Can we build a new kind of gym? No this isn’t an idealistic post but one inspired by the Bristol co-op gym. Let me explain.
As we’ve talked about previously on this website, gyms in the twentieth century have typically been defined by a single model. An owner, or group, owns the gym. They charge members a fee to use it. Oftentimes the members will have little to no say in how the gym is run.
Yes some variations exist – a CrossFit box is more communal than a big chain gym – but the general model remains. The gym is run for profit. This wasn’t always the case within the fitness industry and, as we’ll see, isn’t the case with a very special gym in Bristol, England.
The Co-op Gym
In the 1920s and 1930s, Health and Strength magazine proposed something radically different to it’s readers. Writing on behalf of it’s Health and Strength League, the magazine asked readers a simple question. Who wants to build a gym from nothing?
Well, more specifically, they began asking readers to establish League affiliated gyms. League gums would be promoted in the magazine, would get advice from other readers and could even fundraise through the magazine. It was an attractive prospect but it did have some conditions.
Health and Strength wanted to bring as many people to weightlifting as was possible. Because of this, they wanted their affiliated gyms to be different. They wanted their gyms to be accessible. They wanted their gyms to be for the people. What did this mean in practice?
As laid out in the magazine, all League gyms had to be set up as a cooperative. This meant that the gyms were not run for profit. All money made by the gym would be reinvested back into the facility. Furthermore the gyms would be operated by committee. Members would elect representatives to a ‘gym board’ who would then oversee the gym’s operations.
This gave members a voice, gave communities a gym and created a sustainable model. These coop gyms were a sensation from the 1930s to the 1960s. In some rare cases, like the Hercules gymnasium in Dublin, Ireland, they still exist today.
In fact it was only with the rise of the big box franchise gyms, and aesthetic trends in the fitness sphere (especially the shift from weightlifting to bodybuilding) that these gyms began to die out.
Returning to the Co-Op Gym
In late 2021 I was approached by someone interested in learning more about the coop gym. They wanted to know if any other examples existed outside of the Hercules case study in Ireland. To be honest, I had no idea. But I set to work.
It was then that I came across the Bristol Co-Op. Founded in 2016, the Bristol co-op operates among these very same lines. It is run for the community, gives members a voice in it’s operations and is steeped in accessibility. Check it out here.
For anyone interested in learning more, I had the pleasure of being on Arthur Lynch’s excellent No Lift podcast with two of Bristol’s executive members. Check it out here. The Bristol Co-op is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for its initiative and I’d like to take this chance to ask readers to donate money. I’ve included the press briefings below and, like the Health and Strength League of yesteryear, I believe that any cause which seeks to democratize strength is worth supporting.
Barbells and biceps for all!
Supporting the Bristol co-op
Bristol Co-operative Gym is the member-owned, not-for-profit gym pioneering an inclusive, collaborative approach to fitness. In November they took on their own studio in St. Anne’s House, Brislington, and are now crowdfunding to renovate this former council office into an accessible, welcoming gym for the community.
The Crowdfunding Website can be found at
The business model of most gyms relies on members not turning up in order to make a profit, with around 70% of members not making use of their memberships. Bristol Co-operative Gym is different. Anyone who attends their classes is invited to join the co-operative and run their own gym. From the class timetable to the layout of the space to the music, decisions are made collectively by the members, with the aim of creating a supportive, inclusive training culture that welcomes people excluded by conventional gyms.
Since 2016, originally based in All Hallows Hall, they have trained more than 1000 people in parts of the city with limited access to health and fitness facilities. Now part of Bricks Bristol’s creative and community hub in St. Anne’s, they have conducted a unique collaborative design process between their members, local architects 2A1M, and experts in inclusive, radical and community-engaged gym design from all over the world.
They are raising £27,000 to cover:
● Thick gym flooring throughout the space, replacing the current office carpet
● A large wooden storage unit along one wall to safely store the gym equipment in an accessible way, with seating for socialising between sets
● Replacing equipment damaged from being stored in a damp cupboard over the lockdowns with adaptable kit that suits all abilities and body shapes
● Spatial improvements to make the space feel less like an office – removing the suspended ceiling and changing the lighting
There are some fantastic rewards on offer from many local businesses, limited-edition merchandise and opportunities to join their sessions from wherever you are in the world.
On 9th April they are hosting a fundraising event, the Bristol Co-operative Games. At this unique weightlifting competition attendees will be paired at random and will have three attempts to, together, lift the heaviest weight they can.
The crowdfunder is running until 24th April.