The Story of Gold’s Gym: The Mecca of Bodybuilding

Joe Gold founded Gold’s Gym in 1965. The first location was Venice Beach, California. The gym would become known as the mecca of bodybuilding. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, and Lou Ferrigno are amongst the greats who trained at Gold’s in the early days. 

The Early Days

California has been the home of bodybuilding since the early 1950s. Young up-and-comers flocked to Santa Monica with the dream of becoming Mr. America. Santa Monica Pier was home to an outdoor gym where all the top names trained. The decking was kitted out with free weights, rings, and pull-up bars. Far from the equipment seen in modern gyms. The likes of Steve Reeves and George Eiferman made the move to California in pursuit of their bodybuilding dreams. 

Bodybuilding was very much an outsider sport in the 1950s. They were seen as an anti-social group of outcasts who didn’t fit in with normal society. After allegations of sexual misconduct, Santa Monica Council closed down the gym in 1959. Bodybuilders made the transition to indoor training facilities. Joe Gold wasn’t impressed by the gyms on offer, so founded Gold’s Gym as a place for him and his friends to train. 

Joe Gold already owned a number of properties in California. The decision was made to turn his Pacific Avenue property into Gold’s Gym. The excitement around Joe’s announcement couldn’t be contained. Most bodybuilders were unhappy with the current options and relished the opportunity to train at Gold’s Gym. Dick Tyler referred to the announcement as “big news for big men”. 

Joe originally kept costs low by making his own equipment and hiring every bodybuilder he could to work for him. Membership was $60 a month at the time. Despite becoming home to the biggest names in bodybuilding, the business was bleeding money. Just five years after opening, Joe sold the gym for $50,000 in 1970.

Dave Saxe and Bud Danits took over Gold’s Gym. After running it for almost two years, Saxe and Danits came to the same conclusion as Joe Gold. The gym was still bleeding money and not a viable business. Their intention was to turn the property into an antique store. Ken Sprague, a frequent member of Gold’s Gym, stepped in and bought the property in 1971.

Sprague had a background in the film industry and found new ways to monetize Gold’s Gym. Ken began sponsoring bodybuilding shows and showing off the athletes that trained in his gym. Gold’s Gym was on track and starting to become a viable business. The creation of the iconic Gold’s Gym logo was where it all changed. 

Local bodybuilder, Ric Drasin, designed the logo for Gold’s Gym on the back of a napkin. Sprague loved the logo and began plastering it all over California. Bodybuilders wore the merchandise and t-shirts were selling out faster than Sprague could manufacture them. Gold’s Gym had made it. Word spread around the world and Gold’s became known as the mecca of bodybuilding

Pumping Iron & Worldwide Appeal

Although Gold’s Gym had made a name for itself, bodybuilding was still very much an outsider sport. The general public showed little interest and to them, bodybuilding had no appeal. Pumping Iron was to change this forever. 

The book, Pumping Iron, was released in 1974 and saw some success among bodybuilders and the wider public. Whilst the book achieved financial success, George Butler and Charles Gaines received little interest in funding for a movie. Bodybuilding was seen as a subculture and not commercially viable to the film industry. Butler and Gaines managed to pull together enough money to land a contract with the biggest name in bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The contract was for $50,000. The next thing to find was a filming location. 

Ken Sprague had a background in the film industry and jumped at the opportunity. Sprague was business savvy and allowed Butler to paint over the windows to reduce backlight and mount a lighting grid to the ceiling. Gold’s Gym was to become the main recording studio for the movie Pumping Iron. The movie was a huge success and propelled bodybuilding into the mainstream. The likes of Arnold, Columbu, and Waller provided an insight into the subculture and won the hearts of the general public. The movie coincided with the 1977 Mr. America contest and the Mr. America Day parade, another idea of Spragues’. The Mr. America competition in 1977 received more press requests than the Academy Awards. 

Gold’s Gym was on the map. It was now the most famous gym in the world and bodybuilding had become a mainstream sport. Memberships for Gold’s Gym went from $60 to $200, almost overnight. The movie industry took note and leading actors began to sport more muscle than they ever had before. Arnold had made a name for himself and began to take over the big screen. After massive success, Sprague sold the gym in 1979. 

Ed Connors, Pete Grymkowski (former Mr. World), and Tim Kimber took over Gold’s Gym. The new owners turned Gold’s into a franchise, licensing out deals all over the US.  There were over 5,000 Gold’s Gyms by 1981. The brand was growing and it didn’t take long for them to make the jump internationally. The first international branch was opened in Canada in 1985. Gold’s was now an international brand and the merchandise was worn by celebrities and athletes alike.

The 90s and Beyond

Throughout the nineties, the Gold’s Gym brand could be seen around the globe. Gyms opened in Moscow and Japan and by 1993, the franchise had over one million members. Through franchising, the gym lost its identity amongst bodybuilders. The franchise was forced to move with the fitness industry and became a commercial gym, focused largely on cardio exercise. The company was sold to a private equity firm in 1999, Brockway Moran & Partners. The price is disclosed but estimated to be around $50 million. TRT Holdings took ownership in 2004, for a hefty price of $150 million. 

Gold’s Gym continued to grow and launched a corporate wellness program which has over three-thousand company partners. The program offers custom health and fitness plans for employees. Despite steady growth, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Gold’s Gym to file for bankruptcy. The franchise was subsequently acquired by RSG Group in August 2020. As of July 2020, Gold’s Gym reportedly had 61 company-owned gyms and over 600 franchises. Gold’s Gym has franchises across six continents.

Gold’s Gym has come a long way from the beachside location of the 60s.

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