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.