Testimonial: Charlie Marquez
From an outsider’s perspective, it might be easy to take Strength For All as just another gym in Brooklyn. This borough has many.
From the perspective of someone who has had a troublesome (understatement) relationship with gyms, I can emphatically say that is not the case, and it would take me 1,000 write-ups and deep dive into my brain with some help from Dumbledore’s “pensieve” to be able to create some structure and meaning from a mass of feelings, thoughts, memories, and community-building that happens in that former Brooklyn warehouse under the J train line.
In its traditional humble form, SFA calls itself Brooklyn’s only sliding scale black iron gym. That’s the second understatement in these words (I’ll remind you that the first one was my troublesome relationship to gyms – but we’ll get to that later).
To put it as succinctly as possible, Strength for All has been, for me, the only place other than the four walls of my room that has ever made me feel safe, loved, and cared for in New York. SFA is for many people, a necessary anchor in their life. Our gym doesn’t just “welcome” black and brown folks, queer people, trans individuals, and people with disabilities. Our gym centers them, puts them in positions to make the best decisions for the gym, highlights them as instructors, creates programming for them, partners only with other organizations and fitness professionals that take people’s identities, boundaries, and physical and mental well-being seriously. And that is thankfully a non-negotiable at SFA. The gym has always had a set of guidelines for all its members and among those is to respect the space that you’re in and respect everybody else in it. Additionally, there is flowing source of support for anybody that might feel hurt or harmed by someone’s else’s words and there is a sense of accountability and action to continuously make ourselves better as a community.
Community is what would describe Strength For All the best. First and foremost, it is a wide-known fact that black and brown communities, fat folks and queer communities (especially trans communities and black and brown queer individuals) are the hardest hit by the still-to-be-addressed racist, fatphobic, and transphobic medical industry. These communities are traditionally discounted, not believed, looked over, and not cared for in the same way that cis, straight, white communities are. Their health, be it mental, emotional or physical, is not made a priority and it leads to staggering numbers of health conditions and disorders. So where does the grunting of picking up a heavy weight, the panting after some burpees, and the slamming of barbells come into play in all of this? Easily.
Strength for All is not only a gym, it is a revolutionary disruption to all the outdated beliefs and assumptions of “fitness”.
I have been fat for as long as I can remember. I have also battled with chronic pain ever since I was in high school. On top of that, I have always struggled with being open about my sexuality and gender expression. The latter is a subject that I never knew how to address or use to identify and validate my own human experience, so I would hide part of myself or made sure I acted, dressed and behaved in certain ways to not make it “obvious”. The former two, being fat and chronic pain are things that I either couldn’t hide or found myself have to hide. I can’t hide being fat. People see me, and aside from the whole being bullied my entire life, people assume things about me. This goes for “fitness” and “health” professionals as well. Assume I am not strong, that I’m lazy, that I hate myself and therefore don’t take care of myself, that I am easy to take advantage of. An added bonus (sarcasm) to being fat in the fitness world is that since people often make these assumptions about you, they don’t know how “handle” you and therefore you either get completely ignored in class or you get overly pointed out. If you add in the element of chronic pain, people assume you are complaining because you have no discipline, because you are unruly and haven’t known how to care for yourself. Every single one of my gym experiences in quite a few different cities and countries has been exactly this. Not to mention the looks if you even dare to wear something comfortable to work out in.
That all changed when I used my basic exposure therapy experience to challenge myself to go to an intro class at Strength for All. Me? Go lift heavy weights? I had casually told some people in my life. Some were excited but most had the classic reactions of “don’t hurt yourself!” or “you’re trying to get ripped?” or “you?! lift weights?!”
From the second I walked into the original tiny Strength for All gym across the street from my bus stop, I felt… good. I hadn’t felt “good” in any other fitness environment ever. People actually said hi, smiled at me, welcomed me, and more importantly, there were people that didn’t look like any other standard gym I had been to, they looked like my friends, family members and people I see on the streets. And they were lifting these massive weights!
I was scared, for sure… but the second that Lady, our coach and gym manager extraordinaire, came over I knew I would be safe. She had a casual 45lb plate in one hand and her puppy (and assistant coach), Junior, in the other hand. The group that I eventually learned to lift with started trickling in to the gym and I knew then that this would be my place.
I have waited 40 minutes for a bus in the snow and eventually taken an uber just to get to the gym in time to lift. I have walked 20 minutes in the rain in order to make it to max out day. I once ran out from work and bought the cheapest workout clothes on Fulton street only to ride a crowded bus where I had about an inch of breathing space just so I could make sure to get there by the time that Lady asked us to warm up. I never thought that it would be possible for me to enjoy going somewhere to sweat, lift heavy things and be sore the next day. And the next. But not only do I enjoy it, I can’t do without it.
Working out at Strength for All has meant that I have been able to strengthen my body and reduce my chronic pain, it has made me more confident to carry out everyday tasks, it has given me a passion and a circle of support and friends that I wouldn’t have been able to find anywhere else. SFA has helped me stay in tune with myself, my insecurities, my bad thoughts, my own worries and helped me channel them in a way that has made it healthier for me to dissect. SFA has allowed me to feel comfortable with expressing my gender identity, it has kept my mental health at a more manageable level, it has allowed space for me to challenge and on some days, defeat my body dysphoria. I am able to exist and survive in other spaces both socially and professionally because Strength for All has made it possible for me to discover my own physical and mental strength. SFA has made it possible for me to feel more confident in challenging assumptions from others such as medical professionals, supervisors, etc. and take agency over my own body and existence. I am more stable in my life and in my experience navigating this city and this world because I get to enter this, my only other safe space, at least a few times a week.
Access to physical fitness is essential to to marginalized communities. Encouragement and curation of physical fitness is necessary. Strength for All offers sliding scale for all its members. However, Strength for All also provides brilliant coaches that are always there to support you, answer questions, encourage you and make sure that you are doing things in a safe way. Strength for All cares for their coaches and their members and we care for them in return. When SFA was moving from one smaller location to a larger one, so many members stepped up to clean the new space, move the new equipment by hand down a few blocks into the new space, organize it and ultimately make it what it is today. We are who we are, and people feel the safety and community support they feel here because of the love and effort that SFA has invested in us. People travel from different boroughs just to lift weights at SFA because it is one of the only gyms that does not create any sort of distinction between who is lifting, how much your lifting and honestly, how you’re feeling that day. Everybody is welcomed with open arms and comforted in their gym experience but also in their human one.
If Strength for All were to not be able to continue existing for lack of funding, for a lot of its members, it would mean they no longer have a place to exercise in because working out in other places simply means putting their mental health and sometimes their life in danger. It would mean that their trans identity would be invalidated, it would mean that they would have to be subject to the rampant sexual harassment in gyms, it would mean that they would have to dim some part of who they are in order to get any physical activity. In a world that constantly discounts and often attacks marginalized communities, Strength for All is a necessity to those communities being able to survive and thrive in a world that should belong to them anyway.
SFA is necessary to creating the kind of world we want to live in. There is nothing like walking into a place where everybody inside has the same north star, where you can truly exude and celebrate every part of yourself, and where others want to do the same. When we chant each other on to get up from a heavy squat, stand up from a heavy deadlift, or to finish that last burpee, it happens from all over the gym. From your friends to those you see once in a while, and everybody in between. Everybody is invested in everybody else succeeding and there is nothing like it in this city.