In 2014 we covered the grand opening of elitefts VIP Gym Heavy Metal Fitness in San Antonio, Texas. In the interview conducted for that article, owner Tim Ingram opened up about his personal story, the purpose of his facility, and what he believed truly set it apart from other gyms. Four years later, Ingram and Heavy Metal Fitness have now opened another brand new facility and expanded well beyond their first location. To understand the key to his facility's success and the lessons he has learned along the way, we caught up with Ingram for this VIP Gym follow-up.

Four Years of Business Plan Development

Reflecting on the difference between his initial business plan and today's business plan, Ingram's first piece of advice is to never approach starting a business the way he did in 2014. "I found a copy of my original business plan — all two pages of it," he said. Despite the fact that he had dreamed about owning a gym for over 15 years before it actually happened—and despite the fact that he had visualized every aspect of his facility long before it came to fruition—there was one thing he still lacked: business knowledge. "I knew what I wanted. What I didn't know was shit about running a business. But when you have $3000 rent and no members, you better learn quickly."

RELATED: Tim Ingram Builds Strength Haven

Learn quickly Ingram did. He describes his first few months as rough and scary, but says he knew that was the risk he was taking. The gym was empty many days and his wife even had to pay the household expenses because his business was only making enough to pay the rent for the gym — and that money only came in because of what Ingram refers to as "a couple of generous personal training clients" who purchased more sessions upfront than they really needed. Despite these challenges, Ingram ventured on undeterred.

"Could it have been any other way?" Ingram said. "Straight up, I don't [care] if you have a Harvard MBA. Owning a business is risky and challenging. There are going to be unforeseen issues that pop up that you will have to deal with and learn from. But those turbulent times are when I’ve learned the most."

To get through these turbulent times and survive the early years as a business owner, Ingram has a few pieces of advice:

"First and most importantly, you better be all-in. There is no Plan B. You have to be obsessed. Passion is a cute word, but obsessed is the right word. If you’re not, you will NOT have the energy to put in the hours required to open, run, and grow a successful strength facility."

It was Ingram's own obsession with strength that enabled him to turn Heavy Metal Fitness into a success. With over 20 years of serious training under his belt, Ingram had developed a maniacal (his word choice) desire for improvement. When it came to his business, it was simply a matter of transferring that determination to a new endeavor. "Learning to apply my training mentality and competitiveness to other aspects of my life such as school, and now business, is a skill that serves me well," Ingram said.

This obsession also led Ingram to spend countless hours studying the topic of training through articles on elitefts and through the lessons of Louie Simmons. But as he worked to refine his understanding of the complexities of strength training, he also spent great effort to simplify things for his clients. "I have realized that one of the most important responsibilities of a coach is to simplify things for the athlete or client," Ingram said. "An effective coach can make complex movements seem simple, and a shitty coach complicates simple things. Using a similar approach, I try to maintain simplistic principles to run my business."

close up from dumbbells

The most simple of these principles, Ingram says, is valuing your members. His thought process is that, if you value and appreciate your members, you should show them. This can be done through relatively easy activities such as introducing yourself to every new member of your facility, memorizing their name, greeting them every time they visit, and getting to know a little bit more about them other than only their training. This will help retain members, but you can go one step further by reinvesting in your gym — and this is a core tenant of what Ingram does with Heavy Metal Fitness:

"We are always looking to improve the performance of our athletes and members. If I find something that I think is effective, versatile, and potentially going to make us all better, I’ll find a way to get it eventually. Every time we purchase a new piece of equipment for the gym it seems to energize everyone."

Ingram also works to energize the clients and athletes that come to his facility by maintaining an atmosphere of hard work and determination. "The atmosphere is everything," Ingram said. "When you walk into Heavy Metal, we want you to feel energized, we want you to feel welcome, and we want you to train like a maniac. Every day we work toward creating an atmosphere that is high-energy, positive, and supportive so that athletes have an optimal environment to be successful."

