ZUVER'S GYM - THE HISTORICAL HARDCORE CHRISTIAN LIFTERS' HAVEN
Disclaimer: If you’re serious about being a Christian, you might take umbrage with a lot of this article. That said, I wasn’t flaming anyone out of some innate desire to irritate Christians- I find the whole Christian Muscularity movement to be a strange and unseemly method to rope in little kids and people in the counterculture who suffer from isolation and/or mental illness. In short, though it might seem as though I was spitting in the eye of the guys who were nice enough to provide me with the source material for this article, that really wasn’t my intent. Thus, to Richard Sorin, Dave Draper, Zuver Jr, and anyone else who might bridle at the contents of this article, relax- this is just an outsider’s perspective on your scene.
The further one digs into the history of the sport of powerlifting, the more insane shit one uncovers. Truly, dissecting the history of that strength sport is more akin to a doctor in Unit 731 vivisecting live humans, dumping all the parts on the floor, and then trying to determine what the body looked like before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria by studying the piles of oozing viscera than it is like telling a pleasant bedtime story. It’s far more of a heavily knotted string than a super straight ship’s chain, and more layered and diverse than the beats in a Missy Elliot song. If I’m frank, I think it’s awesome, but to a casual observer it must seem like more of a mess than the inside of a hoarder’s house after their 30 cats goes completely feral.
Given that we’re in the middle of the story of the original Westside Barbell Club, it seems like it might be a weird aside to cover another gym altogether, but this is exactly the type of place that a weird sidebar like this gym belongs.
As I mentioned in part two of Bill “Peanuts” West’s story, once Bob Zuver opened his Christian Disneyland for lifters in 1960, everyone who was anyone trained there. All of the guys in the Westside crew periodically trained there, Arnold, Franco, Dennis Tinnerino, big Lou Ferrigno, Paul Anderson, Dave Draper, Chuck Ahrens, and tons of interesting dudes of whom you’ve likely not yet heard like the mustachioed, arm wrestling, bodybuilding powerlifter obsessed-with-looking-old-timey-as-hell-while-rocking-gold-fronts Bert Elliott (oh, don’t you worry, that article is in the pipeline), jacked-as-hell and strong-as-shit actor Bill Smith (also an article in the works), ridiculous gear whore Tom Overholzer, very recently deceased bodybuilding author, chiropractor, and powerbuilder Dr. Ken Leistner (famous for both writing and doing crazy shit like dive-bombing 405 for 23 reps on the squat at like 150lbs), Richard Sorin (of Sorinex fame), and a shitload of other lifters, convicts, missionaries, and every other kind of fringe cultural element you can possibly imagine. Zuver’s was designed to be a destination gym. It was, of course, a mecca for anyone with the ability to tolerate or the inclination to enjoy training in a place with a man screaming bible verses and blaring religious music at all times, because it seems Reverend Bob Zuver had some sort of muscular Christianity thing going on (a topic I will be writing about at length in the future).
If that seems bizarre given the shenanigans going on nearby at Muscle Beach, it should- this place was an anathema to the writhing, sweaty, weed and liquor-lubed muscle orgy that seemed to be LA at the time. The town of Costa Mesa, in which Zuver’s was located, had existed for less than a decade, however, and was still a community of country bumpkins and Christian evangelicals, some of whom founded one of the biggest evangelical cultist networks in the world, Calvary Chapel.
“[CHUCK SMITH] WAS RESHAPING AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY. HE OPENED THE FIRST NONDENOMINATIONAL CALVARY CHAPEL ON A COSTA MESA LOT WITH JUST 25 CONGREGANTS IN 1965. SOON HE BECAME FAMOUS AS THE STRAIT-LACED PASTOR WHO THREW OPEN HIS DOORS TO THE RAGGED COUNTERCULTURE AND BAPTIZED THOUSANDS BELOW THE OCEAN CLIFFS OF CORONA DEL MAR. HE BECAME PAPA CHUCK, THE SMILING MAN IN THE HAWAIIAN SHIRT, A STAUNCH-BUT-BENEVOLENT SPIRITUAL FATHER TO A GENERATION OF END-OF-THEIR-ROPE HIPPIES, DROPOUTS AND DRUG CASUALTIES” (GOFFARD).
