This garage gym showcase focuses on on Al’s House of Shred, a basement gym in upstate New York run by former powerlifter, Alberto @boricuabarbell Velasquez and his wife Danni. Every week, Al opens up his home to trusted friends every week as part of his personal mission to pass on what he knows. Let’s find out more about what’s going on up there in Syracuse!
Tell me how your gym started? Were you already training in your garage and added people or did you all start training at the same time?
I’ve been competing in powerlifting since 1993; My own personal journey—
I was bullied by family and friends and I looked to the weights. And I sucked! It’s funny because I saw Arnold in Conan the Barbarian, I must have watched that movie a thousand times,
Him pushing that wheel?
Yeah, and then I discovered Muscle & Fitness and I was like, “Man! These routines, I’m not changing!” But through Muscle & Fitness I saw an ad for Powerlifting USA and I saw Anthony Clark squat 1000lbs in the ad and I was like, “Wait a minute! This guy doesn’t look pretty but he’s strong as heck!” And I remember sending the envelope with the money order and I got my first issue of Powerlifting USA and I was like, “Holy cow!” And I knew right away there was a difference between training for strength and training to look good to impress other people, to try to fit into society and from there it took off. That’s how my journey took off. So the original Al’s House of Shred started in 1993 in a basement in Brooklyn. Training by myself twice a week I was able to get almost a 500lb squat and almost a 500lb deadlift. It was tough because I was doing it by myself in my basement. Then my career got derailed because I got hit by a car in Brooklyn that left me with permanent damaged right arm, separated shoulder, broken arm I never was able to reach my numbers again. But then, last February my health issues were out of control. Diabetes, high blood pressure, all of the stuff a middle aged male gets, I was very heavy and I was into powerlifting . The name of the gym was originally at the new place in my house, which I’ve been living in for two years now, The Fat Man’s Barbell Club. So I went on an extreme diet and at this point, I’ve lost 100lbs
Oh, that’s what’s up!
Yup. Just eating low sugar, low carb diet, just cleaning up myself.
Eating like a grown up.
Yeah, eating normal; trying to regain my health even though I knew it was going to be at the expense of my strength; which I was fine with that. Then my buddy, Dave Wilson, Mr. Wilson or @strathmorebarbell, as a joke said, “You know you should probably call your gym now, Al’s House of Shred!” I said, “You know that sounds pretty good!”
This was like in early March, he was on and off of powerlifting; he wasn’t consistent and he decided after watching my transformation, “If Al could clean up his act what’s stopping me?” He sort of discovered that he loves powerlifting and he wanted to be consistent with it.
Then all of a sudden I had another buddy who was like I’m struggling; the kid’s a natural deadlifter and we’ve been trying to get him to lift for two years and he’s a CrossFitter but he’s built for powerlifting. And that’s Patrick, the Starfish. And we said, “He’s a natural deadlifter; a strong kid but he’s just got to refine his technique.” So then that’s the third member joined. Then my wife said, “I want to get back into it; so this is what we’re doing.” I decided to add a second platform, which is basically two horse stall mats, $40 a pop to protect the floor. Then all of a sudden, a kickboxing instructor named Matt Barnell wanted to join us ‘cause he was like; he felt weak; he’s a martial artist and he just wanted to get big and strong. So I said all right, let’s add a third platform. And then slowly a team started forming. All of a sudden we started building a bond, I got some t shirts made, Al’s House of Shred and people were interested in competing. I decided to do my last meet in April at a lower bodyweight and I just called it a career in lifting and I decided to concentrate training and coaching, mentoring the new powerlifting team that just came together.
If a brand new lifter wants to join the crew what’s your process? Because you’re really letting somebody into your home!
It’s funny that you said that. When Matt Barnell came, Mr. Wilson gave him the look up and down to see if he was serious. Because it has to be serious; it can’t be fun and games. It is called training. But after one or two sessions, Matt Barnell was serious and he said he wanted to be big and strong and he went under Mr. Wilson’s wing and he said, you’re going to listen to me and you’re going to listen to Al. And he was like, “No problem.” For somebody to join us, since we’re not a commercial gym, a stranger no. But a family member or if a team member had a buddy, I would be open. But a complete stranger, no I would not. We’re more like a club; I think that’s the best way to describe it. I think what ties it all together is the freedom of a garage gym and the love of iron.
