Mike Graham doesn’t like ruts. The former journalism student has taught high school biology, worked in public relations, claimed championship titles in bodybuilding and boxing, and launched a business welding workout equipment. But his favorite career has been teaching strength training. He ran the Texas Athletic Gym in Austin from 1973 to 1986 and the Hyde Park Gym from 1983 to 1995. (The giant biceps curling a dumbbell over the doorway was modeled on Mike’s arm.) For 18 years he’s run the Old Texas Barbell Company in Lockhart, which offers 100-year-old barbells and vintage medicine balls, but no televisions or elliptical machines. He closed its doors for good on Aug. 29, 2014, just in time to celebrate his 72nd birthday.
“You’ll notice there’s no air conditioning in here, there’s no music, there’s no treadmills in here. You come in here to train to get strong. You go to a barbecue place to eat barbecue. There may be a few vegetables on the side but that’s not the point.
“Everybody comes here. There’s a 10-year-old who’s training with his dad and mom, and an 86-year-old woman who’s trained here since I opened, and everyone else in between. If you’re 80 and you’re coming in because you want to stay strong so you don’t fall down, to me you’re just as serious about your training as the world-champion power lifter is.
“Back when I started, this whole idea of hiring a personal trainer for $50 an hour was unheard of. You paid a gym membership fee and you expected to get some training from the people there, teaching you how to do it. That’s been my focus for 41 years of doing this.
“In real life, picking up a sack of dog food and picking up a dumbbell is about the same thing. The whole point is not how much you’re doing in here, but how much better can this make your life out there. I don’t care what they can do with a 10-pound curl or how many reps they can do on a butterfly machine. How much stronger are they going to be when having to cut the grass or wash the windows or whatever it happens to be, and not be completely beaten up by Sunday morning?
“I have always been fascinated with using muscle. As a kid I liked rough-and-tumble stuff, I liked fistfights. There are two basic sports in my life that I believe in: the 100-yard dash and a fistfight. Because in real life, if trouble comes, you either run away fast or you stay and fight. All other sports are just ways around making that happen. Football is a whole bunch of fights over and over again. It’s controlled, but that’s what it’s about.
“I was 18 when I got my first training book, written by George Jowett. I found out about it in the back of a comic book. When I started boxing in high school, the coaches didn’t want me to lift weights, so I just wrote to him and asked him, ‘What should I do?’ The mail order place was in New York, and somebody there was kind enough to send it to George Jowett, who was retired up in Canada. Can you believe he sat down and wrote me back?
“Here’s a man who took the time to write to a high school kid who was a thousand miles away. He wasn’t getting a new customer out of this or any money, it was purely from an educational ‘I’m a teacher, here’s a kid who I’m going to explain something to’ standpoint. To me, that has been my whole purpose in the gym. I would rather train one person who listens and who I can spend time with than have a hundred people that are just paying me to work out.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.