If that doesn’t sound exactly like what Zuver was doing, I don’t know what would. In an event, whether it be for evil or good, some bizarre Christian stucco applied to a building made entirely of wildly homosexual bricks (Calvary Church has a serious preoccupation with the subject of homosexuality, and a rather amusing scandal revolving around a very gay pastor constantly whacked off his face on hallucinogens in the early church) or a genuine attempt to help his fellow man, Zuver managed to build what was simultaneously the coolest gym in the United States and one of the most intolerable training environments this side of the Lord’s Gym (which I just discovered is also based in California).
And if the music didn’t turn my ass around, that sign would have likely sent me for the goddamn hills. The gym seems to have been dope, though, and would likely be tolerable with headphones now… unless I wore any article of clothing, I own right side out rather than inside out.
It goes without saying that most of the Westside crew likely found Zuver’s to be intolerable- half the guys who trained there did so to get the hell away from Bob Hoffman and his Christianity-adjacent clean-living bullshit. I’d guess that half of the reason they’d pop into Zuver’s was the equipment, which was unparalleled in the world, and the other half was to see what their competition was doing, as Zuver’s had the team to beat before Westside started running shit.
“NO GYM EVER PROVIDED THE VARIETY OR UNIQUENESS THAT ZUVER’S DID IN TERMS OF EQUIPMENT, ESPECIALLY IN AN ERA WHEN MOST GYMS WERE LITTLE MORE THAN STOREFRONT HOLES IN THE WALL WITH VERY BASIC BENCHES, RACKS AND FEW SPECIALIZED PULLEYS. WHEN 190-POUND COLLEGE RUNNING BACK TEAMMATE LARRY GORDON, A FORMER TEENAGE MR. OHIO, LEFT SCHOOL FOR A SEMESTER TO “SEE WHAT CALIFORNIA WAS ALL ABOUT” AND CAME BACK AT A RIPPED-TO-THE-BONE AND TWICE-THE-SIZE-AND-STRENGTH 230 OR SO, HIS TWO-WORD EXPLANATION OF HIS STARTLING GAINS WERE SIMPLY, “ZUVER’S GYM!”
HIS DESCRIPTION OF THE AVAILABLE EQUIPMENT WAS ALMOST HARD TO FOLLOW, AND CERTAINLY IMPOSSIBLE TO FULLY GRASP. IN CONVERSATION, WELL-KNOWN LIFTING COACH, COMMENTATOR, TRAINER, AND FORMER COMPETITIVE POWERLIFTER DAN MARTIN DESCRIBED IT WELL WHEN HE SAID, “TO ME, AND I’M A HAMMERHEAD, ZUVER’S WAS THE ULTIMATE HOMEMADE HOME GYM,” AND THIS WAS AN EXTREME COMPLIMENT AND A STATEMENT I FULLY AGREED WITH.
IT WAS CLEAR I WOULD NOT “GET IT” UNTIL I ACTUALLY ARRIVED AT THE GYM. IN TRUTH, WHEN MY TRAINING PARTNER, JACK, AND I MADE THE 52-HOUR NON-STOP NEW YORK TO LOS ANGELES DRIVE IN MY CRAMPED TWO-DOOR FORD, AND EVENTUALLY WOUND OUR WAY DOWN THE COAST TO COSTA MESA, I’M NOT SURE WE “GOT IT” THAT FIRST EVENING AT THE GYM.” (LEISTNER).
What people saw when they arrived would stop them dead in your tracks. Once you got past the humongous statues and ornate doorframe, you faced a gym that was at least as much Barnum and Bailey’s as it was Gold’s.
