I was in Fairfield, CT last month for a certification and Zach Even-Esh took a drive up from New Jersey to say hello. Zach and I have been emailing for over a year and finally got the chance to meet up. He loaned me a collection of old PL’ing articles for light reading on the plane ride home. I was reading an old article from Joe Weider in 1969 by Dick Tyler entitled “Weighty Happenings in the West”. The article talked about the powerlifting scene on the West Coast. In the article he talks in great length about a mecca for powerlifting in Costa Mesa called Zuver’s Hall of Fame Gym. The gym reportedly had some of the biggest most exotic equipment in the land. A 300 lbs door handle and a collection of “unliftables”. I did some research and found the gym was located on Hamilton Street a few miles from my gym. On my way to work the next day, I decided to get a coffee and explore Hamilton Street in Costa Mesa. The street is only 5 blocks long and straddles Harbor Blvd, a main artery in the OC. I drove up and down the street hoping to catch a glimpse of the 60-ton back wall of the gym that was hand built with boulders harvested from Big Bear. I got out of the car and invested the WWII era homes and to my disappointment nothing remains of Zuver’s spot. I had hoped my impromptu treasure hunt would bring back some cool relic but I came up empty handed. It did however get me thinking about what makes a “temple of power”.
It just so happened I had a question sitting in my inbox when i got back to the office asking, “what should I look for in a gym?”
Seems ironic since I just been on a hunt of an old strength strength, I own and operate a gym, travel the world teach people how to lift weight and training as a pro athlete for a decade. My perspective of what makes a good gym goes far beyond the palaces I have trained in recent years. Check out the pictures of the NovaCare Center in Philadelphia for reference. It goes back to my beginnings…a garage packed with weights, a high school weight room or some local place like Zuver’s Hall of Fame. Places where you keep your rep count in the chalk dust on the floor.
What makes a good gym goes deeper then than just the superficial stuff like good equipment, good scenery and amenities. But since this is a major component let’s start there. I know walking into a gym there are a few things that instantly make me feel at home or want to turn and run. A strong man once said, “I have never seen a bad gym with a platform”. Just for clarification, a platform is raised wooden structure where Olympic weightlifting, deadlifting and squatting take place. One sheet of plywood lying on concrete does not constitute a platform, regardless of what someone might tell you. Heavy dumbbells are a dead give away. If you see dumbbells ranging up to a 100 lbs you know are safe, if those dumbbells are in the 150+ range you know strong people are lurking. Chains, bands and chalk are another indicator this could be a safe haven. But in today’s world of gimmicks and bullshit those could be smoke screens used as accessories to confuse you…so proceed with caution. The final two beacons of hope are a squat rack and iron plates. If you walk into a gym and they have more leg extension machines than squat racks, run. This too can be deceiving, as many gyms that work with Olympic lifters use squat pillars or Vulcan racks, so I would tell you to refer back to the first part of this paragraph. And finally…iron plates. I am not talking about metal plates coated in plastic or rubber, but old iron plates that are heavy, dense and full of inertia. The kind of iron that get sweaty with the slightest humidity and has a thin coat of dirt, rust and dust. The kind of plates that make a comforting jingle on rep 10…11…12…and so on.
Energy is the single most important factor in making or breaking a gym. If you are not a little nervous pulling up in the parking lot then you might as well keep driving and find a better place. I remember the first time I was invited to Zangas’ garage to lift weights and walking in to see 585 lbs on the squat bar. I thought strange place to store the weights. Then I saw a massive dude with a knee wraps, a thick belt and thicker neck step underneath and pull it off the rack like it was nothing. I got flooded with a feeling of nausea and curiosity at the same time. I got the same nervous feeling walking into the Cal weight room in 1993.
Earlier this year I headed to Columbus, Ohio for a CrossFit Football certification at Rogue Fitness. I had grown up hearing the legends of the original Westside Barbell Club in Culver City and had followed many of the WSB protocols in recent years. I decided I would stop by and meet Louie Simmons and visit his gym, Westside Barbell. For more than a few decades WSB has housed some of the strongest men on the planet and Louie has been an innovator in anything strong. His gym did not disappoint. Pulling up I could hear the blaring sounds of gangster rap from the car. The gym was packed with everything from mono lifts to reverse hypers and a bunch of shit I couldn’t describe. The place had an energy that was unmistakable and a feeling like some crazy shit goes down on a regular basis. Sign me up.
At the end of 09, I took a trip to visit Mark Rippetoe in Wichita Falls, Texas. Rip’s gym, Wichita Falls Barbell Club was another one of these locations. Filled with iron plates, home-made squat racks, platforms and dust it would make anyone worth their salt smile. I have never visited or trained there but Dave Tate’s place in Ohio at Elite FTS and Metroflex in Arlington, TX are a few more.
