Inside the Gym That Makes Nerds Jacked
There’s an unassuming storefront, tucked into an unassuming strip mall in North Hollywood, California, where groups of unassuming men and women slay dragons. They wield swords and maces. They battle goblins, duck fireballs, wage war with Vikings and supervillains. Their goal: build the strength of the Hulk, the resilience of Wolverine, and the power and grace of Wonder Woman.
And then, like any other good superhero, they return to their unassuming lives, secret identities intact.
This storefront is Nerdstrong, and as its name suggests, it’s a different kind of gym. It’s the brainchild of Andrew Deutsch, a 46-year-old former tech guy. Nerdstrong’s members hold regular jobs — web designer, real estate appraiser, massage therapist — and they all share a love for all things nerdy, for Marvel superheroes (like the Avengers) and Star Wars and Harry Potter. These are the kinds of gym-goers who appreciate a discussion of the real-world strength of, say, Thor.
They also share a distaste for bro-heavy gym culture, and this is where Nerdstrong’s magic happens. Tell this gym that you’re going to max out on bodyweight squats, and people roll their eyes. Tell them somebody is going to swing a mace at their heads and they have to squat down to dodge the blows as many times as possible, though, and they fall in line like a platoon of eager jarheads.
So it’s all sci-fi-meets-CrossFit-box at Nerdstrong. The concept was born eight years ago, when Deutsch was trying to help a friend through a divorce. “I knew that working out would help him,” he says. A devoted CrossFitter, Deutsch coaxed his pal into joining him for a workout at his garage gym. But after a few attempts at selling his pal on CrossFit’s hyper-intense, bigger-stronger-faster ethos, Deutsch could see that his friend wasn’t into it.
Deutsch knew his friend was a gamer, though, so for one workout, he changed things up. He started the session not with mobility drills, but with a sheet of graph paper. “I told my friend, ‘Today, we’re going to do a dungeon workout’,” he says.
Deutsch drew a dungeon map (think Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game stuff), and showed his friend a room. In the first room, Deutsch explained, his pal would have to break down a door and “fight a monster” by doing an exercise for two minutes. If he defeated the monster (by hitting his reps), he’d move onto the next room. There were more rooms after that, each with a similar setup: “beat the monster” or “open the item box” or “unlock the door” by doing an exercise.
Suddenly, a burpee wasn’t a burpee. A pushup wasn’t a pushup. Infused with a little imagination, exercise wasn’t a slog for Deutsch’s gamer pal; it was a full-blown adventure. Before long, other gym-shy fantasy fans joined them, and not too long after that, Deutsch quit his day job.
The Early Arch-Enemy: Member Trust
Deutsch opened Nerdstrong in 2014, and in so many ways, it seemed like a natural fit. Marvel and Disney had made comic books cool behind Captain America and Iron Man and Thor, and video games, that other nerd stronghold, were in the spotlight thanks to pro sports, with more and more NFL players embracing Call of Duty and Halo and Madden.
Still, Deutsch endured early challenges. For all the guys who wanted to lift in his garage gym, he initially had trouble getting members to sign up for Nerdstrong, a gym he was selling to people who didn’t like the gym. And bodybuilders and CrossFitters found the gym too quirky.
Deutsch’s solution: Just give things time, especially since, he says, when he found members, they were easy to retain. So Deutsch started focusing on crafting a small but loyal community, even celebrating “nerdaversaries” commemorating members’ first visits to his gym.
The results are impressive. Wander the gym enough, and you’ll see a few patrons with Nerdstrong tattoos. “I tell them ‘this is your Danger Room,’” says Deutsch, referring to the holographic training facility where Marvel’s X-Men engage in mock-battles. He gestures around a high-ceiling-ed area in his barbell and sandbag heaven. “Train here, and you’ll be prepared for the dangers of the outside world.”
X-Men fanboys get that. In their imaginations, they’ve faced Sentinels in the Danger Room a thousand times. Now, they get to do it “for real.”
None of this means Nerdstrong’s fitness is soft. These nerds (and yes they’re cool if you call them that) are doing real exercises, working up real sweats, and getting real results. A pushup isn’t less effective because you call it a goblin-crusher — especially if it gets you excited to do the pushup with gusto.
That’s a Heroic Workout
“Universally, a favorite workout is the Viking,” says Nerdstrong “Gym Master” Brian Tolman, whose gray mane and brawny physique have earned him the nickname Cable—an X-Men character most recently played by a bulked-up Josh Brolin in Deadpool 2. (Want to see how bulked Brolin got for Deadpool? Check this out.)
The circuit-style workout involves rowing, running, and numerous striking movements with a steel mace and a medicine ball, followed by more running and rowing. “It’s a perfect workout,” says Tolman. “You’ve got cardio, heavy weight, motion, and dexterity.”
But when you’re doing it, he says, you’re not thinking workout: “You’re thinking, I’m rowing to confront my enemies. Running towards them on the battlefield. Striking at them with my mace. Crushing their skulls. Burying their bones. And rowing home.” When The Viking is on the schedule, some members arrive in war paint. And enough members managed to beat the workout’s 50-minute time limit that Deutsch recently introduced the Uberviking: twice through the same circuit with the same time restriction.
Soft-pedaling the hardcore approach has clearly been effective: in his three years at the gym, Tolman has dropped 70 pounds. 30-year-old bodyworker Chris O’Sullivan shed 75. And accountant Mario Torres, whose jacked physique resembles those of his DC Comics heroes, Superman and Batman, recently gained entry into an elite, but growing group of members whose squat, deadlift, and bench press PRs add up to more than 1000 pounds.