So how many members do you have total?
I’d say no more than ten.
Are most of your members around the same experience and strength level?
I see down the road, Mr.Wilson squatting 500 easily. He deadlifted 500 already last August at an RPS meet.
I saw that, didn’t he beat your old record or something? Yeah, he beat my old record of 496, it was in kilos. Our records are personal records, we do it for fun. For our own personal goals. Patrick, he’s a natural deadlifter, he will be deadlifting 600 within a year.
And how much does he weigh?
He’s in the 275lb class. He could easily go up into the super heavyweight. Mr. Wilson is at a light 275lbs, he could lean out to 242 if he wanted to, Mr. Miyagi, Matt Barnell, deadlifted 440lbs weighing in at I believe a light 181. He’s the youngest one. He could probably go after some state records down the road. I’ve got Dave’s brother, another Matt, he’s strong. I’m trying to get him to enter a meet. I think he will enter a meet next year. I’ve got two coworkers here, one is rehabbing his knee through squats and the other one just wants to work on his squat. But the core of the gym is the powerlifting team.
The Set Up
Is this a pay to train facility or is it more of a barbell club made up of training partners who spot each other, give feedback on each other’s lifts and monthly dues to help cover expenses?
No none of the guys chip in. This is for me a personal thing for the love of the sport and for the love of helping other people reach their goals. No travel fund, we just share rides together. They split hotel costs for the rooms for a meet. One of the guys chipped in and bought some bumper plates so that helps too.
That’s cool. How many square feet you got?
Small house, I think it’s under 1,000 feet. Like 975 maybe.
You’ve got three platforms. How many racks and other workout stations do you have?
I was thinking of doing a short video for Instagram to show people what we’ve got. I have equipment for the guys so they won’t be surprised at a meet basically. Each platform’s got the York Legacy plates, good plates, got Rogue Bars, a nice heavy duty squat stand from, they’re not in business any more, Muscle Driver USA which is really heavy duty. I bought a heavy bench from Rogue with a wider pad so it’s more like a powerlifting competition bench; that helps out with the lifters. I believe it’s a competition height, I have a cheap one and the lifters can tell the difference. Then my B and C platforms I have squat stands which I can move them around and turn it into a deadlift platform. And then all of a sudden we have a Buffalo Bar by New York Barbell and that helps my shoulders now because of my shoulder damage, so I can low bar squat. And then we decided to use it as a bench press assistance and the guys love it for the bench press assistance, the extra range of motion. This is a funny story, I got a good quality B&R bar from Rogue and the guys like squatting in the Rogue Beater Bar which is only $200 but it’s a thicker bar so it feels better for the low bar squat.
How long did it take you accumulate all of your equipment? What did you start out with?
There was just a squat stand, a cheap Olympic barbell and a bench. My training partner was Powerlifting USA. There was no social media. My friends weren’t into it, there was nobody around. One of the highlights for me was I did my first meet and I bombed out and I didn’t want to quit and I just kept going and finally did my second meet and just kept going from there.
I know the process of acquiring equipment is never ending, we’re always finding new toys. What’s next on your “must buy” list?
I just added a Safety Squat bar; I may get a deadlift bar and I’m shopping around; one of my Instagram friends suggested a power rack which I may get. Not sure at this point.
Where do you like to get equipment now?
I narrowed it down to two outlets: EliteFTS or Rogue. New York Barbell is another one, I drive down to Elmira to save on shipping. But I believe if I’m going to train guys for powerlifting, I save up so I can spend the extra money to buy stuff.
You’ve got to work around work schedules and make sure that training doesn’t impact your time with your wife while at the same time making sure your lifters get enough time under the bar during a session and enough sessions per week to improve.
