Fitness centers across the country are buckling under the burden of coronavirus stay-at-home orders as many members stop their monthly fees. But Unleash’d Strength, a small, family-owned strength training gym in Northern Virginia, is still standing thanks to a group of power lifters who’ve stepped in to help shoulder the load.

In fact, 176 of its 198 members are voluntarily paying their monthly bills to keep the Manassas Park gym solvent — an unusual bright spot in the world of independent businesses, many of which are suffering as the economy struggles during the pandemic.

The gym is owned by power lifter Joseph Strada, 28, and his wife, Margo, 26, who until a recent pregnancy could dead lift nearly three times her weight.

Member Angela Roark, 34, who lives in Gainesville, said she “never thought twice” about her decision to continue paying. It’s more than a place to lift heavy weights and build muscle, she said. There is a close community feeling amid the benches, racks and weight plates.

“We all kind of feel like we found a gold mine at that place,” said Roark, who is a nurse practitioner. “So we want to make sure that they’re there in the long run.”

Another member, Jimmy Kolb — who broke the world record bench press in the 275-pound weight class by benching 1,035 pounds this year — said he is grateful to the Stradas. He said they help him train every weekend and have used their photography and videography skills to help him build a following on social media.

“They give, give, give, so we don’t want to just take, take, take,” Kolb, 29, explained. “We want to give back to them as much as we can and in any way we can.”

Joseph Strada has been a lifter for years. He founded Unleash’d Strength in 2016 as a side interest, while working a day job as an engineering project manager. Initially his project, which focused on “discipline and virtue,” existed only online, with a handful of followers. Strada shared motivational videos, workouts, interviews with athletes and blog posts — but his goal was eventually to open a gym.

When Strada’s business partner pulled out, his wife stepped in. Her presence added another dimension to the gym. As a woman, mother and novice lifter (at the time), she set the business apart from male-dominated lifting communities. Already a business owner, she was running her own wedding photography company.

As they worked toward opening a physical space, they estimated that the equipment could cost upward of $100,000, money they didn’t have. Instead, they spent a fraction of that by scouring places like Craigslist for discounted and secondhand equipment, which they stored in their parents’ garages.

They finally found a space for their gym and opened last summer, after taking three weeks to renovate the space with the help of a few dozen family members and friends. Their goal was to have 200 members within six months.

The Stradas sold their house in Dale City and moved in with Margo’s parents in Manassas to save money and be closer to the gym. By January they had 150 members. When Joseph Strada was let go from his job in February, he decided to go full-time at the gym.

The Stradas say the gym’s balance between discipline and fun attracts veteran lifters, like Kolb, as well as rookies, such as Elaine Atkinson. In her 50s, Atkinson estimates that she and her husband are among the gym’s oldest members but says they feel welcome in the younger crowd. “Everybody’s equal there,” she said.

Powerlifter Angela Roark said the gym is “really welcoming to all skill levels.” Joining the world of lifting can be intimidating, particularly for women, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never touched a weight before or you’ve been lifting for many years. There’s equipment there for you. There’s support there for you,” Roark said.

As the Stradas approached 200 members in early March, Virginia reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus.

They took their already careful cleaning regimen and kicked it up a notch. In mid-March they started requiring members to reserve workout slots to ensure that fewer than 10 people were in the gym at any given time.

When all gyms in Virginia were ordered to do the same, the Stradas found themselves in a privileged position. Bigger gyms, some with more than 1,000 members, had no choice but to close, and lifters eager to continue working out started making their way to Unleash’d. One man drove from nearly three hours away for a workout, they said.

Peaking at 210 members in the middle of March, the Stradas suspended new sign-ups. “This is absolutely killing me to write,” Joseph Strada posted on Instagram, “but after a night of terrible sleep we realized this is the right thing to do.”

Days later, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered nonessential businesses to shut their doors, leaving the Stradas with another tough call. “We knew we couldn’t ask our members to continue paying, but if they didn’t, we’d be done,” Margo Strada recalled.

They offered their members three options: freeze their contracts for free, freeze them for a reduced rate of $10 per month or continue to pay the full rate of $39.

A handful canceled their memberships, but 176 of the remaining 198 volunteered to pay full-price.

Elaine Atkinson is continuing to pay five memberships among her husband, her children and herself because she doesn’t want the Stradas’ years of hard work to go to waste.

“I really want to see them succeed. … This is something Joseph’s wanted to do for all of his life.”

Unleash’d Strength could reopen as early as next week, but even if it doesn’t, the Stradas say they’ve already collected enough revenue to make it through at least the rest of the month.

In the meantime, they are hard at work improving the place, adding several new pieces of equipment and upgrading old ones.

“We aren’t taking any kind of salary from this yet,” said Joseph Strada. “Any extra revenue is going right back into the gym.”

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