Prior to coming to SA, I only knew a few things about the country; Cape Town, Apartheid and Nelson Mandela, Safaris, and of course that it hosted the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition that my man Arnold Schwarzenegger won from his infamous Pumping Iron movie. Going to the gym was always one of those things that I always had to have taken care of in order to live in harmony. I won’t delve into too much detail about myself but I like a good workout like any other individual and I prefer to use weights so hotel style gyms in apartment complexes just don’t do it for me. So when I started to do some research before moving here, I was surprised to find that I could find little to no information about gyms except that there were two main ones, Virgin Active and Planet Fitness. I’ve managed to try both with little expectations and am very surprised at what I found.
Gym Culture in Johannesburg
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the gym culture in South Africa but I always felt that any country outside of the US/Canada go to the gym sparingly. When I went to the UK, I soon realized that this was incorrect and their culture was similar to what we had in the US. I knew it would be better than say a country like China when I visited and drew the respect from everyone at the gym after repping 225 on the bench. After going to the gyms in Joburg, it is apparent to me that gym culture is much much bigger than I had given the country credit for. People here are absolutely very much into working out! People always talk about it and get upset if something gets in the way of going and gyms are absolutely packed during peak hours.
It rivals anywhere I’ve been in the states. It must be because that no one here walks ever but then again, there are many other places around the world that are like this but their turnout at the gym wouldn’t be half as much as it is here. People even talk about the different supplements they’re taking and it seems that Arnold left a lasting legacy following his competition almost 40 years ago. Simply put, people here take their gyms very seriously and it feels just like home. The duopoly of Virgin Active and Planet Fitness dominate the gym scene here with multiple locations all around Joburg and its suburbs.
The first gym I went to was the Virgin Active in Morningside, a neighborhood a few minutes north of Sandton. When you’re an expat trying to join a gym here, you must always remember to bring your passport and some form of address verification. As you drive into this gym, like almost every other establishment in South Africa, it is heavily gated (for a gym!). Upon walking into the Virgin gym, I was quite impressed with the facilities. Everything was new, there were plenty of machines, and there’s a huge pool. Turns out almost every other Virgin Active in and around Johannesburg has a pool as well.
My initial visit was on a Sunday and the gym was completely desolate. However, as I returned to check out what rush hour was like, I was in for a surprise. This place is PACKED. I’ve seen some busy gyms in my day but this was the most ridiculous I’ve ever seen. The weights area alone had 100 people and if this didn’t say SA took their gym seriously, I don’t know what would. There were bros and brahs all over and I couldn’t get on a single machine for a solid 20 minutes. This place is certainly good enough but because of how packed it was, I had to check out the other options.
For informational purposes, the gyms in Johannesburg are not cheap. Compared to NYC, of course, it is quite cheap but vs the rest of America, it would be considered expensive. To join the Virgin Active in Sandton, there is an initiation fee of 645Rand (about 70$) and each month is a flat fee is 565Rand (60$/month). With the medical insurance I have, I qualify for a service called Momentum Multiply, which just gives me discounts on things like the gym, movie tickets, airline tickets etc. The other service that I’ve heard much of is Discovery Vitality. Both services will give you discounts on the gyms depending on how many times you go a month and Momentum in particular, will give you an extra discount for passing some fitness test that I’m not sure of. Because I’m only familiar with Momentum, but they will reimburse you 350R if you go more than 12x a month, and an extra 100R if you pass their fitness assessment for a total of 450R. So in essence, 565-450 = 115R which is about 12$ a month. Not a bad deal at all.
This is not the same as the Planet Fitness in the states that is famous for their I lift things up and put things down commercial, this is the second chain of gyms in South Africa. It is actually owned by the same person that owns LAFitness. I checked out the Planet Fitness in Rosebank and compared to the Virgin, it was about on par, perhaps giving a slight edge to the Virgin gyms. At that point however, I think it’d just be about the location. Planet Fitness is however cheaper at 450R a month and Momentum and Discovery both provide similar discounts as it does with Virgin. I also think Virgin has more locations in and around Johannesburg.
