Squats, rows, pushups and burpees: A working visit to Cary Street Gym

VCU student personal trainers prepare for their future careers while motivating the university community.

Brandon Imthurn (in blue) provides instruction to a small group fitness class at Cary Street Gym....
Brandon Imthurn (in blue) provides instruction to a small group fitness class at Cary Street Gym. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Brandon Imthurn is pacing between workout stations in the main fitness room at Cary Street Gym. Kettlebells, sandbags and barbell plates are scattered on the floor near training terminals at Synrgy360, a large piece of equipment that looks like a red jungle gym. Imthurn glances at his stopwatch.

“Halfway there guys,” he says to the three participants in his Functional Fitness Training class. “You got this.” 

Imthurn, 20, is a personal trainer. He is informing the group that there are 45 seconds remaining in this particular exercise. The class is brutally straightforward: You complete 90-second exercises, without rest, at four stations at Synrgy360. Then you get a break. You repeat the circuit three more times. Imthurn introduces a new set of exercises after the second round.

The workout — a combination of squats, burpees, kettlebell swings, lunges and other exercises — is a form of high-intensity training, and it is designed to make you sweat.

“Ten seconds to go — nice job, almost there,” Imthurn says as he walks past Nick Allen, one of the class participants. “Five … four … three … two … one … and switch for me.”

Quincy Carter, left, and Imthurn are exercise science majors in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)
Quincy Carter, left, and Imthurn are exercise science majors in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Little wrapped note


Imthurn, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, has always wanted to work in fitness. He started lifting weights when he was 14, and got certified as a personal trainer on his 18th birthday — “the first legal day I was allowed to take the test,” he said. His parents purchased the exam for him as a Christmas present.

“It was this little wrapped note, like a receipt,” he said. “I’m never going to forget opening it and seeing a receipt for the test. I knew it was life changing, that it would be a life-changing experience.”

Imthurn spent most of 2017 working as a certified student personal trainer at VCU Recreational Sports. He is tall and wiry, with steady, focused blue eyes. As a trainer, his job is to help people, in one-on-one and small group sessions, reach their fitness goals by creating workout routines that range from weightlifting to cardiovascular training. At Rec Sports, Imthurn trained all types of clients, including students, faculty, staff and alumni. He loves being a trainer.

“The atmosphere, for me, is energetic,” Imthurn said of working at a gym. “When I am here, I feel like I never run out of energy. I can be on two hours of sleep and have a 6 a.m. client, and when I step through the door the attitude changes. I love the atmosphere and I love helping people with their goals — and helping them fall in love with this atmosphere as well.”

Nick Allen, a junior biology major, prepares for a round of exercises at Imthurn's Functional Fitness Training class. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)
Nick Allen, a junior biology major, prepares for a round of exercises at Imthurn's Functional Fitness Training class. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Many current and former VCU student trainers, including Imthurn, study exercise science in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences. For them, working at Cary Street Gym is a combination of a job, a practicum and a lab.

“You get to see things in motion,” said Quincy Carter, a junior exercise science major and personal trainer. “You get more of a practical understanding of things and it’s not just coming straight from a textbook.”

Carter, 21, is shadowing Imthurn during the Functional Fitness Training class. He looks as though he might live in the gym — muscular, lean, upper back shaped like a yield sign. Fitness has been a huge part of his life since he was a teenager.

“The feeling of improving myself felt good and I thought maybe giving this feeling to other people would be a great job,” he said.

That is a common statement among trainers, said Nikki Stock, fitness coordinator at Rec Sports. Cary Street Gym, she said, is a place where people come to improve.

“It's always changing,” she said. “That's why people come here: They are improving and changing. And everything about it, in my opinion, is beautiful.”

Nikki Stock was a group exercise instructor and personal trainer as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. There, she fell in love with fitness and working in recreation. “It's always changing, it's never the same every day,” she said of campus rec centers like Cary Street Gym. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)
Nikki Stock was a group exercise instructor and personal trainer as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. There, she fell in love with fitness and working in recreation. “It's always changing, it's never the same every day,” she said of campus rec centers like Cary Street Gym. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

‘It’s a lab, it’s a studio, it's whatever you want it to be’


It’s hard to walk into a building like Cary Street Gym — with its 18,000-square-foot fitness room, Olympic-sized swimming pools and 40-foot climbing wall — and not be impressed. The facility’s brick exterior dates to the 1890s; natural light floods through its vertical, street-level windows and glass-framed cupola. Prospective-student tours on the Monroe Park Campus always include a stop at Cary Street Gym. Imthurn said he enrolled at VCU because of it.

“One of the biggest reasons I came here was the gym,” he said. 

Imthurn believes he is likely an outlier (though Stock said the gym does help attract students to VCU). More importantly, Stock said, is that campus recreation centers — and the trainers who work there — help students thrive once they get to college. 

