North Hollywood’s Nerdstrong Died Because Gym Rats Were Scared Of The Geeks
Nerdstrong was a way of life, a rallying cry for Angelenos who hadn’t felt wanted by traditional gym culture. Andrew Deutsch, aka Coach Andrew, got the idea back in 2013 after getting a friend inspired to keep working out with a dungeon battle-themed session. It started out of his garage before moving into a facility where they eventually took over the neighboring space. But a combination of the pandemic and the way even self-proclaimed nerds can leave others out contributed to the Nerdstrong Gym shutting down.
The premise was simple: a gym that encouraged people who love superhero movies, role-playing games, and other iconic pieces of pop culture. It was for those who didn’t think of themselves as gym people to begin with, in the vein of other gyms for people who aren’t super into working out — but taken to a new, larger-than-life level.
“My people were different ... I didn’t open a gym, I opened a clubhouse,” Deutsch said. “We embraced who they were. And they weren’t afraid to be as nerdy as they wanted to be, and to be outspoken about it … We said, ‘You know, it’s OK to be you here.’”
Turning Pop Culture Into Intense Workouts
The centerpiece was group fitness classes that catered to self-described nerds and geeks who might have felt like misfits at other gyms. It would disguise everything from CrossFit to high-intensity interval training with a theme or a story, though the workouts might occasionally involve a mace or a sword (don’t worry, they were fake).
While pumping iron, you were encouraged to push yourself harder by imagining you were taking down the Death Star, training in the X-Men’s Danger Room with Cyclops, or fighting some zombies. One workout, based on the end of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," included holding a five-to-ten pound weight out awkwardly for two minutes to stand in for Rey trying to get Luke to accept his lightsaber.
“The more we attracted of the Comic-Con crowd, the more people wanted to come in and try it out,” Deutsch said. “My theory was always, I could write a hundred pushups on the board for you to do, but what if I said there was a dragon trying to attack the gym and it has a hundred hit points? And for every burpee you do, you do one hit point of damage as a class.”
Some of those workouts were big hits, though some members had to wake up to just how hard being a superhero is.
“Marvel was huge at that time, and they see those superheroes, and they want to do that, and all of a sudden finding out it’s actually quite grueling work,” Deutsch said.
But he found that putting this frame around the workouts would lead to classes doing much harder work than they would otherwise. Deutsch tried to incorporate some of the actual movements that the characters do in a movie or a game, letting members bring those moves to life.
“They’re thinking less about the numbers and more about what they think about when they’re playing a video game, or Dungeons and Dragons — which is completing the task, as opposed to the dauntingness,” Deutsch said. “It was hard for them to get to the gym in the first place. Now, if I could get them to come back, I knew I was doing something right.”
He contributed to the growing community of gym-goers by talking with them during classes about new movies, books they were reading, and more bits of culture.
“I felt like that was part of the elixir that made the space really perfect for some of these individuals,” Deutsch said. “People that wanted to just come in, get a workout, and leave, they didn’t really attach themselves to the gym as much as the people who were looking for community more than anything.”
Even once another class would start, Deutsch said, he’d see people hanging outside for an hour just talking with each other. They’d talk about everything from heading to Comic-Con to their Harry Potter house — to what their workout goals were.
The End Of A Nerd Empire
Early in the pandemic, Nerdstrong tried to move its classes online, experimenting with Zoom classes, a Twitch channel, and more. It also started to hold outdoor park workouts on the weekend.
The gym’s five-year lease happened to be running out in April 2020, according to Deutsch.
“At the end of April, we were going to move the gym to another location and sign a new lease — and we just decided not to do that,” he said.
He saw it as a bit of serendipity, though the gym ultimately blamed its closure in an August 2020 statement on a combination of COVID-19 and a dispute with the landlord. The gym’s management decided to wait until businesses are open, restrictions are lifted, and everything starts to normalize again before making another attempt at running a gym.
The gym sold off its equipment (along with bidding farewell to the Space Invaders painting on the wall and the Dungeons and Dragons throw rug). Deutsch had originally worried that it might take months to move the gear, but the pandemic fitness equipment shortages meant that weights and other equipment were moving like the hotcakes that people were trying to cut out of their diets.
Being Inclusive For Jocks
But there was a problem that may have led to changes even without those issues: The people who typically go to the gym were scared off by the nerds. Nerdstrong, even with all the press it received over the years (from The New York Times to Men’s Health), and the calls to bring a version of it to other cities, only had around 100 members when it closed. A number of those members were with the gym ever since it first opened, with some drawn to the gym thanks to the way it rejected toxic masculinity.
“I think a challenge is finding that hybrid solution that works for the gym rat, the typical gym crowd, and the people that used to go to Nerdstrong,” Deutsch said. “Because it is still a small group, even though there was a lot of desire for this kind of facility. Those willing to actually endeavor into it were a small, niche demographic.”
There’s potentially a new gym coming from the coach behind Nerdstrong. But it won't be until 2022, and it won’t be called “Nerdstrong” — though he does plan to have Nerdstrong classes. The new gym would also be aimed at a broader market, reaching beyond the nerds to attract those who consider themselves “gym rats,” according to Deutsch.
“We started by saying, we’re going to give these nerds a place to do fitness. And it turns out it actually pushed away people who don’t consider themselves nerds,” Deutsch said. “They still wanted to go to a gym, they just didn’t know if they wanted to hang out with a bunch of nerds. So it was like this weird, opposite, upside-down world of high school. The jocks are like, ‘Am I going to be thrown out because I’m not nerdy enough?’”
Along with other business factors, there may be something to that — on the Nerdstrong Yelp page, one reviewer wrote that they were worried they weren’t nerdy enough for the gym, but ended up liking it once they went.
The Future Of Gyms
Deutsch sees gyms continuing to have a hard go moving forward, even as things start to open up, at least until next year. Several of the members of the Nerdstrong gym, including some of his private coaching clients, built their own home gyms during the pandemic.
“They put a lot of time and effort into those spots that they have at their homes, so I don’t know if people are going to be willing to give up exactly that for a group fitness situation,” Deutsch said.
For those not ready to hit the gym just yet, Deutsch recommends some of the virtual classes that he’s seen expand during the pandemic, via Youtube, Apple Fitness, Peloton, and more.
“A lot of our crowd wanted that gamified aspect to fitness, and I always tried to give it to them,” Deutsch said. “And I think now these services have really done a good job with giving people those badges, and those metrics that they really desire.”
Some ex-Nerdstrong coaches have kept the Nerdstrong spirit alive with a new Burbank gym, Hero’s Journey Fitness. He also recommends looking on streaming service Twitch to find others to work out with. And that community built at Nerdstrong is continuing to organize itself online, including via a Nerdstrong Discord chat server. They’ll do things like find a YouTube workout and do it together.
Deutsch plans to watch the market before making his next move — or super jump/charge shot/spin attack, as the case may be.