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Hackney Spotlight: Barber’s Gym

Wednesday 19 August 2015

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Words Ailis Mara

Just a few miles from the financial capital of Europe in the heart of Central London, a community of skilled creatives and thriving independent businesses occupy the Hackney area. In this series of conversations we plot the personalities and sharp entrepreneurial minds which are inspiring London to drop what they’re doing and pursue what they love.

Barber’s is as much a reaction to the sterile and unengaging environment of mass-membership gyms as it is a celebration of what a workout has the potential of being. In tying together a functional approach to fitness with a hands-on and stripped-back mentality, the gym’s founder, Darren Barber has created a space for people of all backgrounds and abilities to regain the excitement for movement we once had in the school playground.

Read our conversation with Darren Barber below and visit his website for more information.




Whats’ your name and what do you do at Barber’s Gym?

My name’s Darren Barber, hence the name Barber’s gym. We’re a strength and conditioning gym- essentially a varied programming philosophy based around strength and conditioning, moving it away from the body builder aesthetic modelling. We focus on compound, multi-joint movement patterns which is much closer to how you’d move in real life.

Is that approach slightly less common?

Yeah, but it’s becoming more popular now. For the last 30 years I suppose, when body building came to its prime those guys were smashing the body building circuit, isolated muscle groups became a fashion and I suppose if you want to isolate a group of muscles in order to gain pure mass and get that size, then you have to do a certain amount of isolated exercises. But in theory, it’s not a balanced programme, because you’re only targeting one area or even one muscle group by itself, whereas the body works as a unit, a whole encompassing thing. With gymnasts, it’s whole body strength, bicep strength, back strength.

So targeting on one part of the body at a time is more for aesthetic purposes?

Yes, the isolated stuff is geared more towards aesthetics. We don’t really focus on the aesthetic side of it, we focus on the functionality, the strength, the being able to work and increasing your work capacity. As a result, the aesthetic of looking well and being fit come naturally, but that’s the secondary focus. I’d rather be able to move my body in a certain way and get a job done, rather than look good not being able to do it. The fundamental principle of what we do at the gym is being able to move correctly and freely.

So what did you do before you opened the gym?

I worked as a freelance personal trainer mostly from parks and in people’s houses, so I did that for about 3 years before having the gym, so that’s taking us up to 6 years back. And before then I was in the commercial, corporate clubs. I managed Cadbury’s head office gym.

And how was that?

Good, that was for Nuffield Health, basically it was about providing health and fitness for corporations. I was based at Cadburys for two years and then Goldman Sachs for two years. They’ve got massive gyms in their head offices, providing health and fitness services for employees. The Cadburys gym was all free, so all the employees could go down and use the gym and we’d put on group training sessions. It was a much smaller set up there, the floor space was maybe only 1500 square foot, but it was your classic studio with laminate flooring and then an open gym floor with all your machines, treadmills, rowers, ellipticals and static bikes. Then a circuit of resistance machines, leg extension, leg curl, leg press, bicep curl, sit up. But they were all the isolated machines that we used in the past.

The bonus of the gym setups, especially in those commercial gyms, is that you can just cram loads of these very expensive but very safe machines in, and as a result you don’t need to manage anybody and just crank up the membership numbers. I worked at a Virgin Active that had over 3000 members and essentially we had very little contact time with those customers. I think that’s what annoyed and frustrated me – you’re there to help people but it was too diluted, essentially.

Do you see better results like this, rather than people just going on the treadmills all the time?

People achieve a lot more. In a peer group scenario not everybody’s going to be able lift the same, but just the fact that everyone’s putting in a good amount of effort and not wimping out means it’s a much more motivated scenario and I think it works really well. With a reduced membership base, you know everybody’s name and it’s much more friendly and personable. Some people hate going to the gym, so it’s just trying to get people to enjoy physicality rather than dreading it.

It’s interesting that what you’re doing now with Barbers Gym is so totally opposite to what you were doing before.

Exactly. I think there’s a bigger trend for this now. The concept of picking up a barbell or swinging a kettle bell can be tracked back 1000+ years. It’s nothing new what we’ve got here. What say, Cross Fit has done is they’ve branded it really well and opened it up to a new market of people that ordinarily would’ve been afraid of lifting a barbell, especially women for example, who often associate negative connotations to weight training giving you massive muscles, when actually it builds strength not size.

This is where there’s been a lot of confusion during the last 30 years of “body builder” style isolated training. Places like Gold’s gyms and Fitness First where you did get that one corner in the gym of pumped up guys who might be taking some steroids and getting a bit “testosteroney”. With the sets and reps and the type of training that we do we avoid that super pumped up, massive weight gain type of training. It’s more about fitting into your body shape, being able to move your body. Again, referencing the gymnasts, gymnasts to me have basically the ideal physique- they can move their bodies whether their tall or short or small or big. They can move their bodies in ways you dream of yet have phenomenal strength.

So what kind of equipment do you have here?

Barbells and dumbbells like you would see in a free weights area of any gym. Classic ways of training like back squats, front squats, dead lifts, bench presses, big compound movements where you use part of the body to stabilise yourself and part of your body to move the bar, as well as the more technical Olympic clean and jerk. And then the bars which are part of the rig for pull ups, and then just the floor space – burpees and just jumping. The sort of playful playground exercise that you almost associate with what children do, but we just lose that basic laying instinct as we get older and we sit at desk jobs, we lose that playfulness and it’s really important to bring that back, and in a way that’s what makes us feel good about using the gym and using our bodies. And then the rower and the skier are big favourites.

Do you do any nutritional stuff?

The nutritional stuff is difficult for a trainer. We can give the advice, but most people know what they should and shouldn’t be eating if you really ask them, what do you believe we should eat? And it’s meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, and some nuts and seeds. If you veer off that, that’s when you start getting into trouble and sadly, most people’s diets are hugely processed – things coming out of packets that you really couldn’t explain what’s in any of it, there’s no real ingredients, just a mish-mash of lots of different components of nutrition. So it’s about bringing food to its basic, whole state – if it comes off a tree or out of the ground then you know it’s good to eat, if you’ve pulled it out of the sea or hacked it down in a field then it’s good to eat.

So how have you found being at Hackney Downs Studios?

It’s been really interesting. I’ve lived in the area for ten years or so now. I’ve seen a lot of change in the local area, the gentrification over the last five years in particular. I think classically, East London was a social housing, working class scenario, or full of artists who wanted to get more value for their money- now there are people who are willing to spend upwards of a million pounds for a house, people working in banks, having different lives. But I think the blend of it has opened up a lot of opportunity in East London and Hackney Downs. With the gym, it’s the perfect location, you’ve got the shutters out to the alleyway, onto the street out front. Five years ago we wouldn’t have had any passing traffic, but now with the Russet and Hackney Downs revitalising it’s become quite a popular little place to visit. The fact that I’ve got the Archway would suggest that the business is going well. It’s another space that we have another gym, where we tend to do more personal training.

And Is that still under the Barber’s gym?

Yes, I employ freelance trainers, and sublet the gym to them and they have their own clients in there. It’s an extension of what I wanted with the group training and my own personal training going on. Five or six trainers I’m looking to get, at the moment I’ve got three. We’re looking for two more, three more trainers to expand and hopefully get 100% usage from the space.