From the street, the building looked sturdy, well-built but otherwise nondescript. That said, the reality of what was happening inside defied description. Legendary powerlifters whose training feats remain mostly unknown to the world now except for in the retelling of the stories from those who were there. They were unknown, as this was a time prior to social media, a time prior to the smartphone and a time prior to the Instafamous. The Instafamous, whose high visibility today, when juxtaposed to scarcity of footage of these great lifters, sadly, can hardly be avoided.
Inside of this innocuous-looking building were powerlifters who were laser-focused on their training as well as the training of their partners. These powerlifters competed during an era when the chance of someone being aware of their achievements was remote at best. That said, all the better, as none of these lifters sought any attention but rather sought to live a life of mental and physical discipline that was requisite to achieve success in a sport that most had at best vaguely heard of.
These were power athletes who were all cut from the same cloth. A cloth that was steeped in anonymity, silence, and power. A cloth that was saturated in work ethic and the battle cry of “train hard, train with immediacy, train to become strong, then train even harder.”
The legendary Frantz Gym was the place where these powerlifters trained, where the collective whole was greater than the sum of its parts. But rest assured, each of these parts was unearthly strong. That phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” can often be tossed around, but that was a large part of the magic that was Frantz Gym. The reality was one could never reach their ultimate zenith of strength without the symbiosis of the Frantz Power Team around them.
This was based on the simple fact that this amazing training environment surrounded them and permeated who they were and who they were striving to become as a powerlifter. The lifter was enhanced by the power of the team, and the team as a whole was enhanced by the power of each individual lifter. As the centuries-old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In this case, the collective Frantz Power Team was the mighty tide that lifted each of its lifters.
The aforementioned building was a brick and mortar Fortress of Solitude that originally opened in the early 1960s, as the Frantz Health Spa. At that time Ernie Frantz (often referred to as “The Godfather of Powerlifting”) was coming up at the same time as many of the famous bodybuilders from that golden era of the sport were also coming up.
Ernie Frantz is probably most famous for his 1974 accomplishment of winning the Powerlifting Worlds and placing second in the Mr. USA contest on that very same day. Both of those sports’ venues were located a few miles apart that year; one in the a.m. and the other that same evening. This would be akin to competing in Major League Baseball and the NFL at the same time, which has only happened seven times since the 1970s.
Open in 1962 and ultimately closing 49 years later in 2011, Frantz Gym was a launching pad to a litany of powerlifters synonymous with success in the sport. I can’t speak to the time prior to the mid-1990s when I was there, but I can tell you what I remember about this legendary gym as those memories are etched in my mind as they are for so many others who trained under Frantz’s roof and under his watchful, seasoned, and mentoring eyes.
You entered Frantz Gym from Broadway Street in Aurora, Illinois. Upon entering the main level where the entrance was, there was an area that served as a holding place for some dated plate-loaded equipment. It was vintage ‘60s and ‘70s, yet pristine in condition and usable that day as if it had been trapped in amber.
The main area of the first floor was well lit by the sunlight that filled the room through the huge windows looking out onto Broadway. On the inside of those windows was a large counter area; behind it were gym supplies, chalk, that generation of equipment (canvas squat suits, canvas and denim bench shirts, knee wraps, briefs) as well as vitamins and nutritional supplements, including protein powder that was designed by Ernie Frantz himself, were sold. (Ernie worked out a deal with his friend and owner at that time of NOW Nutrition, and they formulated a specific protein powder, created and developed for Ernie based on his specifications to be sold exclusively at Frantz Gym). There was a large magazine rack with latest powerlifting magazines such as Powerlifting USA as well as Ernie’s book, the original Ten Commandments of Powerlifting, available for purchase.
Amy Jackson and Mike Sweenie
Working behind the counter was the APF’s Amy Jackson, Ernie’s secret weapon and the organizational force behind the sales of countless canvas squat suits, canvas and denim bench shirts, the often imitated but never duplicated, TP 5000 knee wrap, and Ernie’s homemade ammonia. At that time, Amy was the organizer of all things Frantz, as she is today the organizational heartbeat of all things APF/WPC.
In the back of the building was Ernie’s office. Ernie’s office was home to a very heavy, sturdy, wooden, and presidential-looking desk. Behind it, a throne of a leather office desk-chair befitting a man of such power, renowned, prominence, respect, and gravitas within the power community.
On the office walls were large and ornately framed photos with Ernie and so many legendary lifters of the time, along with photos of Ernie and Joe Weider, Clint Eastwood, and other celebrities of that era who were involved in the iron game. That whole first floor was quite impressive, to say the least... And then, there was the upstairs.
