Bookending an infamous and vibrating strip of Oceanside boardwalk in Southern California are two gyms – cousins – neither of which looks anything like the gym you call home. “Muscle Beach” and “Muscle Beach Venice” are working gyms to be sure, but their open-air facilities, wind and sand battered raw equipment and eclectic clientele put them in a club with exactly two members. The passerby experiences a show to remember, and for those man or woman enough to walk through the gates there is enough sweat, testosterone and sense of history to make it a must do for anyone who’s ever picked up a dumbbell.
I’ve walked that patch dozens of times over the years, stopping and looking at the bodybuilders and the exercise hobbyists but never getting closer than leaning on the outside fence in Venice. I’m here for a bit and I’ve gotten quite accustomed to my daily exercise routine so I bought a pass (it’s $ 10.00 a visit or 7 for $ 50.00) and am for now a regular.
The gyms are owned and maintained by the County (for “Muscle Beach” in Santa Monica) and the City (for “Muscle Beach Venice”) of Los Angeles by their Parks and Recreation or Recreation and Parks departments depending on whether it’s the county or the city. And despite their designation and historical ties they could not appear or be more different.
In the 1930’s the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was building parks and bridges and all kinds of structures throughout the country and installed the beginnings of “Muscle Beach” just south of the Santa Monica Pier. Today it has evolved but remains true to its roots as being a center for acrobats and gymnasts. The Venice location is newer, circa 1987, and is exclusively the domain of the weight lifters and body builders. Pretty much every famous star in both categories during the 80’s and 90’s stalked the same area and from the looks of things, tossed the same iron around as I did today.
There are few electric outlets at either place, but no modern cardio machines with flat screen televisions to plug in even so. There’s no locker room or short towels or juice bars. But if running on the beach, lifting weights in Venice, and climbing ropes and monkey bars in Santa Monica with the sun on your face and the sea breeze whipping across your body sounds like that could work too… well it does.