Back in 2000, after a series of semitraumatic dumpings, I decided that maybe it was time to make some changes. My best friend, an Army brat, turned me on to a little-known program at Bethesda Naval Hospital where civilians like me could pay to use the gym for a minimal fee.

After a little over a year, my tits had gotten as big as those of the last woman I dated, except mine were all muscle. Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Soon after, a little guard shack grew up out of the asphalt drive, and the car searches started. “Excuse me, sir, can you pull over and step out of the vehicle?” the military police would say—never words I like to hear. I decided it was time to find a place where machine guns and humvees weren’t part of the workout.

So I set out to explore the world of private gyms, and that’s where I learned of a little treasure called the free pass. The purpose of a free pass is to inspect the gym, to try out the equipment before joining, and make sure the place doesn’t suck. There’s a set range of lengths to these free passes, but getting the longest possible trial period is dependent on how you handle your membership rep. Membership reps are sort of like car dealers; they offer you just what they think is enough to get you to buy. Play it just right: Bring in a little notebook. Have some names and notes of other gyms you’re trying. Look at the class schedule in advance; pick a class you’d like to try at the beginning of the week and one you’re dying to try at the end of the week. Give the rep a reason to give you more.

Around November 2001, after checking out some gym promotions online, I got my first free pass—two weeks—at a Bally’s in Prince George’s County. The staff was great, but the clientele wasn’t exactly the silent, serious crowd I remembered from the Naval Hospital. The free-weight area was separated from the rest of the gym by a small fence, and the scene inside reminded me of a prison yard. Lots of folks lifting in street clothes, tattoos covering everything, and the language—well, “fucking” was the noun, verb, and adjective of choice. On the day of my first workout, I made the mistake of wearing an old NYPD shirt with the badge embroidered on the front. By the end of the two weeks, it was clearly time to move on.

About a month afterward, the Bally’s rep called me to come back and join. One approach is to give out a fake number—something close to yours, but a digit off so if the gym calls while you’re still using the free pass, it will look like a mistake, not total B.S. I always gave my home number and let ’em talk to my machine, along with telemarketers and my ex.

Next on the list was Northwest Sport & Health Club, on Brandywine Street. I got a pass for a few days. This place was great, more upscale than the P.G. County gym. The only problem was the ritual of the two skinny guys who high-fived after having pushed up 135 pounds, including the bar. This was very uninspiring, a far cry from the Navy guys, some of whom were lifting 400 pounds and didn’t feel the need to be congratulated every time they did it.

At Gold’s Gym in Silver Spring, I talked to the rep, a young Latino guy, with huge muscles. He was my kind of guy: He liked to lift—none of that cardio bullshit. If you’re serious, a guy like this can tell, and he’ll try to help you out. He hooked me up with a full week.

Gold’s had new, clean, great equipment, and parking was easy. There was a nice mix of white, black, and Latino members. Some of the guys were huge, clearly there for hours every day, but there were still enough small guys that I could flex with pride. It did have a downside, though: Silver Spring wasn’t really near anything, not work, not friends, and certainly not my bachelor pad in Northwest. This meant more travel time and no one being at the pad to answer the hot line should a young lady in need be calling.

Results in Dupont was on the list, too. I called and was quickly transferred to a pleasant-sounding rep who asked me to come in. Most reps won’t quote you an exact amount of time over the phone—only a range. I would often say how important it was for me to see how the crowds were at different times of the day and on weekends vs. weekdays. This is a great line to use if you go on a Monday, because you can’t see the Saturday crowd that’s so important to you if they only give you a one-day pass.

When I came in to get a pass, the Results rep looked me up and down. I don’t know if he was trying to figure out if I was serious about joining or if he thought I was cute, but he gave me a three-day pass.

Results was the most upscale gym so far. The towel service was free, and I could choose from two different sizes, an underappreciated luxury, unless you’ve experienced the bring-your-own mentality of some other clubs. In addition to great towels, Results had a rotating climb wall and lots of different rooms, so I never got bored being in the same place. The crowd, however, was a little different. The guys were mostly perfect, manicured, muscular, with some of the nicest workout clothes I have ever seen.

After Results, I explored a few other gyms, including the Gold’s Gym in Van Ness, where I was shown around by a really nice, huge black guy with dreads. This place opened at 5 in the morning, and the early crowd contained some of the most fit people I had ever seen. The men were totally ripped, and the early-morning women were serious and hot. Just seeing some of them was worth getting up early for.

I called a couple of gyms last week and asked if they had any problems with the whole free-pass system. Larry Johnson of Washington Sports Club said that one of the major concerns in the highly traveled Washington area is that travelers might use guest passes to work out with no intention of joining. Johnson told me that his club issued free passes only through media promotions and that a regular “guest pass” carried a $25 fee. But there are still plenty of gyms that care more about attracting new members than stopping abuse.

All in all, I spent about two months just living off the fat of the land. This saved me about $100 in membership fees, enough to buy some new workout gear and still have tip money for an evening at Good Guys. But there’s no reason you need to stop there. Sure, you’ll have to endure a few sales pitches, but if you don’t mind that, and traveling to different parts of the city for your exercise, you can probably spend up to a year “trying out” gyms until you’re absolutely sure which one you want to join.

And, if you’re truly cheap and have no shame in your game, you might even stoop to employing my sporting-goods-store workout. Most sporting goods stores have dumbbells, dip machines, and sometimes other fully functional equipment out on the sales floor. All you have to do is walk on in and try it out. I do this just before meeting dates to get that extra-pumped look. I leave the workout clothes at home, though, and if a salesperson comes by, stop my reps and studiously stare at the price tag or equipment info on the boxes. Over three years, I went from 120 scrawny pounds to 170 pounds of lean muscle, and you can, too. Heck, you might even be able to do it for free. CP