Good ol' June of 1989. That's when it all started for me. Squatting in my older brother's room on our chrome, spin collar barbell set. I opened Arnold's Encyclopedia and saw a photo demonstrating proper squat technique.
And 31 years later, I've learned a lot, experienced a lot and seen a LOT. These lessons and experiences span beyond the gym and weight room. I wrote whatever came to my heart.
1) 1989: I was afraid to go to the local gym when I first started training. It was as if there was a pecking order. At the time, you started at the local YMCA. The YMCA was a hole in the wall room downstairs, next to the pool. The equipment was basic and ALL York barbell equipment. From The Y, you graduated to Apollon Gym and then Dynamic Fitness.
Think about that. It was like earning my way from one place to the next ONLY by adding size and strength. Each year as I got bigger, stronger and better, I built confidence to go to the next toughest gym. Gyms today are not like that and perhaps teenagers are just not like that.
At every gym, there was always someone helping me and mentoring me. You hoped the older guys would stop ad give you advice. Some did and of course, others did not. I found a way to learn from everyone. In between sets as I rested, I watched what other guys did, mainly the bigger, stronger guys.
I remember Big George of The YMCA. I remember Herman teaching me how to Deadlift at Apollon Gym. I remember Bert and I doing legs on a Saturday morning. 10 sets of Squats. 5 sets of leg press. 5 sets of hack squats. The volume was endless. My parents never worried where I was for 2 or 3 hours, sometimes longer. They knew, I was at the Gym!
2) 1989 -1990: On days I wasn't at the gym, a few friends in the neighborhood had weights at home. A barbell, adjustable dumbbells and a bench. Training was happening 6 days a week, if not 7 days a week.
We would bench, curl, row, press. You name it, we just trained and we competed against each other. It was pure. No cell phones to look at, just pure training. To get to their house I ran there. Running was a mode of transportation for kids my age.
Speed & Agility Training? WTF is that? You mean Man Hunt? We played Man Hunt in our neighborhood and in the woods. We climbed trees, wedged ourselves underneath cars, hid in people's backyards and climbed trees. You were running the streets and yards for hours.
When's the last time you saw kids playing Man Hunt? 30 years ago!?!?!
I would run and ride my bike anywhere and everywhere. Often times I would hawk the mall book store (B Dalton Book Store) and local convenience stores to read the bodybuilding magazines. As a freshman in high school I subscribed to FLEX magazine. The others I bought or read them at the book stores or convenience stores.
I remember the one store eventually posted a sign on their magazine stand that said, "Do not sit here and read these magazines. You must buy them if you want to read them. We are NOT a library!"
I was heart broken!
3) 1991: I had gained about 50 lbs by 1991 compared to the fall of 1989 when I started high school at a tad over 120 lbs. Maybe I weighed 122 when school began. By the beginning of junior year, I weighed about 170 lbs. I had joined Dynamic Fitness and simply by being an upper classmen in high school, I recall feeling differently.
I had a confidence that simply came from being "older". Ironically, the fall of 1991 (beginning of my junior year) I was only 15 years old. Most high school freshman nowadays are 15! Still, I recall the confidence I felt. The stronger and bigger I got, the more my confidence grew and people also treated me differently. Training at Dynamic Fitness was something I did at least 5 days a week, and often 6 or 7 days a week.
There were a LOT of big guys at Dynamic Fitness. It was Richie Gaspari's old stomping grounds before he moved to California.
I look back at how I trained 5-7 days a week and I realize how you have a LOT of energy as a kid. I also learned how people treat you differently just because you're bigger. When I was 130 lbs, nobody said a word to me. Once I began squatting 315 and looking like I lifted, you got an occasional head nod from a big guy and I made a few friends in the gym.
Guys who saw you for a year with consistency, you essentially earned their respect. I didn't understand it back then but I do now. How serious is someone who shows up for 2 or 3 months, disappears for 3 months, comes back for 1 month, disappears again? It's weak. When you really want something, you find a way to show up!
4) 1992: It was the Fall of 1992, Senior year in high school. I took my SATs that day so I believe it was mid October. That night I went inside a convenience store with my friend. He was getting some food and I did what I ALWAYS did, which was read the bodybuilding magazines at the newsstand. On the way in, 2 guys who were sitting on the hood of their car were staring at us.
When we walked out about 10 or 15 minutes later, there was some 12-15 guys circled up. One guy was shouting and screaming as he stormed around the parking lot and little did I know back then, but he was definitely on some drugs. He started screaming at me and I turned around. He pushed me once, then a second time. After he shoved me a second time, I blasted him with a double leg takedown and pinned him against the door. It's all I knew how to do as a wrestler.
He shouted "Get him off of me, get him off of me". I thought his crew would watch us duke it out, man to man, and I recall those exact thoughts going through my mind. In what seemed like not 2 seconds later, I was getting kicked and punched from head to toe.