Stock, 25, knows a lot about university recreation. She was a group exercise instructor and personal trainer as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. She later spent two years as a recreational sports graduate assistant at Western Kentucky University. Stock holds a master’s degree in kinesiology and has worked at campus gyms for the better part of a decade.

“People all have different goals, but being here is the most important part,” she said. “It’s more than a gym — it’s a lab, it’s a studio, it's whatever you want it to be.”

Imthurn tracks his clients' workouts with a stopwatch. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)
Imthurn tracks his clients' workouts with a stopwatch. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Sitting in her second-floor office inside Cary Street Gym, Stock begins discussing the positives of fitness and movement, pivoting between physical, emotional and mental benefits of exercise. Her passion at times touches on the philosophical. Stock talks about exercise the way a composer talks about music.

“When you think about the human body, it's a complicated machine but flawless,” she said. “And movement is the most basic human thing. Science and biology tell us we should be moving. If you are working out, you're going to feel better — just from a psychological happiness perspective. And don't even get me started on the physical health benefits.”

Nearly 4,000 people a day pass through the turnstiles inside Cary Street Gym. And research supports Stock’s enthusiasm for fitness and movement. Studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine point to the dangers of excessive sedentary behavior. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in 2014 found that regular aerobic exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. In a more college-centric study, researchers at North Carolina State University in 2016 found that students are more likely to succeed academically when they exercise more.

Allen, one of Imthurn’s Functional Fitness Training clients, is in class this very afternoon because he needs a mental break from his studies. He has been preparing to take an EMT exam.

“I’ve done about 1,000 questions since Saturday, and it’s nice to come here and have something else to think about — because you can’t think about anything else while you’re struggling to lift heavy things,” said Allen, 20, a junior biology major who aspires to attend medical school. “And of course you have an endocrine reaction and feel good. It’s good for your body and your mind.”

Allen, who aspires to attend medical school one day, says the workouts are good for mind and body. “It’s nice to come here and have something else to think about — because you can’t think about anything else while you’re struggling to lift heavy things," he said. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)
Allen, who aspires to attend medical school one day, says the workouts are good for mind and body. “It’s nice to come here and have something else to think about — because you can’t think about anything else while you’re struggling to lift heavy things," he said. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

3-D education


Allen has tried rock climbing, fencing and krav maga — all body-weight-oriented activities. Functional Fitness Training is his introduction to equipment and weights. He wants to be a surgeon someday, and he and Imthurn bond between sets over a shared interest in how the body works.

They speak a common language, Imthurn said. Exercise is about fitness and strength, yes, but it also is about improving health, from alleviating arthritis to improving sleep to lowering the chances of cardiovascular disease. 

“It’s important to know how all that works with the body,” Imthurn said. “Exercise is medicine.”

Personal trainers specialize in the mechanics of the human body, and that knowledge translates to many health professions. Imthurn, who is taking the spring semester off from training to focus on his studies ahead of graduation, hopes to own a gym one day. Carter wants to pursue a career in cardiac rehab or physical therapy — his father, David, owns a PT clinic in Goochland County.

“I would work with him a few times in high school and see how he helped his clients,” Carter said. “And I think that was the thing that drove me into exercise science.”

Fitness is constantly changing, Imthurn said. Somebody is always creating new exercises and new routines — even a change in grip or foot placement can target different muscles, he said. 

“You learn something new every time,” he said. “Because I have this job, I can look at someone and see what muscles are firing and I can visualize in my head the attachment points. That’s why we have labs, because you take what you are learning in class and you reinforce it. It’s like taking something from 2-D and putting it into 3-D.”

Stock is encouraged by this appreciation for hands-on education.

“Isn't that what learning is supposed to be? If you think about it, this is what everyone should be doing with as much of their schoolwork as possible,” she said. “If you want to be an actual scholar, you need to read it, learn it and then go do it.” 

For Imthurn, the gym is a second home, a place where people come to improve and grow. “Exercise is such a beneficial thing," he said. "I have a purpose here, and that is to help somebody be better.” (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)
For Imthurn, the gym is a second home, a place where people come to improve and grow. “Exercise is such a beneficial thing," he said. "I have a purpose here, and that is to help somebody be better.” (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Motivating the campus community


What Stock enjoys most is seeing improvement in people who come to the gym.

“It gives me a lot of joy,” she said.

Imthurn agrees.

“The gym can be an intimidating place,” he said. “But the biggest reward I have is when somebody I am training leaves and then I see them in the gym, and they’re not in the corner — they are down on the floor with the big guys doing the things we worked on, and they are doing it on their own and they are not intimidated by the people around them.”

Back at Synrgy360, Functional Fitness Training is down to its final two rotations. Everyone is tired. Imthurn paces between clients, softly offering encouragement, winding and unwinding his stopwatch around his left hand. 

He glances at the timer. 

“Five seconds to go — you’re going to really push yourself here,” he says. “And three … two … one … switch.”