I was sitting with IFBB Pro Branch Warren one day talking about a Planet Fitness gym he trained at once while on the road. Apparently, as the story goes, he was using too much weight and making too much noise while he trained and they asked him to leave. Now, when you think about that scenario you just have to scratch your head. How can a bodybuilder-- a top ranked IFBB Pro bodybuilder-- be asked to leave a gym for training like a bodybuilder?
The oversimplified answer is that corporate America is now running the gym business and they don't know what they're doing. In their zeal to make money they have turned what were great bastions of muscle building into "fitness clubs" to attract mainstream clients. World Gym-- founded by Joe Gold, the originator of the true hardcore gym-- was bought by Planet Fitness, where they cut the ears off the leg presses so you can't put more than four plates on each side; sound a "Lunk alarm" if you grunt; outlawed lifting belts, deadlifts and tank tops, I don't think you're allowed to sweat; and they have "pizza night" every Friday. If there was ever a greater affront to bodybuilding, bodybuilders, and other strength athletes, it could only possibly be eclipsed by Gold's Gym's switch away from hardcore bodybuilding to attract the same sector of mainstream America. Two of the greatest names in hardcore training have caved in and have relegated the guys who started this whole thing to persona non grata in favor of minivan-driving soccer moms.
The take home message for the corporate gym world is that "hardcore" is bad for business; bodybuilders don't have any money to blow in their price-hiked pro shops and overblown juice bars where a 20 ounce water sells for $3.50; and sculpted physiques sticking out of tank tops scare away the uninitiated. Since soccer moms outnumber bodybuilders a few thousand to one, their basic tenet of new gym business is shit-can the bodybuilders.
Thankfully, there are some lone holdouts and all is not lost for those of us who care to associate with our own kind. If you check out the Hardcore Gym Registry search engine on the RX Muscle message boards - www.hardcoregymregistry.com . You can type in your zip code and up will pop a hardcore gym near you; if there is one. (NOTE: if you do live near one that is not listed please use the "add a gym" feature and list it!). If you're lucky enough to live near the 76015 area code, you'll be directed to the greatest hardcore gym in the world--Metroflex Gym.
Metroflex is home to eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, the "people's champ" Branch Warren and 100 other champion bodybuilders, power lifters, Strongmen, martial artists, football players, fitness athletes and UFC fighters. More importantly it's also the home of its owner, Brian Dobson. Brian is not only the last of a dying breed of true hardcore gym owners that knows you can still build an empire upon mountains of muscle, but he's also the last of a dying breed of gym owners that truly cares about his members and his community. I don't think there is a greater benefactor to this thing of ours than Brian because he does something near and dear to my heart; he breaks from conformity and he does it as a gentleman.
It's hard not to like Brian Dobson. Most Texans I've met are the nicest people, but there's a spirit Brian embodies that's hard to deny. He's truly one of us. He opened Metroflex in 1987 (during the growth of corporate gyms) to fill the niche he felt existed for a true "hardcore" gym. "I always wanted a gym," he said. "I was born in Detroit and grew up around Tom Platz and Don Ross. We used to train at this little gym called Armento's Gym. It was real small-- no bigger than the dumbbell area here at Metroflex. Tom gave me a work out plan and I lived by it for a year. That gym was in a real bad part of town. There were lot of characters and mafia hit men in there. Don Ross was always crazy. He had a big influence on me. But it was Tom who was goal oriented. He was still going to college at the time and his parents really catered to him. I went to his house one time and there were about 800 cans of tuna in the cupboard! It was those guys, and the gym there that really had an effect on me. The gym had a great spirit-- a great sense of competition-- and it was that spirit that always stayed with me."
"When did you move to Texas?" I asked. "Around 1977." He replied. "It was different in Texas. There weren't too many bodybuilders but lots of power lifters. So I had the best of both worlds influencing me. I started power lifting and set a lot of records. I was great at dead lifting. Then I started working in night clubs. That was a bad influence. But I still did it for 11 years. All the while I was looking for a gym like this."
"Then first Gold's Gym franchise came. We drove about 50 miles to train there. There were lots of girls so we started showing off. They had a low cable row that wasn't assembled together. I was doing a ton of weight one day, really pulling hard, and the whole damn thing started coming down on me! I put my arm up to try and hold it but it still whacked me pretty good. There was blood all over the place. I needed about 30 stitches in my head. The manager flipped out and started calling an ambulance. I said no way; we just drove 50 miles, we're not going to stop training. I wrapped my shirt around my head and told him to just pay my hospital bill. I wasn't going to sue him or anything."
"That's about as hardcore as it gets bro!"
"Yeah, but it was really kind of lame compared to our gym; no loud music or anything. Lots of Gold's opened up, took everyone's money and went out of business. They even passed a new law called the Texas Health Spa Act. If you're going to do any long term contracts you have to put up a bond."
"Does that effect you?" I asked.
"Not really. We don't have many long term contracts. About ten years ago they made us put up some money but gave it all back a few years later because we never had a complaint."
"That doesn't surprise me. So, after you cracked your head open, then what?"
"Even back then the hardcore places were starting to vanish. The one place that was cool got sold just as soon as steroids became illegal. That's probably how he was making his money. I just wanted a place where you could bang your head on the wall if you needed to. Or use chalk, scream, yell, blast the music and drop the weights if you needed to."
"A lot of gym owners don't like people dropping the weights," I said.
"I know. But it's kinda stupid. It's going to be hard to put down anything over 100 pounds, gently. There's a right way to do it. And I kinda like that sound it makes."