I got my ass kicked that night and I learned the difference between being tough when there's a referee and being ready for the craziness on the street.
I'd also say a big problem with today's society is far and few between have ever been punched in the face. They've never had their lunch stolen. They have NOTHING to fear. Life is too easy.
5) Mid February, 1993 - The End of Wrestling & The Saturday Night Squat Party: The very day that my high school wrestling ended, I drove home, got changed and drove straight to the gym. The gym was my therapy. I didn't go home and sulk. And ironically, I hear this ALL the time from parents after their son got cut from baseball, wrestling ended, etc.
The parents always tell me how they are LETTING their son sulk on the couch for a week, a month.....
NO. We don't sulk. We get to work. Next chapter begins. GO.
I began pushing myself to new heights to make my body grow. With no wrestling in the future I wasn't worried about gaining weight. As a wrestler, I was always thinking of my next weight class and so subconsciously, I held myself back. I also didn't have a mentor showing me how being bigger and stronger is a benefit, not a detriment to wrestling.
My buddy worked at the front desk of the gym and one day I told him how we should have a "Squat Party" when the gym was shut down. I told him we should do it on a Saturday night, starting at 11 PM and squatting until we could not walk anymore.
He looked at me like I was crazy as most "normal" guys his age were out at a night club or bar on Saturday night. Well, we organized a small crew for a Squat Party that Saturday night and it was epic. I remember the intensity and the pushing of one another was through the roof. We did pre exhaustion with leg extensions and endless drop sets until our legs were numb.
Then, we squatted! My buddy was wobbling walking in those squats, I remember we had 3 spotters as he looked like he was gonna collapse. The music was blaring as we had a Pantera casette tape in there.
While most would want to be partying on a Saturday night, I found nothing more magical than a Squat party on a Saturday night!
6) Fall of 1993: I began college as a freshman and struggled in ALL of my classes except one. That class was creative writing. My Professor had us writing stories about events we experienced, reaction papers to movies like A Bronx Tale.
I had no clue at the time, but I was falling in love with writing. It was therapy to me similar to lifting weights was. Our first reaction paper was to be written on an event that was most memorable to us. I wrote about the first time I won a wrestling match. I didn't think I wrote anything special, but when we came back the next class, my Professor read the entire paper. He spoke about how the details I wrote pulled him in. The emotions made him feel what I was experiencing myself.
I struggled that entire year in college, both semesters, and finished with a horrible 2.2 GPA. I needed academic help but I was on my own. Figuring things out and fighting for air. I got a D in College Algebra and had to retake that class the next Fall.
I met a girl that winter and it was the first girl I really liked. Not loved, just liked. A lot. She cheated on me and it crushed me. I didn't know how to handle it. There were thousands of girls on campus and I was stuck in a rut mentally not knowing how to move on and enjoy life with everything that was around me. I had no appetite. I was questioning college and had zero clue what I was going to do when "I grow up". It was a horrible year for me but things changed for me in the Summer of 94'.
7) The Summer of 1994: I was in Israel for 3 weeks with my family. I had been in a rut of depression for 6 months at this time. I was a zombie, just going through the motions but achieving nothing.
Until, I met the right people.....
My older brother was in the Israeli Army at the time and he introduced me to Avner, the gym owner in town. My Grandparents lived in a very small town where everyone knew everyone. Israel was not a hub for bodybuilding so for someone to start their own gym was a big deal.
Avner's gym was extremely small, maybe just under 1,200 sq ft, very similar in size to the YMCA I used to train at. There was a cable crossover machine, a dumbbell rack and a bench that also doubled as a squat rack when you pulled the uprights out and turned them around. Someone had to sit on the bench when you loaded the uprights for squats or the bench would flip over.
A childhood friend of mine, Amir, spoke to me one night while in Israel. I had been in Israel for about 10 or 12 days at this point. Amir saw how down I was and essentially he told me, that if I want to have a GREAT life, I need to have a GREAT attitude. He told me to stop walking around like a zombie at a funeral. He told me every morning I need to wake up and tell myself I am going to have an awesome day!
That conversation empowered me to draw a line in the sand and take control of my emotions. My life changed that next morning when I woke up and CHOSE to make every day an awesome day. Has every day been perfect and awesome since then? Of course not. I did, however, learn how powerful mindset can be in changing your life.
Then there was Joe. Joe was trying to become a Navy SEAL in Israel and was training like a mad man. He lived a few blocks from Avner's Gym and that's where my brother met Joe. The first night I met Joe I walked into the gym and he was benching 295. He had 1 of the guys spotting him and Joe was grinding out a rep. One of those "Make the rep or Die" type reps. The guy touched the bar and Joe finished the rep and lectured the guy in broken Hebrew, "You should only barely help me." Joe showed with his 2 fingers as if he had a pinch of salt, "Only help me this much, no more!"
I introduced myself to Joe and he was super excited to have someone at the gym who was from the states and could speak English with him. We hit it off immediately and began training together.