A walk upstairs took you into a large room. A large room that, like the first floor, was flooded with the natural light of a very large floor to ceiling windows, which comprised that entire wall that looked over the street below. In this room, there was more equipment that was plate-loaded with sparkling padding, not unlike a banana-seat bicycle, which were popular during the 1970s.
There, in that room, was a tiny and clearly added-on bathroom. Then, in the very back of that floor, there was a benign, doorless opening in the wall. An opening in the wall that, at first blush, looked to be a small room, an afterthought, perhaps. Looks can be deceiving, as this opening didn’t lead to a different room. This opening was the threshold to a completely different world. A world where the powerlifters of that era of Frantz Gym trained.
When you walked into that room, to your right was a deadlift platform built up to some eight or so inches off the floor. Straight ahead was an old pair of squat uprights bolted to the floor, and to your left were three monolifts and a single bench press.
On my first day walking into Frantz Gym, this hugely inspiring and life-changing gym, I was greeted by Ernie, and in the place of greetings and typical pleasantries, Ernie immediately inquired about my goals for that day, my intermediate goals in the sport, and ultimately, my vision for my powerlifting journey.
Ernie spoke in a manner that was pressing and imminent. In a way that conveyed his ever-present philosophy of “The time is now” and “Each day in the gym is solely and individually important, solely and individually essential, and solely and individually critical.”
Ernie expressed, with the passion, conviction, confidence, and authority of a man who had been there and achieved virtually everything, that each workout is built on the last. That ultimately, the clock was relentlessly and ruthlessly ticking away. And as time quickly wound down, the meet date was simultaneously and rapidly approaching, regardless of whether you were ready or not. There was an aura around Ernie, an energy, a presence that would take you out of your own head and help you to see beyond the here and now.
I have written in the past about Eleanor Roosevelt's famous statement, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” Ernie was a great mind, as he discussed ideas — not just big ideas, but enormous ones. Additionally, he discussed your potential and how to unlock that potential.
Ernie never dwelled on problems; rather, Ernie created solutions. He talked about vision and mission and purpose, and how one need only compete with themselves, as self-improvement throughout the journey will ultimately take care of all of one’s other goals. Ernie believed in his lifters more than they might have believed in themselves as he had the uncanny ability to see what one could aspire to be if they were fully committed to the process of improvement.
During the week, lifters in the area would train at Frantz Gym, and I would make the 90-minute drive on the weekends to train squats and deads, training during the workweek at a gym near my home. I was truly favored to be training in this amazing place and with amazing lifters, many of whom I still run into either at meets or online (Ray Rodriguez, Jose Garcia, Bill Nichols, Rudy Rosales, Noel Levaro, Tom Carnaghi, Mike Goldman, Mario DeBenedetti III, to name a few).
In 2011, Frantz Gym closed its doors for good. The equipment that once served some of the most powerful men and women in the sport was divvied up and those three monolifts went their own separate ways, and their history with them. Soon after the doors shut for the last time, the building was gutted by a fire, serving as a final coda to this legendary place.
This place existed in quiet, non-assuming triumph, conquest, and success for some 49 years. During its time, the mighty Frantz Gym, under the master design and veteran tutelage of Ernie Frantz, produced some of the greatest powerlifters in the history of the sport. Some, as of this writing, who are still at the top of the sport (Tom Krawiec and Barzeen Vaziri, both top five all-time powerlifters).
The three monolifts I saw during my first day at Frantz Gym are now physical relics of what was once the mighty Frantz Gym, as Frantz Gym now only exists in the mind’s eye of those who were fortunate enough to train there. Monolift 1 was for the lifters who squatted 700 pounds or less; Monolift 2 was where Ernie and some of the ladies, like multi-time world champion Stephanie Van de Weghe squatted from. Stephanie, trained and competed (Stephanie routinely squatted 700 pounds at 165 pounds). Decades before, there was the amazingly strong Laura Phelps, the great Becca Swanson, and today’s mind-blowingly strong and equally non-assuming and humble Crystal Tate. And then, there was Monolift 3, where the likes of Paul Urchick, Jose Garcia, Noel Lavaro, the great Bill Nichols (the World Champion’s world champion), and often Ernie himself squatted.
Squatting in the basement of Frantz Gym on his hydraulic monolift, 2001
I recall the first time I squatted 804 at Frantz Gym on Monolift 1. I was thrilled with that number but knew good and well there was not a chance in the world I would ever presume to venture over to monolift number three as the guys on Monolift 3 were still warming up with 804. Secretly, all of the powerlifters on Monolift 1 aspired to train on Monolift 3, but as we grew strong(er), so did the guys on Monolift 3. And it remained that way.
