You’d be excused for thinking the 10 sweaty and grunting people lobbing weighted balls at each other in the parking lot of a North Hollywood strip mall are members of Cross Fit or some other local gym.
But listen to the instructor — not a word about blasting your abs or feeling the burn or glutting your core. He’s talking about Cyclops, one of the characters from the X-Men comics, as the members use barbells to do dead lifts and back-squats.
“Cyclops didn’t give up, his girl liked that other dude, which was nuts….”
One gym wall is painted with space invaders from that 1970s video game, there’s a Dungeons and Dragons throw rug and enough other trappings of geekdom to make you realize how serious they were when they named the gym Nerdstrong.
Andrew Deutsch, the gym's owner and creator, was asked why nerds would need their own place to work out: “For me, it’s so I can stay up playing 'Batman Arkham Night,' but for others it produces a wonderful experience of going through something [with] the same logic you can apply to any online video game.”
Deutsch came up with the idea while trying to help a friend through some tough times by getting him to work out with him. It lasted one session.
“He came back to me and said, 'It’s alright, but I’m not coming back.' And I said, 'Well, we’re going to be doing a dungeon workout next Sunday, where you kick down the door, defeat the monster then go to the next room and we’ll do that in 20 minutes.' And he’s like, 'I’d do that, I’d show up for that.'"
And thus a concept was born: a gym for people who hate gyms, who don’t work out often, and who like a hint of role playing with their weight lifting.
So how do they get people to keep showing up? The instructors aren’t just paying lip-service – they list their geek cred online, along with their trainer history.
Instructor Blair Herter used to work for MTV. He runs marathons and lists Diablo II as his favorite game. He says the trick is to keep members focused on the things they like, not what they hate.
“It’s [like] magic, man — check out what going on in my left hand while I do the magic in my right. We don’t want you to think about the fact that you’re doing things you thought you were incapable of."
Herter says his approach is more like, “You look like you’re struggling, let’s talk about Josh’s run on 'Astonishing X-Men.'”
Everything is on message – in a role-playing game reference, the website talks about how people can add plus 1 to their strength, dexterity and constitution. Classes are themed to take down the death star, fight zombies, or to do some X-Men training in the danger room.
Patrons exercise at Nerdstrong gym in North Hollywood (photo by Collin Friesen)
Sound a little hokey? Don’t be such a nerfherder. (Yes, that’s a "Star Wars" reference — shame on you if you didn’t get it.)
But Nerdstrong Gym members say it’s more than just a place to improve their health, it’s finding a community, where non-workout-related social events, like movie nights, are part of the package.
“[At] other gyms, you might get some support during the work," says one participant. "But this is a lifestyle."
“There are people here [for whom] it’s the first time going into a gym, first time taking their health seriously,” says Brett Charles, wearing a t-shirt adorned with “The Tick." “Or people who used to [go to gyms], and now they’re not — they just don’t want to be around that kind of toxic masculinity.”
Nerdstrong has already taken over the retail space next door so there appears to be a market for what they’re selling. And maybe that’s because there’s one other thing you really notice about this gym: maybe there’s a little less sweating, but there’s a lot more laughter.
It won’t surprise you that the gym shuts down during Comic-Con, but the people behind the operation will be part of a panel called "Getting Fit for Cosplay, Geekdom, and Life."
They’ll give advice, take questions and probably look for some new members — people like Brent Charles who summed up Nerdstrong this way: “We all were picked up on. We all just felt like misfits forever, and now we’re misfits together.”