Joe would swim one day and run the next day, always early in the morning, and would be lifting weights at Avner's Gym most nights. Together, the 3 of us destroyed Avner's gym with intensity that had never been seen before. Avner loved it.
I saw a poster on the wall of Avner's Gym for The Mr. Israel Bodybuilding Show. I saw there was an 18 and under division and the competition was being in a few short weeks. At the beginning of all this, I was still in my depression. I had no had my conversation with Amir just yet.
Avner could not convince me to enter the bodybuilding show. I kept saying "No, I am not ready." I had other BS excuses and Avner was very disappointed in me turning this down. Day after day I kept saying no, for almost 2 weeks. One night while training with Avner and Joe, Avner told me that tomorrow is the last day and last chance to decide. "No more of this I don't know garbage" he said to me.
That next day my Dad organized the entire family to go to his favorite beach and my Uncle and Dad told the guys working at the beach who were renting beach chairs, umbrellas and paddle boards that I was going to enter this bodybuilding show.
The guy said, "OK, if he wins I will give you the rentals for free next time." Amir had spoken to me the night before and I had made up my mind. I decided it was time to attack life. The depression in me got the axe and I was ready to go all in. I had 2 weeks to go. We came home from the beach that late afternoon and shared the news with my Grandmother. I asked her to only make me chicken and rice for every meal. Eggs only for breakfast.
I walked to Avner's gym late that night, maybe an hour before closing time. It was a Saturday night and when I walked in his doors he was the only one there, sitting on the bench as if he'd been waiting for me for 5 hours.
Avner looked and me and said, "Is it yes or no?!" I said, "YES! I will compete!" Avner smiled so big and we immediately trained. Avner and I crushed training that night like it was our last day on earth to lift weights. After the training session Avner made me work on my posing. I was there for 2 hours and my family was afraid I had disappeared. I told them Avner was training me and we'd be training twice a day for the next 2 weeks leading up to the bodybuilding show.
Joe, Avner and I destroyed his gym with intensity that no one had ever seen before. Avner and Joe loved it. The people of the gym loved it and would often times visit the gym just to watch us train together. I won the Young Mr. Israel bodybuilding show with 2 weeks notice. The competition was held in an amphitheater and the crowd was crazy loud with several thousand people in attendance. People were yelling like crazy and the music echoed through the theater and into the beautiful star filled sky. I had never experienced so much energy in one place before.
Winning the bodybuilding show was not my big victory. The true, big victory was actually winning at controlling my mind and attitude. THAT experience is what changed my life forever.
In the early Fall of 1994, while training at Dynamic Fitness, I had just gained 12 lbs within 2 weeks after returning home from Israel. The power of the mind transformed my body.
8) December 1994: I completed the fall semester of college my sophomore year and transformed my grades. I made the Dean's list and was beginning to actualize everything I put my mind to. Whether it was academics or transforming my body through training, I was discovering the power of the mind.
I just turned 19 and for the next 5 months I would be completely immersed in preparing for this bodybuilding show. I went to school, coached wrestling and trained. I carried my food in a small cooler and would eat chicken and rice or turkey and potatoes in my car.
9) The Spring of 1995:
A bodybuilding friend ran into me and said he was impressed with the size I had put on and I told him about my plans to compete in another show for the Spring of 1995.
He told me he would be training for The Mr. NJ and I should enter the teenage division. That night I went home and asked my Mom if she would help me by cooking so I could eat 6 meals a day for the next 6 months. She said YES and it was game on from them.
I joined Diamond Gym and we trained like madmen possessed for The Mr. NJ bodybuilding competition.
I saw a natural bodybuilding show being held 1 week prior to the Mr. NJ Bodybuilding show. I wanted to prove to the haters that I was a natural lifter. I won the teenage division of The Mid Atlantic Natural and took 2nd place in the men's novice division on the same night.
It was a blast! The next weekend I placed 2nd at the Teen Mr. NJ. I will never forget the 6 months of training leading up to the competition. The intensity and the journey was so amazing. I remember after the show was over I felt kind of empty. I had nothing to train for and it was almost heartbreaking.
I was so obsessed with the preparation that when it ended, I had to set new goals. Not just bodybuilding goals but LIFE goals. When the competition was over, I was so exhausted from all the training and eating, I planned to take 2 weeks off from training.
Three days later, on Tuesday, I was back in the gym training. It was a lesson to me that resting is not always what helps you.
For me, it was getting back to work instead of sitting home for 2 weeks fabricating fake excuses. My next focus was all about graduating college and taking my next step in life. Starting a career.....
10) The Summer of 1995: Your training partners always pushed you. I had read countless stories of Arnold talking about how important great training partners are. I always loved training with friends and it all began when I left the Metuchen YMCA and began training with friends or people I met at the gym. A great training partner always made for a better training session and better gains.
