Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Iron City Athletic Club: A Model of a Barbell Gym

by Karl Schudt | April 05, 2018

Hidden in the hills of Western Pennsylvania in a nondescript garage unknown to Google Maps (turn at the orange mailbox!) is a small gym, Iron City Athletic Club (ICAC). It is very exclusive, and membership is by invitation. ICAC sits on the property of one of its members. The members donated time to finish the walls and one even installed a shower. There are four squat racks and room for two people to do floor pulls. From the outside, it's nothing special, except that the members embrace the hardship of barbell training and get stronger. That makes it exceptional among gyms.

Three times a week something extraordinary happens. I was there visiting, having driven all morning. I was just finishing up my squats when the door burst open and a parade of excited lifters entered. Residents of the local group homes come twice a week to train. Excited, they come in ready to put on their lifting shoes and work hard. They are developmentally disabled clients and usually have some other challenges, but they do their work and set PRs, just like everyone else.

These are not charity cases – they are paying clients, who have seen the value of strength. They and their families have decided to pay for coaching and they buy into the program. That they are not objects of charity is important. They have seen the value of the program and have exercised personal agency, something that is denied to them often. To consider them as merely "charity" is to downplay the clients' own decision-making ability and independence, which is exactly the opposite of what should happen. They are lifters who have chosen to lift, who believe in themselves and what they can do. They are just lifters with challenges. We all have challenges.

The Clients

Joelle is very selective of the activities in which she participates, but she trains and seldom misses. This day, though, she came in and announced, “I'm not going to squat today.” Marie Kunkel and Nicholas Racculia agreed with her: “Ok, but maybe you should put your shoes on anyway.” Joelle gave in and started to put on her lifting shoes (all clients are required to use proper weightlifting shoes). Arguing with Joelle doesn't work; she has an iron will and will just dig in. Once she saw her fellow trainees squatting, she changed her mind and was ready to go.

The interest in special needs clients came about because of Joelle. Mark Abramovic, Joelle's brother, is a friend of Nick Racculia. Mark and Nick were talking about Joelle: “They don't do anything. Could you help them?” Barbell training is not something that anyone does for this population. Mark loves his sister and always takes her to research doctors. He thought it would be a great idea to see if barbell training would help the mentally and physically challenged. Mark bought the equipment. They originally went to one of the group homes to train in the basement, but it was very difficult to get everyone in the same room. Iron City Athletic Club grew out of the need for a place to house the lifters, for a place to train.

Mark is also professor at St. Vincent College with Nick Racculia, and has seen the value of getting her strong. In the past, when it was time to get in and out of the car, he would have to assist her quite a bit. Now that she squats, deadlifts, and presses (she does not like the bench press), she gets in the car by herself. While I was there Mark made a point of coming to Dr. Racculia's office to comment that his sister was able to attend a basketball game and navigate the bleachers with no problems, which wouldn't have been the case before she started training.

Nick is another lifter, nicknamed "the Dozer" (short for Bulldozer). His mother was very hesitant at first about the idea of Nick training. She didn't want him getting injured under the bar. He's by nature very shy, but has come out of his shell quite a bit as he has trained, and jokes around with the coaches. He has a lively and sarcastic sense of humor. His family goes to a boat festival in Erie, PA every year, and this year, for the first time ever, Nick got in and out of the boat by himself.

A few months ago, hiking in a state park, he tripped over a root and sprained his ankle. In the past, such an incident may have resulted in broken bones, and the sprained ankle was already a triumph, since it could have easily been worse. The coaches at ICAC encouraged him to come in and train after the injury, perhaps just to do bench presses. The coaches suggested he try a super light deadlift. With his coaches carefully spotting him, and his direct service providers intently observing, and with the permission of his mom, Nick lightly deadlifted. There was a little pain, but he worked through it. The next session went the same way. He added a little weight every time and forced his injury to heal quickly and correctly. The sprained ankle healed remarkably fast.