I cracked up. "You sound more like you cut your teeth in Gold's Gym, Venice."
"Oh, man. That place was it! But, you know, just like it was there, I saw a niche and I wanted to fill it. I couldn't stand training at those other places. I had no money at all. I had a $4,000 loan and that was it"
"You bought Metroflex for $4,000?"
"It's kind of a funny story," Brian began. I knew I wanted to open a gym so I started looking for equipment. I was talking to a guy who had some equipment for sale and he asked why I wanted it. I told him I wanted to open a gym. So, he said why not buy this one? I asked how much he wanted and he said $20,000. I told him I only had $4,000 and he took it! There wasn't too much equipment. We still have the old upside down leg press - you gotta be careful on that thing. But now we have Texas Power bars, dumbbells up to 250 pounds, a Hatfield squat bar, hex dead lift bars, logs and stones for strongmen, lifting platforms, leg presses that hold up to 2,500 lbs. This place isn't big, but it's got all of what you need."
"Yeah, apparently it does. I guess the big question is how did Ronnie Coleman came to call Metroflex home?"
"I was open about four years and one of the cops that trained here told me about Ronnie. I said send him down here I need a training partner! This was bout 1990. I took one look at him and said, damn this guy has potential! He was completely drug free back then. He was so naïve, he didn't know anything about drugs. He just had a tremendous genetic gift. He couldn't stand for anyone to beat him at anything. We were pretty even back then and I was on shit. It wasn't long before he beat me at everything."
"When was it that Ronnie became associated with Metroflex?"
"Right from the beginning," Brian said. "Ronnie called me at 3 am after he won the world championships in Poland and said he won the whole damn thing! It was a big thing for us. CNN came here and did a story on him. It was funny seeing everyone trying to get in the shot. Now there are so many photo shoots here people don't even take notice."
"Did you always train with Ronnie?"
"For a long time I did," Brian replied. "But after about 03 or 04 I couldn't train with him anymore because he was just too strong. We just helped him move dumbbells around and load up the plates."
He just blew up in Metroflex," I said.
"He couldn't help it. I think there is a spirit here for training hard. It's different. If you train here for a year and go someplace else you either come back or stop training. We have everything for power lifters, strong men, and bodybuilders. But it's not pretty. Even the worst LA fitness will kick our ass as far as equipment goes, but this stuff is solid steel hardcore old school shit. No hollow tubing."
"But there is no doubt Ronnie put you on the map I said-- his training videos are insane! Like the one where you guys are doing leg presses and you needed a calculator to add up all the weight. It was like 2700 pounds!"
Brian chuckled. "That was crazy. But you know, people come from all over the world just to see this place. It really honors me. I hope one day there will be Metroflex gyms all over the world. We sold our first three licensing agreements. Plano, Texas; Boston, Mass, and Fort Worth. When I was younger I focused on training. I should have done this a long time ago. We're just now just starting to sell clothes. I'm really hoping that will take off."
"Ronnie may have put you on the map, but who was the first big pro to train at Metroflex?"
"Ron Love came down here one year. He was the first pro ever in our gym. He was promoting some supplement line I never heard of. He was getting ready for the O the year they drug tested it. I said are you going to work out? He said they were going to take him over to Bally's because it was the only gym that would still be open by the time he finished what he was doing. I said I'm open. So, he came over and trained back with us that night. We almost killed him. I had to apologize to him for all the young guns that had shown up gunning for him. I was so psyched, I head butted the fuse box in the back and busted it open getting ready for a set of rows. Ron loved that! He said, ‘damn, if I trained here I'd be huge!"
You know, Brian, you're a big deal in this thing of ours. How did your life change as this gym became more and more important in our industry?"
"That's a really good question, John. I was born in a hardcore Christian family but over the years I had drifted really far from it. I was living a pretty dirty life and I don't know how I got away with all of it. I was doing drugs, partying, womanizing, slowly going downhill. At one point I was having a problem-- a weird pain in my quad-- from working out with Ronnie. I had actually partially torn my quad tendon but didn't know it. I was out hunting one day and had to jump across a creek. Well, jumping over that creek the tendon snapped. I don't know, but my whole life changed that day. My wife found out about all my infidelities. It was a mess. Then I started counting my blessings. We went to a marriage counselor and all the guy wanted to do was talk about weight lifting! I told my wife we just need to go to church. I was deeply involved in that when I was younger, and it all came back. I lost some members over that-- like I won't play Marilyn Manson any more. I have the 10 commandments hanging right in front of the door when you walk in. People said, 'You're going to lose all your members,' but I really felt like I'd get blessed with more. And I have been. Even Ronnie was a divine appointment. Branch too."
"You and Branch have a really good relationship."
"Yes, sir, we do. He had a tough upbringing. But I told him he had to stop being a dick. Over the years he's learned. He's still super, super ,hardcore in the gym. But I told him you can be hardcore but you have to be a nice guy too. That's how it is here."
And I'm sure anyone who gets lucky enough to meet Brian Dobson and train at Metroflex amid the deer carcasses hanging outside, the ten commandments on the wall and the most hardcore environment known to man will remember that experience as well for the rest of their lives. That's the true defining aspect of what hardcore is-- it's that attitude that leaves an indelible impression. So few guys have it anymore, or know where to look for it. One thing is for sure, when you see it, it sticks with you. When I cut my teeth in Venice back in the day, hardcore was all around me. I just wish I had known how much I'd miss it after it was gone. Thankfully, there are still places where those of us who understand can go and be understood. That's a tall order these days and if it wasn't for places such as Metroflex we'd be shit out of luck.