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Interview with American Iron owner Tamara Lopes

Bob and Tammy have lived and trained through the great era of bodybuilding in the 70’s, Bob was an assistant and head coach for the USA Women’s World Powerlifting team from 1989 through 1994,the World games in 1991, and the Russian Invitational in 1992. Tammy is a 7 time nationalpowerlifting champion, and 6 time medalist in the IPF worlds, taking the world championship in 1993 in Jonkoping Sweden, and setting the Benchpress world record in 1994 in New Zealand.That passion for training led to the gym business;
Gold’s gym Reno in 1981
Flex Fitness Reno in 1985

And finally THE BEST Gym ever; American Iron Gym opened in 2005

“Everybody knows original gyms are best”

Matt: Really appreciate you sharing your time Tamara. I’d love to start off this interview by asking you how you first became interested in health and fitness?

Tamara: I started going to gyms 43 years ago because I was an athlete and really into sports. I realized that as a female I didn’t have the upper body to do some of the things I wanted to, like rock climbing for example. At some point I realized that working out was a very, very important part of my mental health. It allowed me to not seek out alternative stimulants (laughing) and live a healthier lifestyle. Training also gave me a lot of confidence as a young female to pursue things without limitation. I didn't have preset limits in my mind that I couldn't do things I was interested in and it made a huge difference in my life. I think that's what has brought us to the path that we are on now with our gym, but more importantly the foundation, which has made such a big difference in our lives. At American Iron we want to share that experience with others. People that are struggling, or maybe haven’t had good role models in their lives, or poor family environments, or financial challenges. We want to be able to embrace those kids and give them a little bit of what was given to me all many years ago.

Matt: Awesome, that’s definitely a story that resonates with me. In college I struggled a bit with figuring out what I wanted to do with my life and powerlifting helped me through those personal challenges. Going back to those early days, when you were first starting to get interested in weightlifting and strength and conditioning was there a specific gym, coach, or friend that really helped you get over those initial learning challenges?

Tamara: Yes, my husband. I met him at the only gym in town, European Health Spa, when I was 15. He was bench pressing early one morning and got stuck (laughing). I went over and helped him pull the bar off of his chest and it was the start of a long friendship and eventually marriage. He was a US team coach so he coached me throughout my own lifting careers as well.

Matt: That’s hilarious, we’ve all been there (laughing). So I was looking your LinkedIn and it looks like your main career was working for the city of Reno Fire Department for a long time. I imagine that you were working at the gym with your husband in parallel? Can you describe what it was like balancing these two demanding jobs?

Tamara: Sure, so my husband opened his first gym in 1981. After we first met we were best friends for many years before we married, so during that time frame I was always attending the gyms he had. After we married we brought our business sense and he started Flex Fitness, which eventually became American Iron.

And we, like I said, we were friends for many years before we became intimately involved and ended up getting married that best friends. And so I was always Attended the gyms that he had. And then when we became married and kind of brought our business sense together we he started flex fitness, which now is American Iron. Unfortunately when you don’t run your own business it doesn’t really thrive. We had managers and staff to run the business day to day of course, but my husband and I were both involved full-time in other occupations. The gym did well and was able to serve the community, but not to the extent that we would have liked. Once we retired and were able to put our energy and our focus into American Iron full time we really saw the business blossom and turn into what we always had envisioned the gym being.

Matt: Looking at the timeline it seems that you made that transition to full-time on American Iron between 2005-2010. Looking back, what really helped American Iron hit that next level of growth as a business and in terms of impact to the community?

Tamara: Well when we were able to put our full attention into American Iron and the inmates stopped running the asylum (laughing) we brought it back to our fiber and our soul, which was an athletic training facility. More importantly, we were able to develop the American Iron Sports Foundation. My husband and I were so fortunate because we both had occupations that gifted us retirement income. This allowed us to take the profits from our gym and put it directly back into the gym and the Foundation. Through the Foundation we focus on at risk youth and work directly with two alternative sentencing judges. Instead of incarcerating individuals these judges will put these people into alternative sentencing homes. Part of that is they have to come to the gym three days a week and be trained in a group setting. On top of that we also provide classes on life skills, nutrition, resume building, how to dress for an interview, just all the things that we've been lucky enough to learn in our lives. It's a great opportunity. We also work with alternative sentencing judges for women in recovery. A lot of these women have lost their children due to recurrent drug use, so they are really in need of help and guidance. Additionally we also work with the Veterans court judge and we know the trauma that a lot of veterans go through after they come back. They just don't have the help they need available or a team that’s there to support them. With our program I'm hoping that's what we provide.

Matt: That’s incredible. I took a look online at the pictures and watched several videos about American Iron and I can tell how much you’ve reinvested into the gym to make it a welcoming place. It’s really a beautiful looking gym. Can you talk a bit about the size of the gym and the team you have today?