And if you were slacking, you got called out. I remember having 2 training partners and I drove most of the time. One of the guys was consistently late so after a few consecutive late arrivals, I flipped out on the guy. I flipped out in the same manner a crazy man would. I lost my mind on him.
My other training partner also went ballistic. We berated him in the car all the way to the gym for almost 30 minutes. I remember going so crazy on him and he was completely unphased and calm. After I yelled for what seemed to be 15 minutes straight he calmly said, "Why are you yelling at me?" He just didn't get it.
I didn't realize it back then, but there are some people who simply don't care. They will sleep in, slack off, make excuses and they will NEVER care about greatness.
We destroyed him that day. Forced reps, negatives, drop sets, smack talking. We punished him for making us wait 30+ minutes outside his house. I couldn't understand his lack of urgency, lack of punctuality and overall lack of intensity. His attitude reminds me a LOT of so many of the athletes today. Many are just so lax and care free, they have ZERO intensity. It confuses me.
11) Summer of 1995 Pt 2: Eventually, my schedule with school and life became so hectic I had to tell the guys I would be training on my own. It was like breaking up with a long time girlfriend. My one partner and I had the best training sessions together for almost a year together. I was always the motivator but man we pushed each other to heights that most could not match.
The majority of my workouts were alone as I would trek to Diamond Gym straight after college classes but here and again I would jump in and join a workout with someone else. I'd be warming up on the bike or warming up with the weights and someone would wave me over or ask me what I was training.
Today, those things never happen. Everyone is blocked to everyone else through their headphones or air pods. In between sets they stare at their phone scrolling endlessly as they hunch over and waste time. There is no friendships being made or learning happening from inside the gyms.
My experiences are completely different and yes, I am being "that guy" as I talk about "the good old days". Sure, there were times that the music sucked but the relationships and lessons learned from all the different lifters is something I will cherish forever.
12) 1996 - College was in full force for me and I was beginning my internships for teaching. I was at a high school and volunteering almost every day for the wrestling team. I was really working my a-- off and I was trying to balance college, working for money, working as a volunteer wrestling coach (NO money) and training.
During my internship experience at the high school, my cooperating teacher was as negative as they could come. She was bashing the kids behind their backs and my stomach sunk during this conversation. I remember leaving that day saying to myself, "F-- this, I am NOT doing this, I am done."
I drove home that Friday afternoon and immediately called my Department Chair. These are the days of no cell phones so I was getting my mind all amped up on the ride home. I called and left a voice mail that I want to change my major. Back then, it was called Adult Fitness, not Exercise Science. I said "I don't care if I lose a semester, I don't like this, I don't see myself doing this, and I need to get OUT of this negative school."
That weekend my supervisor called me at home. She said to me, "Zach, we're NOT going to let you drop your major. You're too passionate and we need teachers like you. We're gonna switch your school and assign you to a different cooperating teacher."
Monday when I got back to school there was an envelope with my name on it, taped to the department door. It said this on the envelope: ZACH!
I opened it up and the letter read this: Zach, 10 years from now you pull into a parking lot for work. Which building do you enter?
I was working at a hospital fitness center at the time and I wasn't so sure that was my future! I thought to myself, it's gotta be teaching. Still, I was unsure. A day or 2 later, I receive my new teaching assignment and it is in a rough town, inner city. I am thinking to myself, "Man, this is gonna be even worse! How could they do this to me!"
Well, I was wrong! My cooperating teacher was awesome. He was a DJ on the weekends and got his class hyped up with fitness and all sports. He had an old DJ turn table and would pump the music. The kids were doing pull ups, recline rows, squats, push ups, sprints and getting after it.
The Principal was a state champ wrestler from decades earlier and he played "Oldies Music" in the hallways, the kind of stuff my Dad listened to. The experience was great and it was exactly what I needed. Heck it's what everyone needs; GOOD experiences.
13) 1997 - I was finishing up my final year in college. I had been working at a hospital fitness center and loved it there. I would work with people of all ages and all walks of life. From adults to high school and college athletes. From Doctors to adults who were post cardiac rehab patients.
I learned how to work with a variety of personalities and age groups. I loved it so much I began thinking that after college, maybe working in a hospital is for me. I spoke with the COO of the hospital as he always came to the fitness center for training.
During the Fall of 1997 when I was finishing my final teaching internship experience, I was working my face off. Student teaching was a ton of work and then I worked Saturdays at the hospital fitness center and Sundays were for writing lesson plans.
In December of 1997 I completed my final college requirement with student teaching and January of 1998 I was a college graduate. I began substitute teaching almost every day from January 1998 until June of 1998.
14) 1998 - After substitute teaching for 6 months coupled with working at the hospital fitness center, I was exhausted. At the time, there were not any job openings for teacher so I was going from one school to the next almost every day. I had applied for countless teaching jobs and as luck would have it, something opened up in my hometown and I landed my first teaching position to start in the Fall of 1998. I was 22 years old.
The interview process was actually quite intense and I had to go through group interviews to beat out other candidates.