“All gym are nice,” says Torres. “But here I can talk about latest in pop culture, old 1980s movies. I don’t just lift and leave. Here everyone makes an effort to help you achieve your goals, both in the gym and in life.”
Always Retreat to the Batcave
With such impressive athletic accomplishments behind them, you might think some nerds (and that title is a point of pride here) might fly the nest to explore other gyms and methodologies.
It happens: empowered by their progress, several members have dipped their toes in elsewhere. But they always return. Most of Nerdstrong’s members just don’t like what average CrossFit fans would consider “hardcore” fitness.
Awhile back, reps from a hardcore kettlebell training system asked Deutsch to if he’d host a workshop. “No one signed up,” he says. A week later he advertised a combat-based workshop inspired by the Wonder Woman movie. “We called it ‘Amazon Training,’” Deutsch says. “We swung maces, fought with shields and swords.” It sold out in minutes.
It’s not exertion or effort that turn these nerds off to mainstream gym culture. But Nerdstrong’s faithful view mainstream gym culture as heavily judgmental. “Guest instructors have come in and said things like ‘No limp wrists when you press overhead!’” recalls Deutsch. “(People here) are immediately turned off.” Nerdstrong’s members spent their lives identifying with mutants, hobbits, and other outcasts, and they try to keep their Danger Room open to anyone and everyone: Black, white, agender, bigender, Star Trek, Star Wars.
Even the Darwinian codes repeated, espoused, and scrawled on the walls at other gyms don’t fly here. There’s no “Only the Strong Survive” anywhere in Nerdstrong. Some CrossFit boxes push you to compete against other gym-goers, vying for the best score or the most reps at the end of class. Nerdstrong doesn’t. “If I ever create competition for them, they wind up helping and encouraging each other instead,” Deutsch says.
These nerds are there to work hard and get fit—but in their own way, and on their own terms.
Nothing Beats a Superhero Team-Up
The team-first environment may be the biggest benefit of Nerdstrong. It doesn’t just allow its members to inhabit their heroes’ fictitious worlds. It gives them a context in which working out finally makes sense, where people who have never felt comfortable exercising can get out of their heads, get physical, and take up space without fear of being ridiculed.
Even if you train by yourself, you could benefit from this, from a place and a community that supports you beyond the whole sets-and-reps count. Part of the success of CrossFit has long been its ability to create community, and other brands of workouts have followed, from darkened spin studios to the crack-of-dawn yoga class where everyone’s working on handstands. Even big-box gyms if you survive the early fears of judgment, offer community, with regulars who spot each other and always wind up training at nearly the same time. It’s the whole idea of the fitness tribe.
Nerdstrong is like any other fitness tribe—just a little bit more superheroic.
Can You Beat the Nerds?
Need proof that the members of nerdstrong aren’t “just nerds”? Find a 20-sided die (just head to a comic book store and they’ll give you a hand), and survive these two workouts from Deutsch. (Don’t have a 20-sided die? Just use an app on your phone to generate a random number between 1 and 20.)
The D20 Workout
Directions: Do 5 rounds of the following circuit. After each round, roll the die, then follow the chart below. You’ll add that many reps to the first four exercises, and that many seconds to the finishing plank hold.
Start in pushup position, then lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Press back up. That’s 1 rep. Do 10.
Start standing, then bend at the knees and push your butt back, lowering your torso until your thighs are parallel with the floor or as low as you feel comfortable, whichever comes first. Stand back up. That’s 1 rep. Do 15.
Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Contract your abs and raise your torso. Lower your torso with control until your back is again on the floor. That’s 1 rep. Do 10.
Start standing, core tight and chest up, then take a step forward with your right leg. Bend your right knee (and your left), lowering your torso until your right thigh is parallel with the ground. Pause, then push off your right knee and back to standing. That’s 1 rep; do 10 per leg.
Get in plank position, feet together and forearms on the ground, elbows directly below your shoulders. Tighten your core and glutes. Hold for 20 seconds.
How many reps do you add per move?
Directions: Think of this as a Nerdstrong chipper. Complete each of the 7 stations as quickly as possible, resting as needed. You must finish in 50 minutes.
Set up in a cardio rowing erg, grab the handle, brace your core, and pull. Focus on pulling with your legs, and hinging backwards (as if doing a deadlift) before you row the handle to your chest. Row 500 meters.
Run 400 meters
Dumbbell Skier Swing
Hold light dumbbells at arm’s length next to your thighs, knees bent, feet shoulder-width apart in athletic stance. Hinge at your hips slightly, swinging the dumbbells back as far as you can, until your trunk is parallel to the floor. Maintain a slight arch in your back. Then explosively thrust your hips forward and come to a full stand squeezing your glutes and swinging your arms until they’re in front of your chest. That’s 1 rep; do 50.
Medicine Ball Slam
Stand with your knees slightly bent holding a medicine ball above your head with your arms extended. Bend forward at the waist and use your core muscles to slam the ball against the floor about a foot in front of you. Let your arms follow through so you don’t fall forward. Catch the ball on its way back up and repeat. That’s 1 rep; do 50.
Start in pushup position, with your hands grasping light dumbbells, hands directly beneath your shoulders. Do a pushup, then press back up. As you press back up, tighten your core and lift the right dumbbell off the ground, rowing it to your right ribcage. Work to keep your hips level as you do this (although they may naturally shift, and that’s OK). That’s 1 rep. Do 25 reps per arm.
Run 400 meters again.
Finish things off with one final 500-meter row.
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