Tamara: American Iron opened with about 5,000 square feet and we now have over 20,000 square feet. That doesn't include our outdoor strongman workout space which is about another 7,000 square feet. Our equipment is fairly unique. We have equipment that you would see in gyms for professional athletes, training facilities, and at universities. We are the only facility in the world that has an electro machine demo device. Basically you can do anything that you’d be able to do on another piece of equipment, but it sets up the weight for your concentric and eccentric movement separately. We're fortunate because the inventor is actually here at our gym and has been developing that equipment by using our gym members as test subjects. The results have been incredible, especially for athletes. Going back to the setup of the gym floor, we have other rooms that are more specific. The first room is strictly leg equipment with some hit equipment in it, a cardio room, we have a boxing area, then in the next room we have Olympic platforms, another room for indoor strongman training, a strength room with competition approved IBF bars as well as specialized bars from Chris Duffin, and lastly a personal training room for our training staff. We’re able to do classes, host powerlifting meets, and strongman competitions outside.

To support the gym's needs we have about eight people that work the front desk and a few trainers. The trainers work as independent trainers for the gym, most of them have a background in sports and strength training which matches our facility. We do small groups. We don’t do large group training because we feel that people can get lost in a larger group. They can learn bad habits which can lead to the potential for injury, so in order to prevent that we try to max out our groups to six at a time. Additionally we do a lot of 1on1 personal training for powerlifting and strongman competitors. Beyond that we do have a lot of athletes that train in our area for the high-altitude - skiers, mountain biking, climbing, hiking. It’s a really diverse clientele.

Matt: Having grown up in Northern California I went to Reno a few times when I was younger and always thought it was a beautiful place. I looked up the town before this interview and wasn’t aware it was experiencing a sort of boom. Apparently it’s one of the fastest growing cities now. What’s that been like for the gym?

Tamara: It’s been challenging at times to be honest. We created a gym with a really strong community, it’s like a family. Our members truly support each other. I've never had to lock anything in that gym. With the growth, we have people coming occasionally that just don't have the same appreciation or respect for the community. Fortunately we have members that feel that this is their gym and so they sort of deal with any issues before they get to us (laughing). So yes, there is a lot of growth and our gym and community is evolving. We’re excited to continue to keep on getting better at what we do in parallel.

Matt: I’m excited to watch American Iron and the Foundation continue to grow from here! So as we’re doing this interview we’re about a month and a half away from 2022 and the industry is still recovering from the pandemic. I’m curious what the experience was like for you and the team?

Tamara: With Covid, the regulations, and the shutdowns like anything in life you can use it as an excuse to quite or you can use it as an opportunity. I’m not saying that we were better than anyone else, but I do think we made smart choices when our gym was shut down. Our team got together and made a commitment to use the time productively. We created more online content for our members and reached out to them to ask how we could support them? We really cared about this because so many of them were recovering and were challenged already. We were fearful that the shutdown would not support their new lives, so we created support groups for our members with at home workouts that utilized what they could find locally - parks, exercises with their family, etc. During that time our team fixed equipment at the gym, we painted, we cleaned, and we improved our facility. We were ready to open those doors as soon as were were given the go-ahead by the state. Other gyms shut down their doors and walked away, they weren’t prepared. When gyms were able to reopen again we had a lot of members join us because their own gyms weren’t ready and weren’t able to re-open for a few months after us. We don’t do any marketing or advertising for American Iron, it’s all word of mouth. Even with that we actually increased our membership compared to before the shutdown.

Matt: I really appreciate you sharing that. That’s the perfect example of why gyms are so important to their communities and will continue to be as the world recovers from the pandemic. Really happy that you and the team are in a good place. Building off of that, what are you currently working on at America Iron that you’re excited about?

Tamara: Some of the things that are exciting, I think for myself and for my team right now, are the continued development of the electro weight machine and how we’re seeing it help our athletes, our aging clients, and our injury recovery clientele. Along with that we're doing a grant funded research program with an orthopedic center that specifically does knee and hip replacements. There's been a lot of bad information out there on rehabbing these type of major surgeries and their patients have done extremely well utilizing our programs. The orthopedic surgeons wanted to partner with us and reevaluate the protocols for rehab. So we're really excited about starting that up an being able to work with professionals to try to show how critical weight training is to successful rehab.

Matt: Oh that’s awesome. I was at the Resistance Exercise Conference last month and they were talking about research projects in other areas, but with similar goals. I think we can all agree that we’d love to see resistance training become more recognized for the amazing. benefits it can have to health and wellness.

So we’re coming up to the end of our scheduled interview time. Was there anything else that you wanted to share with our audience that I didn’t ask about?

Tamara: One thing that comes to mind is that I'd really like to encourage the gym owners and operators out there to reach out in the community, to try to find a group or a program that they can support. If we all did that, think of the change we could make in this country. There's this tendency for fitness business owners to chase the highest income customer segments, the well off fitness enthusiasts where all the money is. I've always thought that there's so much opportunity as a business to kind of reach into your community and make an impact. The work you do there will potentially be the work that will help your business the most.

Matt: I couldn't agree more. Thanks again for sharing your time Tamara and best of luck from here, cheers!

If you'd like to connect with Tamara and the America Iron team check out the links below:

Matt McGunagle

Matt McGunagle

CEO & Founder of StrengthPortal. Working hard to help you in between deadlifts and jiu-jitsu!

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