Second things first. Agoge is pronounced ə-ˈgō-gē (ah-go-ghee).
And first it was the name that Spartan Greeks gave to the school or camp young boys joined in their sixth or seventh year. Spartan society was, well, spartan. There was only one career track for a citizen and that was soldier. If you weren’t a citizen then you were a slave and responsible for meeting all the necessary requirements of civilization. Citizens voted, trained and fought and that was about it.
Spartan society was tribal. Everyone lived for the perpetuation of the whole. The greatest thing a citizen could do was to die in defense of Sparta. Spartan wives were famed for sending their husbands into battle with the loving phrase, “Husband, return with your shield, or on it.”
Given that war was the sole occupation of a Spartan citizen, his education was devoted to that sole purpose as well. The Greeks were a lot more broad minded than we are today and the arts of war were much more varied than “Parrying 101” and graduate level courses in stabbing. Spartans were equally concerned with developing the spirit of a soldier. The arts were included in their training as they emboldened the soldier and built a more courageous warrior.
So, at age six or seven young boys were taken from their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts. They were removed from female company and brought into the society of men. Their training was at times what we would consider abusive. They learned to fight, steal, lie and cheat. If caught they were severely punished. These acts themselves were not seen as crimes. What was punished was being caught. A solider must be resourceful and consider all means at his disposal in the carrying out of his duty, the defense of Sparta.
Of special note is the philosophy of Spartan warfare. This was defensive in nature. A Spartan’s primary tool was not his sword or spear, but his shield. Spartans fought in a phalanx whose strength came from unity. One’s shield protected the soldier on his left. This is why a soldier would be forgiven losing his helmet, his spear, and even his sword but never his shield. A Spartan lived for the protection of others with no thought for himself. As I said, to die in defense of Sparta was the ultimate goal.
The Agoge then was the school that produced this soldier. From early boyhood until the age of twenty-one boys lived, trained and sometimes died in the Agoge.
Two and a half years ago I was transitioning my business from a personal training service into something more. I was looking to have a broader impact, to reach more people and to affect their lives in a deeper more meaningful way. Part of this process involved branding my business.
There were several factors at play which ultimately led me in the direction I took and caused me to choose such an unlikely name.
The first was a certification under Zach Even-Esh and his Underground Strength Program. I had been following Zach for over a year, following him on YouTube. He produced a ton of online content, both free and for pay and his product was solid. He is unforgiving, honest and direct. His passion is clear and most important is that he cares. He cares enough to tell you the truth, painful or not, whether you’re ready for it or not.
Zach put out a call for an Inspiration Contest. He wanted applicants to produce a short video explaining what strength training had done for them. Originally, I had no intention of entering the contest. I did, however, send Zach an email thanking him for his inspiration and speaking a little about what strength training had done for me and how much I had changed because of it.
To my surprise he wrote me back. He wrote me back and he challenged me to produce a video. I would have felt like a total schmoe to refuse or ignore this request/challenge. So, I made one and entered. A few days later, I found out I won the contest.
The contest was in September and in April of the next year I was in New Jersey attending the cert.
It was there I saw the potential of what my business could be.
Around the same time I was reading Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. Gates of Fire is an historical fiction about the battle of Thermopylae, where a small regiment of Spartan soldiers held back the hordes of Xerxes for three days, ultimately giving their lives so that the rest of Greece could muster and eventually drive back the Persian invasion.
I was struck and inspired by Pressfield’s accounting of Spartan society. He was able to bring the Spartan ideal to full light and present a whole man, one capable of great strength and astounding tenderness. This book has become my own personal ideal and some of it’s characters are to me paragons of manhood, ideals to be ascribed to.
Around the same time, the movie 300 was gaining traction and very much in the forefront of popular culture.
So, I was looking for a way to brand myself and personify the ideals I held important as a person and a trainer. I began to focus on my own story and the transformational power strength training had revealed to me.
I have been a personal trainer for seven years now. Prior to that I was a mechanic who worked on machines that handled mail for a bulk mailing operation, before that a chef, before that a carpenter. I’ve made pizzas, built pallets, and tried to control the insect population in a large commercial greenhouse. While my first job at 14 was in construction, my high school years were spent as an office aide to a local economic development organization. Aside from the office job in high school my average shelf life for any job was about two years. That’s usually how long it took me to realize I absolutely hated what I was doing.