A career move would eventually take me too far from Frantz Gym to train there. That is when the reality hit. The reality is once you lifted at Frantz Gym, it was simply understood that no other gym would live up to that experience.
When that reality set in, I began training at my home, collecting gym equipment along the way and starting my own team, all the while trying to recreate to the best of my ability aspects of that environment that Ernie had so masterfully created. That delicate environmental balance of a family and supportive team juxtaposed with the raging and requisite undertones of lifting aggression and the passion and intensity that comes from a collective group of like-minded powerlifters all striving to grasp the brass ring of success.
For one to even think they could create something that would even be a whisper of Frantz Gym was an audacious ambition. But then again, this is precisely how Ernie wanted you to think when ponding all things powerlifting. He wanted you to think with audacity, with a boldness and fearlessness. He wanted you to forge forth in your power journey with a temerarious and reckless ambition. From his lessons of boldness and audacity came my gym, Monster Garage Gym, carefully built on the legacy that every Frantz disciple immediately recognizes as familiar.
Recently, I received a message from Barzeen Vaziri (964-pound bench press, No. 5 all-time), who treks to Monster Garage Gym on Sundays. Barzeen was a Frantz lifter starting with Ernie back in 2007 as the gym was in its final few years of existence. When the three Frantz monolifts from Frantz Gym were split up, Monolift 3 had made the rounds, and in addition to being squatted on by the legends at Frantz, it was also used by the more modern Frantz era lifters like 1,000-pound raw squatter Eric Lilliebridge. Over time, Barzeen ended up with obtaining the monolift, which was fitting with him being a Frantz disciple and as someone who understood the history and significance of this piece of equipment.
The message from Barzeen was an inquiry if I would be interested in the Frantz Gym Monolift 3 for Monster Garage Gym. Interested, as:
- With Barzeen’s knee issues, he could no longer squat heavy on it;
- Barzeen wanted it to be used and squatted on as Ernie had intended;
- He wanted to keep it in the Frantz family where the Frantz history was known and respected, and;
- He knew Monster Garage Gym had the squatters who would keep the monolift purposeful and utilitarian.
At Monster Garage Gym, we have a triad of elitefts Deluxe Monolifts. Now with the Frantz monolift, we have a mighty quartet of monolifts with the fourth being steeped in the history of this great sport of powerlifting and bathed in the history that is the legendary Frantz Gym.
Each day as I enter Monster Garage Gym, I take a moment and scan and take in the gym. As I do, I feel a sense of pride and of history, as each piece of equipment has a function, a purpose, a meaning. Each item mounted on the wall, from the American flags to knee wraps worn by all-time record holders, were hung purposefully.
The Frantz monolift has taken its rightful place in this gym, which was designed and planned with a vision and mission and credo that closely mirrored Ernie’s. A belief system that in fact, a rising tide lifts all boats, and that we, as a collective, can help raise up each lifter and those uplifted lifters collectively are the tide that brings the best out of every powerlifter that is serious about becoming a part of something bigger than themselves.
As you move along on this timeline that is your life’s powerlifting timeline, the group around you can help to elevate you or have the potential to drag you down. We are truly an average of our five closest friends, and I submit that this holds true for our training partners as well. Training with someone who complains more than they train or training with someone who is more about likes than reps will neither help propel you nor help you gain traction to your training and competitive goals.
Archilochus, back in the 600s B.C., proclaimed, “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Finding a gym whose vision is aligned with yours or finding a training group who are focused on ever-forward motion is like the rising tide. That said, if the gym you seek does not exist, plan it, build it, create it, and will it into existence. If the group of lifters you need to help spot and load and work with symbiotically does not exist, find it, organize it, and will it into existence.
A gym need not be some 10,000-square feet facility but a garage with an elitefts Power Rack, a flat bench, some weights, a few horse stall mats, and an elitefts Texas Power Bar. The minimum weights required for any weight combination are two 25s, four 10s, two 5s, two 2s, and however many 45-pound plates you need.
Any and every gym is merely a place to lift the weights. What makes it special is the vision that it is created to become and the lifters that breathe life into that vision and bring that vision to fruition.
“If you build it, they will come.”
Field of Dreams is a cinematic representation of how anything of worth or significance begins. Build your own team, build your own area to train, bring your concept to life. Bring your concept to life as your own personal time on the timeline that is your powerlifting journey is on an unstoppable trajectory to its final endpoint, and somewhere along that timeline, somewhere prior to the end of your lifting timeline, you will want to have worked with a group of lifters who, together, create a massive tide of strength, power, and muscle.
A massive rising tide that lifts all lifters just as a rising tide lifts all boats.
Wishing you the best in your powerlifting journey. Ever onward.