“[ THE ENTRANCE SPORTED A] MAJESTIC FOOT-AND-A-HALF-THICK CAST STONE DOOR [THAT] SPORTED A 300LB DUMBBELL HANDLE. IT WAS CAST IN A FRAME IN AN AREA DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE PURPOSELY MASSIVE DOOR FRAME. THE FRAME AND HINGES WERE HAND CUT AND CAREFULLY GROUND OUT OF HEAVY 2″ THICK STEEL. WHEN FINISHED, EVERY MAN AVAILABLE HOISTED THIS DOOR UP AND INTO ITS FINAL PIVOTING POSITION. MAGICALLY, IT FIT LIKE A DOOR IN A BANK VAULT, REQUIRING ONLY A LIGHT HAND’S PRESSURE TO PUSH OR PULL IT OPEN. BUILT BY ALIENS? NO, BY BOB ZUVER AND HIS LOYAL FAMILY AND FOLLOWING” (SORIN PART 1).
Once inside, you were in a bizarrely Christian wonderland of homemade equipment and massive dudes moving huge plates designed by Zuver himself.
“THE DISTINCTIVE BARBELL PLATES OF THE GYM WERE FIRST SIMPLY CAST BY THE BELL FOUNDRY IN SIZES 2.5 LBS THROUGH 45 LBS AND RESEMBLED ANY BARBELL PLATE OF THE DAY. HOWEVER, ROBERT TOLD ME THE “MEATHEADS” DIDN’T LIKE ADDING 45S AND THEY HATED 35S ON A 45 LB BAR.
THE EARLY NON-DISTINCTIVE PLATES WERE LIKE THOSE FOUND AT ANY GYM, BUT THE ZUVER GUYS WANTED THINGS BIG AND SIMPLE, SO THE SECOND PHASE WAS STARTED WHEN AN ARTIST FRIEND DESIGNED THE ZUVER GIANT FOR ALL PLATES 50LBS AND ABOVE, FROM A CLAY RENDERING INTO AN ALUMINUM MASTER MOLD. THE WEIGHT AMOUNT, WHICH WAS NEVER REALLY CHECKED, WAS AN APPROXIMATE AMOUNT SINCE THE PLATES WERE NEVER MACHINE FINISHED.
THE BARBELL PLATES RANGED FROM 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 35, 45, 50, 100, 150, AND 200 LBS, WITH THE 35 LB AND 45 LB BEING INITIALLY USED AND LATER DROPPED FROM THE ZUVER SCENE. IN A FEW PHOTOS, THE 35S AND 45S ARE PRESENT, BUT AS ROBERT SAID, DAD ‘HATED’ THE 35 LB PLATES AND MOSTLY USED THEM FOR DECORATION. ROBERT RECALLED DRILLING AND SCREWING A NUMBER OF THEM OF THE 35 LB PLATES TO THE WALLS AS PURE DISPLAY” (SORIN PART 2).
At this point, you might be thinking that this place would have been an awesome place to train, but most of you are likely far too effete for this place. Unlike the sterile training environments in modern gyms, this place was gritty enough to have been a set piece in the Crow. In that gym, the fancy lock you have on your bar would have been cut off with bolt cutters, and your idiotic pride and joy likely would have been used immediately for rack pulls, because your fancy barbell is pointless and likely so are you for owning it.
“LITTLE ACTIVE MAINTENANCE WAS DONE BY BOB OR HIS EMPLOYEES, SO THE PLACE WAS, TO BE KIND, FILTHY. FOR EXAMPLE, ON THE FLOOR WHERE FOR YEARS MASSIVE GUYS DID PULLOVERS AND BANGED HUGE WEIGHTS ON THE FLOOR AT THE BOTTOM OF THE REPS, THE CARPET (?) WAS LONG GONE AND THE CONCRETE FLOOR WAS DEPRESSED BY THREE OR FOUR INCHES – EXPOSING THE AGGREGATE ROCK IN THE CONCRETE MIXTURE.
A JACKHAMMER COULDN’T HAVE DONE A BETTER JOB. CONCRETE DUST SPRAYED OUT TO THE SIDES FOR A FOOT OR SO AROUND THESE CRATERS. SAME THING AROUND THE BENCHES, WHERE PLATES WERE THROWN ON THE FLOOR. BEFORE BEING GROUND IN WITH THE REST OF THE DIRT AND DUST, WHITE LIFTER’S CHALK LAY HEAVILY STREWN ABOUT ON THE FLOOR AROUND THE BENCHES, SQUAT RACK, AND DEADLIFT PLATFORM, AS WELL AS ON ALL OF THE OLY BARS AND LARGER DUMBBELLS” (PEARL).
