The Rise and Fall of the 15 Gary Strength Institute

The Rise and fall of the 15 Gary Strength Institute was originally published in 2013.

From humble beginnings to fabled victories, the 15 Gary Strength Institute has served as a Mecca for former McMaster University strength athletes for seventeen months.  It began as a dream, harboured for a decade before coming to fruition on a whim.  Its inception took place over a mutual agreement over the misuse of a 90 square foot bedroom deemed unsuitable for human occupancy due to the wretched odour of ammonia from prenatal feline urine and the common desire to construct a facility to provide a refuge from tales of commercial gym horror.

The initial set up was modest.  It consisted of a simple plywood lifting platform flanked by rubber mats with a power rack, adjustable bench, Olympic bar and 500lbs of Oly weights.  Only one possible set up could be used to due to a small closet protruding from one corner.  A small assortment of mismatched dumbbells and a lonely kettlebell rounded out the initial collection.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention yet in our case it was the mother of acquisition.  Dumbells were added sporadically when found below the hard-capped ceiling price of $0.5/pound and poorly fabricated squat boxes and press boards were built.

The original 15 Gary Strength Institute

Despite the lack of sophistication, our personal bests were beaten at a seemingly impossible pace.  We rarely following a program to completion but we trained often, hard and heavy.

Success was contagious and like children on Christmas morning we waited excitedly for new equipment to arrive.  We soon added a full collection of Elite Pro bands, lifting chains and various rehabilitation equipment.  But this wasn’t enough.  We wanted to add something different.  We wanted to create an experience that wasn’t available to the typical gym rat.  Thus the 15 Gary Strongman Compound was born.

Being recent graduates we had to maintain the strict budget of free.  Fortunately one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure and we soon acquired 300 and 500lb tractor tires, a pulling sled, sandbags and questionable sledgehammers which enabled us to start Strongman Saturdays.  They weren’t adequately equipped but eagerly anticipated by the every-growing crew of regular participants.

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Over the next several months we loosely followed the Westside barbell principles and rotated max effort exercises on a three week schedule while changing accommodating resistance.  Was it efficient?  Maybe not.  Necessary?  Absolutely not.  Did it keep grins on our face as we broke a new PR each week?  Definitely.


New equipment was purchased or built on an as-needed basis.  A series of hamstring injuries lead to the construction of a wooden Glute-Ham developer.  Low back issues created the need for a first attempt at building a power rack supported reverse hyper extension and the purchase of a Trap Deadlift Bar.  Deconditioning encouraged the fabrication of a prowler-esque pushing sled. New personal bests required additional plates.Soon our cozy spare bedroom was over run and a second vacant room was filled on the lower floor.  This was dubbed the 15 Gary Rehabilitation Clinic and comprised mostly of restorative equipment.

Seemingly overnight the facility escalated from a unassuming home gym to universally accepted underground gym.  We could have easily charged membership dues and athletes would have willingly paid.  But our passion prevailed and our focus on personal betterment remained paramount in the gym’s agenda.  Admission was free and drop ins were not only welcomed but encouraged.

We were now outfitted with a thousand pounds of oly weights, specialty barbells including safety squat, 2.5” grip bars, various arm developers, a full rack of kettlebells, dumbbells from 5 to 135lbs, a dip stand, a lat row, free standing reverse hyper, various sized kegs, a 12” strongman log, farmers handles and more accessories than can be listed.  Life was great.

But the sun couldn’t shine forever.  As the result of an unfortunate turn of events, our co-founder and best athlete was forced to move home.  His absence was felt immediately.  We continued to work and push ourselves but each rep felt heavier without the endless positivity from tireless work effort that had left us.

With time we were able to fill the void with a younger, weaker, better conditioned group of athletes.  What the new core group lacked in maximal strength they more than compensated for with near flawless technique and a competitive spirit most training partners could only dream of being exposed to.   I can state that without question, I’ve never felt more guilty then when the thought of skipping a set, let alone missing a scheduled lift crossed my mind.

Shortly thereafter, the general social dynamics were altered and it became awkward to be a guest in someone else’s house.  Our current host was always respectful and accommodating but the general demeanor was compromised.  This was further exasperated with a structural collapse in the house.

A poorly sealed top floor shower had damaged the ceiling of the bathroom directly below and one day the weakened chipboard could no longer stand the vibrations from heavy deadlifts hitting the platform, causing the entire ceiling to crumble.  Upon inspection, the landlord found extensive water damage and mold issues.  She also informed me that the gym would have to leave.

The relocation to a private facility was bitter sweet.  The new home is far superior in equipment, space and general functionality but no longer had the blood stains and sweat equity which originally built our institute.  Most people could not understand the feelings of accomplishment that could be created in such a small space.  I can literally say that many of my proudest moments during that 15 month period came from within those 90 square feet.  The place represented more personal victories and defeats and accompanied the overwhelming majority of my physical development.  Occasionally I would walk downstairs, close the door and sit on the bench just to enjoy the smell of chalk dust, rusty iron and success.

It’s a powerful feeling.


The 15 Gary Strength Institute has found a permanent home in Sault Ste Marie.  It has grown quite substantially over the years and regrettably doesn’t see the use it deserves. 

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