The Hardcore Underground: Lifting in the Shadiest Gym of the Industrialized World

TAGS: elitefts.com, iron game, warehouse gym, chains, bands, strongman, strength, squat, powerlifting, strength training, barbell, training

To some, the picture below represents a place that's located smack dab in the middle of their comfort zone, both physically and emotionally. A low monthly membership fee, the latest and most popular music, climate control, endless top of the line machines, tanning and, if you're lucky, free towels—what's not to love?

It certainly isn't without its merits, and if you live outside an up-and-coming city like I do, there are plenty to choose from. Truthfully, they have just about everything that I'd want—a few squat racks that don't see much use other than for pull-ups, plenty of bars and plates and certainly enough dumbbells lying around. The variety of lever machines alone is enough to keep training fresh and interesting. And hell, the music can be nullified with a pair of earbuds.

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I've had some great workouts in a box gym like the one pictured above, workouts that left me sorer than I care to remember. The staff was usually nice as were the other patrons. I don't have any real complaints about box gyms.

Still...I choose to lift here:

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It isn't because I'm some kind of a hardcore Billy Badass or anything. I'm a pretty normal dude. I'm not even that anti-social. I'll even admit that I like and actively seek out Starbucks coffee. Yeah, that's right. It's bitter and tastes like stomach bile when I drink it black, but I'm used to it. I also like a bunch of Disney movies and even almost cried once. There. I feel better now. But 3–4 times a week, I train in an absolute catacomb.

It all started when I walked through the doors of a brand new powerlifting facility in the heart of downtown Raleigh back in March 2013. After seeing elitefts™ run a spotlight article on the new gym and its owner Jackson Williams, I was eager to check the place out. And what a place it was!

Jackson's gym was a place that could only be described as a powerlifter's playground. The smell of the fresh laid rubber flooring hung in the air as I toured the space. Brand new top of the line equipment, expensive specialty bars, chains and bands, and flawless new steel plates were on full display and ready for use. It would later host countless PRs and some of the loudest group lifting that I've ever been a part of. That noise though would ultimately be our undoing.

Local businesses in the building didn't take kindly to our group of lifters. To their credit, perhaps hearing the screams of “Stay tight!” “Fuck the bar” and “Yeeeaaaah motherfucker!” come through their walls and floor every 30 seconds wasn't the best environment for their customers. I get it.

So in November 2014, we all gathered to move the gym to a spot where no one could hear us scream... literally. There were eight of us there that day, the day that we affectionately dubbed “The Purge.” It had been planned for weeks, but we had anticipated it for far longer than that. The chalked up bars, the rust-lined metal plates, the oxidizing chains and the massive pieces of well broken in equipment that had been baptized in sweat were all loaded into the beds of pickups and convoyed to a much different part of town. Away from the bustling downtown life of coffee shops and boutiques where our little gym had welcomed walk-ins, we drove to the industrial outskirts.

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Pulling into the pothole riddled parking lot, we looked upon this old, unassuming, cinder block building. On the back, a large rustic company logo was still half visible in its centuries old faded paint. High grass sprung from cracks in the asphalt, and at any second, I expected to see Carl and Rick come walking around the corner looking for Terminus.


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Walking through the bowels of the aged structure was difficult even in the light of day due to its distinct lack of windows, and the ones that it did have were boarded up. The old fuse box was our light switch, and the air choked the lungs with dirt and mildew. But it was a marked improvement over how it looked a month prior before the clean up.

Only weeks before, the main gym floor had been a concrete basement mausoleum for dead rats and insects. Spider webs guarded the threshold to the cavernous blackened room where piles of old timber, trash and dirt littered the floor to knee level. The absence of electrical lighting forced us to see the place under the pale white glow of our cell phone lights. Dark stains on the floor resembled a grizzly crime scene rather than moisture seeping from the earth just inches beyond the cinder block walls. On the day that we surveyed the space for its potential, it was difficult to imagine how we would transform this literal pit of darkness into a gym.

But now with the lights running, water seal applied and scraps and debris removed, we could finally lay the stall mat flooring. Even with bright white paint and new drywall, the room still had a torture chamber vibe. Piece by piece the equipment was carefully maneuvered through the narrow openings of the new digs and the flooring was carefully cut to fit. Once the surface was laid, we brought the equipment in for reassembly. The back of the room was a natural choice for the largest piece, the squat rack. Bolt by bolt, the cage became a structure again all on its own, the metal as hard and industrial as the building surrounding it. Chains adorned the finished piece like alter linens in an old chapel, fitting in this church of metal.

