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Doug Brignole, Back in the Game

Doug Brignole and I arrived at the third-level parking structure for our 11:30 a.m. appointment at the Cheesecake Factory in Pasadena, California, at the same time. We gazed down to the street level, where the restaurant Brix 42 occupies the space at 42 S. De Lacey Ave.

I wouldn’t have blamed the former AAU Mr. Universe if he winced a bit at the view. Twenty-five years earlier, at the age of 24, he went from waiter to gym owner when he opened the doors of Brignole Fitness in October 1984 in that very space.

It was a first-of-its-kind facility in Southern California, a converted turn-of-the-century red-brick livery stable with exposed beams, gray leather, beveled-glass windows and brass ceiling fans. Old meets new; retro with a modern twist.

It quickly became one of the most notable gyms in the region. With business booming, Brignole was ready for his next challenge: In 1986 the 5’10”, 196-pounder, who four years earlier had captured the Mr. California overall crown, won his height class at both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe competitions. The Pasadena-native bodybuilder-entrepreneur became the toast of the town.

In the early ’90s, however, the very thing that made the gym such a grand attraction—its location—proved to be its undoing. The revitalization of Old Town in Pasadena as a commercial center brought higher rents, overcrowding, a lack of parking and other consequences of prolific growth. As Brignole says, the city outgrew the gym.

The original location closed, and Doug eventually reopened a mile south. About a year later, with Doug saddled by huge debt, Brignole Fitness became a memory. A deeply depressed Brignole also lost his condo to foreclosure and moved to West Los Angeles. He says he is still haunted by the gym’s collapse.

Fast-forward to the present. Brignole, after a two-year stint in Nicaragua exporting lumber, is back in California and is putting all of his energy into the fitness industry. He’s turning 50 in December but is still at his fighting weight of about 190 pounds, and his bodyfat hovers around the 6-to-7-percent mark. Yes, he’s been down—but he’s definitely not out. Welcome back, Douglas.

LT: You were the typical 98-pound weakling as a kid. So you joined the famous Bill Pearl’s Gym at 15 to try to change that.

DB: Actually, I tried to join Pearl’s at 14—at a weight of 111—but Bill said I wasn’t old enough. So I went back a year later, at 15, but I couldn’t afford the membership of $185. Bill was kind enough to let me earn my membership by coming in on Saturdays and doing cleanup work—I scrubbed the showers, vacuumed the gym, swept the parking lot, whatever he needed me to do. Ironically, when I won the Mr. Universe title 11 years later, Bill was one of the judges. I think Bill and I were both surprised to discover that the day of the contest.

LT: Is it true that you entered your first contest only one year after joining the gym?

DB: Yes, it was the Teenage Mr. Compton—at the age of 16. A couple of my buddies at the gym saw the poster promoting the show on the gym wall and pushed me to compete. I was about 5’8” and 135 pounds then. I asked Bill whether I should enter the contest, and he said, “Why not?” So I entered it and placed second—beating out several guys who were bigger than me. I had a little bit of muscle, but mostly I was very lean.

There was a reporter at that contest from a magazine called New West [which later became California]. He was there to do a story on this new phenomenon called “teenage bodybuilding.” For whatever reason, he picked me. He came over to my house, interviewed my mom and my brother, and wrote this really long, seven-page article about me—at 16! That motivated me even more.

LT: How did you put together your posing routine?

DB: Well, in part from looking at magazines; the poses of Ed Corney and Frank Zane inspired me, in that they were dramatic and graceful. Plus, when I was 15, I went to the 1975 Mr. America contest, which was held in Santa Monica that year, and I saw Dale Adrian, Robby Robinson and a bunch of the other greats do their routines. So I learned from watching and also by just experimenting in front of the mirror. Posing was really fun for me.

LT: You went on to win the tall class at both the Teen California and Teen America in 1979. Then, in 1982, you took the medium-height division and the overall at the AAU Mr. California.

DB: Yes, the Mr. Cal was held that year at the Long Beach High School auditorium, and Kal Skalak was the emcee. In winning the overall, I beat a much larger guy, Ray York, who had won the tall division. Frankly, he scared the crap out of me when I first saw him backstage because he was so big—he outweighed me by almost 30 pounds. I only weighed 184, but I was ripped. Before the contest, when I was backstage in my sweat suit, some guy said to me, “Hey, the swim team is down the hall.” [LT and DB bust up] But because of my smaller bone structure, symmetry and definition, I actually looked bigger than York onstage.

