The Throwback Gym

In a world of commercialized fitness, coaching and camaraderie are quietly making old-school strength gyms more and more popular.
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By Roy M. Wallack | Photos by Robert Reiff

When he was growing up, the idea that he would someday drive 90 minutes in traffic four days a week to squat, bench and deadlift in a grungy gym, and eventually become a well-known role model and strength coach, would have seemed preposterous to Kenny Kim. At one point, even being confident enough to talk to a girl seemed like a long shot.

“I was the typical Asian nerd,” says the first-generation Korean-American, who is the chief scientist at a Bay Area biotech firm searching for an HIV cure. “I took a college class at 12 years old, skipped two grades, went to UC Berkeley at 16. I was the California State Spelling Champion in 1989. But athletically, I’d failed most of my PE classes and played Little League baseball for only two months when I got hit on the head and gave it up. I was quiet, shy and very chubby. I could not approach a woman.” Then, in October 2003, Kim stumbled into Diablo Barbell in the city of Concord.

“It was an instant paradigm shift,” he says. “Ted O’Neill, the owner, wouldn’t accept me as a member unless I decided to, as he put it, ‘excel or get out.’ He said, ‘If you don’t elevate the group, you bring it down.’ That turned me on. I looked at everyone working hard, how crazy it was to see guys doing 400- and 500-pound speed squats, and I knew this is where I wanted to be. I convinced Ted that I wanted to excel. I’ve been there four days a week ever since.”

Small, specialized barbell gyms like Diablo, which has just 50 members and has no mirrors, cardio machines or locker room, elicit a loyalty that the big-box commercial gyms can’t match. Often unknown to general fitness goers, they survive on personalized coaching, group camaraderie and old-fashioned commitment.

“I don’t run Diablo as a business, but as a last bastion of social Darwinism,” says O’Neill, who started the gym in his garage in 2001. He’d had many phone conversations with the godfather of powerlifting, Louie Simmons, of Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio, and knew exactly what he wanted. “I only allow people in who want to go to the extreme. To get in here, you have to make a commitment. Getting in shape in a few weeks at CrossFit is easy, but getting stronger takes years and years.”

For that reason, gyms like Diablo don’t spring up like Starbucks. But these small, dedicated barbell clubs — where effort and technique are like a religion and everyone knows your name — increasingly find purchase with members who seek out and share the same values.

Don't Mess With Texas

Down the street is a Gold’s Gym. Around the corner is one of dozens of CrossFit facilities in the city. Does that bother Brook Jones?

“Doesn’t affect me at all,” says Jones, owner of the Hyde Park Gym, a fixture in Austin, TX, since 1982 that is identified by a giant dumbbell-curling bicep protruding over Guadalupe Street. “No one has what we have.”

Eleven squat racks. Battling ropes. Medicine balls. Kettlebells. A Prowler sled. A 275-pound Atlas stone. And Olympic lifting platforms, which protect the floor and the weight plates when a fully loaded barbell is dropped.

“I’m a cross trainer who does a lot of Olympic lifting, so it’s great to have platforms. Most of the other gyms don’t have them,” says Jermaine Cooper, a 33-year-old salesman who has been at Hyde Park since 2004. Like half of the gym’s 600 patrons, he’s been a member for more than a decade.

Big on skill building, Hyde Park offers a six-week lifting class that teaches old-school strength movements like the bent press and the one-hand snatch, and fields a large team in national powerlifting competitions.

You won’t find blaring music and “cologne-wearing gorillas that don’t rerack their weights” at his gym, Jones states flatly. He bought the 7,500-square-foot gym in 2006 after being a member there for many years and is determined to keep it genuine.

It’s worked for Cooper: “I could do most of my workouts at home if I wanted. But there is a Cheers bar feeling here — everyone’s friendly. Maybe it’s just Texas, but I think it’s because this is the way this gym is. And I’m not leaving.”

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Powerlifting By The Sea

Alyson Sorensen, a 36-year physical therapist in Santa Barbara, loves the reaction she gets when people ask her how she got her “teenage body” back.

“Powerlifting,” she replies.

More than 60 percent of the clients at Bayside Barbell in Santa Barbara are women, and all of them, ranging from age 13 to 65, pay a substantial fee ($200 to $1,000 a month) to train in a unique program that focuses on the stereotypically manly sport of powerlifting.

That makes sense when you talk to owner/trainer Chris Bartl, who five years ago transformed his body from a clinically obese 300 pounds to his currently ripped 190 in just six months. He did it by using a simple training regimen: four workout days separated by three rest days. Bartl’s priorities included four elements: heavy lifting, eating, walking, rest and recovery.