My parents married very young and because they were pregnant with me. My mother did not love my father and their eleven years of marriage were difficult at best. Their divorce was ugly and left lots of collateral damage. Mom left Dad for another woman. This was 1983. I grew up in what I like to call a ‘Kate and Alley’ household, lesbian parents in all but name.
Life in ‘the closet’ is not healthy. You’re always watching your words, trying to keep a secret, not revealing your true self. Over time you begin to think that maybe the real reason you hide is because there’s something wrong with you. You’re not good enough. Your self esteem suffers.
Fast forward a dozen years and life was better, but those old wounds still hung around. I was married and starting a family but I still didn’t believe in myself. Everything good that had happened was a fluke and any day now she’d wake up and realize her mistake. I was just waiting for the inevitable, making the most of what little reprieve God had granted me.
I was introduced to marijuana my sophomore year in high school and we bonded immediately. I remained a recreational smoker through high school and college, but it wasn’t until after my first child was born that it became a problem. As was right and natural and necessary, all of Samantha’s attentions were on her. That left little for me and I felt as though the ‘inevitable’ had occurred, only it was worse because Samantha was still around. I knew it was small and petty and ridiculous. My daughter was awesome and I was just as much in love with her, but somehow I was still missing what I had had. So I just started “taking care of myself.”
The occasional trip “out back” or to “the garage” became more frequent and I began staying high all day every day. This basically continued for the next ten years.
I became what you would consider a “heavy user.” I smoked on average an ounce of marijuana a week–by myself. I made very poor decisions, all of them based on keeping me in supply. I had a few narrow brushes with the law. By any definition, I was an addict.
Somehow I was lucky and never “really screwed up.” I managed to keep my jobs, even though I hated them. We paid our bills, even if I did squander our savings. I was a passable father and husband. No where near what my wife and children deserved. No where near what I was capable of.
During my tenure at the hated mechanic’s gig I started attending a kung fu class at a local gym. I had been studying Tai Chi for years, had even taught a class, but this class was something different. It was hard and it challenged me and when it was over I really felt like I had done something. I became a regular and over the next year as I began to contemplate my escape from yet another job that “wasn’t working out” I began to think in terms of careers that would help keep me in shape for kung fu. A co-worker who worked part time at the YMCA suggested personal training. I decided to give it a try.
I struggled for a year. I worked at the Jewish Community Center, taught Tai Chi and a few other group fitness classes and continued to get high.
All the while though I was working on myself. I lost twenty five pounds, started a running routine and explored every style of training I was exposed to. I had a knack for training and a natural understanding of biomechanics.
After a year of struggling at the “J” I met Trey Beasley and started training at his gym, Lakeview Personal Fitness. This was the same gym where my kung fu group met and so I had an in. After a short trial I won Trey’s confidence and he began to send clients my way. In a few months my business was thriving.
I started at Lakeview in October. That Christmas we spent on the coast. I was my usual self, taking frequent trips to our upstairs bedroom for a “little refresher” but by New Year’s I had run out. Marijuana’s not really something you can pop down to the corner store and stock up on. I decided I would follow another friend’s lead and take the month of January “off.”
By the end of January I had a whole new perspective. The first few weeks were hard. I had begun reading A Million Little Pieces and it provided the perfect mirror. My new clarity of mind allowed me to see just how much of a junkie I had become.
I began to forge a new me. Not so much a new me, but a refined me. I stripped away all the crap, all the lies, all the bullshit. I threw myself whole heartedly into training. If I wasn’t training a client, I was training myself.
In time this process became the basis for my business. I knew I had no future with rehab clients, per se, but I cold see how the transformation, the uncovering of one’s true self through hard work and persistence was universal. It was this I wanted to share with my clients.
The Agoge is the perfect metaphor for what my gym is. It is a crucible, a proving ground, a place where people can come to uncover their true natures and to discover their worth. I took the tag line “Everyone has potential…What’s yours?” as a way to challenge people, to ask them to reach inside themselves and discover how great they truly are. Hard work becomes the fire that refines the spirit.
I embraced both the name and the spirit of the Agoge, but there are differences. My gym is open to people of all walks of life. I train men and women, of all ages and all abilities. Everyone has an opportunity at Agoge Fitness Systems. No one who wants to train will ever be turned away. I like to train groups because in a group you find that you’re stronger than when you’re by yourself. You work harder and grow more. That to me is the essence of life, an unceasing quest to grow and improve, one glorious step at a time.