"People Here Will Break Every Rule": Inside LA's Underground Gym Scene

John McDermott
·9 mins read
Photo credit: John McDermott
Photo credit: John McDermott

From Esquire

On a typical training day, Dustin Watten, a 33-year-old professional volleyball player, wakes up at 7 a.m., meditates for 30 to 60 minutes, journals his intentions for the day, and makes a smoothie bowl of bananas, dates, kale, ginger, turmeric, almond butter, cacao nibs, and sprouted buckwheat before heading to the gym for two hours of Olympic weightlifting. “I’m a pretty good volleyball player, but my smoothie bowl game is really, really impressive,” he tells me.

The afternoon is filled with foam rolling, studying game film, and a second meditation, followed by an hour of team practice, and then into his nightly routine: TV, a plant-based Buddha bowl, and the last meditation session of the day.

But the pandemic disrupted Watten’s regimented training schedule, forcing him to resort to extreme measures. He filled a packing box with dried lentil beans and used it as a crude medicine ball in HIIT workouts. He traveled to Hawaii to train outdoors in the sand with renowned big wave surfer Garrett McNamara. And for the past couple weeks, he’s been Olympic weightlifting at an Orange County gym that technically isn’t open due to the statewide ban on indoor fitness facilities—but you can get in if you know the right people.

Fitness is about more than staying in shape for people in Los Angeles; for many, it’s fundamental to their way of life. So with gyms closed and the pandemic threatening to ruin their physiques, the L.A. gym rats and meatheads have created a loose-knit underground fitness economy consisting of makeshift garage gyms and real gyms operating in murky legal territory, workouts held in public parks, and a black market for gym equipment. “L.A. is so unique,” says Chris Benck, a 31-year-old personal trainer and former CrossFit instructor in Santa Monica. “There are so many people in this city who either run every day, or do three hours of CrossFit, or go to Gold’s Gym, and they’re finding ways to continue doing it… People here will break every rule to get back to the gym.”

Photo credit: John McDermott
Photo credit: John McDermott

On a recent Thursday evening, former professional bodybuilder turned personal trainer Pedro Barron was working out the men of the Perez family—father Edwin, Sr. (51 years old), and his sons Edwin, Jr. (19) and Kenny (18)—in Culver West Alexander Park. “C’mon, big man!” Barron shouted at the elder Edwin, leading him through a set of preacher curls. Unable to access Gold’s Gym, his usual training facility, Barron had the Perez family use picnic tables for weight benches. “Gold’s Gym is the Mecca of bodybuilding and it’s my personal temple,” Barron told me between sets. “When it closed, I was really depressed for one week. But now we’re grateful to be here.”

Photo credit: John McDermott
Photo credit: John McDermott

The Perez men supplied their own homemade dumbbells, fashioned from poured concrete with copper pipes serving as handles. Later, they did hanging knee raises from a swing set whose swings were removed at the onset of the pandemic. “Yeah, like that! Better!” Barron shouted as Edwin, Jr. engaged his core.

Demand for gym equipment has skyrocketed since gyms were first shut down in March, and with the pandemic straining supply chains and manufacturers scrambling to meet demand, a booming secondary market has emerged.

When CrossFit Aviator closed in June (presumably because of the pandemic; the phone number is no longer in order) it held a firesale for its members. The entire lot—every last barbell, bumper plate, and jump rope in the place—was picked clean in one day, according to Andrew Warwick, a trainer at Paradiso CrossFit, another CrossFit gym in L.A. Warwick says he also knows of some wholesalers that are breaking protocol and selling direct to individuals, but people can only get in on it with a referral from someone high up on the L.A. fitness hierarchy.

Benck spent nearly $3,000 transforming the two-car garage at his Santa Monica apartment into a personal training space, and it took him four weeks to source all the materials. He bought the rubber cladding from a tractor supply company (it’s typically used for horse stables, he says). He set up website alerts for Rogue and Titan, two popular fitness equipment manufacturers, and purchased items the moment they became available. “Stuff was selling instantly,” he recalls. He hesitated on a set of dumbbells that were in his online cart, and by the time he decided to check out, they were gone.