“Recovery is key,” he says. “So you train hard, then get plenty of sleep, rest the next day, and let the recovery do the work of making you stronger. It’s a simple, smart, tried-and-true philosophy: Always follow a hard workout day with an easy day. Sleep is your biggest ally. Don’t put the frame on the house before the concrete foundation is dry.”

The four workout days observe a traditional split of torso, arms and legs, with a daily metabolic circuit. When Bartl was losing his weight, he walked 25 to 30 miles a week outdoors, an hour at a time and twice on workout days, adding more hills over time. He never ran until his weight got below 200 pounds, when he began training for triathlons. The huge time commitment triathlons required, combined with a visit to a powerlifting meet, reminded Bartl that strength training was way more fun and efficient for most people.

Bartl was so thrilled by his weight loss that he became a trainer himself. As word spread, one client turned into two and

then four and then eight. He opened Bayside Barbell in 2013, in Santa Barbara’s waterfront “Bunk” zone in the midst of bars, restaurants and a strip club, and stocked the modest garage-style space with 500-pound tires, Prowlers, sledgehammers, Olympic platforms, a glute-ham raise and 15,000 pounds of weight plates. All of his trainers are powerlifters. Each client is assessed and programmed by Bartl, then tested every three to four months to stay motivated and accountable.

“Strength is essential in life, and heavy powerlifting is a key strength tool,” he says. “Until they try it, women don’t realize that they want to feel strong, too. They love the feeling. They love being able to lift heavy things, to do pull-ups.”

Alyson Sorensen does. She started with Bartl three years ago, about eight months before her wedding. Accustomed to doing lots of cardio, and not really overweight, she was stunned to drop two dress sizes by her wedding thanks to her powerlifting workouts. Last April, she competed in her first powerlifting tournament, the Santa Barbara Open, and won her weight class. She’s training to defend her title this year.

“I’m a better tennis player due to my weight training,” she says. “I dropped my long cardio and only do sprints now. And everyone says that I’m the best I’ve ever looked.”

Strength Bias

CrossFit is an unstoppable wave, with an estimated 12,000 clubs now operating worldwide. A five-mile radius around Broadway Street in Denver encompasses 12 CrossFit gyms. There are now more than 60 CrossFit affiliates in the Mile High City, versus nine just three years ago. In a market that impacted, how does one CrossFit box stand out?

Answer: Apply the lessons of powerlifting to CrossFit. “In other words, get them to do the exercises right,” says Jason Kelly, a former professional rugby player from New Zealand. Three years ago, seeing an opening for a CrossFit that focused more on form and strength, he and a partner opened CrossFit Broadway. Membership has hit 220, near maximum capacity, and retention rates have increased as word has spread of lower injury rates.

“We hold them to a different standard in the quality of movements,” says Kelly. “We are coaching them from minute one to minute 60. When we see a rounded back or shoulders not tight enough, we’ll stop people in the middle of their workouts to lower their weights and regather themselves.”

Denver, like many cities, is CrossFit-saturated at this point. “We’ve got the giant tires in the back, all the standard weights and kettlebells and pullup bars,” says Kelly. “But we also have an attention to detail and an emphasis on heavier workouts that we feel makes us both safer and more effective.”

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Crushing It In Concord

“Powerlifting at Diablo Barbell changed my life. Soon, I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore,” says Kenny Kim, who got married in 2012 and now has a baby boy.

In his first year at Diablo, Kim went from a total of 715 pounds (the combined pounds of his bench, squat and deadlift) to 1,200 pounds — “a cool benchmark to hit,” he says. As his body got bigger and bigger, topping out at 275 pounds, he eventually hit a best total of 2,005 pounds.

“I couldn’t have done it anywhere else,” he says. “Technique and method is one thing. But more than that is the culture of the gym — a culture that expects you to excel. Ted does not allow you to skip workouts or half-ass it — he’ll warn you and then kick you out.”

Kim’s transformation would most likely not have happened at a commercial gym, where members are shown the gleaming rows of elliptical machines and then left alone. The transformative power of community and intensity isn’t nurtured in massive corporate gyms, but it’s starting to become more recognized and increasingly valued.

“I don’t care about natural talent. I am not selling instant gratification, which is what most people seem to want nowadays,” says Ted O’Neill. “Kenny Kim personifies what we’re all about: outcomes, commitment, desire.”