For me training day is Sunday and that’s why we chose Sunday. We lift at around 9 o clock and we usually get done by 11 so we’ve got the rest of the day. Al’s House of Shred only runs on Sunday for the most part. The program basically runs on Sundays here, squat and bench and assistance work for those two lifts. On Tuesdays at Strathmore Barbell, it’s a smaller space. He lives in an older house so the male lifters overhead press in his garage and Thursdays they deadlift in his basement. So basically it’s a three day training week.
Yeah, you’re actually set up with a sister gym, Strathmore Barbell. How does that relationship work? Is it a case of going where the equipment is or a scheduling thing?
Absolutely a scheduling thing. Dave is sort of like my unpaid assistant head coach.
When they go over to Dave’s do you still go over there with them?
Yeah, I sometimes go there to coach and to watch them lift and see their technique. Dave’s a very excellent teacher. We bounce a lot of ideas off of each other. He’s a very, I call him the Cerebral Assassin, he thinks a lot. He’s got down the road, looking to become a certified Starting Strength coach. We both have a passion for this.
It’s great because it reminds me of my old basement in Brookly, it’s a very dingy looking basement; and they blast the metal and rap and they just train away.
So my wife is conditioning, kickboxing three times a week and she lifts three times a week. If one of the guys can’t make a regular day at Strathmore Barbell and they want to deadlift here, I’ll let them deadlift here. It’s a little bit flexible. If it was a perfect world, I’d have everybody squat three times a week but it’s not a perfect world, everybody’s schedule, jobs, families are different so the 5/3/1 works out perfectly.
Okay, so your wife is lifting three days a week and the guys are training once a week at your place and the three days at Strathmore. So are the other two days the days you train with your wife at home?
I don’t train with her at home. She trains on her own. I just write out her program. She’s at a point where she can do it on her own with just one basic lift. Being an older lifter, she’s in her late forties, with her I don’t push no volume unless it’s assistance exercises. So for example if the set calls for one set of 240 and this is based off of 5/3/1, I say squeeze out another two or three reps but I don’t push volume because of her being an older lifter and she already does kickboxing three times a week. And with 5/3/1 being so flexible, I can cut out one day if she gets too beat up or increase it if she’s on the money.
You guys use Starting Strength and Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 which are both very popular training templates and training philosophies. How do you integrate the two?
For personal equipment, everybody lifts in Olympic weightlifting shoes , I tried it out myself and I can see why Starting Strength pushes it a lot. I had my lifters train in Chuck Taylors but since we lift raw the conclusion is Olympic lifting shoes works perfectly for the raw lifters.
So you do that for ankle flexibility?
Ankle flexibility and there seems to be a lot of power out of the hole with the foot beign so stable in an Olympic lifting shoe. For example, Matt Barnell, my lightest lifter, he competed last April in Chuck Taylors then he got a pair of weightlifting shoes and he could just tell a difference in the power and how he is stable coming out of the hole in the squat. Doing the deadlift in a heeled shoe, it seems to activate the quad, and I tried it myself, so it feels like you’re pulling the bar faster to lockout. And with a heavy deadlift, for some lifters, the faster you pull it off the floor the better your lockout. That being said, I grew up with lifters lifting in Chuck Taylors or some type of flat shoe so you can get strong either way
I myself when I started lifting; remember this was the early 90s, there was no Internet to find information or anything like that; I high bar squatted because that was the natural way to squat because there was no information out there. I didn’t know about low bar squatting until recently. If you get strong with either style that’s fine. I chose for the team the low bar squat based upon the teachings of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. And I’ve seen that it works. High bar, does it work too? Yeah! But for everybody here to be on the same page for powerlifting, we choose the low bar. We chose 5/3/1 program for the simple fact of scheduling and we just found that 5/3/1 is more flexible for everybody’s schedule.
Do the lifters get to choose which protocol they follow or do you create their weekly training plans? Like is everybody doing say Boring But Big or does everybody do their own version of 5/3/1?
That’s my three male lifters: Dave Wilson, Matt Barnell and Patrick Vinette. At this point, they were doing 5/3/1 Boring But Big and I believe the next cycle they may change it. The Boring But Big was basically to have a lot of volume and to teach the body the motor patterns of the three powerlifts. The next cycle they’ll bump up the percentages of Boring But Big and then the next cycle they may add more variations of the powerlifts. So for the back squat they may do front squats or pause squats, bench press will be close grip and deadlifts will be either stiff legs or deadlifts off a platform.
