How to Find a Real Unconventional Gym

6 Ways to Find an Unconventional Training Gym

Written by
August 8, 2014
Updated April 12, 2018
Category: Fitness

Since opening Asylum Fitness in early 2011, I have had multiple inquiries regarding the unique space and setup. Whether it be phone calls, Facebook messages, or emails I am always happy to talk about the physical space which is not completely disconnected from the philosophy of Asylum Fitness.  In fact, I would argue that to have a real unconventional gym/studio, it must first and foremost reflect your fitness belief system. In other words, what do you want your clients to draw from the space they train or practice in that is an extension of you, the coach? I have broken Asylum Fitness into a few categories; uniqueness, practicality and functionality, accessibility, teachable opportunities, tools/ equipment, and fun factor or environment.

#1 Way to Find an Unconventional Training Gym: Uniqueness

Being unique is obviously the best way to make your unconventional gym unique. Uniqueness is one of the variables in the unconventional community that is more difficult to come by than others. There are several reasons for this, but primarily the limiting factor comes in the form of the acquisition of usable space.

It seems that small scale warehouse space and old retail space is readily available in any part of any town these days at reasonable rent rates. Also, they do make the perfect space for a facility: lots of room and usually not too many adjacent neighbors that would get cranky at the sound of eight plates clanging the floor on a solid set of deadlifts (mmm… gets me pumped!).

However, this kind of uniqueness can sometimes fall victim to the old saying, “If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Normally this would be a negative, but I don’t necessarily think it is in this case. I believe that as a movement and a community, our clients and followers have come to look for these style of gyms.

Now, having a unique space (i.e. a barn refurbished, an old mill, an auto shop, a cave, a dungeon’s keep, etc.) does provide you with marketability that is specific to you, and you alone.

The one of a kind feel is an intangible. Finding places like these involves a little patience and a lot of luck. I have always been, and remain completely candid that the former carpentry shed that I call the “Ludus” (Latin: 1. gladiatorial training ground, 2. play, game, sport, training) was sheer luck.

I was in the right place, at the right time, asking the right questions. Beyond the structure itself, my own personality and creativity have led the Ludus to the unique space it is today.

What is truly unique about Asylum Fitness’ Ludus is the seamless transition from indoor to outdoor space. To me, they are one in the same, and that is how I have set up the flow.

All four big barn doors open and you can move in and out of the openings to go from heavy bag on the porch to depth jumps to a forward roll right out of the front door (dive roll back in is super fun), or out one back door to multiple pull-up bars, parallel bars, a climbing wall, a battle ropes lane, and about 60 yards long of open yard for all things movement and outdoor fitness.

How to Find a Real Unconventional Gym

If you go out the other back door, there is more adventure than Huck Finn. A massive outdoor jungle gym made from timber lashed by this Eagle Scout (still got it!), a slack line for hours of dynamic balance training, 30ft climbing rope, and more Atlas Stones, big river rocks, logs, kegs, tires, and other barbaric looking odd objects and strongman devices all in the lovely shade of a 40-50ft canopy woods setting.

This is where I conduct most of my natural movement instruction because it allows me just a little bit of control while still tapping into the heart of the movement being as natural and adaptive as possible.

On Fridays I host a men’s group workout; this has become synonymous with legendary sessions involving large rocks being carried for distance, logs being carried, squatted, jerked, pressed, and even the occasional Caber toss. We get nasty, very muddy, usually a manly scrape or two, and there is something truly primal and organically cathartic about a bunch of dudes training like a Viking war party.

The outdoor jungle gym, affectionately called, “das woods” is my favorite apparatus to teach clients. Typically students begin hesitant and anxious, timidly placing a foot here and a hand there trying to orient themselves to this forgot- ten world. Within minutes they are jumping, balancing, climbing, and swinging like the primates they were born to be, all with very little queuing from me.

I just show them a few skills here and there and then let the nervous system and biology do the rest. After that is play time. The smiles ignite, the sweat trickles, and the laughter begins. Inevitably the next day I get the pleasant gratitude at the surprising level of soreness the client has, and I am one satisfied and slightly self indulgent coach knowing my work has not gone unnoticed for the day.

#2 Way to Find an Unconventional Training Gym: Use of Space

In addition to uniqueness, how you use the space is very important. Is your gym set up in a manner that provides practical application and real world functionality? This is the heart of what it takes to have a real unconventional gym. There should be space for your students/clients to move, and move a lot; run, crawl, roll, climb, wiggle, jump, scamper, scurry, hurry, slither to hither and yond! Gadzooks I’m turning into Dr. Seuss!

Real world fitness, as defined collectively by our community, means what we do inside the gym makes us better outside the gym, while also better preparing us for life outside the gym. Our day to day activities are easier: we move better, are free of pain, we feel better, are more energetic, livelier, and just more enthusiastic. Routine things like climbing a flight of stairs, carrying groceries, and playing with your kids all improve.

The next objective is to be able to do ‘anything’ better. For example, you are out on a trail run and are able to gracefully leap over a fallen tree blocking your path. Our recreational activities reflect a higher sense of enjoyment as our skill and abilities increase and our conditioning improves. Making people better is our primary goal and your facility should facilitate this main goal.