Given the fact that early powerlifting meets often had a serious contingent of chick lifters (the first official PL meet had about a dozen chicks) and odd lifting meets seemed to boast a popular couple of chick lifters doing various strength exhibitions, it’s a bit odd that it was a sausage fest at Zuver’s (Todd).
After doing some serious digging, I discovered that at some point they established limited hours in which women could train at Zuver’s, in a separate area of the gym set in an addition built a few years after they opened, but every single description I uncovered of the gym painted it as a bunch of jacked dudes in various stages of undress (and their dogs) throwing around weights to gospel music played at ear-splitting decibels, and one author was genuinely shocked when he saw women in the gym after it moved locations. In that way I suppose it was very much like Game of Thrones- lots of cock and big dogs running around.
Like all the other hardcore gyms of the area, dudes lived right outside the gym. Guys like the Ken Leistner showered and shit at the gym, then lived in a trailer behind Zuver’s house that lacked a shower and a toilet, making its accommodations far more Spartan than even the ones over at the Muscle House in Venice (the pun wasn’t actually intended when I wrote it, making it even more amusing now). Guys like that paid $30.00 a month, to live in the trailer, then helped Zuver accumulate the Mad Max-esque junk he would later turn into equipment, like the piece of guard rail from the freeway that became the gym’s incline bench with a little bit of Zuver’s TLC.
“EVERYTHING IN IT WAS HAND BUILT BY BOB: THE DUMBBELLS, THE CHIN AREA, THE ODD BUT WILD LOOKING (AND SOMETIMES FRIGHTENINGLY DANGEROUS – BUT THANKFULLY FEW IN NUMBER) MACHINES, AND THE BENCHES” (PEARL).
Bob Zuver likely didn’t think his equipment was all that dangerous or the conditions all that Spartan, because the man was on the Underwater Demolition Teams in the Navy during WW2. You know- the grizzled, salty-dog badasses who later turned into a far more polished, cuddly, and far less terrifying Navy SEALs. Zuver combined that sort of wild-eyed zeal and zero-shits-given attitude with his love of the nearby Disneyland and lifting and made Zuver’s without question the most ostentatiously strange gym ever constructed. Ever tinkering, Zuver made additions onto the gym almost daily, and was constantly out rummaging through junkyards with his son Robert to find the scrap to build the next insane strength tester, like the 500lb Blob.
“OTHER ITEMS IN THE GYM HAD A SPECIAL FLAIR AND WERE CHROME PLATED. PARAMOUNT CO BARS WERE REPLACED BY ZUVER BARS MACHINED ON LARGE LATHES AND MADE OF TOUGH, BEND-RESISTANT CHROME VANADIUM STEEL. EPOCHAL EQUIPMENT WAS BUILT, LIKE A TRAIN TRACK POWER RACK DRILLED ON TWO-INCH CENTERS FOR ITS ENTIRE LENGTH. THE RACKS WERE HAND-DRILLED BY ROBERT, BOB AND THE DENIZENS OF THE GYM PRESSED INTO WORK BY THE BOSS. A HALF-INCH DRILL WAS USED TO MAKE EACH HOLE, TAKING HOURS TO DRILL, AND IN DAYS — PERHAPS WEEKS — FORMED EACH PIECE OF EQUIPMENT” (SORIN PART 1).
And perhaps I’ve been a bit unkind in my characterization of Zuver, having seen evangelical kids in Arizona on more than one occasion throw rocks at kids in the neighborhood who weren’t into snake wrangling and singing in gibberish- there is no denying that Zuver’s Gym was the most badass spot to train in the world, from an equipment perspective. Zuver’s attention to detail was completely unparalleled either before or since, and he dedication to providing the ultimate theme park experience inside a gym, with the most cutting-edge equipment, for insanely low membership dues, is completely unique. If you’re thinking you know otherwise, consider that in addition to all the crazy shit you’ve already seen, Zuver’s had:
- a “Big Water Barrel” filled 3/4 of the way with water that weighed somewhere between 200 and 250lbs that was intended to be jerked to get on the gym’s leaderboard. Scoff if you want, but this was almost 20 years before the first WSM.