LT: In 1983 you made your first appearance at the AAU Mr. America in Tampa, Florida, the show Jeff King won.

DB: King just blew our socks off. I took fifth in the medium-tall division—behind Rick Poston and Billy Arlen. I was devastated. I really thought I was going to win and had been thinking that the success of my upcoming gym was going to be based on me having won the Mr. America title.

LT: That ended up not being the case, although you did get that title—and more—three years later.

DB: Yeah, I opened the gym in 1984—a year after that Mr. America contest. Then, in 1986, I entered the AAU Mr. America contest again. It was held in Dallas, Texas, that year. I won first place in my height division but lost the overall title to Glenn Knerr. Then, two weeks later I competed for the Mr. Universe title. The show was held in Phoenix, Arizona, under an AAU/WABBA sanction. Again, I won first place in my division. The overall was won by Marlon Darton, who was the heavyweight winner.

LT: Anything specific that got you intrigued by the gym business?

DB: I had always admired Bill Pearl, as you know, and thought it would be really great to own my own gym. But not having studied business administration in school, I didn’t have a clue about how to do it. However, I was dating a girl named Cheryl Berney, whose father was the president of a steel company. He asked me if I ever thought about opening up my own gym, and I told him yes but that I didn’t know how to do it. So he schooled me. He gave me a series of assignments. Basically, he walked me through the making of a business plan and a prospectus.

Eventually, we decided the best way to raise the necessary funds to open the gym was by selling stock to investors, in the form of a limited partnership; I was the sole general partner, and the investors were limited partners with limited risk. I raised $115,000, and we were off and running.

LT: Although I had heard a lot about you, we never met until New Year’s Eve, 1983, at Emily’s Restaurant in Pasadena. Before anybody gets the wrong idea, I was there with a hot, 22-year-old, blue-eyed blond bombshell, Dandy Sandy, and you were the waiter. You were looking for investors for your gym and gave me a pamphlet, but the only thing I was interested in at the time was the menu—and getting back to my place to, ah, properly celebrate the arrival of the New Year before I fell asleep.

DB: [Laughs] Well, I imagine it did sound pretty audacious, this 23-year-old kid coming up to you with this crazy idea. At least you didn’t laugh at me. But I must have seemed pretty sincere in my pursuit; I was able to convince 15 investors, including the real estate agent who negotiated my lease, the owner of the building that I leased and even my employer at the restaurant—all of them invested.

LT: I remember meeting you a few weeks later at the building that would eventually become the gym and asking why in the world you would want to put a gym in the middle of such a terribly rundown area of Pasadena. You told me about the major renovation that was coming, to be called Old Town. Ironically, what started out as one of the major attractions for a gym turned into its demise.

DB: Right. The area kept on growing and growing. New restaurants and stores were opening up all the time, and I ended up right in the middle of a busy metropolis. Members were soon complaining about the congestion in Old Town, saying that they couldn’t find a parking space, and they didn’t like having to pay for it when they found it. In some cases members were paying as much for parking as they were for their memberships.

That was the beginning of the end. The rent for my space increased every year and was getting out of control, and several new gyms—Family Fitness [now 24 Hour Fitness], LA Fitness, Bally’s and World Gym—had all come to town and offered lower membership rates, free parking, larger facilities with more equipment, multiple locations, etc.

My only hope of surviving was to move into a bigger building with ample parking and away from the congestion of Old Town Pasadena. I found a nice 25,000-square-foot space about a mile away—twice the size of my previous gym. The new club was fantastic.

We had three times more equipment, a larger aerobic room, steam rooms and much more of everything. But, despite the improvements, members wanted to pay less for their membership than they did for the smaller gym. The reason: All the other new gyms in town were offering low membership prices. To this day it kills me to think that people wanted to pay less for their membership than they paid for cable TV. They wanted low prices and no crowds, and that formula just doesn’t work. I would still be there, running my gym in Pasadena, if enough people had been willing to pay a reasonable membership rate.

LT: At 35 you had seen your dream turn into a nightmare. The gym was gone, and you had to give up your condo. You were literally out on the street and admitted you were suicidal.