I loved teaching and was psyched to be at this stage; full time career, great schedule, lifting 3- 4 x week and money in my pocket.
15) Summer 1999 - I saved up about $3K for my Summer after speaking with one of the older teachers asking him how he lived when schools were closed. He put away cash every month as did I. Probably 1 or 2 weeks into Summer I bought a new mountain bike and there went over half my savings.
My buddy was a bartender and went with me to a few local sport bars to apply for a job. None of them would take me since I didn't have a bar tending license but they mentioned a place that hires teachers. So, I drove straight there and walked in around lunch time.
The owner was sitting at the end of the bar eating lunch and reading the paper. I introduced myself to him and told him I'm available whenever he needs me. He said, "Great, come in this Saturday at 7 o'clock." I replied, "Sounds great. I don't drink so I don't know anything about mixing drinks." The owner replied, "That's fine, we'll teach you."
My first night there was a mess. I worked with another bar tender and she was training me. I was so clueless I had to ask her everything. EVERYTHING. A guy asked for a screw driver and I asked her what's in that drink. She said, "Oh boy, I'm gonna have teach you everything!"
I was actually so embarrassed with my first night that I vowed to never have to ask anyone how to make a drink again. The next day I went to the book store and bought 2 bar tending books and then made myself index cards. I studied the cards several times a day the same way I would study for exams.
That next Saturday was gonna be even busier with a live band. I started at 7 PM and the bar tender on shift before me NEVER restocked the beer or anything. I had to hustle my face off to get organized and I told myself to come in at 6 PM instead of 7 PM from now on.
That lesson taught me a carry over as a Strength Coach. Whenever you leave the gym / weight room, organize it to perfection so that the next person simply gets to show up, turn on the lights and get to work.
16) Winter of 2000 - Life was getting hectic again. Full time teaching. Graduate school which was about 1 hour away and then bar tending on Saturdays. We closed the bar at 3 AM on Saturdays and by the time we cleaned up and finished hanging out, I would often be getting to sleep around 5:30 AM or so.
Sundays were dedicated to Grad School which was often 8 - 10 hours of writing papers, research and studying. I learned a lot working at this bar, which was a basic, old school shot and beer type joint. I worked a few weeks in the mornings that Summer as I covered for another bar tender and served Vietnam Vets, guys who worked at The Ford Plant and everyone in between.
Those mornings were wild. I would get in at 6 AM to set up, unlock the doors at 7 AM (often times 10+ guys were waiting for me to open) and worked until 2 PM. One of those days was a double shift, 7 AM until 5 PM.
I learned how to listen to them and many of them gave me different tips regarding work, money, how to treat others and how to treat money. Here's a few lessons that stuck with me:
- Never leave all your tips out where people can see how many tips you're making.
- When the singles accumulate to 20 bucks or more, put them in the register and put the 20 in your pocket. Don't showboat how much money you're making.
- Organize the bills. Make all the heads face the same direction. Respect the money so it respects you.
- Take care of the regulars. Buy them drinks. Keep their beer extra cold. Serve them before they ask.
- Always put a napkin down on the bar, even when it's standing room only and packed wall to wall, treat your customer like they're the only person there.
- If you make a mistake, own it, apologize, buy the person a drink and make it up to them.
- Never throw someone out of the bar without giving them a warning first. Never throw them out alone.
- If you're throwing somebody out, never back down.
- Keep the cash register pumping.
- Flirt with the girls.
- Remember people's names.
- Clean up and stock up so the next crew coming in merely has to turn on the lights.
17) Summer of 2000 - Life was great. I was really loving life. Full time career, money in my pocket, great social life every Friday and Saturday and of course, plenty of time for lifting and training.
In the Summer of 2000, I set up a 2 week trip to California. I had wanted to move there since being a kid and watching / reading Arnold's Books & movies.
I stayed with my brother's friend from the Israeli Army who lived in Encino. Every day I would drive to Venice to train at Gold's Gym, then eat at The Firehouse Restaurant.
I had just finished my second year teaching and this trip was amazing for me. No cell phones. Directions were found on the internet and then written on paper or simply memorized. My cousin was going through her Doctoral program at Pepperdine University to become a Therapist. Her boyfriend's Dad was a therapist for movie stars. His home was absolutely beautiful and was 10 minute drive up the mountain. I remember as we drove up I could just tell that this was an area of people who were making serious money, I had never seen anything like it.
My cousin took me for a walk that evening and it was beautiful to be up so high overlooking LA. When we were hanging out that night while at his home, he said I could work for him to assist with organizing / helping these parents of movie stars. He said me, "Tell your parents to send you socks and underwear".
I remember how I was thinking to myself about "safety and security" being a teacher about to get tenured and bla bla bla. I was considering teaching by day and then becoming a "personal trainer" in the evenings in California. I was clueless about the world and of course you look back and have regrets. Once I got back home to NJ I let it all go.