- the 500lb one handed deadlift weirdness called “The Blob.”
- the world’s first fixed weight cambered bars.
- dumbbells up to THREE HUNDRED POUNDS that sat on a converted railroad flatcar that rode on a track beneath the dip bars so you wouldn’t kill yourself moving them to where you needed them.
- on the goofy circus lifts, bells would ring, and lights would flash when they were lifted.
And if that wasn’t sufficient pandemonium, Zuver’s also boasted the the world’s biggest drinking fountain, which was made from a goddamn fire hydrant.
Like anything else, however, the dream had to end. Joe Weider bent Zuver’s ear and suggested they expand the brand with franchises, taking Zuver’s ministry into the big time. Weider didn’t give a shit about Jesus, however, and liked big weights only insofar as he could sell them. Thus, when Zuver shut his original gym and opened a modern bodybuilding gym, the wheels quite predictably fell the hell off the Jesus train.
“HOWEVER, BY THE LATE 70’S THE WINDS OF CHANGE WERE UPON US. ARNOLD HAD BROUGHT BODYBUILDING TO THE WORLD. THERE WAS MONEY TO BE MADE IN BODYBUILDING. POSSIBLY EVEN BIG MONEY. SO, AROUND LATE 1978, BOB CLOSED THE BACKYARD GYM AND OPENED UP A SHINY NEW ONE A COUPLE OF MILES CLOSER TO THE BEACH ON 19TH STREET IN COSTA MESA. THE PLACE WAS TO HAVE BEEN A “SHOWCASE” FOR FURTHER EXPANSION.
A ‘MODEL’ FOR FUTURE INVESTORS. ONLY THIS GYM WAS GEARED TO BODYBUILDING, NOT POWERLIFTING. GONE WAS THE DEADLIFT PLATFORM. ALL THE EQUIPMENT WAS NEW OR FRESHLY PAINTED. MIRRORS LINED ALL THE WALLS. WOMEN (GASP!) JOINED AND TRAINED HARD AFTER SEEING WHAT RACHEL MCLISH HAD DONE AND CORY EVERSON WAS DOING.
NO MORE THROWING STUFF ON THE FLOOR, AND NO CHALK ALLOWED. REAL WORKOUT CLOTHES AND SHOES REQUIRED. A SIMILAR GLEAMING FACILITY (WITH A SEPARATE “AEROBICS” AREA!) WAS OPENED IN THE AFFLUENT AND FAST-GROWING SOUTH OC LOCATION OF EL TORO. BOB BEGAN TO GEAR UP TO MAKE EQUIPMENT IN A NEARBY MANUFACTURING FACILITY” (PEARL). “OSTENSIBLY, THE WHOLE THING FROM THERE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SPRINGBOARD FOR A PROPOSED EXPANSION WITH JOE WEIDER TO BE CALLED “WEIDER/ZUVER’S GYMS.” ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR A BUCK TO BE MADE IN THE BODYBUILDING WORLD, JOE WAS OF COURSE QUICK TO NOTICE THE SUCCESS OF GOLD’S AND WORLD AS THEY FRANCHISED THEIR NAMES AROUND THE WORLD.
AT ONE POINT, WORLD GYM TEE SHIRTS WERE THE NUMBER TWO SELLING TEE SHIRT IN THE WORLD, BEHIND ONLY THE HARD ROCK CAFE MEGASELLERS. BIG BUCKS WERE BEING MADE. JOE APPARENTLY WANTED SOME OF THIS ACTION, AND WANTED A GYM WITH A TRACK RECORD AND NAME (ALONG WITH THE GORILLA AND RHINO STUFF TO MARKET) TO GO WITH IT.
