Aljay and Ranbir are the founders and owners of San Jose Barbell, the home of Training For Warriors San Jose. They bonded over a mutual love for strength and fitness and are on a mission to help ordinary people do extraordinary things; inside and outside of the weight room.
Matt: Alright gentlemen! Let’s get this started. What led the two of you to starting careers in the fitness industry?
Aljay: When I came to the States as a kid from the Philippines you were required to get a medical exam. The doctor who examined me found out that I had asthma. I was at an early enough age where it could be treated through exercise instead of prescription, so my parents of course wanted to save money. They told me to start running (laughing). I started by running just from the living room to the door and I would get super tired. Sometimes my Dad would race with me to encourage me. Eventually the end line moved to the driveway and, once that got easy, I would go farther and farther. At my elementary school there was this contest called Run For Fun, where for a month you track every mile you run and you get people to pledge a donation for every mile. I ended up running over 100 miles for the contest. So, that’s how I originally trained myself to get rid of my asthma. I still get it sometimes when I don’t run, but as long as I keep up with my conditioning it stays away. This was my first intro to fitness. In junior high and high school I continued this by participating in cross-country and track. The sport taught me a lot, most importantly, how to be patient. You have a lot of time to think while out on those long runs.
When I started I was always in last place during the team runs, but I put in the time and worked at it. Later on in high school I was able to get first place in a race which was huge for me. That was my shining moment (laughing). A year later, as a freshmen in college, I realized that I was only 115 pounds at 5’7”. My girlfriend at the time could beat me up if she wanted to. I was so skinny growing up and finally got fed up with it. That’s when I started lifting weights (at the age of 19). In 9 months I went from 115 to 195 pounds. Everyone was blown away. That was the time when I was big and bulky, but I had lost my ability to move well. A buddy told me about Crossfit and we joined NorCal Crossfit which was run by Jason Khalipa. I was really impressed by everyone at the gym and dove into it. Eventually I noticed this ripped Indian dude (Ranbir) who was always there lifting heavy weights in the corner. We really hit it off and just talked about strength and programming around the clock.
Ranbir: My whole life, from the age of 4 til 22, I was focused on basketball. Very similar story to Aljay. I was always the skinniest, weakest kid out there. Luckily, I could shoot really well and never got tired while I was on the court. I was lucky enough to play all the way through college. I tried a lot of different things to gain muscle and they just didn’t work. I actually didn’t get into strength training until my last year of playing and when I was done playing there was a void, you know? Up until that moment I had been playing ball every day for several hours a day. So, I dove into the world of strength and conditioning. My intro to strength was with Pavel and kettlebells. That was the first thing I ever did where I could see changes in my body. From there a mutual friend of ours told me about NorCal Crossfit during an acting class. I was able to make a lot of progress from there on. Despite being an “athlete” my whole life I had never really looked like one. I didn’t have any sort of definition. So I lifted at NorCal CF with Aljay for a few years before we opened our own gym. During that time I had a lot of injuries because I was lifting with poor form. I started to transition from Crossfit style workouts to heavier lifting and we both started to learn as much as we could about how to do this the right way. We started to informally coach other members at the gym which led to us eventually deciding to open up our own facility.
Matt: When you first opened your gym, San Jose Barbell, what challenges did you two have as owners?
Aljay: This is probably the most common mistake everyone makes, but we definitely thought that money would just flow our way once we opened the gym. We thought we could put in a little work to start and then we could sit back and relax (laughing). We realized quickly that we had to work our ass off just to get people in the door and work even harder to keep them at our gym. To add to that, setting up the gym in the first place was a ton of work. Before we opened up our doors everyone, even our own families, was very skeptical whether we could turn this location into a fitness facility.
Ranbir: The biggest thing for me was that you have all these ideas when you first start. You think people will just show up and give you money. There were so many different things that we didn’t want to do because we were only thinking about setting up the gym from our own perspective. We weren’t thinking about our customers point of view at all. We weren’t thinking about what was keeping our gym members up at night. We had to realize what their goals and prefered outcomes were and then reverse-engineer what customers wanted so we could make it happen. I don’t think very many business owners do this when they open their business. We’ve been working on improving the experience of our gym members for four years since we opened up our doors.
Matt: How long did it take you guys to get a point where you felt things were really working at your gym?
Ranbir: It took us about 18 months to get to the point where we felt like we had a good handle on everything, but we always knew that we would make it work. It was always just a matter of time for us, which is why we work so well together. We were comfortable with making mistakes and knew that we could improve in some way every single day. The faster that we got feedback and responded to it the faster we could get to the point we wanted to be as gym owners.
Matt: What are your day-to-day roles right now?