This atmosphere took time to develop but, once it caught on with the members of Heavy Metal Fitness, it maintained itself. One of his biggest points of pride with his facility, Ingram says, is that the members are all about the culture. "Sometimes I will sit back and watch our members go out of their way to greet people who walk in the door for the first time," Ingram said. "With their help the Heavy Metal culture has securely been established and I am extremely proud of it."

In addition to his members, Ingram says that the rest of his Heavy Metal Fitness staff is vital to the culture and success of the facility. His advice for other gym owners is to be patient with who you bring on and to only work with those who you can fully trust. "For me, it took years to cultivate the small team that I work with, but it was worth it," Ingram said. "The beauty of having a good team is not just the commonality of our passion for the gym and coaching, but the differences in our backgrounds and experiences. They may have insight that I lack and vice versa. We can learn from each other with no egos."

straight rack view

Ingram's final piece of advice for gym owners is to not become overly concerned with what other facilities in the area are doing. "I can't control what they do," Ingram said. "I simply focus on what I can control. I focus on the members and athletes within the four walls of Heavy Metal. If you're not within those four walls, you're not my problem."

Ingram even often hears of other gyms in the area copying his techniques and methods, but rather than being upset about it, he takes the opposite approach: "It doesn't bother me. We'll keep leading the way for them."

Gaining an Edge in a Competitive Environment

Every gym has to find its own path to a competitive advantage in the fitness industry. For Ingram and Heavy Metal Fitness, that path has been through the plethora of strength athletes that train at the facility. "Heavy Metal has evolved into one of the most well known gyms in Texas undoubtedly because of our strength athletes," Ingram said. "We house some of the best powerlifters and strongman competitors in the state, some of which are IPF World Champions, USAPL National Champions, USPA record holders, pro and national strongmen and women, college football players, Highland games competitors, and so on."

This reputation for housing the best competitors in the area, however, was unexpected for Ingram. His intention was simply to create the best possible training environment for motivated lifters — and then word of his facility got out.

"When our first elitefts article 'Tim Ingram Builds Strength Haven' was uploaded three years ago, local lifters that followed elitefts started showing up and training," Ingram said. "When they had meets, we went to them. At those competitions we would meet other local lifters and it just kind of snowballed over time."

Initially most of the athletes were powerlifters, then strongman competitors starting coming, and now Heavy Metal Fitness has a large group of serious strongman competitors, 10 of which attended NAS Strongman Nationals, with two winning pro cards. Ingram desires this type of highly motivated strength athlete, but he says he is also aware of how he would be limiting his facility if those were the only members. The numbers just don't add up, because there are only so many high-level strength athletes out there. He also has a second target market and a streamlined approach to opening them up to the world of strength:

"What we try to do at Heavy Metal Fitness is get the regular person through the door. Once they become members, we help them learn how to train correctly and use the specialty equipment. Slowly, we’ll introduce them to the strongman implements, all the while trying to build their confidence. Over time they will see the other members prepping and eventually competing. This is when they begin to get inspired to compete themselves. We are always going to reach out and recruit every strength athlete we possibly can, but what I really take pride in is creating strength athletes."

family pic 2

Cultivating a Team of Coaches

Though Ingram still acts as the primary trainer of the gym, in the four years that have elapsed since he first opened his first facility, he has brought on a number of other experts to help his clients and athletes reach their goals. "We have definitely taken strides in cultivating a team of coaches," Ingram said. "Increasing the size of the training staff has been a way slower process than I thought it would’ve been."

The main cause of this slow process, Ingram says, has been his choice to adopt a non-traditional hiring process. "I have yet to hire a coach or trainer that has walked through the door with their résumé," Ingram said. "I have opted instead to really get to know the person before I offer them a coaching position."

How does Ingram get to know them first? By watching them train — in his own facility. "Each coach that works with us started off as a Heavy Metal Fitness member first," Ingram said. "The phycology involved in the coach-athlete relationship cannot be understated. I require that our coaches be accessible to our members if they need help. Therefore, the personality of the coach has to be a fit for our close-knit gym."

