hurt the students. That won't make you tough. It'll just make you injured and an asshole. Stay away from that. 

In gyms, the safety issues often come from poor technique. Trying to just get as many reps in, as fast as possible, with the most weight possible, without any regard for quality, ability or form. Stay away from that garbage too. It is unfortunately a VERY popular business model right now.

Safety first, everybody.


This is so very important. Some schools/gyms are amazing. Everyone is happy and excited to be there. There's a camaraderie and community of focused, like-minded people all working hard toward their goals, while encouraging each other to do the same. Where one persons success and progress is celebrated and is a catalyst for everyone else to get better and succeed. 

In opposition to that there are schools where the students/staff are insecure, mean and closed off. Places where students actively try to hurt other students. Where people are lazy, negative and have a seemingly endless Rolodex of excuses, or where there is a ton of infighting and cliques. These places should be avoided at all costs. This isn't some high school soap opera.

Your school, be it in fitness, martial arts, dance, painting or whatever, should be full of people all trying to be the best version of themselves and who inspire each other to reach higher and push further. Every creative pursuit is about growth, self awareness, making yourself better everyday and helping others do the same.

So you need to vibe with the building and the people in it. It's like any relationship, the 80/20 rule applies. There will always be the oddball knucklehead here and there but the vast majority of the people you train with should be good, hard-working, helpful people. 


Finally, we come to the teacher, coach, instructor, owner, guro, sifu, kumu, boss, etc., etc., etc.

I'm a firm believer that any problem with a school, from the cleanliness to the attitude and ability of the students, to the piece of trash on the floor that never gets picked up... comes directly from the teacher. It's their space and they set the tone everything. If the students or members have no skill or have terrible form or whatever, that falls on the head person. If there's mold or broken equipment, that's on them as well. If students have bad attitudes or there is a horrible energy in the group, then that's on the teacher/owner as well. So if a place is a mess... the teacher is a mess and don't fool yourself into believing otherwise.

I've met and spent time with some teachers that are so aggressive and full of themselves that they not only can do no wrong in their own eyes, but their view of their own skill and abilities is massively distorted and phony. That is a toxic and contagious mindset. STAY AWAY!

Being a teacher is a massive responsibility. A good teacher knows that, respects that and conducts themselves accordingly. 

When walking into a new place and meeting the teacher or owner, you should feel comfortable. Trust your gut. See if you can sit down and talk with them. Ask any and every question you can think of. Ask about their history. Why they started doing it. Why they keep doing it. Of course, if they are in the middle of a class or something, understand that you may need to wait or come back, etc. 

Ask to watch a class. If a teacher has some bullshit excuse of, "Our classes are secret and you can't watch unless you sign up." Just leave. That's complete garbage in my experience.

Like I said, trust your gut. Good, honest, talented teachers want to share and want you to watch to see if it's right for you. They want to talk to you and answer your questions. They want you to come in a try a class for free. They want to interview you just as much as you are interviewing them. They want and need to see if you're a good fit for the group. Neither of you should feel uncomfortable with the other. 

It's all about the good vibes. 


Okay, so now you've found a place that's clean and safe, the students are all your bff's and the teacher is like your cool Aunt Susan or Uncle Remus. It's all coming together. BUT WAIT! What the hell kind of things are they teaching in this utopia?!

Sometimes all those other elements will line up but the quality of instruction just isn't up to par. In martial arts schools I've seen that a lot. Everyone is so nice and cool but the actual lessons being taught just aren't good or effective and are more likely to get you knocked out or worse. In personal gyms I've seen the same thing. Great people but they're teaching kipping pull-ups or dead lifting with your knees locked and yanking with your spine. NO!

Maybe you don't care about that though. Maybe it's just a social thing for you. If that's all it is and you can reconcile the bad information, then have at it. Best of luck!.

However, I'm not into that. It all boils down to what you're actually getting from the lessons. I want the best and most effective information. I want content that embraces the old and seeks out the new. I want to know.. not think.. but KNOW what I am doing is good. To know that I'm building real skills and moving toward my goals, as well as finding new goals. That's what I give Tommy students/clients and that's what my clients and students expect. YOU SHOULD TOO! 

So ask questions about what you're doing and why you're doing it. Obviously take time to try and understand it, get better at it and all that too. If things don't look right, then maybe they aren't. 

That's about it. I hope that helps in choosing a new school/gym/teacher. The bottom line is that you should love where you're training, feel excited to be there, be safe while you're there and be getting great information.

Feel free to message me anytime with questions or comments.

grahm baker