Not this Planet Fitness…
Planet Fitness Platinum
There are regular Planet Fitness gyms and then there is Platinum. This facility is brand new, there is a heated swimming pool that plays underwater music (wtf?), a mini crossfit area, plenty of state of the art equipment, free shoe shining and shirt ironing, and lastly, free towels. The gyms here do not believe in giving you towels which I learned after walking around aimlessly at Virgin active looking for a towel for the first ten minutes. This place is above all expectations I had and unfortunately the price tag is to match. At a cost of 1300R (130$/month), this place was almost on par with the elite gyms of New York City! Even with my Momentum Multiply Discount, it would still be 950R a month. Coming from New York, this actually was a discount to what I paid at Equinox (150$/month), but to anyone else, this is quite expensive and is absolute blasphemy in the eyes of South Africans. When I went, they had two membership options
- 1 Year Membership: 2000R Initiation Fee, 1295R a month. You can use your momentum or discovery discount so with momentum, this would work out to be 645R Initiation and 945R a month
- 2 Year Membership: 4000R Initiation, 895R a month. However, with this membership, you get to bring in a guest whenever you want, as many times as you want. You can’t use the momentum discount on this option (don’t know about discovery)
I actually got a special deal when I joined: 950 Initiation fee, and 795R monthly fee for the 2 year membership. Nevertheless, this gym is absolutely amazing, rivaling what I had in the states. This place has the nicest equipment, a large pool that plays underwater music (unnecessary yes but very cool), a fancy rooftop pool with views of the city perfect year round since the weather is always nice here, and most importantly, ample amounts of space. Also, because this place is so expensive, it is unfortunately not a gym that your average South African goes to. If you’re of the type that gets motivation from seeing hot girls walking by, this is not the place for you. You should definitely try the cheaper Virgin Active or Planet Fitness for this one. The people that can but also willing to afford this kind of gym will be ex-pats like myself, older finance types, or both. The high price does however lead to a much smaller membership base and accompanied by the large space, you’ll never feel like the gym is busy.
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Virgin Active Classic – Melrose Arch and Alice Lane
As a part of Virgin’s “Classic” series of gyms, this location is Virgin’s answer to Planet Fitness Platinum. Located in the posh area of Melrose Arch, this is out of the way for me being in Sandton. Nevertheless, this location has everything you need and is clearly a few steps above your regular Virgin Actives. It is big, has very nice equipment, and is not crowded. They also provide free shoe shining and ironing. The price tag also matches however with a 1350 R a month price tag. I didn’t ask if they had any specials but I’m assuming there are some exorbitant activation fees as well. All in all, the Planet Fitness Platinum is nicer in my opinion. They both have similar price tags but Planet Fitness has that rooftop pool which is just amazing since Joburg might as well be summer year round because I can lay out in the sun and relax during the middle of their winter.
They are however opening up a club in the heart of Sandton that will be nicer than this location from what the sales people told me. This gym will open in September 2013, and the membership will cost a whopping 1600R a month before any health benefit discounts. Even the single day visit pass for guests is 300R for these two gyms! The Alice Lane Virgin Active is supposed to be much nicer than the one at Melrose Arch and will most likely overtake Planet Platinum as the best gym in the city.
Update Nov 10, 2013: I’ve recently visited Alice Lane’s Virgin and it is very nice. However, I still think the Planet Platinum is a nicer gym as it is bigger, has more machines, and space. Both gyms have the same amount of amenities and I’ve recently switched over to the Alice Lane virgin SOLELY because it is walking distance to my apartment.
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Alice Lane Virgin (with outdoor gym)
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Summing It Up
From my month of exploring gyms all around Sandton, I came through very surprised at just how prominent the culture of exercising is in this country. I felt like I never left the states. People hit the gym and speak English with a funny accent…sounds like NYC. In the end, I couldn’t pass up the rooftop pool and just amazing ambiance of Planet Fitness Platinum. Most people think I’m a little crazy for paying so much to work out but I remind them how much I paid in NYC and they’ll stop talking. To sum up my experience
- Virgin Active: 565R a month.
- Planet Fitness: 450R a month
- Planet Fitness Platinum: 1295R/month for 1 year contract, 2000R initiation. 895R/month for 2 year contract, 4000R initiation but with many added benefits
- Virgin Active Melrose Arch & Alice Lane: 1350R/month with unknown Initiation Fee
- Momentum Multiply: Provides discounts up to 450R a month on membership
- Discovery Vitality: Provides discounts of 50-80% off membership cost.