I was always on the hunt for a hardcore gym. A place with loud, pumping music, a place where lifting heavy was encouraged, and no one behind a desk told me not to wear boots, not to use chalk, or not to do this or that. Lifting was always an art form to me, a form of meditation, a place and time where I could lose and find myself all at once, but I found that I could NEVER relate to that guy I saw at the gym who would read the newspaper in between his sets, and then check his hair in the mirror. I thank the weightlifting gods up above that I escaped from these globo-gyms. I still remember the day I had to stop commuting the 25 minute drive each way to Diamond Gym… it was the day I broke my own heart. Diamond Gym is like the Westside Barbell of bodybuilding. The atmosphere is beyond amazing.
Underground Strength Training Begins
At the time, I was a middle school Health & Physical Education teacher, neck deep in graduate school, coaching wrestling, teaching as an adjunct at a Junior College, and still, trying to get my lift on. I was stuck in traffic for almost an hour and barely moved. I had to get off the Garden State Parkway and exit to turn around and head home. I felt like absolute shit, skipping my workout and realizing that my time was just not there.
I knew how all the other gyms were; I had trained in all of them since 1990 and I left them all.Diamond Gym was my only home. It was the only gym that “got it.”
So, I decided to take matters in my own hands. I set up shop in the garage while living with my parents. The garage was crammed extremely tight, no heat and winter was around the corner. In fact, the garage was colder than it was outside. I purchased some used dumbbells and a bench from some neighborhood in Newark, NJ (one of the most dangerous cities in the country) and a few other cheap items like a gun rack for squats, and a 300lb weight set from Costco.
The garage workouts were short lived once I got sick from training in the freezing temperatures, but during that short time in the garage, I packed on size and strength in a way I had never experience before. This marked the beginning of NOT following the conventional and traditional rules of bodybuilding, and the beginning of my new journey against the diluted and hyper-sensitized gyms I had decided to leave.
The Early Days:
My training became a blend of strength, muscle, and toughness. I think the cold toughened me up. That was the winter of 2002-2003. That was a year that changed my life forever because not only did I begin breaking away from the norms, it was also the year I tore my ACL while training for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
It was a moment in my life that pushed me to make a difference in this world. All I could think about after my ACL injury was changing the way combat athletes trained. I knew what I used to do was all wrong. I knew that my long list of injuries since the start of my training as a 13 year old were largely related to my poor training methods.
Winter came and went and in the late Spring of 2003, I had my ACL repaired and went on a full blown, mad scientist stint of researching and experimenting for ways to train combat athletes so they could avoid all my pain, both physical and emotional.
My parents’ garage and backyard became my starting point. A few local athletes became my test subjects and their competition paid the price. We trained with free weights in the garage, stones and an axe in the backyard, bodyweight at the playground, and anything else we could lift, carry, or climb.
I didn’t know what would work but when I saw one of the kids I had trained wrestle against someone who he had lost to just a few weeks prior, the truth was on the table. He hammered his opponent with ease. He was stronger, faster, tougher, and wasn’t anywhere near as fatigued as his opponent.
The First Few Weeks at the Underground Strength Gym:
Who Influenced Underground Strength Training?
My strongest influences at the time were coming from the people at EliteFTS.com:Dave Tate, Jim Wendler, and Louie Simmons who really inspired and
educated me. Pavel’s methods began to make more and more sense to me. Coach Ethan Reeve would post his tough workouts on the Dragon Door Forum some 10 or so years ago and I was intrigued with how he blended strength, power,and toughness together into each workout.
Louie Simmons would answer the phone as I called him every week on my lunch or during my preparation while teaching through the week. We spoke about dragging sleds for 10 minutes non-stop, slamming heavy med balls for 5 minutes non-stop, and 112 lb wrestlers who were benching 205 lbs.
Jim and Dave emphasized the need to get stronger through the basics. Jim never put a filter on his advice and I respected his integrity and truth every time someone asked him about training. Dave and I would chat often and he always told me I would own a gym, and I always told him I would never leave my garage. He was right.
Josh Henkin really woke me up with his comment on how the wrestlers from the farm boy states were the strongest and toughest because of all the odd object lifting they did.
It all began making sense, and I never stopped learning since those days. To be a great coach and to give the people you train your absolute best means you can’t shut it off. Training out of my parents 1-car, low ceiling garage and backyard could only last so long with winter around the corner again. So, when it was house hunting time for my fiance and I, the only thing that mattered to me was finding a house with a 2-car garage.
I never told her that because I had enough people calling me crazy. Yes, that’s right, a lot of people called me crazy. I was selling workouts from my web site, trying to create a PDF while purchasing a bootleg version of PDF Maker from e-Bay for close to $175 (how’s that for a bargain!?).
I was learning the ways of becoming a successful Strength Coach. Ryan Lee was at the epicenter of educating coaches and I invested in every business and training course he released. I became friends with one of the top coaches back then, and, still tops today, Alwyn Cosgrove.
All I wanted to do was learn what it would take to create a full-fledged business versus being a teacher AND running a training business. I saw Jason Ferruggia training guys from a small warehouse gym and Joe DeFranco training guys from a converted storage closet inside a racquet & fitness club. These two guys inspired me big time and I harassed Joe DeFranco for six months to let me pay him for an hour of his time and he finally caved in.
