Former History Teacher Turned Gym Owner

When the School District of Philadelphia laid off Brian Terpak in May 2013, the former history teacher transformed the extracurricular fitness club he ran at Girard Academic Music Program high school into his new business, Steelworks CrossFit gym.

“I thought this was the last chance in my life to do something worthwhile and different,” said 33-year-old Terpak. “And through the kids’ program, I thought why don’t I do that for the rest of my life?”

His parents, both teachers, urged him to reconsider, but Terpak persisted. “When I was younger, the biggest thing I wanted to do was be a coach,” he said.

With the help of his family and a loan from the nonprofit Entrepreneur Works, Terpak poured nearly $10,000 into opening Steelworks at 1415 Melon St. in the city’s Spring Garden neighborhood in September 2013. 

The location, which he updated with a new bathroom and lights, was a somewhat risky choice since CrossFit Fairmount opened about four blocks away a month earlier.

“I had no clue he was opening,” Terpak said.

Steelworks’ membership packages range in price from $108 to $218 per month depending on the number of visits desired—a similar setup to the nearby competitor.

“But the thing about crossfit gyms is they have different personalities,” added Terpak, who leads his 42 clients through one of the nearly 30 sessions involving kettle bells, jump ropes, medicine balls and squat stands each week.

“You can do curls until you are blue in the face, but can you pick up a weight, put in on your shoulder and run a mile with it?” he asked. “As opposed to having muscle for aesthetics, this creates energy systems that are designed to make you a better person.”

An incentivized membership package, which included a free t-shirt and attendance at three seminars at no extra cost, attracted some of his first clients to try out the program he once led students through for 60 minutes three days a week after school.

“I remember there were a lot of painful moments, particularly my first pull-up. I could not do a pull-up at all,” said 19-year-old Alex Palmer, who participated in the high school club from its inception in January 2012 until he graduated in June 2013. 

Before Terpak coaxed Palmer into using his free time to lift weights, complete squats and do deadlifts in the school cafeteria, the Girard Academic Music Program graduate says he was out of shape.

“I was obese. I had very bad asthma,” Palmer said. “Doctors were telling me I should get out and do something besides staying in and doing school work.”

But he shed 60 pounds with the help of Terpak’s program.

“I found myself health-wise always feeling out of breath and tired and now I’m a whole lot more energetic,” he said. “I became a lot happier.”

Palmer, who can now do nearly 30 pull-ups in a row, still finds time between his classes at University of Pennsylvania to get to Steelworks for Terpak’s instruction.

“He is still teaching,” Palmer said. “It is just in a different setting and atmosphere.”

Aside from hoping current members, like Palmer, tell others about Steelworks, Terpak is hosting fitness challenges to introduce his business to other potential clients.

A pull-up contest is set for June 28. It costs $30 to enter and all proceeds will go to BooCancer, an organization that gives children an opportunity to raise money for a cause of their choice by putting their artwork on shirts or stickers which are then sold.

The entry fee also gives competitors a chance to test out Terpak’s program since he is offering coaching to prepare the participants’ upper body ahead of the challenge.

He expects to hold more contests in the future to build the local fitness community and Steelworks’ membership.

“One idea I’ve had is to try to find the strongest man or woman in Fairmount,” he said.

While he fleshes out the details, Terpak –standing in front of a chalkboard and wearing thick-rimmed glasses – readies his current members for the next physical challenge they’ll face.

“While I’m no longer in public education, that need to teach is still satiated.”

Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.

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