Fitness Turns 50
In 1965, Gold’s Gym opened its doors and launched the modern fitness movement, bringing exercise and healthy living into the global consciousness.
Fifty years ago, it all started in a single concrete room, 30 feet by 100 feet, just off the Venice Beach, California shoreline. It was an unassuming spot, but packed inside were massive men pumping iron and curling, benching and deadlifting thousands of pounds of weights. This was the first Gold’s Gym, and it created a revolution that continues today.
The Dark Ages
In 1965, American health was in decline. More than one-third of the children in the U.S. failed one of the five strength tests administered in school, compared with a 1% failure rate for European students. The government was so concerned that it encouraged comic strips to promote fitness. “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz produced Snoopy’s Daily Dozen, a booklet featuring Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus and the gang going through a series of exercises.
Less than a decade before, Sports Illustrated had published “The Soft American” by President John F. Kennedy, in which he argued that “such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation…. [T]he stamina and strength which the defense of liberty requires are not the product of a few weeks’ basic training or a month’s conditioning.” The small percentage of American adults who did exercise favored quick and easy workouts that didn’t require equipment or do much to build strength. Real strength training was nearly unknown.
A Gym Is Born
Enter Joe Gold, a Merchant Marine veteran with an impressive physique and film-extra roles in The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days. He worked out at Muscle Beach ,just south of the Santa Monica Pier—where young men like Jack LaLanne, the original fitness hero, and movie star Steve Reeves, who played Hercules, lifted crude weights, performed handstands and other gymnastic moves, and showed off their hulking physiques to tourists strolling down the boardwalk.
Despite the favorable California climate, Gold knew they needed an indoor spot that would allow them to work out at all hours and train with better machines. He purchased an abandoned lot on Pacific Avenue and erected a simple cinder-block building and Gold’s Gym was born.
At the time there were just three gyms for the 7 million people in the Los Angeles area. Gold saw an opportunity, and he also understood
how much he could improve the bodybuilding community. The weights and benches of the day were poorly made and uneven, with faulty cables and uncomfortable grips. Gold knew what the lifters liked—after all, he was one of them—and set about creating equipment to suit their needs. “Joe was a hard-core trainer, a competitive bodybuilder back in the day,” says Shawn Perine, current editor-in-chief of Muscle & Fitness. “He was about building hardcore muscle, about giving guys the chance to create the ultimate physique.”
Gold turned his two-car garage into a weight-lifting shop of sorts, developing benches, pulley systems, unique handles and other homemade devices that were superior to anything on the market. While other gyms tried to mimic the cutting-edge technology, none of them had the brilliance of Gold. “When you felt his dumbbells, there was a magic there,” recalls Eddie Giuliani, a bodybuilder from New York who moved to California to train at Gold’s Gym. Giuliani would later win his weight class in the Mr. America competition in 1974 and at Mr. World in 1975.
Gold’s creations were precursors of the equipment that’s now standard at any good weight room, like leg extension and cable machines—allowing serious bodybuilders to move beyond simple free weights. And the magic machines that came out of his garage spawned an entire industry that is now focused on perfecting and modernizing weight equipment.
The Golden Era
At the start of the 1960s, bodybuilders flocked to Gold’s Gym. Dave “The Blond Bomber” Draper who was literally and figuratively the biggest muscle star of the decade, joined, along with other huge men of the day. Tourists stood outside the gym, peeking in and hoping to catch a glimpse of the men inside. People who couldn’t get to the beachside spot could still see Draper and others on the covers of bodybuilding magazines that were slowly taking off. Publications like Muscle Builder featured interviews and tips from the big names at Gold’s, turning them into fitness icons for a small but growing community of bodybuilders. “That was the ‘me’ generation, and all of a sudden people were discovering themselves, and what better way to discover yourself than to see how ripped you can make your muscles?” Perine says.
The rapid explosion of the fitness and bodybuilding trend spurred the growth of scientific breakthroughs and interest from the medical field. The fledgling International Society of Sport Psychology held its first World Congress in 1965, and the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity came into being in 1967. In 1971, State University of New York at Stony Brook chemistry professor Paul C. Lauterbur developed the concept that he would use to create the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and the first issue of the Journal of Sports Medicine came off the presses a year later.
