As a 19-year-old at Penn State University, Roger Schwab could bench press 360 pounds, even though that was double his body weight. He eventually put his strength on display at a weight-lifting competition; his performance drew members of the football team who wanted to know how to add muscle and size to their bodies.
So Schwab became the team's unofficial strength coach – not bad for a sophomore.
But by the time he was 21, the young man's excessive power-lifting had taken its toll on his body, and he began to notice problems with his shoulder and neck. Just a couple of years after earning a measure of collegiate fame due to his strength, he was forced to undergo two surgeries.
"I spent too much of my time trying to demonstrate strength, instead of building strength in a medically sound environment," explained Schwab, now the owner of Main Line Health and Fitness in Bryn Mawr.
After his injuries, he stopped spending long hours in the gym lifting heavy weights, and instead performed short, intense, full-body workouts focusing on maintaining a slow, perfect form with each repetition. This led to his development of a 15-minute workout, where a person does weight-training on each body part with the help of a knowledgeable trainer, while moving quickly from one machine to another to keep the heart rate up.
"You don't need a lot of it; it just needs to be intense," said the 60-year-old Schwab, who still boasts an impressive physique. "If you're going to lift weights, you've got to train hard."
Schwab's philosophy seems to be paying off; in December 2004, he was named one of the best trainers in the country by Men's Journal.
"What we're doing makes sense," he said, "and in the field of exercise, common sense is not always so common."
Schwab believes that people who train five or six days a week are wasting a lot of time at the gym that they could be spending elsewhere. He believes his 15-minute workout – which usually takes closer to 25 minutes – twice a week will be plenty.
"It's a better function for a better quality of life," he said.
Schwab's interest in fitness stems from a love of sports as a kid. While at Lower Merion High School, he played football and ran track. In 1977 – the same year he opened Main Line Health and Fitness – he became head judge for the International Federation of Body Building and Fitness, the group that oversees the Mr. Olympia contest.
That's the same contest that pre-movie star and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated three decades ago.
Schwab suddenly found himself recognized as an authority figure in a sport where Jews are almost nonexistent.
Like Hank Greenberg …
"At the time I got involved, there weren't too many Jews going to the gym," said Schwab, who began to examine the careers of body-builders like the Jewish George Eiferman, who was Mr. America in 1948.
"It's like Hank Greenberg being a Jewish baseball player," he said. "You found the Jewish athletes in your chosen interest."
His office still has some remnants of the old days, with pictures of him next to the likes of Schwarzenegger.
However, as he grows older, Schwab – who lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife and three children, and attends services at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne – does not see himself as a Jack LaLanne-type who's hooked on lifting weights. He's just someone who found a safe way to get in shape.
Said Schwab: "My legacy, I hope, will be someone who found a common-sense approach to fitness."