Pumping concrete: With gyms closed, Ottawa entrepreneurs see opportunity manufacturing custom exercise gear

Garage Gym Guys
Garage Gym Guy's Nick Thuswaldner, left, and Jules Lauzon. (Photo by Matt Horwood)

What began as a side hustle for Nick Thuswaldner and Jules Lauzon has grown into a rapidly expanding business selling custom dumbbells and barbell plates made out of concrete.

The closure of gyms and fitness centres due to government restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 is leading many residents to exercise at home. But those looking to bulk up their personal gyms with weights and other equipment are often finding that shops are sold out, or that prices have skyrocketed in response to the spike in demand.

Thuswaldner and Lauzon saw an opportunity for their business, Garage Gym Guys, to fill that gap.

Friends for more than a decade, the duo – both of whom have backgrounds in project management – began thinking about creating weights out of concrete after becoming frustrated with a shortage of exercise equipment in late 2020. 

“I tried ordering plates from Fitness Depot for a buddy, but every time I would call they’d tell me they didn’t have any,” Thuswaldner said. “Everybody is trying to scoop them up right now.” 

The real catalyst came after Lauzon saw people were selling custom exercise equipment on Kijiji and quickly saw room for improvement.

“Jules said to me, ‘Do you think we should make some concrete dumbbells?’ (and) my first reaction was hesitancy,” Thuswaldner recalled. “But Jules said anything we did would be better than that.”

The experimentation begins

For the next two months, the pair experimented with various moulds and mixtures of concrete in Lauzon’s garage. Thuswaldner said this process involved, “a lot of measurements taken and a lot of Excel spreadsheets created.” 

Lauzon said they went through four or five dumbbell designs in their efforts to maximize durability and minimize concrete shrinkage. They found that adding a generous amount of water to the mixture and using a concrete vibrating table helped to decrease bubbles in the finished weights.

“It’s funny how much science there is to it, even though it’s mostly just water and concrete,” Lauzon said. 

The weights are constructed with metal and fibreglass substrates to make them extra durable, and have handles made of galvanized metal. At the end of construction, a rubberized paint is applied to seal the weights and give them a smooth finish. 

Thuswaldner and Lauzon describe their products as durable, functional and “perfectly imperfect” with a “rugged industrial look.”

They also offer customers the opportunity to customize their weights by adding logos or text in various colours.

According to the entrepreneurs, it’s common to see metal plates selling online for between $3 and $6 a pound. By contrast, Garage Gym Guys sells its weights for $1.50 per pound.

'Overwhelming' response

Thuswaldner said the response has been “a little overwhelming.” On the first day they started advertising on Kijiji, they received more than 30 orders totalling nearly $2,000.

And the sales keep coming in.

“It’s gotten legit to the point where we’ve hired people to help us. It’s been a lot of moving pieces in just (over) a month,” Lauzon said.

“It’s gotten legit.”

The pair have expanded their product lineup to include kettlebells, dumbbell racks, weight trees as well as barbells, and have additional plans to create battle ropes out of recycled fire hoses. They also  recently supplied 185-pound dumbbells to a local powerlifter, which Thuswaldner said are “kind of ridiculous and cartoonish large.” 

Despite managing to triple their production capacity, Garage Gym Guys is still struggling to manufacture weights fast enough to keep up with demand.

Garage Gym Guys
Garage Gym Guy's Nick Thuswaldner, left, and Jules Lauzon. (Photo by Matt Horwood)

Lauzon said they would like to move to a 1,500 square foot space to allow the business to expand, especially as the rising popularity of training apps and videos such as Beachbody On Demand and Peloton suggest that virtual trainers and at-home workouts will remain in demand even after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Both Thuswaldner and Lauzon are avid weightlifters in their spare time but say their main workouts for the last few months have been making the weights as opposed to lifting them.

“Eventually we will go back to pumping iron, or rather, concrete,” Thuswaldner said.