Lesson Learned: You don't want to have regrets. If you're younger with nothing and no one to be accountable to, say YES to adventure and make it happen. Especially nowadays. You can do so much with zero obligations.
Rent that RV and hit the road. I know others who purchased a used RV and then hit the road. Get out there and make it happen.
18) 2001 - This was the beginning of my 4th year teaching and also the year that changed history all around the world. It was the second week of school, September 11th and I was in the library that morning. Our librarian always listened to AM radio in the morning and she told me there was an accident.
The news was unsure as to what type of accident it was. They thought maybe 2 planes collided in the sky but there was nothing definite. It all sounded crazy and so I went on to teach not thinking anything of it. After my first class that day the principal walked in and told me what was going on. He kind of sort of knew, but at this point, it was all a bit unclear.
A TV was set up in the closet near the gym and I kept seeing the planes crash into the towers as the news replayed that video over and over again. By lunch time, 75% of the kids were gone from school as nobody knew what was going to happen.
I drove home that afternoon and could see the smoke cloud from the towers. That cloud stayed in the sky for at least 3 weeks. It was surreal. The next day almost every car had an American flag attached to their windows. Kids were standing on the corner waving American flags and cars were honking.
I don't think people understood exactly what was going on. One month before this, I was in Israel for a few weeks visiting my Grandparents and there was a massive terrorist attack in Jerusalem. They called this the Sbarro massacre as it was in Sbarro's pizzaria in Jerusalem.
I had been to Israel many times before and so I was used to fighter jets flying overhead every day, soldiers go to the mall with their rifle across their back, etc. I remember a week or 10 days later when I flew home the plane was empty. Security in Israel heightened big time. It was surreal to see these 2 terror attacks happen so close to me.
19) 2003 - It was the Winter of 2003 when I tore my ACL. I was a 5th year teacher at a middle school. I was also coaching wrestling and finishing up grad school. That year was a brutal year for me health wise. I never drank coffee but I recall the stress of this school exhausted me. I began drinking coffee twice a day.
I was training hard with lifting and BJJ but once I tore my ACL, my life took a complete turn. The small amount of info on the internet in 2003 for serious strength & conditioning was actually a GOOD thing. I was able to come across the RIGHT people vs today, which is a sea of bull shyt.
I came across Dave Tate & Jim Wendler via Elite FTS. Of course, I then came across Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. I devoured all of the articles these guys wrote and began writing out programs for wrestlers as practice. I didn't have anyone to train but I was preparing for the surgery and the days to come.
I had ACL surgery the end of June and spent that entire Summer studying training and applying those methods to a handful of local athletes. It was the beginning of The Underground Strength movement that was NOT going to be something I did just for the Summer.
I was going ALL in. I was pissed off after this ACL injury. This was my second knee surgery. Before this I had broken my nose, torn my shoulder and then some. I was learning aggressively anything I could that was related to what Russian wrestlers did.
20) 2003 - In the Fall of 2003 we purchased our first home. I honestly ONLY wanted a house with a 2 car garage. I had my mind set up that I would be training people out of our garage. I was going to build a "training studio" in our garage and was visualizing exactly what it would become.
This house was an entire gut, but, the first thing we revamped was the garage. After that, it took us an entire year before we moved in because of all the work that was needed on the house.
I ordered my first ever Sorinex squat rack. It was a beauty with a custom military green color. The pull up bar was dropped lower so we could perform pull ups without hitting our head on the ceiling.
I began picking up kegs and filling them with water. I made sandbags from 40 lbs up to 150 lbs. I began increasing my Kettlebell collection and man were they expensive way back then! I found a place that would sell used commercial grade equipment and began building up my dumbbell collection. I had dumbbells up to 130lbs and soon, 150 lbs.
I invested in business courses from Ryan Lee and built my own website, wrote articles and began blogging LONG before blogs existed.
I remember someone e mailing me or messaging me when I used AOL. He told me to send this website my e book and let them interview me. It was a "Shootfighting" website that shared news and interviews in the MMA / Combat sports world.
And from there, I remember the first guy who bought my e book was from The UK. I sold my e book at $19.95 and the first day when I sold 5 copies in a day, I was ready to quit everything, live in my car and go all in on this business.
In hindsight, I had NO clue what the future looked like. Heck, I am not sure too many others did as well. The internet was the wild west back then. There was NO YouTube and finding a web designer was thousands of dollars.
I never felt like I fit in because the "popular" Coaches online had something else going on. They used expensive machines, stood on balance discs and they led the charge in "functional training".
To me, I remember feeling how that was NOT me the very first time I had an athlete stand on a balance disc. I thought to myself, WTF is this? Why do I need to stand on a wobbly object? How is this building a BEAST!?"
I trained with kegs, Kettlebells, tree logs, sleds, truck pushing, free weights and in a garage. The other guys had small studios and wore collared shirts, tucked in of course. I was an outlaw. I noticed how some big names hated me for it. So they would write articles and talk about how "There is NO Underground secret of training....." and bla bla bla.
