Culture Clubs - Rise of Gym Tribes, Training Purpose, and Cults
In the beginning, you had three choices: Your local YMCA or recreation center, an expensive club, or an unforgiving dungeon full of chalk-dusted giants.
Back then, “fitness” was considered doing aerobics, curling a few dumbbells or playing some tennis at the park. Only the truly dedicated were in stark private gyms under barbells, faces twisted, living the iron life.
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These days, fitness is serious business, even for the casual player. It’s 2019 and your mom can deadlift more than you. It is no longer enough to have a simple Globo gym, either; clients want to feel like they are training with a purpose. They are demanding cutting edge technique and specific programming.
They want to compete. And, on a deeper level, they long for belonging, for a tight-knit fit fam. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of pushing your limits together and leaving some sweat, and maybe even, a little bit of blood on the floor.
It’s no surprise that CrossFit gyms, strongman gyms, powerlifting gyms and group training gyms have sprung up everywhere. Nearly all of these gyms, because of their specificity, rely on maintaining a certain culture as both a selling point and a filtering system to bring in the type of clientele they want and bounce the people that don’t fit in.
It might be a dark, heavy metal blaring gym, where everyone wears black and has more tattooed skin than not. Or, it might be an athletics gym, where everyone is there specifically to improve upon sports. It could also simply be a rag-tag family atmosphere where everyone has been working out together for years and hangs out with each other during non-gym hours, too.
I think this natural evolution has some great benefits for those who want to maintain their fit lifestyle, but it also comes with a few drawbacks and warnings.
Last summer, I trained at Gym Jones and had the opportunity to attend their Fundamentals, Intermediate and Advanced seminars. Gym Jones is infamous in fitness circles for their physically tough workouts and their philosophy “The Mind is Primary.” They have built an ethos around training your mind to push past your perceived limitations.
The walls are white, the uniform is black, and there are no mirrors or comfortable spaces to rest or slack off. Once you are inside, you are there to work towards your goal with focus. No one ever bullies you into giving it your all – it’s unspoken. It’s a vow you take just by being there.
Whimpering, curling up on the floor, and any theatrics are not tolerated. Complaining is cancer that will be cut out like a tumor.
What training in that kind of environment taught me is that I am capable of so much more than my mind permits me to believe. I shed my comfort zone. I pushed myself much farther than I ever could have working on my own. And the camaraderie was something special.
There was always someone suffering with you and that kind of shared experience has a way of creating this magical intimacy that makes you feel like you are a part of something bigger, even if it is just shaving two seconds off your last PR.
If you need a tribe and a coach, these types of gyms can be extremely fulfilling.
However, somewhere along the line, some of these culture gyms have become cults and the clientele, its zealots. Although the name Gym Jones plays with that notion, they do not go nearly so far as some of these other places cropping up.
I’ve seen some gyms where there are codes, rituals, books, philosophy and sometimes rules of conduct outside of the gym you must follow to retain membership. This is where things can go very wrong.
First of all, the logistics of maintaining and operating a gym make it hard to only have a few members. Gyms aren’t cheap. Second, it is harder to find more people who want only one style of training. And it goes without saying that having to follow exactly what the gym owner dictates is going to break down at some point.
There will be a rift, a division, or a straight-up coup. Like any burgeoning religion, you need more people to make it work and that means more personalities, who will all be vying for attention and middle management positions and wanting to change some things.
In these more cultish culture clubs, the air can get toxic pretty quickly. Gym affairs, petty disagreements, and squabbles between other members can make the mood very tense and distract from everyone’s training. Any type of sexual harassment will most likely fall upon the victim to keep quiet or leave entirely. And if you feel a little differently about a method, or if someone a little higher up in the social rank decides they don’t like you – you’re out.
Maybe not directly, but definitely by making you more and more uncomfortable, until you leave. The gym will always come before your feelings, and in some cases, claims of abuse. Your team will typically choose the gym over you, no matter how close you thought you were. So be discerning when you chose one.
When you visit these places, look around. Do the people in there look happy? Or are they unfriendly? Does the place feel alive, or one week away from having to shut down? Once, I toured a gym where the owner – who wanted to hire me - was more interested in letting me know how “rough” his place was and that “Liberal PC p**sies wouldn’t stand a chance here,” than he was about telling me what the gym’s training options were.
The clients were just regular people. No one was railing about transgender bathrooms or millennial snowflakes in between sets. All his talk was his own inflated ego, trying to pretend he was an operator.
Apparently, he was one of those “stolen valor” type guys. I hear he no longer owns the gym and it was pretty obvious why. So, if you get a weird vibe, or the head coach is talking more about politics and belief systems than programming, equipment, and coaching, don’t, under any circumstances, put a big deposit down.
Personally, I am back at a Globo gym because I need to be alone at this time. Lifting is my meditation and my refuge from the storm that sometimes builds up in my head. When my mental health tanks, sometimes it’s best for me to be solitary and under no pressure. But, I still love going to Gym Jones when I can, feeling the sweat run down my back and the exhilaration of the pack.
It’s a balancing act to have a space that is inclusive and profitable, but at the same time, focused and dedicated to a certain culture. When a gym nails it, it’s an incredible experience that can improve you as a human being. When it misses the mark, it can make you feel insecure and give you trust issues for a long time. Think about what you really want out of training before you drink the Kool-Aid.