It’s not often that business necessitates world travel for Roger Schwab. But in October, the hands-on founder of Main Line Health & Fitness flew to Barcelona for the European Fitness Summit. There, he met with representatives of X-Force, a cutting-edge Swedish line of strength-training equipment that he wants for his 25,000-square-foot facility on Haverford Road in Bryn Mawr. After two years of sweating the details, he hopes to have the hardware in his weight room by year’s end.
Such superlative assessments aren’t uncommon for Schwab—especially when it comes to his club, which has been around in one form or another for 35 years. One of the few remaining privately owned fitness centers in the area, MLH&F must battle big-box powerhouses like Planet Fitness, Philadelphia Sports Clubs and LA Fitness—and it continues to stand its ground. At 66, Schwab is working harder than ever to stay relevant and competitive, so retirement isn’t an option. But he is in a reflective mood these days. “When we have that equipment, I’ll have realized my potential,” he says. “Then let the chips fall as they may.”
In a modern-day fitness industry overwhelmed by TV- and Web-based fads and “fun” alternatives to conventional exercise, is there still room for Schwab’s far less glamorous, common-sense approach? Some think so.
“I’ve looked up to Roger for years,” says Dwayne Wimmer, owner of Vertex Fitness, a nearby personal training studio. “He has the well-deserved respect of so many people in the industry for his commitment to safe, efficient and effective workouts.”
Growing up in Merion, Roger Schwab was a slight, skinny teen who, like many his age, longed to be stronger and more muscular. That desire led to weight training. “I got bigger, but I also got hurt,” he says. “By the time I was 19, I had major degenerative changes in my spine, lower back and neck from lifting weights improperly.”
While studying history at Penn State University, Schwab managed to land a job as an athletic strength and conditioning coach on campus. “I looked the part, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admits. “I started researching medically sound exercise, and that’s how I started.”
After 10 years of working various jobs and saving money, Schwab opened Main Line Nautilus in 1976, the first local gym to have what was then considered the best strength-training equipment available. He employed the same program he does today: circuit training once or twice a week for 30 minutes a session.
“We work the largest muscles to the smallest in a series, where you can work every major muscular structure in your body in a half-hour,” says Schwab. “You can work the muscles and the bones, the heart and the lungs, and your flexibility, all at one time.”
To this day, Schwab believes this workout should be the cornerstone to any fitness program. “It’s the perfect training method,” he says.
Trouble is, not enough people are doing it—even in his own gym. These days, strength training has been overshadowed by power yoga, Pilates, Zumba, spinning and a host of other newer fitness options.
“People aren’t strength training because Madison Avenue doesn’t buy it,” he says. “It’s intense and difficult, and people don’t want to train that hard. Even the great athletes today don’t train like this. They’re looking for the same type of trends and gimmicks everybody else is.”
Still, says Schwab, “I couldn’t stay in business if I didn’t offer yoga, BodyPump classes and Pilates. We have to give people what they want—but you also have to give them what they need.”
Lining the first-floor hall at MLH&F are numerous awards from various local publications (including Main Line Today). On a national scale, Men’s Health named Schwab’s program “Best Workout” in 2005. That same year, Men’s Journal called him “an icon.”
The accolades are nice, but Schwab would rather focus on what he’s done for his clientele. The day he opened Main Line Nautilus—which became MLH&F in the late ’90s—a woman with breast cancer came to the facility. Postoperative swelling in her arm, caused by lymphedema, made exercise difficult and painful, but she wanted to do something to ease the discomfort. Schwab suggested strength training. “Six months later, her arm was considerably smaller,” he says.
Schwab knew he was onto something. He sent out a letter to more than 200 area physicians, recounting the story and suggesting that he may be able to offer relief for breast-cancer patients. “I got two responses back. One said to keep up the good work, and the other said I was in way over my head,” Schwab recalls.
Undeterred, Schwab continued working with breast-cancer patients despite a lack of any validation from the medical community. Then, last year, he partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to research the benefits of strength training for lymphedema patients. “I wonder how many other patients could’ve benefited if the medical community responded all those years ago,” he says.
Via his Main Line Medical Exercise division, Schwab helps young scoliosis patients by strengthening the muscles near the spine with a torso-rotation weight machine. The goal is that new spine growth will come in straighter. Schwab says one child reduced her curvature by almost half. “These kids are working out twice a week,” he says. “Doctors aren’t giving credit to the exercise, but they’re telling parents to keep doing whatever they’re doing. We’re helping to reverse a serious disease.”
Dr. Nicholas DiNubile applauds Schwab’s efforts. “Roger is a true visionary,” says DiNubile, chief of orthopedics at Delaware County Memorial Hospital and a longtime MLH&F member. “We need a lot more of his philosophy around. He’s had a tremendous impact in this region.”
Every year, Schwab returns to his alma mater, Lower Merion High School, for career day, and his message is always the same. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing,” he says. “I’m here because I love what I do. I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can.”
To learn more about Roger Schwab and Main Line Health & Fitness, visit mlhf.com.
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