Tough As Nails

tough 4One man’s journey with a different kind of fitness.

Written by Phillip Ratliff

Photography by Beau Gustafson

The fantasy goes something like this:

“Go ahead. I’ll give you the first punch. Hit me, right in my gut.”

“You sure you can handle it?” he taunts.

“Yeah, I’m sure, wussy. Punch me. Hard as you can.”

My foe stares at me, incredulous. He’s an Adonis: 6’8”, 30 years of age, tree-trunk arms, but stupid like dirt and accustomed to underestimating intellectuals like me.

His fist tightens as a crowd circles us.

“Why the delay, wuss?  Let’s do this. I’ve got a novel to write.”

I can sense anger now in his glinting eyes. He draws back and delivers a blow squarely to my solar plexus.

“Haaaah!” I scream as I release a gust of air.

My foe falls to his knees, whimpering. His metacarpals are bent like drinking straws.

I stoop to gently wrap his throbbing hand in a bandana.

“You’ll need ice. Every four hours.”

Between sobs, my opponent begs me for my secret.

“How about I show you instead?” I ask.

I  pull off my shirt. Silence descends upon crowd. It’s clear to the onlookers what has just reduced my opponent’s hand to a box of broken matches. The full force of his punch simply had nowhere to go, nothing pliable to absorb its terrible impact.

“Damn.”  He moans.

If I were to actually pull my shirt off for you now, you’d see a much different reality—that is, once your eyes adjusted to the blinding white color. I can pedal my bike straight up a mountain. I run the steps of Vulcan Tower like a gleeful medieval penitent. As a result, my legs are bulky and my ass juts like a rock formation. But climb farther, to my upper body, and you’re buried in a mound of Pillsbury biscuit dough.

Dave Hall

Dave Hall

I recently presented my predicament to exercise guru Dave Hall. Hall is the founder of Agoge Fitness in Lakeview, where they take a decidedly nontraditional approach to whipping you into shape.

Agoge (pronounced ah-go-gee) Fitness Systems is nestled inside another operation, Lakeview Personal Fitness. Effectively, there’s a Lakeview side, decked out with weight machines, spin devices, and treadmills and an Agoge side, decked out with lots of…other stuff.

The Agoge approach might entail free weights, or kettlebells, or Indian clubs, or jury-rigged ropes, bands, and pulleys, or repurposed household or industrial objects, or nothing but one’s own body weight—a limitless array of challenging exercises to engage the body and mind. “We train the body as a whole with an emphasis on strength and athleticism, using methods and tools that have stood the test of time,” the website states. But I don’t think the promotional language really does the space justice.

I’m turning to Hall in part because there’s some backstory between us. I met Hall 10 years ago through a mutual friend and current Agoge disciple, Glenny Brock. Hall was a flabby stoner in those days, working as a part-time carpenter. I searched him out through Glenny to help me fix up a dowdy front porch. Hall did thoughtful work whipping the front of my house into shape, exuding a Zen vibe that he still carries around.

Over the course of the job, Hall and I got to know one another. He talked often about leaving carpentry, and shortly after finishing repairs to my porch, he did. Hall took a job as a mechanic with a sorting company, working on mailing machines, spending five years there, over two different employment periods. Even though he worked only 30 to 35 hours a week, he says it was exhausting work. When Hall got home, all he wanted to do was escape. “I was always running off to hit my pipe,” he says.

During that period, Hall developed his interest in Tai Chi. He was soon teaching Tai Chi classes at the LJCC. Six months after that, he began offering personal training. In his free time, he earned his massage therapy license.

tough 6And then, around eight years ago, Hall started powerlifting. With powerlifting, something clicked. Hall is now on  a four-days-a-week powerlifting program, working 60 to 90 minutes each of those days, doing squats, bench presses, and dead lifts.

On a chance encounter Hall met the owner of Lakeview Personal Fitness, Trey Beasley. A week or two later Hall approached Beasley about training personal clients. “We sat in his office talking training and he asked me, ‘Can you pass a drug test?’” Hall recounts.

He shook his head slowly, “Nope.”

Beasley asked why not.

“I smoke pot,” Hall said.

“Aren’t you a little old for that?” Beasley asked.

Beasley asked Hall if he could pass a test with notice. Hall said he could. Beasley started sending Hall clients and his fitness practice grew. That was in October. “By January I stopped smoking and haven’t looked back,” Hall says.

It was a Saturday morning in June that I met Hall again. I’m stunned by the physical transformation. He is still a big guy, not at all like the svelte, V-shaped CrossFit drill sergeants one sees in Homewood Park. But his arms and legs are now powerful, with well-defined musculature. He still wears the chin curtain beard I knew from a decade ago. From physical appearances alone, I would describe Hall as your worst Amish nightmare.

“What can you do with this?” I ask, patting my midsection. He chuckles, half ignoring me. “I call what we’re doing today ‘the on ramp.’”

We start the “on ramp” with a smattering of yoga moves. I plunge hips to the ground, thrust legs out like a bird dog, twist head toward the ceiling to stare at ceiling cracks with one eye. Bones crack. My back loosens, slightly.