Then, of course, came Arnold Schwarzenegger. Joe Weider, creator of the Mr. Olympia competition and publisher of magazines like Muscle & Fitness, brought Schwarzenegger to train at Gold’s Gym in 1968, and the Austrian almost immediately became an icon. He worked out with Draper, Giuliani and his good friend and roommate Franco Columbu, harder, faster and longer than anyone else, smiling throughout the effort, impressing the young men who wanted to be him. “Arnold was everywhere,” says his frequent training partner, Ric Drasin. “He made Gold’s Gym the ‘Mecca of Bodybuilding.’ ”
Throughout the 1970s, the bodybuilding movement continued to gain traction, and Schwarzenegger’s gang led the way. Yellow Gold’s Gym T-shirts featuring the ubiquitous Gold’s Gym logo— designed by Drasin spontaneously on a cocktail napkin—were everywhere on the boardwalk, the beach, the bars around town and beyond. To wear one was an indicator that you were a part of something larger. Gold’s Gym hosted the 1977 Mr. America contest. That same year, Pumping Iron, featuring Schwarzenegger and some of his closest friends training for the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, became a box office hit. It vaulted the
bodybuilders—andGold’s Gym—to another level of celebrity. Schwarzenegger became a household name, and Lou Ferrigno was cast as the Hulk, a role that made him famous in his own right. The small, almost cultish world of bodybuilding at Gold’s Gym was suddenly on screens across America, and its devotees were becoming legends overnight. Soon Hollywood celebrities like Clint Eastwood were dropping in for sessions, as were sports stars like Muhammad Ali.
Women had begun to show up occasionally at the gym in Venice in the mid-1960s, but as the sport gained popularity through competitions and Hollywood box office hits, females began to want the same chiseled look. The first Ms. Olympia competition was held in the U.S. in 1980, and Shape magazine—the first fitness publication geared specifically to women—was launched in 1981.
Bodybuilding had solidified itself in mainstream culture. “I remember watching TV in the ’80s, and every other commercial featured a bodybuilder,” Perine says. “More likely than not, that bodybuilder was recruited by somebody calling the front desk of Gold’s Gym Venice.”
A Legacy Begins
By 1980, Gold’s Gym had been sold by Gold and passed through a few owners, landing in the hands of Pete Grymkowski, Tim Kimber and Ed Connors. The trio, nicknamed “The Three Horsemen,” set about spreading the core message of the brand to the nation. They saw that bodybuilding and physical fitness had staying power, becoming less of a trend and more of a basic tenet of how to stay healthy as you age. The movement picked up pace, and by 1982 movie star Jane Fonda would take a break from her busy schedule to shoot Jane Fonda’s Workout, launching her successful second career. Soon after, in 1985, the American Council on Exercise was formed to create a standard national certification process for aerobics instructors. Fitness was no longer a tourist attraction on Venice Beach; it was a part of everyday American life.
Connors opened the first licensed Gold’s Gym in San Francisco in 1980 and dedicated himself to launching new outposts. Jerry McCall, a nationally competitive bodybuilder who bought into the San Jose franchise in 1982, remembers the old days. “Ed really spawned the licensing program,” the former president of the Gold’s Gym Franchisee Association says. “He had a knack for meeting people, like somebody in Rochester or Madison, a hardcore kind of guy who had small club and wanted to expand. Those owners saw something smart in becoming part of the Gold’s Gym brand.” By 1981 there were 5,000 independent health clubs across the country, and many entrepreneurs saw the great value in aligning their small business with Gold’s Gym, which was rapidly becoming the dominant force in American fitness.
The number of Gold’s Gym locations across the country skyrocketed. The group took the brand international in 1985, opening a branch in Canada. The iconic T-shirts started selling in retail outlets worldwide in 1987, the perfect complement to an increasingly global focus on fitness—and making the logo an internationally recognized symbol of strength training.