Do they do Joker sets also?
I believe that’s coming up but not yet. The foundation of the team is 5/3/1 with different variations. I think it’s the perfect balance. For my wife, she does the basic 5/3/1 for the deadlift and for the squat and bench 5×3 varying progression because she’s new to the bench and she’s new to the squat. And we use the trap bar for her to get more volume in the squat and we use the box to judge her depth being a new movement.
I know that you guys are a tight knit group; I always see you guys cheering each other’s lifts on. How did you build that team pride and sense of loyalty?
You know you read about Westside Barbell, the Westside team and how great they are. I read about Hercules and how they travel as a team other great powerlifting teams I read about and I see how with a team you get better. If you lift with people stronger than you, you will get better and I see my lifters get better from being in that team environment. The team started to build that bond because everybody had that bond it was kind of weird because everybody had the same goal, get stronger, to improve themselves. And my wife likes it. My wife likes the physical changes, I think she was afraid that she had to look a certain way because of society so when I showed her the pictures of the female lifters on Instagram who I follow, I think she felt better about herself and realized that society’s got it wrong. We’re a small niche but we’re like an important niche. I’m not crazy about CrossFit but I respect CrossFit and I recognize that there’s a difference between a regular, weekend CrossFit warrior and CrossFit the sport. I do read the articles especially about the nutrition, because as somebody who coaches, I try to learn from different disciplines whether it’s bodybuilding, I try to read Animal’s articles, stuff from Louie Simmons. I try to read so much about lifting in general, how to apply it to my team. My goal of House of Shred is to give back to the sport I love, the sport that taught me a lot about life.
Chemistry is so important to a successful team environment. How do you handle it if you have a lifter with a toxic attitude regardless of strength or experience level?
I can tell you this from experience; I had a woman train until recently that, she was becoming a distraction. I think she wanted to lift but not lift for the sake of lifting. I was like that doesn’t work when you’re trying to lift for strength so I basically told her, look you have so many other activities going on, you don’t eat right, you don’t sleep well. You need that. So I told her, “If you’re very serious about this, there’s a couple of places to go, one is with a Starting Strength coach, another one’s Hercules Gym.” She checked them out and eventually she decided to stop coming here. So that’s the way I handled it. And then from there I said to myself, I’ve got to be very selective about who I let come here. Because if it doesn’t work out then you’ve got to be delicate about telling them it’s not going to work out.
Which federations and sports do you guys compete in? Is everyone strictly a powerlifter or do you guys also compete in other sports?
We decided to do two meets a year, August is the RPS meet in Buffalo, NY; we enjoy the RPS so that’s our main meet where we do all three lifts. In April we go to a little AAU meet and we do push/pull. And now this February, we’re going to do a three lift meet right here in Syracuse, at Hercules Gym promoted by Rita West. Just to get the newer guys more experience, test the training cycles. My goal, since I don’t compete no more, is to just share my knowledge and give back to the sport. I take personal pride in the guys hitting their personal records and I’m extremely proud of my wife lifting.
What advice do you have for someone else who’s thinking about opening up their garage gym to the public or even letting friends come train with them?
First of all what type of lifting discipline are you using? Are you powerlifting? Are you bodybuilding? Are you doing CrossFit? Are you doing Olympic lifting? But if you’re doing any of those, your best course of action is a good quality power rack. And the number one reason for a good quality power rack is, if it’s just you lifting, safety reasons. You miss a bench, you miss a squat, you’ve got the pins there. And get one rated for 500lbs or more. A top of the line EliteFTS rack. After that, a good quality bar and then for plates, you can get them used. Craigslist, Amazon. If you’re going to do the Olympic lifts mixed in with powerlifting, you need a good set of bumpers. That would be my advice. No question about it, Starting Strenght is the foundation first and then once you pass the novice stage, there’s plenty of those programs. Brandon Lilly has The Cube, you could toy around with Westside but I always believe whether you’re bodybuilding or powerlifting, you’ve got to get the basics first and those are sets of five in the deadlift, bench and squat. In my opinion, the squat’s the foundation. Because as a lifter, back in the day, if my squat went up, my bench and deadlift went up. And you know, I didn’t realize this at the time but the squat and deadlift trained the same muscles.
