The first thing you notice about South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club is the quiet. The half-dozen squatters and deadlifters work in near-silence, save only for their deep, intentional inhales and exhales.
Paulie Steinman, the club’s founder, always knew that when he opened a lifting gym, he wouldn’t play music. He didn’t want to assert his taste over others or default to Top 40, but most importantly, he explains, he worried it would give people the option to check out.
Despite only being founded in 2010, SBWC is the oldest strictly dedicated powerlifting and weightlifting gym in the five boroughs of New York City. In contrast to commercial gyms that also offer strength training equipment and personal training, members pay steep dues ($325 month-to-month) to join SBWC specifically for its self-designed strength programs, which are centered on the three classic powerlifting movements: squat, bench, and deadlift. And while SBWC supplements with accessory lifts and free weights, you won’t find any machines or cardio equipment in the gym. “You’ll know we’ve gone to crap if you ever see a Smith machine in here,” Paulie tells me.
The magic of SBWC, Paulie had long held, lay in its purist approach to weightlifting. “To me, the mission is get people comfortable with strength training,” he said, when I first spoke to him in April. “And then giving people the advantage of integrating that into the rest of their lives.”
For the past 10 years, Paulie and his wife and co-owner Becca, along with their staff of four USA Powerlifting-certified coaches, have been able to get by on the lifting offerings alone. But this year, they’ll usher in a new era: On February 1st, they unveiled “SBWC Performance,” a new 10,000 square-foot facility with some additional offerings: speed and agility classes, yoga, physical and massage therapy, and private infrared saunas.
Of course, with the expansion comes an updated value proposition. According to Paulie, “Now, we are really a holistic strength… wellness performance center.”
Our modern conception of weightlifting is owed in part to Gold’s Gym, which opened its first location in Venice, CA in 1965. Although weightlifting had already been recognized as an official Olympic sport for over half a century, the equipment and atmosphere of the gym itself brought attention to weightlifting and gave rise to other, so-called “hardcore” lifting gyms in California and across the U.S.
As the sport evolved into different styles and lifts, a taxonomy began to develop: Olympic lifting meant the “snatch” and “clean and jerk”; powerlifting meant squat, bench press, and deadlift. In 1972, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was founded and, seven years later, they added a women’s division.
But it wasn’t until the late-1970s — and the increase in television access — that lifting weights truly captured popular interest. Strongman competitions began being designed not for the advancement of technique, but for TV: lifting, in short, became an aesthetics-oriented spectator sport.
In 1977, the documentary Pumping Iron opened up the world of professional bodybuilding to the public and imbued the sport’s heroes — most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger — with a new kind of celebrity status. That same year, The World’s Strongest Man premiered on CBS and broke all the classification rules: Rather than being regulated like IPF competitions, the contestants competed in various, seemingly-random strength-based events, like the “car carry” or “keg throw.”
If the rise of both made-for-TV lifting and commercial gyms helped to increase the public’s access to weightlifting, they also served to dilute the sport’s standards. Increasingly, the taxonomical lines blurred for the average gym-goer — at a certain point, barbell sports, bodybuilding, physique contests, and moving dumbbells around at a gym all got lumped together under a giant, vague umbrella of “lifting.” And despite TV revolutionizing how the public interacted with the sport as entertainment, the competitive community remained relatively small and insular.
Health club memberships in the U.S. totaled $87.2 billion in 2017 and have been steadily increasing over the past few years. This growth is in keeping with the rest of the booming wellness industry, which was valued at $4.3 trillion globally in 2018. But within the commercial gym market, boutique fitness is by far the fastest growing sector: From 2012-2016, these memberships increased by 70%, while big box Gyms (like Crunch and Anytime Fitness) increased by only 5%. And high-end gyms — think Equinox — currently make up 35% of the total market.
This distribution is just another symptom of the hourglass economy, wherein only the extremely high (an all-club-access monthly Equinox membership in New York is $265) and extremely low (Blink memberships are as low as $15/month) markets can be satisfied.
You would think, at $325 per month, that a place like SBWC would meet the high market demands. But as a standalone lifting gym, it doesn’t quite fit the bill: Increasingly, studies show that people fold in atmosphere, amenities, and overall “experience” when deciding where to spend their fitness money.
So while there’s a sizable population that could ostensibly afford SBWC, a single-modality training offering might not feel worth it. But one way to get them over the fence, Paulie and Becca ultimately realized, would be to bring other wellness amenities in-house.
In popular culture, professional weightlifters tend to be shown as short, stocky, and with extremely low body fat. But Paulie and Becca don’t look like your typical meatheads. Paulie is taller and softer than I’d imagined, and Becca is much less manicured than the female weightlifters you often see on Instagram (no fake tan or tacky dye job, and even in the heat of the gym, she layers multiple dark gray fleeces).
The two are adamant that the impetus for SBWC Performance was not a decline in membership or an anxious bid to remain competitive. In fact, most of the new offerings — speed and agility, yoga, massage therapy — were borne out of organic conversations they had with members about how they fit other aspects of wellness into their lifestyle.
