John Hansen, ‘Where Have All the Good Gyms Gone?’, Iron Age (c. 2008)

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The number of health clubs and gyms in America have increased by a phenomenal rate over the last 10 years. According to statistics, there are now 17,807 health club facilities in the United States. There has been a 41% increase in the number of health clubs and gyms in this country since 1992.

This is great news for those of us involved in the fitness industry or even just those of us who are fitness advocates. Now, whenever or whereever we may travel, there will always be a place to get our workout in. Health clubs and fitness are now “in” and those of us who exercise on a regular basis are no longer seen as odd or eccentric.

If this is all so great, why am I complaining? Because, despite the number of health clubs that are flourishing all over this country, the number of facilities where the average bodybuilder can get in a good, intense workout seem to be rapidly diminishing.

I have noticed that many of the gyms and health clubs that are now opening up are oriented toward the average public and are ignoring the needs of the hardcore athlete. I recently read an article about the “dumbing down” of America in which the author described how schools and other institutions were changing the rules to make things easier for the young people coming up. This is being done to avoid failing students because we don’t want anyone to feel like a loser anymore.

When I see the new gyms that are rapidly opening up all over the country, I can understand what the article was talking about. Many of these new gyms are “dumbing down” the original concept of a gym to make it more palatible for the average public. It has gotten to the point now where it’s actually difficult to get in a good workout despite the enormous amount of equipment and facilities available.

The gym I had been training at recently closed down. This was a good, hardcore gym. It was not extremely large but it had plenty of free weights (barbells and dumbbells for those of you who have fallen victim to the “dumbing down” of the fitness industry) and it also had lots of room in which to lift those free weights. There was even a special hardwood floor constructed near the rear of the gym where all the powerlifters could do their heavy squats and deadlifts.

There were plenty of machines located in the center of the gym for those of the average population who just wished to tone up and lose some fat. There was also a separate room devoted completely to cardio complete with treadmills, bikes, stairsteppers and plenty of televisions to overcome the boredom of aerobic exercise.

This was a nice gym. It had lots of machines and cardio equipment to appeal to the general public but it also had lots of barbells and dumbbells and the space to utilize them. Unfortunately, it was forced out of business by another gym that opened up in the same area. This new gym is absolutely PACKED with equipment, both cardiovascular and weight training. The dumbbells and free weights are shoved all the way in the back of the gym, almost as an after thought. However, the amount of shiny, new equipment available must have swayed enough of the general public to make the switch over to the fancier facility.

After my gym closed down (I refer to it as “my gym” since a gym is always like a second home to a hard-core bodybuilder such as myself), I had to begin the search for another place to work out. The closest gym I could find that would meet my hardcore training needs was about thirty minutes away.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this gym had also been “dumbed down” in order to attract the average public. The majority of the plates in the gym actually had rubber on them in order to avoid damaging the carpet on the floor (Has “pumping iron” been replaced with “pumping rubber”?). They also had “holes” in the plates so the average person could hold onto the plate easier without dropping it on their foot and possibly suing the gym. Even more confusing was the large number of iron plates that were shaped in an octagon shape. What was the reasoning behind this design?

One of the problems with the rubber plates was that they took up so much more space than the regular iron plates. This proved to be a problem when stacking plates on the leg press machine. With the iron plates, one could easily fit 12 plates on each side of the leg press machine. With the rubber plates, you would be lucky to squeeze on 10 plates on each side. My training partner and I were getting more exercise looking all over the gym for the precious few iron plates in the gym than actually doing the exercise itself. I felt like a kid on an Easter egg hunt all over again.

Most of the members at this particular gym were not very interested in pushing themselves to the limit. They mostly stuck to the machines and did not wander over to the free weight area which was, you guessed it, pushed up against the wall to accomodate all the various machines that occupied most of the floor space of the gym.

