What makes a good gym?

Good Gyms are from Heaven

Vince Gironda's Gym
Vince Gironda's gym

If you'd like to download the full Draper here newsletter in live-link, pdf format, click here.

A gym is any place an athlete and his training apparatus meet: chinning and dipping bars in the basement, the track and field at a local high school, stairs and hills in the neighborhood, a punching bag hanging in the garage or a bar and a heap of dinged plates in the corner of a bedroom.

I started with the chins and dips at the very tender age of eight and graduated without haste to the weights under the bed by my tenth year. As an authentic musclehead by the end of my teens, I pursued my master’s degree through research and study at various muscle institutes across the globe. There were numerous gymnasiums of prominence, from New York to Rhodesia, and they served me well.

One does not pick up a weight in a gym in a back alley of central Madrid or Reg Park’s smart fifth-floor health club in Johannesburg without learning something special, very special. Choosing a pair of dumbbells from a rack in Vince’s Gym with Don Howorth on your left and Larry Scott to your right does not leave you unchanged. The lessons learned are often misplaced, but never lost; they are deeply and privately stored away, but not forgotten; their effects are present in one’s being always, but not necessarily distinct and discernable.

However, some experiences are overpowering and they reappear frequently, giving indication of their profound influence in one’s formation and education. I’ve created a list I call Most Unforgettable Gyms in an exercise to recall and relive the occasions that so stimulated me in the years gone by. I hope we both learn something new or stir up something old worth remembering. Life constantly refreshes itself.

YMCA boiler room gym in Elizabeth, NJ

My first venture in weight training outside the confines of the bedroom gym (three such bar-under-the-bed arrangements from ages 12 to 19 years) was celebrated at the classic YMCA in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The building was old in 1960, in an old part of the congested old town, and the gym was in the oldest part of the building, a room in the basement… next to the boiler. Where else? The room was shaped like an L with each intersecting protrusion the size of a bedroom. I was doomed, it seemed, to cramped bedroom-size training and feared I might not grow spacious, living-room-size muscles.

The area was packed with scattered weights, boards that served as benches and loud, robust dock workers, I think. Can you say the word, ‘zoo’? I was thrown into the den of madness by Joey Dinetta, the reigning Mr. New Jersey and my new buddy, who promised to show me the ropes. I’d never seen nor heard of Olympic bars or plates, nor had I witnessed more than one pair of dumbbells at one time in one place. Iron was everywhere, leaning, lying flat and moving fast up and down and left and right.

Once I got used to ducking or hitting my head on various low-slung water pipes and bumping into walls, bodies and equipment, I found myself responding to the energized social atmosphere, the big bars and the diversity of exercises. I learned, I grew and life was good.

Jersey City Vic Tanny’s Gym

After a season in the low-ceilinged subterranean twin cubicles in need of paint, light, ventilation and space, to say nothing of some version of adequate equipment, I headed for the city -- Jersey City. Vic Tanny was making his way around the country, gyms here and there, during the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s. Right in the heart of Journal Square -- Jersey City’s miniature version of Times Square -- on the second floor above Kinney’s shoes, Orange Julius and a woman’s fine apparel shop, Vic opened a sprawling 3,000- square-foot chrome-plated and red-rugged gym for men and women. Three walls were mirrored and one wall was windowed, overlooking the bustling Square below.

There’s the Greyhound bus station (where’s everybody goin’?) on the far side of the Lowe’s Theater (Psycho is playing this week) and I can see three shiny banks on three different corners (money, who has money?). The world is growing fast.

I learned I disliked chrome weights; they are heavier and less friendly. Mirrors are obnoxious; they are depressing and distracting. Electronic devices with rolling wooden rollers or vibrating belts don’t work; what were they thinking? Certain crowds are impossible; those liking chrome weights, mirrors and electronic devices.

I’d have quit, but they shut down only three months after I joined. Here today, gone tomorrow, like many health enthusiasts.

Mid-City Gym on 42nd in NYC

During my last year in Jersey, before heading for California, I would occasionally take a bus through the Lincoln Tunnel to the New York Port Authority and walk a block to Tommy Minichello’s Mid-City Gym on 42nd Street. Another upstairs gym, Mid-City expressed hard use, displayed no chrome, offered a few useless dusty and tarnished mirrors and overlooked the colorful stream of hurrying New Yorkers seen through, as I recall, the heavy and rusting structure of a neon sign or a fire escape. My attention was on the weights.

I was in New York City, on the outer edge of my territory, among the tough guys. I kept busy, nodded and made friends with Tommy, mainly cuz he made friends with me. Heroes and the best of people are found in the strangest places. I always felt taller and stronger after training at Mid-City. I was among the tough guys -- quiet, mild-mannered me. I survived, I grew.

The Dungeon in Santa Monica

You’ve heard enough about this sanctuary in recent Bomber stories: endless cracks in wide floors, high ceilings and tall walls; long narrow wooden staircases condemned by the unseen management, yet frequently negotiated by brutes; rusting iron and splintered wood equipment in the dim light of night and day; passion and knowledge and understanding dripping down the walls and from the ceiling like the warm beer escaping the taps of the bar overhead; entry doors hanging askance by their remaining twisted hinges. The place was perfect in every way.

