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Pumping Up Business : Gym on Wheels Brings Fitness Home to County’s Driveways

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rod Kramer, a 169-pound former Mr. Atlanta, rousts Tom Gage out of bed one morning each week to torture him in the back of a converted cargo truck. Occasionally, Gage’s wife also watches.

Gage is one of a growing number of Southern Californians climbing into vans and trucks to pump iron or pedal exercise bikes. Too busy or too lazy to drive to a gym, they have it come to them, instead.

“You can run but you can’t hide,” sneers Kramer, a former bouncer.

Gyms on wheels are so popular--there are at least six in Orange County alone--that Kramer is preparing to franchise his Dana Point company, Mobile Fitness Inc. Even a dumbbell could see why: Customers pay up to $450 a month for the privilege of working out wherever it’s convenient.

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Though many clients prefer working out in the truck while it is parked in the privacy of their driveway, a few like a more public venue. Customers have asked Kramer to park at the beach or even atop a mountain.

“He gets (us) out of bed in the morning,” said Gage, a 54-year-old Newport Beach mortgage banker. “I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

Originally founded in the Los Angeles area, Mobile Fitness’ first client was Ron Howard. The child star and movie director liked working out at home but was unhappy about the indentations that weights left in his expensive carpeting, according to Tom Flower, Howard’s personal trainer.

Flower decided to build a gym on wheels in 1985 and still drives a Mobile Fitness truck around Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Though he has allowed Kramer to use the name in Orange County, the two companies are unrelated.

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Flower’s clients have included such actress/entertainers as Lindsay Wagner, Heather Locklear and Pia Zadora. Kramer’s are a little mundane by comparison: doctors, interior designers and business executives.

Kramer’s rainbow-colored truck is loaded with nearly a ton of customized weightlifting and aerobic equipment, capable of exhausting almost anybody’s lats, traps, pecs and glutes. The truck and equipment cost him about $30,000.

Besides weights, the truck sports a host of racy accessories, including a sunroof, mirror and compact-disc player.

“Being an Arnold fan, of course I have the ‘Terminator’ soundtrack,” Kramer said with a smile.

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One wall of the 14-foot-long truck is lined with vitamins, amino acids and protein powders. Before deciding what color of upholstery to buy, Kramer consulted a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist suggested red, Kramer said, “because it’s the energy color.”

The Southland seems to have what it takes to make mobile gyms a hit: fitness nuts, clogged freeways, nice weather, affluence and a fascination with the offbeat.

To make the pain more pleasant, Kramer offers to transport his clients to a hilltop in Laguna Beach, the beach at Aliso Pier or even a wooded cove in Lake Forest.

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“It’s beautiful,” Gage said. “He opens the back of the truck, and you’re right next to the ocean. The waves are crashing, and you’re lifting weights.” He nevertheless confesses that sometimes he’s too weary to travel and works out in his driveway, instead.

Kramer’s workouts may be scenic, but customers say they’re not easy.

During three years as an Army Ranger, Kramer said, he learned a “drive-on attitude” that he now uses on his reluctant clients.

“When a lot of clients think they’re done, I say, ‘You’re not done until I tell you you’re done,’ ” he said, half-jokingly.

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Kramer started doing pushups at age 9 to overcome being the “shortest and the smallest little runt” in his school in New Jersey. He began weightlifting in high school under the tutelage of power-lifter Throck Morton.

Though just 5 feet, 6 inches, Kramer has packed up to 188 pounds of muscle onto his frame. He tried out for the water polo team in college but “had too much muscle mass to stay afloat.”

Kramer founded Mobile Fitness in Orange County two years ago after meeting Flower through a friend. To attract his first clients, he drove the freeways with the back of his truck open so passing motorists could see the gym inside. Now most of his customers are referrals.

The company came to a literally grinding halt a few weeks ago after the truck’s engine blew apart. Kramer pulled into Crystal Cove State Park to call his clients--a dentist and an interior designer--to tell them of his troubles.

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Though the firm’s motto is, “We Come to You,” the two Newport Beach clients drove to the park and proceeded to work out along Coast Highway in the broken-down truck--much to the amusement of passing motorists.

“The first words out of the doctor’s mouth when he came to me were, ‘Hey, Rod, now it’s immobile fitness,” Kramer recalled.

While the truck is being repaired, Kramer is training some clients at regular health clubs and working with a local executive on how to franchise his business.

He said a mobile trainer needs just 10 clients to make a profit. He has 28 customers now and thinks there is plenty of room to grow.

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Kramer estimated his annual sales at about $84,000. His biggest expense--gas--costs about $400 a month. The average client stays with him for about nine months.

Part of Kramer’s expansion plans include bigger trucks with more equipment. He figures that they’ll cost about $35,000.

“It’ll be like riding in a Rolls-Royce,” he said.

Stranded this week at the repair shop, Kramer and his truck were still drawing crowds.

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“It freaks everybody out that I actually work them out in the truck,” he said, adding that “it never gets smelly because I always work out with the door open.”

Kramer admits that he spends so much time in his truck that he prefers to work out at a more traditional health club.

“Family Fitness is like a relief for me,” he said. “Besides, I don’t mind driving there.”


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