Plate by plate, bar by bar, the contents of our old space were brought into an area roughly one half the size of the space it left. Careful planning and clever thinking were needed to see that the equipment would not only fit but be usable. When the last plate had been set in place, we stood back and looked at what we had accomplished. This was home now.

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This new location turned an already niche segment of the “fitness community” into a downright secret society. The city's best kept secret doesn't have a sign on the door anymore, but like the secret after hours bars and clubs that dot the map here in the city of Oaks, it is alive more now than ever...if you know where to look.

The Hardcore Underground

The gym is about 15 feet under street level in an industrial area of warehouses. The subterranean location insulates the room, which has no heat or air conditioning. A steep driveway made up of crumbling concrete and loose stone connects the street to the rear of the building. The deep thumping cadence of idling locomotives can he heard from a railroad yard not far away while the white noise of the interstate hums in the background.

A locked wooden door stands unmarked along the side of the building. Once opened, it reveals a crude plywood lined hallway. A newly installed light switch brings this place kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, the only source of light once the wooden door shuts tightly. These series of corridors snake their way from the back of the building through to the windowless front. To say that this entrance is anything short of a scene out of a horror movie is a serious understatement. It's freakin terrifying.

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The noises of the outside world cut abruptly as the wooden door closes behind, revealing an open atmospheric void overhead. The first 10 feet of the hallway are really a roofless maze within the larger structure. A few CFL bulbs cast their dim light upon the floor, leaving the high ceiling darkened and seeming limitless like a moonless night sky. The string of bulbs compel you forward, the lights resembling a landing strip to hell.

The narrow corridor makes a sharp turn and seems to shrink, as a ceiling now encapsulates the way only inches overhead. Resembling more of a coal mine than a corridor with each step, claustrophobia sets in as the walls choke tighter with equipment lining the way.

At the conclusion of the maze, there's a literal dead end. Directly ahead, a shower curtain hangs, the thin plastic the only door to a roughly framed bathroom. Above the toilet where a chunk of wall crumbled away exposing an old I-beam, quarter-sized holes in the steel lead to another subterranean chamber. That one is an underground MMA gym in an adjoining building. Dim light is evident through the holes when their athletes train, and pitch blackness and dead quiet rule when they don't.

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Catty corner to the bathroom, a heavy, metal door with a “Don't tread on me” sticker and an RB logo marks the entrance to the gym space. The tight confines of the hallway give way to another high ceiling and the smell of rubber stall mats and sweat. Chalk collecting in the seams of the flooring from the past night's squat group belies the real dirt on the old concrete floor beneath. Overhead, there's a large metal waste pipe that has probably seen shit from the Coolidge administration.

Through the echoing reverberations of the bass hits firing from the sub woofers and the humid air from the wet earth beyond the block walls, plates and bars hang in wait for those who choose to train in the old warehouse near the railroad yard.

This is Paradise

It doesn't have the glow of row after row of LCD screens or a chilled water fountain or a Dyson hand dryer in the bathroom. Hell, we recently just got walls for ours. It definitely ain't pretty, and while those things are admittedly nice, this is just the way we want it. What this out-of-the-way gym lacks in charm, it more than makes up for in function. Besides the mandatory amount of steel weights, dumbbells and bumper plates, the gym boasts both powerlifting equipment and now Strongman implements. A homemade deadlift platform hosts deadlifts and log presses, and the elitefts™ rack is adorned with massive hanging chains and a pair of hooks to mimic a monolift. This setup has seen a 900-pound squat, so we trust in the rig. A Thompson fat pad bolted to an elitefts™ bench is as accommodating as it is ironic. A nearby plate-loaded lat pull-down is the most complicated piece of machinery in the entire building, lifters included.

Even conditioning is better at this new location. I enjoy it, where the occasional blank stare from a truck driver is the only human interaction I get while dragging the loud, weighted sled down the road for a mile. There are no snooty condo dwellers to call the cops on us for making too much noise anymore. Farmers' walks in the road are no longer a possible death sentence from speeding cars driven by texting latte drinkers. And hell, hill sprints on the concrete Olympic luge track of a driveway are a popular finisher on squat night.

This turnkey gym is a sanctuary for those who know about it. Protected from the elements of the outside, the geography protects polite society from the hard slams of plates, loud obscure music and the occasional “Yeeeeah motherfucker!” Making a place in an unlikely warehouse at the edge of town has turned the best place to train in the city into local power lifters' best kept secret. For those of us who approach powerlifting and Strongman as strength sports rather than a reddit thread, this place is church. It's simple, it's brutal and we built it as ours.

Josh Mac is a full-time railroad engineer, dad, and part-time lifter. He competes in powerlifting and strongman out of Raleigh Barbell in Raleigh, NC.

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