Between the ages of 24-28, I had some of my best training days. I was the strongest in that window of my football career. During the season I trained with Mike Wolf and Tom Kanavy in a converted storage room the Philadelphia Eagles called their weight room. It had no windows, no ventilation and no mirrors. Just weights, loud music and anger. Some of my best workouts came on Friday afternoons in that shit hole we called a weight room. In the off-season, I trained with a group of NFL players in Tampa with Raphael Ruiz of 1441 S&C. We trained in a warehouse with no A/C and big skylights in the middle of summer in Tampa. The place was packed with free weights, a few huge gymnastics tumbling mats and pissed off competitive individuals.
I have always felt if the gym was too nice, too shiny and packed with too many smiles the result were less than optimal. I always looked to the Rocky movies for direction. In Rocky III, Rocky got his ass beat by Clubber Lange in the first fight. Rocky was training in a hotel ballroom…Clubber a basement. After he lost he moved to South Central to train “hard”, he came back and crushed Clubber. In Rocky IV, Rocky skipped the glamor and heads straight to Siberia to train in a barn in the cold and snow. Drago trains in a modern facility but his training montage is pretty inspiring as well. The result is a great fight sequence.
The gym becomes an extension of the attitude and mindset of the people that train there, regardless of the equipment or location. If you walk into a Curves Gym do not expect to find dumbbells up to 100 lbs or chalk. If you show up at WSB and the first thing out of your mouth is “Squats?! Those will destroy my knees” you might need to run. If you walk into Metroflex and see Ronnie Coleman with 800 lbs on the bar don’t ask him when the spin class starts.
In the end, what makes a mecca of power? Energy and attitude.
If you have energy and attitude in your training the volume gets turned down on all rest of the bullshit.
There’s the next great CFFB shirt: “Johnnie, when does the next spin class start?”
[…] Mecca of Power – TTMJ Johnny S in high spirits during last Saturday's leg destroyer Prisoner Squats Work! […]
Just a great article. I have actually thought and written similar things when describing my perfect gym!
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(btw, Rocky fought Clubber Lange in III, not II – haha)
You are right. Correction made.
Hell of a post, John. Makes me want to get up and train right now. You really hit the nail on the head regarding iron. I’m so tired of looking at pics online of 325# barbells filled to the end with hi-temp bumpers. They don’t have metal where you’re from?
I’d also add that you can tell you’re in a gym with serious lifters not only by the large plates, but by the small ones as well. If a gym doesn’t have 2.5# plates or smaller then you know they aren’t pressing. If you’ve never gotten to the point where a 10# jump just isn’t possible, then you aren’t lifting seriously.
When people complain about their hands freezing to the bar in the coming months, I’ll direct them here.
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Beautifull, If you are ever in the Netherlands, go in The haque to the gym of Willem Jonkman, an old dutch BB champ. you will love it.
My own home gym needs more iron!!
Thanks for the heads up. I was in the Netherlands this summer on my way from Norway to Sweden. We are planning a CFFB trip back this spring, hopefully we can check it out.
[…] Mecca of Power […]
Dude, you would love my gym, no 2 ways about it.
No bumper plates or perfect chrome weights, we got d-bells up to 150 lbs and plenty of other heavy shit waiting to be lifted!!!
Enjoy the book bro, it came from the greats!
For sure. Thanks again for the articles. They have provided a good deal of motivation for my training and programming.
See you soon…
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Good article. Definitely beware the well-equipped gyms staffed by good meaning weekend certified trainers who answers are “For a set of 30?” and “That’s not functional” to comments about snatching and bench pressing, and who couldn’t coach themselves out of a paperbag, because their coaching skills are limited to teaching lifts with PVC and medballs, and their 3 best coaching attributes are their ability to yell, use a stopwatch and take photos of people working out.
” His gym did not disappoint. Pulling up I could hear the blaring sounds of gangster rap from the car.”
Haha, love it!
WOW…. this is exactly what a gym should be modeled from! i am opening a gym in the coming weeks and this post is a sign! i am speechless… this post said everything i think but haven’t said yet! GREAT FUCKING POST…….
[…] Mecca of Power – TTMJ […]
I’m really late on this one, but that’s the way we’re setting up the gym at my fire station. We get a limited setup from the city (rack, bars, 400 or so in plates, two treadmills, a lat pull-down machine, pullup bar, and dumbbells up to 40#). At our station, however, we chipped in and added DBs up to 95#, tires, KB’s, bands, and some other miscellaneous crap. A chief told us one day “If you need more than 40#, do more reps.” We replied “If you need us to pull your ass out, we’ll keep our weights.” He didn’t argue on that one.
My name is Robert Zuver son of Bob Zuver owner of ZUVER’S HALL OF FAME GYM In costa Mesa. It Was nice to read the piece you did about my fathers gym. It’s nice that so many people still remember the work dad did to promote power lifting, weight lifting. The gym was one of a kind. The famed muscle plates he had are highly sought after these days. I will list a set of the 50lb Hall of Fame weight plates on EBay agin soon.
Thanks agin and feel free to post this if you wish or email me with any questions you might have.