The Steinmans had noticed that many members were outsourcing other fitness and wellness practices (cardio, physical therapy, massage, etc.), and they saw an opportunity to bring those services in-house, offered by people who understand the unique demands of lifting and could provide services in a way that would feed back into their core training modality.
“There were limits to what we could provide [as a lifting gym], and I’ve always had a vision of being able to have a one stop shop,” says Paulie. Now, with SBWC Performance, he says, “we have a place for you to train, a place for you to recover, we have an ecosystem for you to exist in, and it becomes more of a ‘third space’ for people.”
The danger of this setup, of course, is that the club loses its potency (and to a certain extent, status) as a powerlifting gym. But Becca stresses that it’s an intentional expansion. “Culture has always been really important to us, so it’s not that we’re doing it to try to be everything to everybody,” she says.
On the morning of SBWC Performance’s launch, I watch a circuit class, taught on an 85-foot-long strip of turf in the new space. For a high-energy cardio workout, there’s very little hullabaloo — the members narrow their eyes to focus on the instructors’ demos; they land every burpee jump in perfect squat form. At 11, it’s yoga led by a classically trained Ashtanga yoga teacher with a background in weight training; nearly 20 powerlifters lay out mats in the new, sunlit studio. Halfway through class, it dawns on me that in my own decade of practicing yoga all over the country, this is the most diverse class I’ve ever attended.
The new suite of services will be available to non-members on a drop-in basis (outsiders will even be able to reserve the saunas), but Paulie and Becca don’t seem that worried about it negatively impacting the club’s culture, mainly because they believe so deeply in the strength of their own ethos.
“It’s not like there’s a class that is disconnected from everything else,” says Paulie. “Everything kind of feeds into each other.”
Part of that continuity is established by the physical space itself: despite nearly doubling the size of the gym and adding new, top-of-the-line equipment, the vibe of place has remained extremely no-frills.
Take the common area, which functions as a locker room, kitchen, childcare area, and public living room. On a typical day, you’ll find bags, coats, and shoes strewn about the room, a few members seated around the table in plastic chairs, chatting over supplements.
Paulie points out the amenities to me: there’s a fridge, a dishwashing station, a coffee maker with fresh grounds from a direct trade company down the road, a snack shelf stocked with protein bars (“Leave a few bucks, it’s the honor system”), a corner with two plush sofas (“If you need to nap or leave your kid to play with their iPad while you work out”), and a plastic bar cart stocked with whiskey (“Again, it’s the honor system”).
The remodel has allowed them to upscale a bit — for insance, they were able to finally build two private changing rooms with showers and complimentary towels. On the whole, though, the experience of being in the new space feels shockingly similar to being in the old, rough and tumble space.
Weightlifting is slow, enduring work. It’s not a quick fix, and it requires making other changes: To maximize results, people also need to adjust their nutrition and sleep schedules, and most people don’t want to completely overhaul their lifestyle in order to reach their primarily aesthetic physical goals.
Branded, cardio-focused workout classes like Barry’s Bootcamp and SoulCycle, on the other hand, are marketed on their efficiency and specifically target those intent on realizing cosmetic changes: a full-body workout in 45 minutes, two pounds of sweat lost, and you’re off, en route to your next engagement on an adrenaline high.
The other piece of the puzzle is what is referred to as “community-based fitness experience.” With millennials and Gen Z-ers driving the boutique fitness boom, businesses are hard-pressed to create a world that is, first and foremost, Instagrammable: to cultivate the illusion of an exclusive fitness “tribe.” These optics-driven communities aren’t difficult to suss out: SoulCycle instructors have cult-like social media followings; the hot yoga studio Y7 (which exclusively plays hip-hop music) brands their merchandise with the slogan “A Tribe Called Sweat.”
SBWC isn’t a total luddite operation, but they haven’t leveraged their online presence as best they could. Their Instagram page is mostly used to congratulate competitors, advertise upcoming challenges, and encourage members to keep making it to the gym, no excuses. Their content isn’t so much “on brand” as it is starkly unbranded. It seems almost too sincere for the internet.
But sincerity, I’ve learned, is what keeps SBWC rolling. Trusting that there would always be a market for their vision, Paulie and Becca have always stuck to their philosophies — on programming, staff, pricing, aesthetics, the list goes on.
Early one Saturday, when it’s still quiet, I’m upstairs in the yoga studio with Paulie, watching the late-morning light unspool in horseshoe-shaped rays through the south-facing windows.
Jonathan, one of the speed and agility coaches, runs up, taking the stairs two at a time.
“Yo Paulie, Sam wanted me to ask you if we can play music for the circuit class?”
“No music,” Paulie answers quickly, shaking his head. “You don’t need it man, it’s a crutch.”
Jonathan shrugs his shoulders in playful protest.
But Paulie stands his ground. “Trust me.”