DB: Yes, I had a “fire sale” of my furniture, and I gave the condo back to the bank. I had no savings left because I had spent it trying to keep the club together long enough to find a buyer—which I ultimately failed to do. I also lost my sense of identity because that gym was such a big part of my life. I got a job as a trainer at the Sports Club/LA [in West Los Angeles], but I was only making about $1,000 a month—not enough to meet my minimal monthly expenses of rent, utilities, car payment, insurance, gas and food. I had to get a cash advance on my credit card every month just to meet my expenses—but I couldn’t do that forever. I couldn’t even buy a CD. I was so depressed, I just wanted to die. It was all I could do to get up in the morning and survive one more day. I felt as though all my previous successes had just been a fluke. I truly believed that it had all been dumb luck, which had now run out. I even had to borrow money from friends just so I could move.

LT: Well, you certainly look alive and well to me now. What got you over the hump?

DB: I spoke with a doctor friend, and he suggested that I start antidepressants. So I did, and it helped quite a bit. Little by little I became more optimistic and more productive. Eventually, I didn’t need the medication anymore. But, frankly, the memory of that period still haunts me. There are a lot of things that I would like to fix, if I’m ever able to do it. In the meantime I’m grateful to be healthy and working hard on building a better tomorrow.

LT: You bounced back enough to actually get back onstage at 40. How did that happen?

DB: Well, I really love working out—I really do. It’s always been the best therapy for me. And I had been training hard and getting in pretty good shape. One day, Big Will [Harris], who was working at the gym where I was a member, told me that he thought I should compete again. He said that I was in better shape than most of the younger guys who were competing—and I wasn’t even dieting yet. He kept after me, month after month, until he finally convinced me to compete in the 2000 NPC Los Angeles Championships, which were held in Culver City. I still vividly remember that day. I won first place in the light-heavyweight division, despite being the oldest guy onstage. I was thrilled.

LT: Your life changed directions again a few years ago when you packed your bags and headed for Nicaragua.

DB: Yes, well—I was doing personal training, and one day one of my clients, a banker, knowing that I was fluent in Spanish, asked if I’d help him export lumber out of Nicaragua. He said that I would have to live there, but that it could be hugely lucrative. So I thought I’d give it a shot.

I spent two years there, from 2005 to 2007, and it was a hell of an experience. It’s not a pleasant place to live—that’s for sure. It’s very hot and humid, and the poverty level is very high. But I learned quite a lot about the lumber business, and it was very interesting working in Spanish, dealing with a foreign government, learning about international trade, etc. I even spent a week in the jungle, sleeping in a hammock, drinking purified water from the stream, eating wild boar and watching how the lumber guys do their work.

Eventually, it became more and more difficult to acquire lumber. Nicaragua had placed a number of restrictions on the export of lumber, requiring that all lumber be processed into a wood product first, before being exported. That pretty much killed it. So we decided to close down the operation. But, personally, it was a great experience for me—one that I would not have been able to have any other way.

It was nice returning to L.A., but I had to build my personal-training business all over again. Eventually, I got it going, and I have a whole new appreciation for the standard of living that we have here in the U.S.

LT: You’re turning 50 on December 15, yet you remain in tremendous condition. Good to see your physique has held up through all the ups and downs life has brought you.

DB: The truth is that without fitness, I might have ended up in the mental ward of the county hospital. Fitness is psychotherapy for me. It’s the one thing that has never disappointed me. In fact, it seems like the only truly fair thing in life. It gives back exactly what you put in. You do the work—the exercise and diet—and the results come. Plus, it’s very calming for me. It allows me to sort things out and to escape the anxiety of life for a while. So, while it may seem surprising that I’m in great shape despite almost being 50, the truth is that I am more committed to the fitness lifestyle than ever.

LT: What type of training regimen do you follow these days compared to your younger years?

DB: I’ve gotten very smart about training, as you might expect, given my 34 years’ experience. For one thing, my understanding of biomechanics has allowed me to streamline my exercises, eliminating the ones that don’t give maximum results and that cause injury and focusing only on the ones that work best. Also, I’ve learned how to be very specific about what kind of training gives the best result. So I’ve been able to target precisely the result I want without wasting time or effort. I’ve also gotten very good at manipulating my diet so that I’m never hungry but always lean.

LT: What kind of diet do you use? I’ve heard you follow the no-starch theory.

