Monday, April 23, 2007

Good Gyms

Last weekend I took a couple hours and drove up the 5 freeway to Newhall, where the legendary Alwyn Cosgrove runs a gym called RESULTS FITNESS.

I met Cosgrove a couple of months ago at a seminar and chatted him up. I knew his writing and fitness philosophies; I also know about his gym and expressed an interest in seeing how he ran things; he kindly told me I could drop by any time.

So last Friday, I did.

Given Cosgrove's reputation, I was half-expecting something enormous: a huge, multi-floored fitness emporium equipped with all the latest machines and fitness paraphernalia. A staff of behemoths, with Olympic bars and squat racks as far as the eye could see. People performing esoteric moves with great purpose and intensity. The occasional, massive trainer screaming, randomly, "DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?"

I pictured Ivan Drago training in "Rocky IV."

But RESULTS is not that at all: it's actually a fairly unassuming storefront in a strip mall in quaint-ish downtown Newhall. And once inside, it’s immediately clear that the equipment is nothing special either. A nicely-organized rack of dumbbells. A few Olympic bars and benches. A squat rack with a chinning bar. Some cardio equipment. Lots of floor space for stretching. And maybe two or three of the absolutely most basic fitness machines: a lat-pulldown/rowing station and an adjustable-angle cable station are the two I remember seeing.

The one nod to esoteria was a strange device that looked a little like a Pilates rebounder -- and the woman who was showing me around, Donna Bent, told me they'd won that piece of equipment the previous week at some function (no one touched it in the time that I was there).

So in its physical plant, RESULTS is a nuts-and-bolts place, and that really shouldn't have surprised me. In his approach to training, Cosgrove is a nuts-and-bolts guy.

The demographic of the clientele was fairly predictable: unsurprisingly, at 11 AM on a weekday, it was mostly women who either weren't working or whose jobs afforded them time off on a weekday to put in an hour or so at the gym (sort of like my job).

But what impressed me the most were the muscles on these women, and the energy and focus these women were summoning to build them. The one bare midriff I saw (it's not a flesh-baring place) was nicely muscled, as were the arms and shoulders these women sported. They all looked like strong, capable, athletic types, and it's no surprise -- they were doing exercises that required some serious strength and athleticism: chinups, deadlifts, rows, squats, all at a brisk pace, with some pretty serious weights. I heard some hearty grunting while I was in there. I'm not allowed at CURVES, but I don't imagine you hear a lot of grunting there.

I spent about forty-five minutes with Donna (who was very nice and a pretty darn athletic looking specimen herself), and in addition to getting the sense that the training at RESULTS is goal-oriented (hence the name of the place) and intense, I got a good sense of the vibe of the place as well, which is perhaps its most important feature, and the main reason a potential client would choose RESULTS over BALLY’S.

It's similar to a gym called CARL AND SANDRA’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is run by a guy named Carl Miller, a former Olympic weightlifting coach. I visited the gym about a year ago. Carl’s a great guy, very accomplished, and took 90 minutes of his day to work with me and talk about their philosophy.

If I were king of everything, all gyms would be run like RESULTS and CARL AND SANDRA’s. If I ever run a gym, these two gyms are the template I would model my gym after. What makes them different from, say, 24-HOUR FITNESS?


1) PERSONAL ATTENTION. Both gyms feel like Cheers: everybody knows your name. They're friendly places where you want to go, want to spend time.

2) RECOGNITION FOR ACCOMPLISHMENT. At RESULTS, there are before-and-after pictures of some of the gym’s more impressive transformations. At CARL and SANDRA's, you get a special notice on the wall the longer you've been a member. The notion of striving for improvement and change is reinforced in both cases.

3) CONTINUED INSTRUCTION. The programs followed by the clients at both gyms are designed by professionals who are aware of each client's goals, injuries, limitations. Each client follows their program to the letter, and every few weeks is given an updated program, thus ensuring progress. Supervision is provided: at RESULTS, it's semi-private; at CARL's, it's one-on-one every few weeks, but trainers -- all of whom share the same training philosophy -- are always on hand to assist.

4) TRAINERS WHO ARE ON THE SAME PAGE. At most gyms, trainers barely know one another, much less each other's clients. Asked to train someone else's client, most trainers would have no idea what to do. But at RESULTS and CARL'S, the training programs are part of a larger training philosophy which underlies everyone's program. So even if you might have a particular trainer that you work with, any trainer at the facility can pinch hit if need be.

5) METICULOUS RECORD KEEPING. Check out the trainers at the average gym. Then check out the trainees. Are they writing down what they do? Unlikely. Yet how can you be sure you're making progress if you don't keep track? That's like playing golf or bowling and not keeping score. Are you getting better or worse? At the good gyms, it just makes sense to keep track. Who said "What is measured, improves"? I don't know, but they probably pumped iron.

6) A FEELING OF "SERIOUS FUN." This is the complement to #1, above. Sure, everyone's nice. But it's not at the expense of the work that everyone's there to do. It's supportive but not distracting.

7) LESS FOCUS ON STUFF. Both gyms have everything they need but not much more. Given the choice between filling up a gym's floor space with a dozen near-useless machines that work tiny muscles in a non-functional way and just having that extra space for stretching, doing ab work, jumping rope, or calisthenics, I know what I'd choose. Cosgrove and Miller have chosen likewise.

8) INSPIRATON. Cosgrove himself is a former Tae Kwon Do champ. The trainer on duty when I visited RESULTS was a competitive powerlifter. Carl Miller coached two American Olympic teams. Cosgrove’s wife, Rachel, brave soul, is training for an Ironman-distance triathlon. These people practice what they preach.

I'm sure there are dozens more points I'm missing here. I don't know whether I would ever want the hassle or worry of owning my own gym, but if I do, this is how I'd want the place to feel.

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