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When you walk in to a gym in the New Year determined to buy a membership, get in shape and shed those holiday pounds, James Fell wants you to keep one thing top of mind.

"They're going to see every potential client as a cash register, and if you allow them to take advantage of you and milk you for a ton of money, they'll do it," says Mr. Fell, a Calgary-based fitness consultant and author. "You need to go in there with that mindset ... and be highly skeptical of everything."

Harsh? Maybe. After all, many gyms have your best interests in mind. Many others, however, want to work your wallet harder than they'll ever work your biceps. And with a huge spike in gym memberships in January,thanks to people resolving to get buff, many gyms will leverage motivation to sign people up for long-term contracts or lock them into multiplesessions with a personal trainer.

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Fifty per cent of gym memberships are inked in January, according to U.S. figures from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

"This is the time of year when people are highly motivated, and because they're highly motivated it's easier to sell them," says Jonathan Lerner, a personal trainer and owner of Vancouver Bootcamp.

This is why it's essential to be prepared when you walk through the front door: Know how much you're willing to pay for a membership and what services you'd rather do without, says Douglas Robb, a Toronto-based personal trainer and fitness blogger.

"They're very prepared. They've got a script that they follow and that's done over and over again," he says.

Mr. Robb, who has worked for large commercial gyms, advises drawing up a list of gyms you're interested in and things you want, whether it's towel service or particular classes, and meeting with a manager or sales representative to ask for their best price.

Membership fees are almost always up for negotiation. And if you know a member of the gym, ask what they pay so you'll have a ballpark figure. "The next person that walks in the door may not get the same price," he says. Once you've got the best price, you can play one gym against another for a lower membership fee.

When it is time to sign a contract, avoid providing your banking information, since you could find your account dinged with additional fees that are much easier to fight through your credit-card company. Ideally, Mr. Robb says, pay for your entire annual membership up front to ensure you won't encounter any surprise fees. And if you change your mind about what you've signed up for, consumer protection laws allow for a 10-day cooling-off period during which you can check out the club, make sure it's right for you and cancel any contracts.

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The hard sell likely won't end there. A typical horror story goes something like this: After providing a client with a free fitness assessment, where flab is poked and prodded and measurements taken, the gym will say that based on your goals you need to see a trainer three times a week for a year and meet several times with a nutrition specialist. They'll try to lock you into a contract to that effect on the spot, not giving you time to crunch the numbers or consider alternatives.

"That is something commercial gyms are very guilty of, because that's where most of the money is coming from, their personal training," Mr. Fell says.

If you later realize you only want to see a trainer once a week, you'll still be on the hook for the cost of thrice-weekly sessions unless the contract stipulates otherwise.

By signing up for just a few sessions with a trainer, you can decide whether it's something you'll benefit from.

"The buyer needs to beware in terms of what they're going after and what they're getting into," Mr. Fell says.

Of course, some people do need to see a trainer three times a week, if not more - especially if they lack knowledge of how to use gym equipment or techniques, or if an appointment with a trainer is the only thing that gets them to the gym, Mr. Robb says.

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Many people, however, only require between three and six sessions with a trainer, Mr. Fell says. That's enough to figure out how equipment works, grasp proper technique and build a plan.

Some trainers may be reluctant to provide this information to ensure you continue to require their services. "They behave in such a way that they don't teach you independence, they teach you reliance," Mr. Fell says.

Regardless of how eager you are to slim down in the New Year, don't allow a gym to take advantage of your desire to look and feel better, Mr. Robb says.

"There are people involved in the industry who give a crap about their clients, and then there are people that realize you can make a lot of money trading on people's insecurities," he says. "There are people in my industry that are just real slimy snake-oil salesmen."

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