From The Streets To The Gym

InnerCity Weightlifting uses the power of health and relationships to get kids off the streets and into the gym.

By | Hub Health |
InnerCity Weightlifting interior Screenshot via ESPN

InnerCity Weightlifting interior Screenshot via ESPN

The gorgeous loft space in the above photo isn’t what it seems. At first glance, it looks like it could be a high-end, private gym—perhaps in a hip neighborhood like Fort Point or SOWA. Soaring ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick… the space looks like the type of gym that you’d see celebrities working out in, or the kind of place where most of its clients use the word “summer” as a verb.

But you won’t find this gym on a map. In fact, there are no signs at all. Even the website lists only a PO Box as a mailing address. The hidden (on purpose) location is an unassuming old warehouse in Dorchester. And you earn the right to know the address after a strict vetting process of referrals and interviews by InnerCity Weightlifting, a non-profit that works with at-risk youth to take them from the streets and into the gym. The program teaches youth a lot more than just how to lift weights. Boston is clearly in a gun violence crisis. You can’t watch the news or check out your Twitter feed without seeing (or trying to ignore) what is going on in our beloved city. But these kids can’t avoid it. They are living it every day.

Josh Feinman, InnerCity Weightlifting’s program director and certified personal trainer says that it’s not just about lifting weights and getting bigger. “It doesn’t take any strength to pull a trigger,” Feinman says. “Weightlifting builds confidence and instills values in your own physical self. It’s about a relationship with others and your own body.” Feinman says that when the young people start to lift weights and feel good, it triggers other healthy patterns like going sleep earlier and eating well. “If you’re going to bed earlier then you aren’t out on the streets all night doing things that are bad for you,” he says.

The non-profit is funded by grants from charitable foundations and once admitted, is free to students and their families and friends. But being admitted is a process and there are many challenges that go with it. The kids are referred in from a variety of sources from probation officers to guidance counselors to current admitted students. At first, Feinman says, they meet with the youths and ask what their goals are and how the program can help them better their current situation. But with more than 100 students in the program, this is not always easy. “There are so many different gangs and neighborhood affiliations in Boston,” he says. “We have to be careful who we have in the gym at one time to make sure we aren’t putting two people in one room that might have a problem with each other.”

Why weightlifting? Would a team sport like basketball or soccer have the same impact? “There are people surrounding [the young people] and cheering them on,” Feinman says. “In other sports, like team sports, you are running around and you cant talk. It’s the conversations that happen in between sets that really build relationships.”

Now, the loft space is seeing a new kind of client: The CEOs who summer. Students who are learning how to be personal trainers are practicing on people in Boston’s highest tax brackets. InnerCity Weightlifting invites people from the community to come to the gym to help the students train. “It’s about bringing the gap,” Feinman says. “CEOs from private equity firms are coming in and its forming a relationship between these two people that probably would have never met before.” By bringing these adults into their lives, Feinman says that everyone wins. “We are able to change the perception about who these kids are. We have a lawyer from downtown Boston come in and he sees that these kids are no different than his own. They just didn’t have the same opportunities. It is eye opening.”

In the future, InnerCity Weightlifting hopes to go national. But the real goal is much bigger than fitness. “Our overall vision is to create a systematic change is terms of the ways that society views these young people,” Feinman says.

In an effort to help the students, InnerCity runs a program similar to what they do for massage or beauty schools. You can be trained by a personal trainer “in-training” for only $20. Visit InnerCityWeightlifting.com for more information. The program was also recently featured on ESPN (see below).