BOB SAW AN OPPORTUNITY IN TERMS OF FINANCIAL CLOUT HE OTHERWISE LACKED. THE MARRIAGE SEEMED TO HAVE POTENTIAL. ALTHOUGH PERHAPS THE THOUGHT OR DREAM OF OWNING A GYM CROSSES EVERY MUSCLEHEAD’S MIND AT SOME POINT IN TIME, THE ACTUAL REALITY OF THE BUSINESS OF OPERATING A GYM (MUCH LESS A STRING OF GYMS) CAN BE EITHER LUCRATIVE OR VERY CRUEL.
IT’S NO ACCIDENT THAT MOST DON’T MAKE IT. NOT SURPRISINGLY, IN A YEAR OR SO, AND BEFORE REALLY GETTING MUCH PAST THE STARTING GATE, THE WHOLE MERGER/EXPANSION/FRANCHISING THING FIZZLED AND STALLED. SOMETHING ABOUT A DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN THE TWO MAIN PLAYERS. BY 1981, STRAPPED BY THE EXPANSION OF THE TWO SHOWCASE GYMS, BOB SOLD ALL HIS EQUIPMENT AND CLOSED THE DOORS. THE GYM ON 19TH STREET BECAME A DRY CLEANER, THEN SOME KIND OF A GRAPHIC ARTS COMPANY. THE ONE IN EL TORO BECAME A REAL ESTATE OFFICE. SOMETIMES, THE BEST INVESTMENTS ARE THOSE YOU DON’T MAKE” (PEARL).
That’s a hell of a long ways from the looks of the old Zuvers. They sucked the goddamn heart and soul out of a cool thing and made it a soulless shadow of its former self. There you have the story of the bizarre competitor to the Westside Club. The story is about as tragic as it is strange, but given the atmosphere in California in the 1960s, that’s to be expected.
This was a time when Jim Jones’ little club was growing rapidly in Northern California, the Manson Family was running amok in LA, David Berg’s Family International was coming up in Huntington Beach using flirty fishing to draw in recruits, the goofs from the documentary Holy Hell were building their idiotic little Buddafield group… the list goes on and on. California in the 60s and 70s was jam-packed with as many mentally ill people as the country had to offer, and this gym is just one strange little anecdote in a cornucopia of 1960s and 70s psychadelic California weirdness that you generally don’t find outside of a Gregg Araki film.
Need more of Jamie’s writing in your life? Don’t we all? Snag his badass new book 365 Days of Brutality as an ebook here, or in print on Amazon.Sources: Goffard, Christopher. Father, son and holy rift. LA Times. 2 Sep 2006. Web. 8 Jun 2019. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-sep-02-me-smiths2-story.html Leistner, Ken, Dr. Ken Leistner: Memories, Zuver’s Hall of Fame Gym. Reprinted from the Sep 1988 issue of Ironman Magazine. Dave Draper. Web. 4 Jun 2019. http://davedraper.com/blog/2008/01/23/dr-ken-leistner-memories-zuver%E2%80%99s-hall-of-fame-gym/ Leistner, Dr. Ken. Zuver’s hall of fame big barrel lift. Dave Draper. Web. 4 Jun 2019. https://davedraper.com/blog/2012/09/18/zuvers-hall-of-fame-gym-big-barrel-lift/ Pearl, Bill. Zuver’s and the Weider-Zuver Gyms. Dave Draper. Web. 4 Jun 2019. https://www.davedraper.com/weider-zuvers-gyms.html Sorin, Richard. Reflections of Zuver Part 1. Sorinex. 1 Aug 2012. Web. 5 Jun 2019. https://plagueofstrength.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=12247&action=edit Storms, Sylvia. Zuver’s Muscleland Ministry. Reprinted from The Sunday School Times and Gospel Herald, 1 Jul 1972. Dave Draper. Web. 11 Jun 2019. https://davedraper.com/blog/2012/02/28/zuvers-muscleland-ministry/ Todd, Jan, Domininc Gray Morais, Ben Pollack, and Terry Todd. Shifting gear: a historical analysis of the use of supportive gear in powerlifting. Iron Game History, Nov/Dec 2015. 13(2,3):37-56. https://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v13/igh-v13-n2-n3/igh130203p37.pdf