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The pain was everywhere. The lactic acid build-up was threatening to overtake my willpower. Whatever background noise there may have been was drowned out by what sounded like a car driving through a tunnel. With each agonising pull of the rower the digits representing metres rowed ticked over, their accuracy a stark contrast to my deteriorating technique and panicked breathing. As I reached the final metre I collapsed off the rower. My feet were still locked into the machine, but I didn’t care. My legs ached. I wanted out.
That’s when I heard the words. “You failed, James.”
That summed up my first 30 minutes at Gym Jones, a gym in Salt Lake City, Utah, known only by a select few in the US and not many outside it.
My body was in agony, but the assault was purely psychological. My inflated sense of athleticism was quickly and brutally disposed of. Rob Macdonald, general manager at Gym Jones, gave a painful assessment: I was physically capable, but mentally weak.
Gym Jones, founded by famous alpinist Mark Twight, operates on an invitation-only basis. You can’t just arrive and ask to sign up, and the website – gymjones.com – openly states that they are “private not closed”. But their results are legendary.
I had admired Twight for some time. As one of the most accomplished climbers in the world, he spent the better part of two decades scaling peaks that many climbers considered suicidal. But it was his writings on the psychological elements of those feats that drew me towards him and his facility.
After two decades of serious mountaineering, Twight reached a point where he no longer wanted to give climbing all it demanded of him. He had sacrificed time, relationships and his body for the sport, and he sensed that he was now being called to something different. He had always been interested in strength and conditioning, especially with the balance between endurance, power and strength that is required for a sport like climbing. So he and his wife Lisa started Gym Jones with no other goal in mind than to have a place where they, and a few like-minded athletes, could train without worrying about what music they played or how loudly they played it. They wanted a place where they were free to drop weights, shout and train the exact way their specific disciplines required of them.
Twight tells of how they weren’t concerned with “keeping the lights on” when Gym Jones first started, as the select few who trained there had other jobs which generated enough income to cover costs. This put them in the ideal position for a gym whose absolute goal is physical preparedness: they could select who they wanted to train. This allowed their trainers to be as brutally honest in their assessment of their clients as they felt necessary because there were no financial repercussions for harsh assessments or brutal workouts. If you didn’t like it or couldn’t handle it, you’d be asked to leave.
Gym Jones had been producing phenomenal results long before they landed the contract to train the cast of the movie 300, but that brush with Hollywood propelled the gym into the public eye. The actors and their stunt doubles were built in a way audiences hadn’t seen before. They looked tough and strong, and their movement was fluid and athletic.
Suddenly everyone wanted the secret workout to achieve the body of a Spartan warrior. But the Twights maintained that there was no magic formula, only discipline and many long hours of hard work.
Last November I flew to Salt Lake City with a dark feeling occupying the outer limits of my consciousness. The closer I got to Gym Jones, the more I started doubting my abilities – specifically, my ability to pass an examination of my mental strength. My ego told me it was just a gym and that I could handle myself, but that denial only made the darkness grow stronger.
Upon arriving I was greeted by Mark, Rob and some of the other Gym Jones trainers. They appreciated me making the trip, but were firm on the fact that they expected me to work hard. The atmosphere in the gym is warm without being soft. It’s an environment that accepts you, provided you offer yourself to it. You never lie on the floor in Gym Jones, no matter how exhausted you may be. There are no comfortable spots to sit on, and social niceties are reserved exclusively for the parking lot.
To write here what machines I used, what weights I lifted, and the times I was expected to complete challenges in, would undermine the value of the experience. As Twight says: “At the end of the day, it’s just picking shit up and putting it down.”
The workouts were without doubt the toughest I have ever been exposed to, but it is the thought behind them that intrigued me most. The further you progress into each round, the more you can feel your mental strength eroding. Everything has a purpose: every repetition, every number, every movement. Each one is intended to fracture your strengths and expose your weaknesses. One particular challenge hurt me so badly psychologically, I still don’t like to talk about it.
The Triathlon is a combination of three machines, with set distances on each, the total of which must be completed in under five minutes. I can honestly say that I have never been more nervous than in the few seconds before I started that workout. I was consumed by this darkness, because I knew what awaited me. Not pain, not burning muscles, but shame. I knew I would be exposed, and I was.
I fell six seconds short of the target time, but I also fell apart mentally. I started looking for excuses immediately. I blamed the jetlag, the travel, the altitude, the new machines… anything to explain my failure. Then I said it, the words that are so often used to excuse failure: “I got close, didn’t I?”
I felt ashamed. At a place built on nothing but the hard and unrelenting will to never give into failure, I had tried to justify mine as being acceptable. I had been doing that for too long. That moment shifted something inside me.
Two days later I completed the same workout within the five minutes. Was I suddenly stronger and fitter in two days? Of course not. During my second attempt at The Triathlon, when I reached the moment of panic breathing, I again heard my mind starting to negotiate with my body, telling it that failure was acceptable, and that it would be fine to pull a bit softer to protect my body. I heard it, and I ignored it. In one single stroke of the rower, I pulled harder than I knew I was capable of, and changed my mental state forever.
When people think of working out, they don’t usually consider the psychological aspect. It’s tough to put yourself in a position during a workout where your mind is engaged in a battle against your body – the body pleading with the mind to stop, the mind dragging the body behind it. It’s what the team at Gym Jones calls “the negotiation”. They preach that the mind is primary, and they are more concerned with examining your toughness under physical and psychological stress than just looking at the numbers you put on the board.
So many of us are top of our own little piles at work, in the gym and in relationships, but how many of us surround ourselves with people who will truly challenge us? No-one feels comfortable around someone who constantly beats us, who forces us to reassess our level of performance. Why do so many men stay in the comfort of the same exercise routine, the same rep count, the same gym? Mostly because it’s easy and comfortable. They know where their boundaries are and how their muscles will react, and they know they will never be placed in a situation that calls for them to really face the darkness that comes with being exposed. This dark place is uncomfortable, it’s cold and you can only reach it alone. If you’re looking for results, it’s the only place where you’ll find the jolt of significant change.
We find ourselves in a society where any effort is rewarded, where prizes are handed out for everything and where mediocrity is accepted. I admit that prior to my experience at Gym Jones, I was trapped by this way of thinking. Being told in plain and simple terms that I had failed was something I needed to hear in order to progress. There was no remarks column, no symbol for effort, just pass or fail. And I failed in the worst way possible – psychologically. I needed to be shown that while I may have been relatively strong and fit, that counted for absolutely nothing given the fragile nature of my mind.
It’s too easy to make resolutions, to tweet your plans or tell people about your new diet. The reason Gym Jones and the athletes who train there are so successful is simple: discipline. Not military-style discipline where a drill sergeant screams orders and slaps you into line; discipline at Gym Jones is far more meaningful and sustainable. Personal accountability ranks highly, form is never compromised and assessment of performance is always honest.
Unrelenting discipline is their secret. It’s what turns those who train there into the best version of themselves.
Next time you’re unhappy with your performance, the way your body looks or some other aspect of your life, rethink your motivation. It’s not the big, sweeping, life-changing moments that matter, it’s the small and seemingly insignificant steps you take towards a goal that matters to no-one else but you.
After my experience at Gym Jones I am absolutely clear on two things. One, I’ve stopped asking how much difference can be made in two weeks, two days or two minutes. Doing that only justifies never starting something or never finishing it. The real difference is made in your mind when you decide to no longer walk down the same old path.
Two, the reason that Gym Jones and those who train there are so successful is simple: they are genuinely and relentlessly pursuing a noble goal. What shape would your work, your body and your life take if you did the same?
James White is the founder of Roark Gym.