I get a lot of questions on how I started Iron Sport Gym and made it the gym it is today. It’s not always an easy question to answer because it really was a product of evolution more than any kind of well mapped-out plan. As you will see by the story of this nearly twenty year long saga there was little way to predict everything that would happen around this gym over that time period.

When we decided to build a gym back in the mid 90s the local health club climate was very different than it is right now. Planet Fitness wasn’t around yet to completely transform the industry from a service and amenity-based businesses to just a price-based commodity. The advent of one-on-one strength training facilities really hadn’t caught on yet. CrossFit was still a ways off from being in every single town. So it left us with an interesting market around here. We had one local hole-in-the-wall place that was full of junk equipment, and a large health club featuring racquet ball courts and a pool. I was training for strongman and Highland games at the time and needed a place where I could really hang and bang, so my brother and I decided to open up a small garage gym and make it a key club for our buddies. At that time the last thing that was on my mind was competing with other gyms and being a serious gym owner; I just wanted a place of my own to train in.

The very first Iron Sport Gym in 1995: 1600 square feet

As time went on, our little garage gym facility caught on with guys looking for something different. There seemed to be a real need for a hardcore gym with heavy equipment and I started to think I could really make a living as a gym owner someday. After four years in the garage building our client base and our reputation, we then decided to take the plunge and go bigger and make it more commercial. Of course, my ULTIMATE dream was someday having a gym that would rival a division one college football weight room with nothing but endless rows of squat racks, benches and platforms. Two major problems with that idea: 1) a gym like that would appeal to about three people, me being one of them, and 2) I don’t have that Trump money to throw around. So we ended up somewhere in the middle.

By 1999 we had a 7200 square-foot building with just ten pieces of cardio, a very nicely equipped weight room with a lifting platform (literally unheard of at that time), nice big hefty power racks, heavy dumbbells, Hammer Strength machines, etc. When Iron Sport was the new kid in town it really caught on. We had a great enrollment from day one, most of them locals, and we were excited about what we were doing. At that time there were a couple of other clubs in our area but the market wasn’t saturated, by any means. Unfortunately that was about to come to an abrupt end.

The health club scene when we opened the gym in 1995. The circle indicates a two-mile radius.

After we were open for a year or so, a Bally’s Health Club came to town, bought a big grocery store-sized building two miles away, and built a massive gym. Then right around that same time LA Fitness came to town and opened a flashy new club less than three miles away. They both took huge chunks of our membership just about over night and really hurt us. Gym owner tip for you: don’t ever take for granted member loyalty because gyms are like night clubs—everyone wants to go see what the new one is like. Don’t take it personally and certainly don’t burn your bridges with these people because I have seen that fifty percent of them will come back one day.

Over the next ten years we would straddle the line between making a small profit and not being able to pay our bills. The gym had also gotten the reputation for a place where only huge monsters train and scared most people from joining. I still had a dream in the back of my head of someday having this super strength building gym with only heavy lifting equipment and serious lifters and athletes. Even during our financial lulls I was constantly chipping away at buying new equipment and upgrading old things for better ones. Olympic lifting seemed to become more popular, and since we were the only show in town when it came to bumper plates I happily added in two more platforms and more bumpers.

Thankfully for Iron Sport, true strength training also suddenly went on the upswing. Yes, I’ll admit it, a huge part of this surge was due to CrossFit. More and more common folk were now being exposed to barbells and various forms of weight training via CrossFit. I also noticed that even the mainstream bodybuilding magazines featured a lot more “functional training” articles and now had legit strength trainers writing articles and being featured. For the first time ever, lifting barbells, pushing sleds and using kettlebells was the newest trend in exercise. And we were actually ahead of the trend. However, during this time even more chain gyms have moved in all around us. Fitness 19 is about three miles away, Planet Fitness is building a huge two-story gym a mile and half away as I write this, and Retro Fitness just opened a location a half a mile away.

The local health club scene as it looks today.

The thing these places have in common is that they follow the same business model: open the gym, make it cheaper than the other guy, lock down the members financially and then treat them like small children by enforcing a bunch of silly rules on them when they try to use the gym.

Once we learned that these most recent two gyms were opening practically up my ass, we decided it was time—time for Iron Sport to take a huge gamble and go all in. We needed to set ourselves apart by going less mainstream and more specialized. There was no other way I could fight against them, nor did I want to. Like a poker player betting it all, we gave up what little mainstream appeal we still had left and went 100 percent into just being a strength training gym. We tossed just about all the cardio stuff we had into the trash bin, keeping only a few pieces that people can use to warm up. We moved all of our selectorized equipment into the old cardio room and made a lot more room in the main weightroom. We have recently added two more Olympic platforms so we currently have five, two more sets of Werk San competition bumpers, a brand new elitefts™ signature competition bench, and new metal jerk platforms. All these advances have caused around thirty members to quit as a result of our “improvements.” But, you know what I say to that? Let them go. We understand that power racks and platforms aren’t everyone’s cup of coffee. But this is Iron Sport.

The current Iron Sport Gym

Our other goal is to keep the current pricing format within reason. This unique kind of gym should be affordable and available to everyone that wants a great strength training experience. We are already attracting a lot of ex-CrossFit people who want to Olympic lift and powerlift without having to deal with crowded classes, high membership prices and second-rate coaching. We have great hours, our rates are affordable, and we offer expert coaching in both styles of lifting.

So, that’s where the gym stands right now. We fully realize that Iron Sport’s customer appeal is now even more limited, but the members that we do have come from far and wide and are fiercely loyal. Local advertising is a waste because the chain gyms, more or less, have a lock on all the “regular” people just looking for a cheap gym. All of our new membership comes from PR: PR from social networks, word of mouth, contests and seminars we run, our lifters dominating at all the meets they compete in, and my work through elitefts™. What does the future hold? For now we’re going to keep heading in this direction, adding better and better equipment and more committed members, until it’s the best facility anyone has ever seen.