DB: Basically, the idea is that starches and sugars—carbohydrates that are regarded as high glycemic—tend to make the body produce more insulin, which causes additional fat storage and inhibits fat loss. So it’s best to avoid those types of carbs and eat only low-glycemic carbs.

You can eat all the protein foods you want—beef, chicken, pork, fish—plus all the vegetables you want, some fruit, cheese, nuts, salad dressings, mayonnaise, olive oil and avocadoes and still stay super lean. As long as you’re avoiding breads, cereals, pastas, crackers, cookies, cakes, potatoes, rice and other foods like that, you’ll stay lean.

That may sound like a difficult diet to follow, but, believe me, I don’t feel a bit deprived. You get used to it and actually learn to like it. And the reward is great. I’ve never been this lean without feeling hungry or deprived. I stay this lean year-round now. By the way, I eat pizza and ice cream and things like that one day per week—usually Saturday.

LT: I used to enjoy the seminars you gave on Sundays when you had the gym. You didn’t go to college, but you sounded like a professor of biomechanics at those sessions.

DB: Funny you should say that. In some of my seminars I actually had Ph.D.s in biomechanics come up to me and tell me that my seminar was excellent. They were curious because they said I had used the same terminology and the same illustrations used in the universities, but my introduction did not mention a university. I read the text books; I just didn’t go through the formal process of education or get the degree. But the understanding I have of biomechanics is pretty extensive. Even when I was 15 years old, I was making observations about biomechanics that were fairly profound. I guess some people are wired to understand some subjects—like language or music.

LT: You’re working on a new book. What’s the theme?

DB: It’s called Stop the Overhead Presses, and it’s primarily about biomechanics, but it includes some physiology. Basically, it’s about identifying what works and what does not work, in terms of making visible changes to your body. Some exercises contribute less benefit, and some more, to improving the way you look—and all of the exercises also pose some risk of injury. The bottom line is that we should all be using the exercises that have high benefit and low risk—but many of the exercises that people do in the gym have a low benefit and a high risk—like overhead presses and parallel-bar dips. In short, people are wasting a lot of time and effort in the gym, doing exercises that will hurt them more than they’ll help them.

LT: You rank exercises on a scale of 1 to 10, based on their effectiveness and injury potential. Give us a couple of examples.

DB: I would rank an overhead press—whether it’s done with dumbbells or a barbell—a 2 or 3 on the benefit scale and 7 or 8 on the risk scale. Same with parallel-bar dips. An exercise like the hanging leg raise—which is supposedly for the abs—might rate a 1 or 2 on the benefit scale and a 4 or 5 on the risk scale. You see, even though the risk of injury is not superhigh on the hanging leg raise, you should also consider the amount of effort it requires. Hanging leg raises are hard to do because you have to support your entire bodyweight with your arms, and they provide very little benefit to your abs. I call this a bad rate of return: too much effort, not enough reward. I’m also against many of the so-called core, or balance, exercises. I think they’re very misguided, despite their popularity. People are missing the point, and that’s what I’ll be explaining in the book.

LT: Did you ever think you’d be in front of Mike Neveux’s magical lenses again?

DB: I shot with Mike in 1991 and again in 2000. I was 31 and 40, respectively, and I thought that was it. I never thought I’d do physique shots again. But I had been training pretty hard and getting results that were surprising to me, given that I’m 49 years old, and I thought, what if I could do another cover for IRON MAN—27 years after the last time I appeared on the cover. So I sent John Balik some recent photos, and the next thing I knew, I got a call from Mike Neveux.

LT: Where do you train people?

DB: Mostly in Beverly Hills. I have a really great clientele—kind of a who’s who, which is nice. They have great stories to tell.

LT: Anything else in the works right now?

DB: Lots, actually. I can’t reveal too many details yet, but along with the book, I’m working on some film and television projects that might hopefully be successful. Let’s just say that I’m happy to discover that being superfit is much more marketable at 50 than it was at 30. Plus, I’m far more knowledgeable and credible now, given my extensive experience, and I’m hoping to make the most of that.

LT: Nice chatting with you again. Next time, don’t stay away so long.

DB: I’m not planning on going away ever again. After my two-year stint in Nicaragua, I realized that my heart is truly in the bodybuilding and fitness game, and I plan on being a part of that game for the rest of my life. IM

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