I remember laughing, seeing how people with big names, fancy websites, etc were talking sh-t about me. I laughed because it showed how they were insecure seeing a guy building BEAST athletes from his garage.
21) 2004 - I wanted to spread my message on training so badly that my mind was always racing as to HOW I could do this. One day during a professional development in service for teachers we were in a high school tech ed room.
During lunch, I asked the teacher if he had any students who could create videos, edit film, etc. Basically, I needed someone to help me film a DVD. He knew a kid and so I left my phone and e mail and we got in touch.
I offered the kid $200 to film and produce the DVD for me. It was a blast and we crushed it! The first time he brought me the edited DVD it had Metallica music playing over every instructional portion. I said to him, "Dude, you're gonna get me killed and sued!" We laughed and came up with plan B!
I used to watch PRIDE Fighting and they had this awesome song for their highlights. I found out who the band was and contacted them on MySpace which was the predecessor of facebook. I asked them to use their music and in turn link to their website on our DVD and they said YES! BOOM. Game on. Here we go!
I wanted so badly to have a day where I would sell so many DVDs that they would be wrapped in my arms as I carried them into the post office. Ironically, 1 or 2 years prior I tried selling a DVD and NONE of them sold. I was giving them all away to get testimonials or giving them to our athletes to use for extra training.
The DVD was actually pretty damn good but people wanted Ancient Training Methods. I was fired UP.
22) 2005 - This was my second year of coaching from the garage and I was deep diving into my training and business knowledge. Every week I would call Westside Barbell and Louie or Doris would answer their phone. It was a house line. Louie would get fired up to talk about training wrestlers and athletes. He would always have a story to go along with the training method. We often spoke about Kevin Randleman, who was an absolute BEAST of a man.
I would say I was very lucky back then because compared to today, there was not such an over abundance of information to get lost and confused in. I devoured articles by Louie Simmons, Charlie Francis, Dr. Michael Yessis, Jim Wendler, Dave Tate, Pavel, Lee Taft, Alwyn Cosgrove. I was set off in the right direction for training.
And of course, training in my garage, backyard and the local playground / fields gave me freedom. It also taught me how to think for myself. I would blend what I learned from others with my own experiences. I actually was understanding training where as many can regurgitate information yet not understand how to apply.
23) 2007 - During 2006 and early 2007 I could not get the idea out of my head that I should open a warehouse gym. I had a few reasons for this, and a big reason was the fact that I could not figure out how to get my online info to the masses.
I began realizing that I simply was NOT for the masses. And so if I really wanted to impact people, it was going to have to be in person. During a trip to Florida with my family, I met up with my friend and business coach, Ryan Lee.
During that family dinner Ryan was asking me what I was going to do and what my plans were. Ryan moved to Jupiter, Florida temporarily for 2 years as he had just begun a supplement company and the operation was located in Florida.
Ryan said to me, "I think you were put on this earth to make people strong." It hit me there that he was right. I needed to focus. I needed to go fir it. When we got home I checked out the small garage for rent that was in my town and it looked HUGE compared to my garage.
It was 1,600 sq ft and with 9 ft ceilings. I was excited with the actually possibility of being able to press a barbell overhead which we could never do in my garage. Once I had the idea locked in my mind that I would rent this garage, I kicked in a referral system for my training business to make sure my income was DOUBLE the rent of the garage.
This happened quickly and from there, I signed my first lease to begin The Underground Strength Gym in it's first "real" location. I was 4 years in the garage and it was time to go for it. I signed the lease in mid May of 2007 and 2 weeks later we moved all the stuff from the home garage to the "real" garage.
My Dad and I rented a small box truck and traveled to north NJ to a horse supply outfitter. We bought 4 x 6 rubber horse stall mats. 3/4 inch thick and they were about 90 lbs each. The athletes helped me move and organize and in 2 weeks we were up and running.
24) 2008 - I began the first ever Underground Strength Coach Certification.
People were calling my gym from all around the world after seeing my early YouTube videos and wondering how a guy who teaches by day can run his gym and make a full time living following his passion.
I remember one guy telling me how he HATES his suit and tie and wants to train athletes. I don't think people realized how much time and money I invested in learning about business. It was the beginning of a wild ride.
I was never much of a fan for traveling but I did Certs up and down the east coast as well as in Texas and California.
25) 2009 - My final year of teaching.
I was crushed from working so much. I would do online work before heading to the school. Then after school I would drive to my gym and maybe sneak in a short training session or get some food and do more online work. I then coached 3 - 4 groups and would train at night. I would finish around 9 PM.
I'd get home and my wife and daughter were asleep already. All I wanted to do was have breakfast with my family. I also wanted to prove to my kids that you CAN go for it and be a Success.
I had taught for 11 years. I took 1 year off as a family leave of absence and then resigned at the end of that year.
26) 2010 - We moved to Manasquan, a small beach town in NJ while our kids were 1 and 3 years old.