Ranbir: I would say that Aljay is one of best people at executing plans that I’ve ever met. His discipline is unmatched. For example, when we were still working out at NorCal Crossfit he said that he would have the best overhead squat. He showed up everyday and did the things he needed to do to get to a 265 lb overhead squat. When it comes to getting things done he will do whatever it takes. This helps me because I can see the 30,000 foot view of where we are going, but don’t necessarily know the steps to get there. Day-to-day we coach a few classes together, he makes things happen, and I lay out the general gameplan. He gives me feedback on what’s working well and what isn’t. We work together to move forward from there.
Aljay: I always tell Ranbir that he has so much vision. He has so many ideas and goes from one to the next to the next. He’s like that goose that lays golden eggs (laughing). My job is to slow him down, see one idea through at a time, and measure whether it’s improving the experience for our gym members.
Matt: Who’s the target customer for San Jose Barbell? What’s the standard onboarding experience like for a new member?
Ranbir: Our customer is generally someone who has very little to no experience in strength training. Usually between the age of 25 and 40. We interview every single person who wants to join our gym. That’s very important to us because it allows us to grow the community and culture of our gym. San Jose Barbell is unlike any other gym facility that I’ve ever been to. After the interview the gym member will get all the information they need to succeed at our gym. Nutrition information, back principles of strength, guidelines for training, etc. We have everyone start with team (group) training. Occasionally someone will go directly into semi-private or private if they need more attention, but the majority will start with team training. As the gym member moves forward we try to match them with the training that will help them the most with their goals.
Aljay: Just to add to that, the best person for our gym is the person who doesn’t know anything. Someone who is shy or not comfortable in the gym. That stems from who we were at a younger age. We were the skinny guys in the gym who could never make any progress. When I first started lifting weights I would go at 6 in the morning because I was so shy and embarrassed. These are the people we reach out to. The people who want to make a change, but are afraid to take that first step. This is why we interview everyone who walks through the door. We don’t allow drop-ins because we want to protect our culture. We want to get to know people and ask why they think they would be a good fit for our community. It’s important that Ranbir and I give them an honest answer if we think we can help them or not. If their goals don’t match ours then we will happily refer them to another gym that can. We do this all the time to make sure each person that comes in to talk to us finds the perfect fit for them.
So, when our members take their classes they start with the team training and then we encourage them to sign up for things. A powerlifting event, a Spartan race, obstacle courses, whatever. We encourage them to go above and beyond their comfort level. We always start with building a foundation first and then move them up into different levels of service within the San Jose Barbell community.
Matt: Awesome! You actually answered my next question in there which was to ask about the community events. I saw on the gyms Instagram account that you had pictures with your gym members at a Spartan Race at the SF Giants ballpark and all these other cool things. I love it.
What are you guys excited to be experimenting with at San Jose Barbell to continue to deliver a high-level of service to your clients?
Ranbir: We have a few online programs that we’re getting ready to launch. We actually just started the email campaign for it. Our target is skinny Indian and Filipino guys (laughing). We’re basically targeting us ten years ago. There was no one reaching out to our demographic at that time and we could have really used the help. In addition to that, our price point is a bit out of reach for a lot of people so we are working on adding some high-quality lower tier services. That could be an online coaching group or an ebook. We just want to help give others access to quality, simple information.
Matt: What are each of you excited about for the direction of the fitness industry over the next few years?
Aljay: We both feel really lucky to be in the fitness industry. When we opened our gym a lot of people in the space reached out and were so welcoming. Gym owners, personal trainers, and so on. We owe a lot of our success to these people. Khaled Elmasri from the NorCal Fitness Summit, Martin Rooney, Steve Krebs, and more. Jordan Syatt, who is actually my online strength coach, has been a huge help to us as well. We were always looking for mentors.
I really think that the industry is in a state of evolution right now where every gym is getting better at helping their target customer. There are huge opportunities across the United States to help people that need this type of training. It’s not going to be doctors or medical professionals that will help people lose weight and get strong. If you go to a doctor he or she is more likely to tell you to stop working out instead of coming into the gym and working around an injury. I’m just really excited to see how each facility will grow and get better at helping people reach their goals.
Ranbir: I try not to get too caught up in following what’s the latest and greatest in the fitness industry. I’m more focused on the person who walks through our door. The fitness industry will always be the fitness industry. There’s nothing new. There’s nothing ground-breaking coming out. It’s always very simple. But, I am excited for guys, like Jordan Syatt, who are reaching bigger platforms with their messaging. Maybe they can make a bigger dent and expose more people to gyms like ours and what really works. In the meantime, we will focus our energy on San Jose Barbell and everyone that shows up.
Matt: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your story guys. I can’t wait to stop by and check out the gym!
If you’d like to follow Aljay and Ranbir check out the links below:
Website – San Jose Barbell
Facebook – San Jose Barbell
Instagram – San Jose Barbell
Instagram – Aljay – @aljay_sjbb
Instragram – Ranbir – @ranbir13_sjbb
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