Strength, health, community support priorities for New West gym
Strong Side Conditioning has a tie to a fundraiser hoping to help low-income Metro Vancouver artisans
James Pak and Ishana Debba are two of the friendly faces you’ll find at Strong Side New West/Ria Renouf
Red. Orange. Purple. Green. Blue. Peach.
A massive mural on a wall, imploring you to “find your strong side.”
I’ve never seen colourful weight plates and kettlebells like this before, so as I walk into Strong Side in Downtown New West, it’s refreshing to see splashes of colour within—and on the studio walls.
The first person I see is personal trainer Ishana Debba: she’s at the door, greets me warmly, and asks if I’m looking for James Pak—another personal trainer at this gym where more than 110 active members come to work out and achieve their health goals and dreams.
Strength and colour collide at Strong Side Gym in Downtown New West/Ria Renouf
Heading up to the gym office, you can tell there’s a lot of pride for New West: posters of the city proudly hang on the walls; not far off a little gnome-like creature is holding a barbell with weight plates on either side.
“I can’t take credit for that,” Pak says with a laugh, adding that the figurine belongs to the gym’s owner.
Pak actually met the owner while he was coaching Pak at Simon Fraser University—in fact, Pak falling in love with New West was a total accident.
“I’m from Washington state. I actually got a football scholarship to play at Simon Fraser University. I graduated, got my degree, did everything right around COVID, in 2020. During that time, actually, I was pursuing music full-time. My own personal music career started to take off.”
He ended up working at Strong Side, where he wears many hats: personal trainer, public relations—but one of his favourite hats will always be hype guy.
“[I’m] everyone’s greatest hype man; bring the energy, right?! I love talking to people about issues … I like talking a lot,” Pak says with a smile.
When asked about what he prefers—music or fitness life—he doesn’t hesitate to say that it’s music and fitness that work in harmony to keep him going.
“My two brands, everything aligns: in my music career, I don’t promote things like violence and drugs. I come from a very tough background, but as I got older, I realized I wanted to use music as a kind of platform, as a catalyst for change.”
Strong Side Conditioning has a total of eight people on staff, and along with providing a place to work out, the team is able to connect its members to physical therapy and active rehabilitation options: physiotherapy, osteopathy, and kinesiology appointments are offered in-house.
“When you come in, it’s a place of comfort. Not only can you get your fitness and your goals going, but you can talk to anybody and have that support system within our gym. I think that’s how we differ from the traditional culture—and it’s not something we’re trying to force down people’s throats—it’s just something that’s happened here organically as time goes on,” explains Pak.
And it’s that community feeling that’s had him and the rest of the team wanting to help.
Pak is taking the lead on a project called Coat the World, which is running from now until the end of this month. The goal is to help 150 entrepreneurs showcase their projects for the next 12 months. They’re partnering with The Nooks to pay off shelf space so low-income creators and business owners can have their own opportunity to shine.
Pak says they’d like to raise $5,000 to be able to pay for those shelf spaces so those creators don’t have to worry about that cost for a year. In exchange for a donation, the donor gets access to an exclusive song called “Coat,” as well as a digital package put together by Pak.
“The title of the song, 'Coat', represents the warmth and security that my mother's love provided me during those challenging times. With this song and its accompanying campaign, Coat the World, my goal is to share that same sense of purpose and fulfillment with others. I want to empower people to chase their dreams and make a positive impact in their communities, by providing warmth and security,” writes Pak on the main Coat the World page.
The Nooks—which has locations in Vancouver and a relatively new spot at Metrotown in Burnaby—champions hand-made and local goods, only accepting one-of-a-kind pieces crafted by Canadian creators. Creators can rent shelf spaces at these stores—but Pak wants to pay it forward and offer a helping hand where he can.
A changing(?) gym culture
Pak and The Anchor talked about what seems to be a shift in gym culture—we cited Joey Swoll as an example: Swoll, who calls himself “the CEO of gym positivity,” has made a name for himself on the internet, posting videos about gym etiquette and how imperative it is to encourage people from all walks of life to move their bodies in a healthy and enriching way.
Pak says the cool thing about Strong Side is that when he first walked through the doors, it already gave off those strong, positive community vibes—something he had to get used to after his time with SFU.
“For a good four or five years, we had our own personal gym at the SFU athlete gym. We’re yelling and grunting and so I come in here and I was like, ‘Man, you coached us at SFU, but your culture of your gym that you own is so different!’ What I learned here is that we actually cater to people who don’t like gyms.”
It’s part of why Pak’s become so attached to the community, and it’s no longer a surprise when they show up to his music shows.
He even points out that it was one of his members who encouraged him to try and connect with The Anchor.
“That’s just an amazing example of someone who believes in my cause, believes in the gym. She’s an active member, and she was really able to support me,” he says.
“To the community, I want to say that, we appreciate you at Strong Side. As an artist, as a coach, a friend of New West, I just want to thank everyone in New West for welcoming me. [As] someone who is not even from this country … thank you for welcoming me to a place that I can call home.”