Trainers in L.A. can charge upwards of hundreds of dollars per hour, depending on how specialized their services are. But most trainers have to “rent” gym space, which at a globo gym like Equinox means sharing more than half your earnings with the gym. Jeff Jalaba, a 30-year-old part-owner of Movement Matters, a private training studio that focuses on correcting people’s biomechanical deficiencies, says he’s heard rumors about some gyms staying afloat by brazenly flouting the state’s lockdown order and continuing to operate indoors. But with most L.A. gyms closed and no space to rent, that source of income for trainers has gone to zero.

Many trainers have turned to teaching Zoom classes and providing distance training and diet routines. Jalaba and his business partners have taken to meeting clients in parks, like Barron. But for Brad Rowe, it was motivation to start his own boutique training studio. Prior to the pandemic, Rowe, a 37-year-old semi-retired bodybuilder, was paying $1,000 a month to rent gym space from Gold’s Gym in Venice, a landmark among fitness enthusiasts ever since the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron introduced it (and Arnold Schwarzenegger) to the world.

Photo credit: John McDermott
Photo credit: John McDermott

In lockdown, Rowe spent $20,000 transforming his garage into an air-conditioned training space, replete with a treadmill, a Bowflex, a squat rack, a belt squat, a pull-down machine, and a leg press he found through LetGo, an online marketplace for used goods. He plans to spend another $14,000 on an Assault bike, a rower, and a glute-ham developer, among other items. “You can’t charge people $250 an hour to have them use some resistance bands in the park,” Rowe says.

Already, the investment is paying off. Since the pandemic, Rowe has started training Mike Tyson for the former heavyweight champion’s comeback fight, as well as retired adult film actress Bonnie Rotten. “I hate going to the gym,” she said between sets of seated rows. As you can imagine, she generates lots of attention in a public gym. Rowe’s home gym may be far away in the Hyde Park neighborhood in south L.A., but it affords her privacy and safety.

Rowe trains only one person at a time, limiting the risk of COVID-19 spread and enabling him to thoroughly sterilize the space between sessions. He’s also being personally tested for the virus every two days as part of his training with Tyson. Tyson’s comeback journey is being documented, and everyone on the production crew is subject to frequent testing, Rowe says.

Photo credit: John McDermott
Photo credit: John McDermott

Benck used the pandemic to start offering his personal training services to influencers, and it’s reaping dividends—he’s been making house calls to the Clubhouse, one of several influencer group homes in Beverly Hills, during quarantine to give sessions to TikTok star Kinsey Wolanski. Eighty percent of Benck’s clients are women, and the majority of them ask for some variation of the “booty workouts” that are so popular on Instagram lately, he says.

On a Saturday morning, Benck runs his client Juila Levitskaia, a 35-year-old attorney, through a gauntlet of squats to deadlifts to resistance hamstring curls, all designed to build and tone her posterior chain, in his garage gym. Like Rowe, he cleans the space after every individual session, and asks clients to wear a face mask when they arrive and leave. The spartan workout setup is, in a bizarre way, the realization of Benck’s dream of opening his own studio—even if it is in a garage, in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in a century. “I’d still like to have my own studio someday, but I like the homey feel,” he says.

Levitskaia, meanwhile, says she’s lost 15 pounds working with Benck during quarantine. “The pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I have nothing to do but work, sleep, and workout.”

Barron, Benck, and Rowe all say that they’re now earning just as much with their pandemic fitness hustles as they did working as class instructors and training in gyms owned by other people in pre-COVID-19 times. It’s unclear whether these ad hoc gyms are strictly legal, though.

The LA County Public Health Department has a lengthy checklist of precautions gyms must take, including requiring health checks for employees, having members physically distance, and moving operations outdoors. Whatever their legal standing, gyms like Rowe’s offer considerably less human contact than a public gym, he says, and he predicts the home gym trend will last well after the pandemic is over. At the park, the men of the Perez family say they prefer their austere outdoor workouts to the relative comforts of Gold’s Gym, where they normally train three days a week with Barron. “We’re out in the open air, the sunshine. It’s a nice escape from the gym,” says Edwin.

For fitness-obsessed Angelenos, getting in a good pump is about more than maintaining a sculpted physique—it’s vital to their mental well-being, as well. “Anger has always been my fuel, and training has always been my Xanax,” Rowe says.

Watten, too, has learned to embrace the peculiarities of staying fit in quar time. “At first, I had a lot of resentment about not being able to get in the gym,” he says. Athletes thrive on routine and instruction from coaches and trainers. But under quarantine, he’s learned how to rely on himself.

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox

SIGN UP

Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts

SUBSCRIBE

You Might Also Like