Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people.
With a never-satisfied attitude and a dedication to achieving results, Joe DeFranco of DeFranco’s Gym embodies the future of training for athletic performance. On any given day, high school, college, and professional athletes are pushed to their limits — physically and mentally — in his intense, no-frills Wycoff, New Jersey gym. DeFranco analyzes each athlete’s needs for improvement and builds a science-based, individualized training program accordingly. His lengthy list of professional clients is a testament to the success and effectiveness of his philosophies and techniques. Despite his hectic schedule, Joe took a moment between power lifts with minor league baseball players and speed training sessions with NFL athletes to talk training philosophy, diversifying his client base, and to clarify the myth that soccer players are soft.
How did you get started? What inspired you to open up DeFranco’s Gym?
Growing up in New Jersey, I started working out with my father around the age of twelve. My dad was a state patrol officer and everyday, he used to kick my ass in the gym. There was no air conditioning and it would be brutally hot, so that’s kind of where I developed my approach of intensity and mental strength.
I also played football pretty seriously growing up until age 17 when I discovered that I had a tumor in my back that would prevent me from playing anymore. Any interest I had from schools to play college football went out the window and I was pretty devastated. I had to find an outlet for that frustration and disappointment. Eventually, I was able to refocus and realized that if I couldn’t make it doing what I loved, I was going to do everything I could to help others reach their goals athletically.
So what would you pinpoint as the overriding philosophy at DeFranco’s Gym as far as training goes?
Atmosphere and Attitude. From the moment each athlete steps into the gym, he/she must be ready to give maximum effort, and that is the environment we try to create for them everyday.
What do you think separates you from other intense athletic-training focused gyms?
What separates us is the combination of intensity and performance science on an individualized level. Most gyms have one or the other. Some focus on the science and the research but don’t necessarily know how to put it into practice in a real setting. Others are just focused on getting athletes as strong as possible or fast as possible, but with no real focus on a calculated program to improve an individual’s athletic performance.
And then from a physical standpoint, another thing that separates us is the fact that we’re all about total athletic performance. We don’t have a cookie-cutter program. We work on what each individual athlete needs to work on. You have a lot of gyms that just focus on strength or speed or you have the sport-specific facility that works only on football-throwing techniques. We do everything, from hardcore strength training, to strong man training ,to sprint techniques, to plyometrics, to energy systems training — anything the athlete needs to improve their on-field performance. And that’s the reason I think the results we get are better than other gyms: We are not a “cookie-cutter” program.
It appears that you’ve really created a culture that emphasizes intensity and mental strength. How does your gym kind of help athletes take their game to the next level mentally?
Mentally, its about making guys earn their respect in the gym, making sure nobody has an attitude of superiority so that when they walk in, it sets the tone and guys are thinking ‘I might have a scholarship to college or I might be making millions in the NFL but I’m not special, not better than anyone else; I’ve got to earn my keep around here.’ And then the fact that we’re not babying them (think pushing athletes through workouts in a gym with no air conditioning on 98 degree days) really helps prepare them mentally. Some of these guys are going to start their preseason camps in 100-degree weather in full pads so we don’t baby them during their preparation for that. They’ve got to be ready.
Obviously, because of the nature of the training you attract a number of football players. However, do you think the training methods can have a profound influence on athletes in other sports?
In the beginning we really did focus on football. It definitely is our biggest sport, but for example, right at this moment we have a rugby player in the gym training, an Olympic snowboarder coming next week, and around 30 to 40 college and minor league baseball players training as we speak. In the beginning, people just thought we were this hardcore, meathead kind of gym, but [things changed] once the results started flowing in. It only takes one or two athletes [from other sports] to be brave enough step in to the facility, and once they show up here, whether it be a minor league baseball player or an Olympic snowboarder, they see the scientific approach to their training and their noticeable improvements. From there, it just spreads through word-of-mouth advertising, so once we get a new athlete from any one sport and they see the individual results, it just kind of snowballs from there and more athletes from that sport begin to roll in.
What about training a ‘soft’ soccer player like myself?
Haha, yeah, we’ll bring you in and give you that mental edge too. Sometimes, the football guys have a tendency to think that the soccer players don’t have the mental toughness, but usually they come in here and prove [the football] guys wrong.
And what do you think the future holds for DeFranco’s Gym?
I think the sky is the limit. For me, I want to be the best. The other trainers and I are never satisfied. Without being cocky, I do feel like we are the best. There’s not a place in the world that will improve performance the way we do. And what we do is really focus on the task at hand.
I don’t have some five or ten year plan. I think the business has grown because we focus so hard on the day-to-day grind and bringing our A game to the athletes we have every single day. When you focus on the individual and the day-to-day grind, good things have a tendency to happen. For example, we just signed a contract with Nike and now, we are trying to take athletic performance to another level throughout the world. And that’s not something I went out and looked for. They called me and said, "We took note of what’s going on there and we want you to be one of just a handful of trainers in the world that are part of the Nike Performance Team." Now I’m going to go to Oregon and speak once or twice a year on things we are doing. So, the sky’s the limit. We’re ready to take over the world.
Have you ever trained at DeFranco's? Do you have any thoughts on their no-frills, high-intensity approach? Let us know in the comments below!