Growing into a Bigger Space

As the Heavy Metal Fitness consumer base has expanded and grown, so too have the spatial requirements. Ingram's first location was 2400 square-feet, which he added another 300 square-feet to a year into business. The new location is 4150 square-feet, giving Ingram and his clients a significant increase in size. But size wasn't the only concern Ingram had when choosing a new location.

"Most 'hardcore' or performance gyms opt for industrial space," Ingram said. "Industrial spaces are tempting because they are typically a lot less expensive than commercial spaces per square foot. The trade-off is that 90% of the space is tucked off in a business park with virtually zero visibility from a main road." This creates significant problems for visibility and organic marketing, Ingram says:

"People can find you online and through word-of-mouth, but nobody will see you unless they are trying to. I wanted Heavy Metal out in the open! I wanted to be in plain sight like the big commercial gyms. And I wanted the space too, so I got both!"

This was a considerable increase in expense, but to Ingram it was simply an investment in the future. "I made the decision to sacrifice today for what I envision tomorrow," he said.

This additional space also enabled Ingram to bring in a few new items. "Our elitefts JL Rack looks menacing as soon as you walk through the door," Ingram said. "We also had elitefts make a custom eight-stack cable crossover machine." This customized piece of equipment was in direct response to a challenge Ingram observed in their previous facility. Many novice lifters would wander around unsure of what to do because the equipment was so specialized that they were confused by it and didn't know where to start. By having a more standard piece of equipment, Ingram believes that his clients will feel more comfortable directing themselves through the workout.

"My hope is that with the addition of pieces like the eight-stack cable crossover and our new elitefts leg press that even the most novice of lifters can utilize those more common types of machines early on while getting more comfortable in the gym," Ingram said. "Then over time, they can learn to use some of the more specialized equipment, bars, and strongman implements. "

view from front desk

Outfitting with elitefts

This is the second time Ingram has opened a location and chosen elitefts to provide the equipment. The decision, he says, has always been an easy one. "Elitefts didn't simply provide most of our equipment," Ingram said. "Dave Tate and elitefts were pivotal in my education as a lifter. There is an entire generation of lifters like myself that learned a lot of what they know through the elitefts content."

For these reasons, Ingram says that he never even considered another option for strength equipment. To outfit both his original location and his new facility, he worked with elitefts Director of Sales Matt Goodwin, who flew to Texas for both of Ingram's large orders to help him design the layout of the gym and set it up. These experiences have led to a loyalty Ingram says will never change:

"I will always be loyal to elitefts for what they’ve done and continue to do for me as well as the entire strength community. For years I would scroll through the strength equipment section of the site, dreaming of what I would buy if I ever had the opportunity to own a gym. When the day actually came for me to place the order of my dreams, my boy Matt Goodwin did everything he could to not only make me a satisfied customer, but he did what he could to help us become a successful gym by offering us an article on the site. To this day, I don’t think we would have had the success that we’ve had without it."

Starting Over in a New Location

As Ingram outlined before, the new location is not only larger in size but also larger in rent — almost double, in fact. This has led to another stressful period time that Ingram describes as "eerily similar to starting all over again." Despite these challenges, Ingram expresses no uncertainty about his decision. "When we first opened Heavy Metal Fitness in 2014, I lost 25 or 30 pounds [in what] seemed like overnight," Ingram said. "The stress and uncertainty just wore on me. This time I only lost 15. But like I said earlier, I chose to sacrifice today for what I envision tomorrow. Things are going to be tight for a few months, and I am okay with that. I love our new gym and I really think that everyone else will too."

Some Equipment from elitefts

To learn more about Heavy Metal Fitness or visit the gym, contact Tim Ingram:

Heavy Metal Fitness 

2313 NW Military Highway 111

San Antonio, Texas 78213