Well you know guys like Dr. Ken Leistner were huge proponents of high rep squats!
Dr. Ken Leistner was one of the guys I read back in the 80s. Long Island, used to own Iron Island Gym. I had my first meet there, which I bombed but it was a valuable lesson. The people I read about the authors, were writings by Dr. Ken, I used to read articles by Stuart McRobert,
Oh yeah, his book, Brawn changed my life.
I still have my original copy. And believe it or not, I bought the first version of Super Squats by Randall J. Strossen, I bought that in 89. Brawn I still got my first copy. I bought Hardgainer Magazine. And even today we go through, the Steel Tip by Dr. Leistner, Stuart McRobert, Bradley J. Steiner, Mark Rippetoe, Marty Gallagher. All of those authors stressed the compound lifts. They all stressed recovery. And I realized myself, once I stopped training five days a week, started training two or three days. I cut down my training, I got stronger. A lot stronger. My basic program, again training by myself in my basement was I squatted and benched Mondays, Thursday I deadlifted. That was it and the rest of the days, I tried to recover, sleep well and eat good. And with that training , I pushed my squat up to 500lbs in a single ply suit and 480 raw and I got my bench up to 320. My deadlift was 496 it was in weird kilos. The programs were simple and they worked. I read about Louie too and I think Louie’s Westside system works I personally wouldn’t know how to run it unless Louie was there. Obviously it works, the gym speaks for itself. I watch Mark Bell’s SuperTraining, lot of great info there. One of the biggest highlights was we went to The Arnold back in 2012 and we were in heaven! We met Stan Efferding, The Rhino . . .
He’s a nice guy. I‘ve only met him once but he’s an extremely nice guy.
We met Scott Cartwright, we met Ed Coan. We saw Brad Gillingham hookgrip 800lbs. We saw a blind lifter from Trinidad deadlift over 600lbs. It was awesome.
What about the advice for someone considering letting someone else train with them?
Well you have to consider, have you hung out with this person before? What are their goals? If you’re a powerlifter and he wants to just look good. Little things like that, I guess the best advice is you’ve got to go with your gut. If your gut tells you this is not going to work out then don’t do it. And me and Mr. Wilson, we don’t charge anything; we’ve had coworkers ask for help but they don’t follow through so we don’t push it or anything.
I’m a big follower of The Art of Manliness and I listened to a podcast from them about The Rise of The Sufferfests and why that’s happening. I think it’s because most people in our culture aren’t challenged physically. We’ve got the War on Terror but most people aren’t involved in the War on Terror, they don’t have physically challenging, fulfilling jobs so I think as humans we’re designed to overcome challenges and that’s why I think that what you’re doing is huge.
I’ll use Dave Wilson as an example. He’s done deadlift training on some nights after doing a 12 hour day, but he has to do it. It’s that inner, it’s that thing inside of you. He wants to get better, he had a goal. He wanted to deadlift 500lbs. Most guys I know wouldn’t do that! I had to battle personal demons because I had given up on life earlier. That’s why I was morbidly obese. I had a drinking problem. The doctor tells me, you’re eating yourself to death. I shouldn’t live to eat, I should eat to live and once I changed my mindset, I dropped 100lbs. It’s the balance of yin and yang as a lifter. And I reached some goals as a lifter. I squatted 500lbs in a single ply suit back in 1994, I almost had a 500lb deadlift but it is what it is. And I think when I got hit by a car, maybe God had a plan for me. I should have been dead. I think that there’s a bigger plan for me and that’s training my wife, that’s helping Mr. Wilson reach his goals, helping the Starfish, Patrick Vinette reach his goals, Mr. Miyagi, my youngest lifter, reaching his goals. It’s helping my coworkers and that’s the purpose for me. Is to help people, to help them understand. I have to keep active, if that means just lifting once a week and walking, well then so be it.