Assembling an Underground Strength Training Gym
Having the knowledge and the guts to go full time as a strength coach just wasn’t there. With a house and a baby on the way, I did what I do best: WORK HARD. The 2-car garage of our home became my training center and was originally called “Combat Grappler” because I only trained wrestlers. I would turn down other athletes, coaches, and parents from other sports. The garage was unlike anything I had ever seen or anyone else had ever seen. I had old school Golden Era bodybuilding photos on the walls; Arnold, Dave Draper, and Franco. I had a squat rack custom made from Sorinex to ensure that we could do pull ups without our head going through the ceiling.
I had sleds welded from my Dad, kegs filled with water, plenty of sandbags, and dumbbells that I had picked up from classified ads and craigslist, some of which are historical dumbbells from the 70s and prior. Kettle- bells, ropes, thick bars, tree logs, a climbing rope hanging from a tree, and stones of all shapes and sizes; we had it all and I felt like I was running Gladiator central. When the local elementary school closed I would drive the wrestlers down the street with my truck bed filled with kettlebells, sleds, a prowler, and a few sandbags.
Truck pushing, hill sprints, sled drags, jumping on picnic tables, and wrestling on grass were all part of the agenda. Ryan Lee kept asking me to describe my training and all I could explain back then was that, “We’re Underground. I don’t follow the traditional rules of training”. In turn, he called me The Underground Strength Coach.
I didn’t do it because it was a fad. It started first off because I didn’t have the money to buy a $10,000 functional training machine for my athletes to do cross body chops. This was the craze of “functional training,” and if you didn’t do dumbbell curls on one leg or bench press off a stability ball you were viewed as an outsider.
I built confidence through results. When big name coaches made fun of me I knew it was a sign of their blazing insecurity. I guess they were afraid that some kid could build ass kickers from his garage without a fancy gym and without wearing a polo shirt.In my heart I KNEW it was about the kids I trained; once a teacher, always a teacher. As the years progressed I witnessed the fancy gyms removing the expensive equipment and transitioning to the use of odd objects. What was once viewed as “Underground” soon became a fad. Grandmas were flipping tires, round back and all.
Underground Strength Training Goes Mainstream
As my garage grew more and more, my itch to get into a warehouse or garage overcame me. Alwyn Cosgrove gave me the confidence to take action and the bottom line was that I was running a gym from my house on a residential street where a business like this was NOT legal. I was afraid that I would eventually get arrested one day. When you’re passionate about something it’s amazing how literally nothing can stop you.
I opened The Underground Strength Gym in a warehouse in June of 2007. I rented a truck with my Dad and purchased 40 horse stall mats from a horse supply shop in Northern New Jersey. We transferred the equipment from my garage to the small warehouse and picked up a few tractor tires from the tire yard around the corner.
The gym next door to us thought we were crazy when they saw us flipping tires and attacking workouts in the parking lot. A few months later I got my CrossFit Level 1 Cert and became a CrossFit affiliate. It was the first community of people and coaches I felt comfortable around. These people had passion, they were intense, many of them had small garages or backyards set up for training and they weren’t afraid to squat or lift heavy.
Back then, the typical CrossFit Gym truly was a “box;” often times only 1,000- 2,000 sqft. Since then, things have obviously changes and many are in the 5,000- 10,000 sqft range. I was never a fan of the big gym. It didn’t appeal to me so I trusted my gut instincts.
Once my gym opened I was receiving regular emails and phone calls from guys around the country and even outside the states, asking how I found a way to make it happen. How did I open a gym while still teaching and while being a husband and father. The constant calls and emails inspired me to test drive a weekend where I would teach my system from what I do when a new athlete trains with us to how we progress from there.
That two day weekend became known as The Underground Strength Coach Certification and has evolved a lot since the 5 or 6 years ago when it started.When I look back at the evolution I always laugh because I had countless doubters and haters. They all laughed at us and doubted us. Those who believed and were true friends have remained so.
Those who simply came along and tried to find any angle they could to benefit themselves moved on and continue to leech off others to benefit themselves. My training has always evolved and I continue to learn day in and day out. But the one thing that remains the same since day one (and still holds true today) is that I never did the things that were fads or gimmicks; I did what produced results and what felt right in my heart and in my gut.
Fads come and go. The truth never dies.
Underground Strength Training Workout
Here’s a sample training session from the garage after a warm up:
A1: Kettlebell Farmer walk up the street and back: Approx 400 ft total
B1: Barbell Zercher Squat 5 rounds x 3 reps
B2: Kettlebell Swings 5 rounds x 6 reps
C1: Thick Bar Floor Press 5 rounds x 3 reps
C2: 1-Arm DB Row 5 rounds x 6-10 ea.
Underground Finisher – School Yard Throwdown:
Max Work in 15 Min
D1: Truck Push x 150 ft
D2: Hill Sprint x 5 reps x 50 ft Hill
D3: Sled Drag x 120 ft
D4: Sprint x 120 ft
D5: Picnic Table Military Press x 10 reps
D6: Pull Ups x Max
D7: Sprint Back 120 ft
D8: Sled Drag x 120 ft
Sounds like too much work, right? Sounds like someone is gonna burn out their CNS and overtrain, right? I didn’t think like that. I thought about Rocky IV, training for Drago, away from the distractions, away from the perfect environment, the perfect equipment (or the perfect anything).