Mike greeted me by telling me about his 286 medals in the Special Olympics, and showed off his biceps and quads in bodybuilding poses. I was tempted to challenge him to a pose-off like Arnold and Franco, but I didn’t want to lose.

The Coaches

It's not easy to coach lifters with these challenges. One's attention can never wander, because the lifters, for a variety of reasons, will have often have significant form breakdowns right in the middle of a set. It's a non-stop ninety minutes of form correction, tactile cues, and encouragement.

racculia coaching a lifter

"ICAC’s approach is that we train lifters who happen to have special needs, not special needs people who happen to train," said Marie Kunkel. They are just like everyone else, and accommodations that need to be made will arise in the course of training, just as they do for all lifters. Everybody needs to train, even (especially!) if there are difficulties with life outside of training.

Marie continues: “Coaching is a different experience than they are used to, as it pushes them to get better. It's a challenge. They need this physicality in their lives. Marcia and Nick, for example, are much more capable than it was assumed they could be.”

Marie Kunkel began lifting with Professor Racculia long before class, and became interested in coaching. She had never had any experience with special needs clients before participating in the "Bearcat B.E.S.T." transitional program at St. Vincent College for special needs individuals. "They're fun. They enjoy what they are doing, which makes me enjoy it. It is great to see their improvement." She adds, "I can see doing this as part of my career. It's very demanding. You have to be on 100% of the time, and you can't take your eyes off the lifters for a moment. They are never going to be independent in the movement, so they’re much more demanding than my other clients. I love it, and don't want to stop."

Rachel Murphy is another student coach. She took Dr. Racculia's “The Science of Human Strength” class at St. Vincent. "When I first started I was super scared and intimidated. I hated it. Another classmate pushed me. Once I got through it, I really stuck with it." For her, "Gaining weight was exciting for me. I was 95lbs." She's become much more confident and capable as she's gained muscle. "Once the class ended I kept lifting with Racculia, and then ICAC came about." If you stick around long enough, Professor Racculia will have you start coaching. Rachel is still a student majoring in art education. She sees coaching as a big part of her future, "at least on the side." She likes "bossing people around. I like seeing how people change, seeing what I went through as other people do it."

Graham Schaller is a taciturn young man who took a finance class with Dr. Racculia. "Do you want to lift?" said Nick. "Yep," answered Graham. He was 145lbs when he started, actually did the Gallon of Milk a Day, and is currently just under 200lbs. Both he and Marie are interns for Starting Strength Online Coaching. He describes the coaching process at ICAC: "It's incredibly difficult. If you think it's hard to get normal people to squat, try people with cerebral palsy." I discovered this first hand when I attempted to step in and do what he does. I failed utterly. "It's more rewarding in some respects than general population lifters. We get to work with a group of people that need this more than anyone else, but it's difficult."

Because the lifters don't process audible and visual cues as well, coaching requires lots of tactile cues. The coaches enjoy the challenge of coming up with effective and interesting cues. Sometimes personal relationships are more important than cues. Lifters strive to do it right because they like the coaches.

coaching special needs lifters

Making a Difference

Iron City Athletic Club is a small gym that is having a huge effect on its members. Ryan began unable to deadlift the barbell, but can now pull in the mid-200s and squats 260. Nick "the Dozer" was given homework by Nick Racculia – "Give me a good solid handshake." Now that he is stronger and more confident, he gives an assertive and firm handshake without being reminded. I myself noticed this when I met him. Marsha has had perhaps the greatest changes, both physically and in her personality. It was a highlight of the gym's history when she got her first 135 lb deadlift. She never thought that she would be able to do it. Her confidence has gone through the roof.

marsha an iron city lifter

"I'm never going to quit lifting. All my aches and pains are gone!" She is passionate about training and proud of all of her accomplishments. She declares, "No one else has ever believed in me, so now I have to believe in me."

* Editor’s Note: The orange has been painted over…

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