Paul Graham’s abandoned warehouse gym in a Sydney beach neighborhood

I stayed in Bondi Beach and walked five long blocks each morning for a month to Paul’s gym, Sydney, Australia. I was there to promote bodybuilding and Paul was the promoter (among many other interesting and worthy things -- some legendary -- too numerous to mention here and now). The gym reminded me of the Dungeon where I regularly trained in California, except it was ground level. Big difference; I found the incoming light and nearness to civilization a distraction.

It was being in Australia clinging to the underside of Earth and working out with Paul and his buds that made the training each morning so memorable. Apart from that, nothing changed -- the same black, white and grey colors; the same used, time-darkened, generations-old steel; the same inventions and improvisations of crates, construction lumber and pipes; the same bench press, barbell curl, squat and deadlift and the same recognizable groans of strange satisfaction. Our mates so far away didn’t do it any differently than we did -- guts and passion. No wars with this mob.

Billy Moore’s pigeon coop gym in a Sydney suburb

When we weren’t training at Paul’s digs, we spent the mornings in a converted pigeon coop in Mascot, a quaint suburb of Sydney. How quaint can one get? The pigeons were relegated to the coops at the back of the property, while the sturdier sheds behind Billy’s cottage were renovated to suit the humble needs of the local robust muscleheads. Another rugged patch of metal and hand-fabricated apparatus rose to the occasion: a gym built of necessity and desire.

You haven’t trained till you’ve trained where pigeons once cooed, mated and pooped.

Serge Nubret’s short subterranean gym in Paris

Now here was a place for one workout only. Again, under an old building on the corner of an old intersection in an old town, in this case Paris, where they speak French and do French things. Drawbacks included a ceiling that was six feet high and lifting areas that were portioned into small rooms, each accessible by a 5'6"-inch doorway. Ducking was continual and I never quite stood erect -- this is not easy on the back or good for the attitude. It was also dark and airless. Do you want to scream?

None of this troubled Serge. He was at once a prince and a pauper. He was also bench pressing 400 for reps on his second set while I was feeling my way along the walls and holding my forehead like a wounded soldier crawling off the battlefield in the night. I worked out, but my movements were abbreviated and tense and eternal. I longed for the Dungeon, an upscale penthouse in my mind.

Joe Gold’s original Gold’s Gym in Venice

The featured gym of the Golden Era was a cinderblock bunker six feet off Pacific Avenue, a simple rectangle big enough for the sinewy handful interested in strain, pain and sacrifice in those days.

It was clean, bright, airy, orderly, sufficiently spacious, reasonably jerk-free and emitted gym noise only. The dumbbells were plentiful, where they belonged and the handles were thick. The bars were as straight as arrows and sat on racks of steel and rubber-matted platforms designated for heavy lifting. The plates were stored like precision machinery parts on stout plate racks. The equipment was built by Joe for rhinos: large pulleys, heavy cables, indestructible benches and big chinning and dipping bars. Running toilets, showers and a drinking fountain topped off the amenities. A brute could be spoiled.

The place was built for building and build it did. Eventually a few girls showed up on the scene and we knew the times they were a changin’. Evolution and revolution took place within the four walls of Venice’s Joe Gold’s Gym, circa '65 through the early '70s.

World Gym, Santa Cruz

I saved the best for last. Every good thing one could put into a gym to build strong backs, strong minds and strong spirits was carefully installed in the World Gym of Santa Cruz and duplicated in Scotts Valley: just the right floor size filled with Cybex, Hammer, Bodymaster, York and Ivanco, tall walls and high ceilings, a large loft to separately house the aerobic equipment, simple colors in bold contrasts, order in layout and decoration in deference to busy-ness and trendy-ness in ornamentation, sound government to live by (no jerks and put your weights away, no cussing and no cell phones), cool music to boost not bust or burst the focused action on the floor and air from the ocean through the front door and out the back door. Oxygen, space, gorilla equipment, cool sounds, low stress and good vibes pump you up. No girly-men allowed.

I’ve run out of space and time, but not out of memorable gyms. Besides, I don’t want to crowd your mind when you have gyms experiences of your own to recollect. Old memories can serve as fodder for inspiration, revived training plans, lost hope and renewed enthusiasm. Bombers are forever, someone once said. Believe it.

You can leave the hangar doors unlocked when you go, no one will steal anything. It’s all free anyway.

Carry on and greet the eagles where they play.

God’s speed and strength… DD

Select a link to the left or right to continue your journey, and be sure to sign up for our weekly email newsletter before you go—five years of inspiring weekly Draper columns—yours, free, by signing up in the box to the upper right. You'll also get Dave's free e-paper, Body Revival Tips and Hints, instantly when we receive your newsletter confirmation.

Enter your email address here:

May we answer any questions for you in our weightlifting forum?

If you haven't yet read Dave's bodybuilding book, Brother Iron, Sister Steel, this is an excellent place to start.

...Or select a link to the left to get started
on your path through our 2,500-page website.