Whenever my partner and I would perform exercises such as squats, deadlifts or donkey calf raises, they would look at us like the apes in the movie “The Planet of the Apes” looked at Mark Wahlberg. Sort of like we were from another planet. By the way, it was very difficult to do deadlifts with 45 pound plates shaped in an octagon figure. What genius exercise equipment designer thought of that? The bar keeps bouncing in all different directions everytime the plates touch the floor.

After spending enough time in these “dumbed down” facilities, I would find myself fantasizing that I had access to a time machine where I could travel to any time and place in history. Of course, the ultimate time travel trip would be to the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, California between the years of 1970-1975.

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From what I understand, the original Gold’s Gym was not a big or elaborate place. However, it was packed with the right kind of equipment that was personally designed by Joe Gold himself, specifically with the bodybuilder in mind. This is in stark contrast to most of the equipment that presently fills the gyms in this country. I really believe that the majority of exercise machines being utilized in gyms today were designed by people who have never touched a weight in their lives.

The original Golds also had an incredible atmosphere since it was inhabited by the best bodybuilders on the planet who were all training extremely hard in an effort to out do one another. Lots of free weights, big bodybuilders and high energy. What a combination!

Can you imagine training in a gym where Franco Columbu is doing reps with 700 pounds in the deadlift and Arnold is bombing his pecs with 400 pound bench presses and Lou Ferrigno is pumping out reps on the seated cable row? How about Ken Waller doing reps with 500 pounds on the squat or Ed Corney blasting his blasting his biceps with barbell curls or Mike Katz pumping up his pecs until they stuck out so far they looked like a shelf? Talk about the good old days!!

Since I began training in the late 1970’s, I’ve spent my fair share of time training in gyms that could be considered hard-core. I almost feel like an old-timer when I relate stories of the “good, ‘ole days”. However, I find myself doing this more and more lately since the good, hardcore gyms seem to be a thing of the past.

I remember the days when there were no TV’s in the gym, let alone a whole wall full of televisions in which members mindlessly stare at as they grind away on their treadmills and stairsteppers. I remember when the whole gym would stop and members would put down their weights and watch with respect as a bodybuilder or powerlifter squatted 600 pounds or benched 500 pounds. I remember when a lifter could scream with intensity in order to get psyched up to lift a personal best poundage without being reprimanded by the owner of the gym for “making a scene”.

I’m not alone in my affection for the hard-core dungeons that make up the best gyms. Arnold used to always say that he got some of his best workouts training in a dungeon-like atmosphere. At his peak, Sergio Olivia trained in the basement at the Duncan YMCA, a place full of heavy free weights, chalk and sweat. Dorian Yates trained at the Temple Gym, a place so rough and dirty that it reportedly doesn’t even have a toilet seat on the toilet. Ronnie Coleman, the current Mr. Olympia and probably the hardest trainer competing today, trains at a real hard-core facility in Texas. No air conditioning, no beautiful carpet, no shiny machines, just lots of iron, grit and muscle.

I fully understand the local gym owner’s motivation when designing a gym that is going to appeal to the general public and bring in the greatest revenue. I can appreciate that the average person who is trying to shape up and lose his or her “spare tire” doesn’t want to go to a place where a bunch of big, sweaty bodybuilders are tearing things up and screaming with intensity. I am actually glad that there are so many people in America who are attempting to get more fit and are exercising on a consistent basis.

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What I am having a hard time accepting, however, is that the type of gym I grew up in, the hard-core facilities that promote the most growth because they encourage the most intense type of workouts, may rapidly become a thing of the past. Bodybuilding and weight training is a personal challenge that an individual undertakes everytime they step underneath a bar or attempt to lift an impossible weight. This type of courageous attitude requires a special kind of place to make these challenges and dreams a reality.

I hope that there are still enough gym owners in this country who will not succumb to the corporate mentality of opening a gym based only on a dollars and cents motivation. I know that there are enough hard-core lifters out there who are more than ready to train at a place where you can scream, lift heavy, use chalk and sweat all you want without feeling out of place. We’re ready to bust our butts in the gym, we just need the right place to do it in. Now, excuse me, I have to go look for some iron plates.

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