We would visit this this town and go to the beach when our daughter was just a baby and I was amazed that kids were outside riding bikes.
This would be the first year of running my business without any other income from teaching. I would only get what I earned.
27) 2012 - Hurricane Sandy. Business was going great until Hurricane Sandy. Until this time I was holding a USC Cert ever other month, The Underground Strength Gym was pumping and online business was doing great.
We had no power for 2 weeks.
The lines for gas stations backed up for MILES.
We hid in the basement with our kids until the storm passed. The devastation didn't hit us until we saw what happened to the homes and land that were within 1 mile of the beach.
Houses were destroyed. Marinas and all their boats were destroyed and it looked like Godzilla came through and destroyed the boats.
I shut down my gym for 2 weeks and refunded everyone their membership.
Then, many people cancelled their membership as they had to repair their vacation homes or boats. It was a recession for our area.
And ironically, I felt that recession not just in my gym but online as well. The tri state area was hit hard.
28) December 2012 - I signed the lease for the Manasquan Underground Strength Gym.
I had been looking for a second location for a year or so and ironically, was NOT looking for something in Manasquan.
Every day I checked for warehouse space for rent and after a year of searching, the right place and the right time (well, never really such a thing as perfect timing) popped up.
I signed a lease and we had some heavy duty cleaning to do!
29) January 2013 - I had been feeling run down and sick starting in mid December.
I was exhausted and my body felt like a train wreck.
I didn't go to my gym for at least 3 weeks and had zero energy. Of course, I never went to the Doctor but man, I remember feeling destroyed.
I had a new gym to clean, paint, outfit and build from ground zero. I was late on my book deadline. I was stressed as hell after Hurricane Sandy. By late December I had an internal moment of "F--k YOU! Get up and FIGHT." It was time to implement mind over matter and will myself to get to work.
I learned those few months how business can stress you and life stress can destroy you, IF you let it.
Since then, of course, I've learned that there are times where you simply gotta do what you gotta do! That is business owner life, it's not always about feeling good.
When tough times hit, you need to push through and succeed.
30) 2014 - 2018 - During these years I spent time operating The Underground Strength Gym with multiple locations while also coaching at The D1 level at both Lehigh and Rutgers.
The Underground at 1 point had 3 locations plus a 4th satellite location inside of a Baseball facility.
I explain in the video below:
Without a doubt, these were hectic times juggling so many locations AND coaching at a very high level. I learned during these years that I personally LOVE coaching more than business.
As a business owner, again, it does NOT matter what you like, you do what needs to be done to impact more athletes and that means business and marketing must happen.
31) 2010 - Current: In the Summer of 2019 I was hired as a full time Strength & Conditioning Coach for a high school. This was something I was pushing and fighting to see happen since the early 2000s. I saw the dangerous and ineffective BS happening in high school weight rooms and I always felt an expert should be training athletes, not just the random coach who wants to get a few extra bucks sitting at a desk in a weight room.
This coaching position was infinitely tougher than the college coaching. I had horrible equipment, LOTS of athletes in each group (45-75 in a group), not enough time and I had to teach everyone from ground zero.
At the D1 level you are training the elite of the elite, especially for me as both Rutgers and Lehigh were top 10 teams. At the high school, I had to recruit kids to train with me. I had to build trust with the coaches which didn't happen as easy as anyone would imagine......
The training was voluntary so you would have a group kicking ass and then a few weeks later 10 new kids would show up and required 95% of your attention just to learn the basics.
It was AWESOME!!
I was building something from ground zero!
It was very similar to starting The Underground Strength Gym.
The outdoors area of where we train was awesome, with a hill for sprints, brick walls for med ball throws and plenty of open space.
I had NO software so I went back to using a big white board for the workouts. There was beauty in the simplicity. And of course, working with great people always helps.
And since 2007, my gym has survived the economic recession, natural disasters, then COVID which also spurred a recession. I have learned through the years that I AM UNSTOPPABLE.
Things that never change is that family is first. Don't build a business that crushes your health and free time, life is short and only gets shorter (Father Time is undefeated), and my kids are still growing up way too fast.
I am a Strength Coach and a GREAT one at that.
I've learned that less internet is better, more in person is better than sitting behind a computer. Not all business partners will be good, let alone great, and time waits for no man so stop waiting for perfection and just make sh-t happen.
I used to focus on building my online business but I learned that what is popular is certainly not what is best. Playing the YouTube or social media game has been more about shock and awe then it is about keeping it real. I am not a video editor and I never will be.
I will continue to spend less time on the internet and more time building BEAST athletes.
That's why I got into this business and that's what I love. It's EASY to talk about operating a gym and infinitely harder to do the damn thing. Same goes for lifting. I'd rather learn from the guys who have been lifting and coaching for decades than the guy who talks about it.
At the end of the day the few things that matter are your health, your family and your small cicrle of friends.
Live The Code 365,