Gold’s Gym became a cornerstone of pop culture. Carl Weathers, who played Apollo Creed in Rocky, wore a Gold’s Gym t-shirt on a Saturday Night Live promo spot; Wesley Snipes donned a Gold’s Gym tank top in White Men Can’t Jump, and Will Smith flashed a Gold’s Gym VIP pass in Men in Black. Celebrities of all types, from pop stars like Janet Jackson to Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis and basketball legend Michael Jordan, were showing up at Gold’s Gym.
By 1993, Gold’s Gym had 1 million members, and that’s when it became clear that it wasn’t just pioneering a fitness revolution: It was building a legacy of strength and setting out to help people achieve their potential through fitness.
In 1996, it expanded to Europe and Asia, changing perceptions across the globe. “When we first opened, the word fitness didn’t exist in the Russian language,” says Paul J. Kuebler, one of the three principal people to open the first Gold’s Gym on Moscow’s Leningrad Avenue in 1996. “We had to explain to Russians what fitness was. In the past, they only worked out to improve at the sports they played.”
Evolution of a Gym
As Gold’s Gym continued to evolve, the brand also pioneered the latest fitness innovations, making sure their members stayed at the forefront of fitness trends. Connors built a group exercise room in the San Jose gym in 1981, well before the trend took off nationally. The Gold’s Gym trainers got ideas from around the globe, increasing the use of kettlebells and sports periodization after seeing the success these exercises and philosophies had in Russia.
The cardio age came into being in 1984 with the Stairmaster Stepmill, and Gold’s Gym locations nationwide featured the machines. Lori Lowell, the national group fitness director for Gold’s Gym International between 1999 and 2009, talked about how classes created the right atmosphere. “There’s a power in group fitness,” she says. “It wasn’t just about coming in and lifting weights. We were delivering a great social environment as well as a great workout.” The success is obvious, with gyms offering everything from yoga, Pilates and core training to cardio kickboxing. Classes like TRX and Zumba gained popularity in the coming decades, along with modern additions like Cardio Cinema rooms, and became standard offerings at Gold’s Gym locations around the world. This past year, Gold’s Gym partnered with Microsoft to bring fitness into the next era by featuring their branded workouts on the Microsoft Band, the most cutting-edge health fitness tracker available.
But the tireless process of evolution and innovation at Gold’s Gym is most evident in its
members. With females representing nearly half of its membership base, the Gold’s Gym enthusiast today is not necessarily a massive muscle man. Now at Gold’s Gym, you’ll find all kinds of people with a variety of fitness goals from losing weight to boosting performance. Now more than ever, Gold’s Gym realizes that strength comes in many forms—whether it’s the strength to be a better parent, the strength to overcome diabetes or the strength to finish your first triathlon.
The Legacy Continues
The Gold’s Gym legacy continues to leave its mark on the American attitude toward fitness, even though at the beginning it wasn’t a guarantee. At an event to celebrate his February 2013 cover of Flex Magazine, which marked the 40th anniversary of his arrival in Venice, Schwarzenegger reflected on those early days. “We all together went on a crusade to fight for health and fitness, for resistance training, bodybuilding and weight lifting. At that time, everyone laughed,” he said. “Now there isn’t one hotel in the world that doesn’t have a fitness room with weight machines, bodybuilding machines. Our crusade has been extremely successful.”
Gold’s Gym is now the largest full-service gym in the world, with more than 700 locations in 38 states and 23 countries, and its mission has remained the same: to help people reach their potential through fitness and exercise. The Gold’s Gym logo has become an international symbol of strength that transcends culture, politics and language barriers, and the brand continues to expand around the world, recently signing deals to open new locations in Jordan, Morocco and Mongolia.
Amid its humble beginnings in 1965 inside a single concrete room in Venice Beach, Gold’s Gym set off the first sparks of a fitness revolution. That fervor flickered and then grew, spreading across the country until it raged like a wildfire, making exercise a part of the mainstream and putting healthy living at the forefront of our culture. The same spirit of innovation that Joe Gold began in his two-car garage continues to thrive and inspire Gold’s Gym leaders to be at the vanguard of fitness today. Gold’s Gym is poised and ready to keep this revolution alive for the next 50 years and beyond.