Tucked away on Westover Drive, directly behind the Kings Cudgel entertainment center, is Ironside Gym, a straightforward, no-frills athletic club for fitness lovers who are ready to take their commitment to health and strength to the next level.
Owner Joseph Worley — who acquired the gym just a few months prior to the 2020 COVID-19 closures — is bringing a fresh perspective and new life to this establishment, which has been a continuous haven for local bodybuilders for more than 20 years.
“I’m not exactly sure when it opened, but I remember giving some of my posing pictures to the gym back in 2001,” said Ironside personal trainer Dale Pierce, who is himself a professional competitive bodybuilder. Pierce shared the original owner of the gym — which was then known as Ultimate Fitness — gave him a promotional sweatshirt for the fledgling business in return.
Though only 23 years old, Worley is no stranger to entrepreneurship or property management. Already owning and managing multiple rental properties, he said his parents ingrained in him the importance of business ownership as a ticket to financial freedom from a young age.
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“I was kind of raised on that — the conversation of, if you’re working for somebody else, you’re only making money for someone else,” Worley said. Though he currently works full-time in the public sector in addition to his other pursuits, he said it is his ultimate goal to be his own boss someday.
Worley’s passion for fitness contributed to his inspiration to acquire Ironside and enter the industry.
“I was going to be at the gym everyday whether I owned a gym or not, so it was something I could tie to my personal life as far as an investment,” he said.
Worley began working out at Ironside as a member before deciding to purchase the gym from the previous owner having struck up a friendship over their mutual interest in business and entrepreneurship.
“The previous owner was amazing in the transaction,” Worley said. In addition to updating the gym’s paint job, the former owner had begun the process of replacing older equipment. Worley said he was transparent about the finances and continues to offer Worley advice when needed.
Worley acquired the gym in July 2019 and graduated from Averett University with a degree in business administration and accounting later that year.
Enter the pandemic
Although the onset of the pandemic was a traumatic event for many the world, Worley said he never lost faith in a return to normalcy, or a return on his investment.
“I stayed really optimistic throughout it,” he said; “I just knew I was going to see it through.”
While liquor stores, big-chain retailers, and Amazon all stayed open and enjoyed profit increases, small businesses ate the cost of the pandemic with little-to-no relief.
Worley said he researched and considered applying for small business pandemic relief loans that emerged in 2020, but discovered he was ineligible for assistance, as he does not have employees. Ironside is a family business, as Worley himself handles the books, and his parents assist with maintenance and upkeep.
“I can tell you that for truly small businesses during the pandemic there was no immediate relief,” he said. “If you didn’t have the money in the bank or the resources to pay your bills you were going to go out of business.”
The pandemic not only impacted the bottom line for gym owners, but destabilized the fitness community generally, as many rely on their fitness routine for both physical and mental health.
“I had a lot of people that would have been willing to train and take the risk,” Worley stated.
In hindsight, Worley opines that Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration overreached without just cause with the pandemic-era restrictions.
“I personally feel that they weren’t justified just because of the impact on the economy,” he said. “The three months of the lockdown didn’t really solve the virus or the root issue, all it did was just wreck the small-business economy.”
For Worley, the restrictions took a toll and set his business growth trajectory back by about a year. He indicates that he was forced to close for three consecutive months total, from mid-March to mid-June 2020.
“There were three months that I was sitting there at the gym with no members, no source of income, looking at the walls and working out,” he said.
It took an entire year to recuperate revenue losses and enjoy a return to normalcy.
“It honestly took all of 2020 and things didn’t start to turn around until 2021,” he said. “By the summertime of 2021, I think that the people of Virginia and the Danville area had just had enough of COVID and started resuming normal life and coming to the gym,” he explained.
Now, Worley said monthly revenues have returned to pre-pandemic levels. He is more confident than ever in the stability and ultimate success of Ironside Gym.
Keeping with the times
Now that normal operations have resumed, Worley is able to invest into Ironside to better serve its members. He is choosing to do so in a way that is responsive to their needs and requests, as well as to contemporary trends in the fitness world.
One popular feature Worley recently added is an indoor turf area, complete with a weight sled and conditioning ropes.
“You can never go wrong with a space, a sled and some weight as far as somebody who actually wants to train and work hard,” Worley said.
Though typically associated with football and rugby training, weighted sled work has become popular in both bodybuilding and recreational fitness training due to movements within the industry such as CrossFit, Athletic Truth Guild and functional training. The decision to add this feature was a direct response to requests and feedback from members.
“It’s modernization because a lot of new gyms do have a turf area,” Worley explained. “It adds something new to it while staying true to the gym’s roots,” he continued.
Those roots are characterized by a culture of commitment to fitness goals that dates all the way back to Ironside’s origin, the Ultimate Fitness days.
“It used to be known as a hardcore gym — dirty, and no women were coming in, just guys who wanted to work out the hardest,” Worley shared. One of his first goals upon assuming command was to foster an environment in which women could feel safe and welcome, while still retaining the ethos of a serious commitment to working out.
Worley became an advocate for female members who felt harassed by males who were not accustomed to a co-ed gym environment. He found these efforts were successful in eliminating undesirable behaviors, misunderstandings and the like.
Additionally, Worley expanded the cardio workout offerings, adding treadmills and elliptical machines.
“Most women want to do more of a cardio-based workout, I believe,” he said, noting there are exceptions. He intends to continue upgrading and growing the cardio section of the gym going forward.
He said these efforts are paying off, as female membership has already reached an unprecedented level and continues to grow.
Worley is selectively replacing and upgrading older machines based on member feedback, noting that many veteran bodybuilders prefer older-style machines and believe that they work better for achieving their ideal physiques. For favored older machines, Worley is replacing the upholstery and performing maintenance and upkeep one machine at a time, so as not to disrupt anyone’s workout plan.
Members said they appreciate the upgrades and Worley’s responsiveness to their needs.
“It’s a good atmosphere, and they always check on you to make sure everything is good,” said Daryl Bullock, who said he has been an Ironside member for approximately five years.
Others appreciate the diversity of equipment, which blends old and new-style machines, as well as the camaraderie.
“All I really need is the equipment they got here, and old guys like me are in here,” said Richard Bagby, who chose Ironside as his replacement gym after Perfect Body closed.
Indeed, Worley observes that Ironside members get more than just their perfect pump — they make connections and build a community of fitness-lovers as well.
“I see people that join who build relationships and start hanging out with people outside of the gym, and get in much better shape,” Worley revealed. “Everybody knows everybody and wants to see everybody succeed,” Worley explained.
Reach Ironside at 434-203-7223.