Hall directs me to Agoge’s north interior wall. Lined against it is a row of what looks like cannon balls affixed with a handle. “These are kettlebells,” Hall says. “Grab one and hold it over your head.” He instructs me to walk up and down the gym floor holding the iron ball. He then shows me how to hold a kettlebell at my stomach and bend over, a move called the “goat bag swing” for the way the kettlebell looks like an udder.

tough 2“What’s this working?” I ask.


Agoge is aflutter with disciples. A middle aged woman dead lifts a set of barbells. A mother-daughter couple crawl along the floor like dancing crabs. It’s a retro playground for grown-ups. There are ropes suspended from the ceiling. Hall has stacked a set of tractor tires in the gym’s center. They’re for rolling, a classic strongman feat, he tells me. A wheel flanked by handles provide a tool for a sort of enhanced push-up.

“I saw those in the ’70s!” I say.


I admit to Hall that I’m particularly intrigued by a set of bowling pin shaped clubs next to the kettlebells. Hall picks up one. “Indian Clubs.” He swings one in a artful, choreographed swirls.

Indian clubs were actually developed not in India, but Persia, he explains, for wrestlers looking for ways to develop both strength and dexterity. After the short demo, Hall hands me a club. It’s one of the set’s homemade versions made out of iron pipe with giant washers on them. Although Hall talked me through their proper usage, I nevertheless manage to swing one full force into a weight bench behind me. I regain my rhythm and begin swinging in a stilted version of Hall’s pattern.

“What’s this working?”


“Does everything work everything?”


Get over asking what a particular move works, Hall suggests. It’s always the first thing people ask, he says. They’re basing that question on notions of symmetry and aesthetics, achieved through exercises that isolate muscles rather than work them holistically.

Aesthetic improvement is why sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, and weightlifting have all failed. I simply do not possess sufficient sustained interest in looking stunning to endure what it would take to get me there. And these sorts of exercises are pointless. A sit-up exists for no other purpose than itself. Executing one is like practicing squares and circles when everything in me wants to draw a reasonably cool picture of a house or an elephant.

Hall gets that, which is why, during my first session, he asks me to execute a total of one push-up. Why one? Formal perfection. Dave stresses that one good push-up is better than a thousand bad ones because it develops mindfulness. A proper push-up means keeping your core in tension and pushing off the ground with your back straight as a board. That same proper push-up also reveals my tendency to want to wiggle my way up. “You’ve found my weakness,” I tell Hall.

tough 1It’s a weakness that manifested itself during my first and only 21k trail run. I blazed through the first half of the trail, but around 13 kilometers in, a profound depletion of strength and will set in. By 18k I was fighting the urge to spray the trail with explosive diarrhea.

A few weeks after the 21k race, I was approached by a gym rat at a local rec center. “You’re never gonna be the runner you want to be until you get serious about your core,” he goaded. He extolled the virtues of weight training, and I gave weightlifting an earnest attempt. But I couldn’t sustain interest, and bored by the pointless repetition, I gave up.

Hall agrees with about one half of what the gym rat was selling: strength training is a missing part of my running regimen. Running expends physical energy rapidly when stomach and back muscles aren’t held in tension, Hall says. “It’s like energy leaks out your sides and stomach,” he explains.

To build tension, he requires that I spend exactly three minutes of each session planking. Planking is a brutally honest exercise, exposing all manner of physical weakness, in my core, shoulders, biceps—even my wrists. One thing about Hall: Although he insists on play, he also insists on pain. “Discomfort is when your body says, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to change,’” he says.

I hear that inner “oh, shit” frequently when I plank. It’s the voice of my stubborn inner old man, who will stop at nothing to make me give up and lie on the couch. As I plank, my wizened inner old man yells obscenities and hammers me in the gut with his old man fists.

At first, I absorb the punches.

“Thirty seconds,” Hall yells.

My old man is screaming in my ear now. And he’s biting me. His dentures sink into my stomach muscles and he hisses, “Lie down, punk.”

The old man’s dentures loosen. He leans his head back and emits a maniacal toothless cackle. My gut seizes.

“Dear God,” I scream.

“Fifteen seconds,” Hall announces.

“Fifteen seconds,” I think. “I can do this. Try not to think about the pain.”

The pain! I feel a tearing sensation in my obliques. The old man is now digging his horny, yellow claws into my side. He squeezes entrails and liver, kidney, and sweetbreads.

tough 8“Five seconds!” Dave yells.

The blows are lightening fast now and I’m near collapse. In blinding pain, a realization hits me: This bastard will eventually win.

“That’s it. You’re done,” Hall says.

I collapse to the ground.

I lie motionless a moment, then spring to my feet. We play with the kettlebells a few minutes and I depart the building.

It’s well after 9 a.m. and summer daylight is beating down on Fourth Avenue South. Weeds spring from sidewalk cracks. I squint in the sun. Truth be told, there are two suns. A few months ago I started getting double vision, for which I’ll undergo strabismus surgery later this year.

But I feel strength returning, to my legs, arms, and my long neglected core. I can’t resist the urge to poke. That’s not that flabby, I think. Beneath a layer of blubber I detect a nascent ripple about to emerge. Or maybe it’s just an indentation from one of the kettlebells.

One Response to “Tough As Nails”

  1. Julie Maharrey says:

    Love your writing style! Dave has trained, coached, and mentored me for five years now. He continues to challenge and cajole. Go check out his fitness digs!

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