#3 Way to Find an Unconventional Training Gym: Coaching Specialities

How to Find a Real Unconventional Gym

What are your specialties in coaching? I am a movement specialist, which I know makes me a generalist, holding a level two MovNat certification along with FMS (Functional Movement Specialist). I like to study all things movement and create an atmosphere to teach these skills.

I have built an outdoor jungle gym in the woods behind the Ludus to encourage, teach, and foster natural movement. Inside I have maximized my floor space to teach crawling, rolling, low gait patterns, and other locomotive patterns.

We all have different specialties: kettlebells, Olympic lifts, movement, martial arts, etc.; your facility should help promote and enhance your speciality. As I have stated, I specialize in movement and outdoor fitness, so my studio is con- ducive to meet those specialties.

If you have a kettlebell certification and run many kettlebell classes, then that is what your space should resemble. You wouldn’t have it crowded with a lot of excess equipment if you are predominantly bells, would you? This may seem to be a no brainer, but I see a lot of facilities with unnecessary “stuff.”

This falls into teachable opportunities and a little bit of tools. As coaches, I believe it is our calling to educate our students/clients in the vast and often misleading realm of fitness. Does your facility offer opportunity for hands on teachable moments, or is it just an autonomous place for the patrons just showing up to do their own thing, then leave? A real unconventional gym is a place where people come to learn.

As I have grown and made more contacts in this field, including many of my fellow contributors, I have seen a rise in the quality, quantity, and integrity of communal information shared by all to make our clients better. Again, the betterment of the client should remain the highest goal in this industry.

#4 Way to Find an Unconventional Training Gym: Tools of the Trade

Tools, tools, tools…. so many fun toys, so little time! I have everything from plates to kettlebells, ropes to chains, macebells, hammers, clubs, rings and suspension trainers, sandbags, atlas stones, odd objects, and other strongman paraphernalia. None of that matters if you do not know how to use them yourself with a high level of proficiency moving towards mastery.

More so if you can NOT teach proper technique! It chaps my ass when I waltz into some shiny new un- conventional gym with lots of pretty equipment and poor instruction or physical incompetence from the coach. So, have any tools you want, just be able to use them correctly and teach proper technique.

#5 Way to Find an Unconventional Training Gym: Accessibility of the Space

How to Find a Real Unconventional Gym

Accessibility can be approached a couple of ways; I will address two completely different approaches. First is the more common: easy accessibility. Location, location, location… the trite phrase goes. In this case, you have your gym in a premium part of town with great visibility and high traffic.

You might even go as far as to have a nice in-out traffic pattern. For many, this is the desirable situation as it provides for the highest volume of exposure.

If you play the numbers game and took economics in college, then mathematically this should yield a respectable profit, assuming you are a decent coach; obviously your retention and growth will stall out if you are inept (but that is a different article).

The second scenario (again, there are other options these are just the two I have chosen to write about), is having a low profile off the beaten path. While it may be counterintuitive, this is actually the method I use and prefer.

In this set up, there are a few steps potential clients must take before they even get to your door. They might have an intelligent conversation with a current client, ask the right questions, and eventually either come in with said client, or schedule an introductory session.

Or, the prospective client has studied your website, found the information and services intriguing, and sought you out. Then they contacted you and had an intelligent conversation.

In this model, we see an exchange of information, a proactive step towards commitment from the prospective client, and ultimately a dialogue between the coach and incoming client.

My experience through this option has resulted in a highly educated, intelligent, and driven group of students that are serious about their fitness. Also, being off the beaten path keeps the riff-raff from just drifting in and wasting your time.

Not to sound too harsh, but there are many who lack the capacity to understand what it is we as unconventional coaches are trying to do, and a forty minute conversation in circles is an exercise (not the productive kind) in pointless frustration.

Remember, many of you are in charge of who you decide to work with; you don’t have to take on every client. There will be those clients that are more or less dead weight and your talents and energy investment will be much more fruitful with clients that are on board with your philosophy and methodology.

#6 Way to Find an Unconventional Training Gym: Make It Fun Space

Lastly, your studio should be FUN! I cannot stress this enough. People come to us and our gyms not just for the physical but for the emotional and mental benefits too. The environment you create in your gym should be an escape from rigmarole. Let’s be real: most jobs suck ass, and your clients want to wash the corporate feces off in the unconventional waters known as “your gym.”

Personally, I like capitalizing on the scenic back- drop of a coastal plains pine forest. Nature has a way of calm- ing, restoring, and healing. Also, it is just good business to make the training or practices as fun as possible. Exercise is not a chore, yet many view it that way. FIX this misconception and make it fun!w

Mark Smith
Mark Smith is the owner of Asylum Fitness in beautiful Wilmington, North Carolina. He is a Movement and Strength Coach that uses unconventional tools and methods to make his students a little better with each practice. His main focus is movement, he believes, “We were born to move. Reclaim your birthright.” He encourages his students and all those he meets to just play, similarly to when you were a kid, believing that play is the foundation of movement and movement is life. “By learning to move better and improving our mobility, everything falls into place.” he says. Mark is an Outdoor Fitness Enthusiast, is well versed in corrective exercises, and currently holds a level 1 FMS (Functional Movement Screen), and is a MovNat level 2 certified trainer and is always seeking to learn from the best. He also has a background in track and field, martial arts, ballroom dance, and currently is practicing parkour.

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