Photography by Conor Clinch.
When his employer refused to believe he was depressed and needed time off, Rory Girvan was sacked. Far from holding him back, this crisis moment catalysed a journey to becoming a powerlifting champion, an award-winning business owner and a mental health ambassador... CALM went to Rory's gym in Belfast to learn more.
What motivated you to set up a gym?
I’d just been fired from my first job after university. I’d come back from a leave of absence due to a pretty rough bout of depression that had left me bed-ridden. I was ambushed by my then line manager and handed my marching orders in front a few dozen of my former colleagues. I’d had my credibility and integrity questioned. For a moment I felt like a failure, that I’d hit rock bottom, but it ended up being the best thing that happened to me. I decided that I’d made too many compromises with my dreams in recent years and thought 'fuck it!'. Within a week I enrolled in the Steps to Work Programme, and 5 months later I opened my first rather humble studio down a dodgy backstreet in Belfast on the top floor of a former paper-mill. HENCH was born.
For a moment I felt like a failure, that I’d hit rock bottom, but it ended up being the best thing that happened to me.
How is HENCH different to a typical gym?
I began using gyms at 16 and was fairly unfamiliar with commercial gyms and the fitness industry. At university in Edinburgh I’d always trained in strength and conditioning facilities designed for athletes, so it was only during the one-off visits to commercial gyms when home in Belfast that I got a sense of what the fitness industry as a whole was like. I felt like Louis Theroux most of the time, but came away with a strong sense of what I’d change if I ever had the opportunity. The traditional gym model was dreamt up by accountants, staring at spreadsheets,trying to solve a business problem rather than a fitness problem. The model is based around you paying your money but hopefully not turning up too often. At HENCH, we deliver cohesive, sustainable programmes encompassing training, nutrition and recovery methods, aimed at increasing performance as well as improving overall physical and mental wellbeing. It’s an honest attempt at solving the fitness problem.
Tell us a bit about your philosophy on strength...
Even during a brief stint at bodybuilding in my late teens, I found it hard to relate to the idea of training to look stronger than you actually are. I started powerlifting at age 23 and within a few years had won silver at the World Powerlifting Championships and become the only person in history to win overall best lifter trophies at the All-Ireland, Northern Ireland and Irish Powerlifting Championships. I also competed in Weightlifting and won a minor national title. At this stage, if you’d asked me this, I would have told you that the strongest person was the one with the most weight on the bar. Nowadays, my philosophy on strength is more to do with physical and mental resilience. The stronger you are, the better your ability to stand up to the challenges–physical or otherwise –that the real world throws at you.
The traditional gym model was dreamt up by accountants, staring at spreadsheets,trying to solve a business problem rather than a fitness problem.
You've mentioned the virtues of vulnerability, can you elaborate on that?
Vulnerability and strength go hand in hand. The strongest people are comfortable with being vulnerable. Easier said than done at times, but it’s in these moments that we truly grow stronger. A few years ago I was asked to share the story of my own struggles with mental health by a charity called Inspire. At the time, only my girlfriend, family and a few close mates knew about it. It didn’t feel like there was a decision to be made, so I shared some of my past struggles with depression and anxiety very publicly. Sharing my story was a life-affirming experience. So many people in turn shared their own struggles with me. I wish everyone who experienced the self-sabotage, isolation and loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with mental illness had a chance to experience that. To this day I still experience severe struggles with depression and, to a much lesser extent than before, anxiety. But I’ve learned to accept this now as part of who I am.
When are you most proud as a coach?
Seeing people setting the excuses aside, embrace their own personal challenges with achieving their fitness or sporting goals head on.
My philosophy on strength is more to do with physical and mental resilience.
To generalise a bit – do you think men and women have different attitudes on entering a gym or starting training?
Initially, yes. In general, guys can be quite cavalier and want to climb before they can crawl. Women tend to be more coachable, but more conservative too when it comes to rate of progression. However,when it boils down to it during a testing session, the differences are less apparent. Deep down, most people love to work hard.
Growing up in Belfast do you think there was pressure to be 'hard'? How has that changed as you've gotten older?
I’m from North Belfast, and kicked about in some fairly rough areas growing up. Fighting and acting tough was part of life and made more sense at the time. My perspective changed after working as a bouncer for a few years when putting myself through university, and again after becoming a martial artist. The hardest people I’ve met are actually quite friendly, self-deprecating and down-to-earth.
Sharing my story was a life-affirming experience. So many people in turn shared their own struggles with me.
What life-lessons have you learned from running a business?
If you want to be successful, you need to have thick skin and optimism levels that border on naive. Try to enjoy the ride without becoming too cynical. I’ve built up a good team over the years – the journey is more enjoyable when sharing it with people you like and trust.
Who inspires you?
Elon Musk, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jordan Peterson, Bruce Lee, George St. Pierre, my coach Damien and of course my parents Thomas and Rosemary.
What are your go-to tunes or genres for training?
DMX, Tupac, Freddie Gibbs, Kanye, Kaytranada, Bicep, Modera and George Fitzgerald. Usually hip-hop if training strength, electronic if conditioning. If DMX or Pac is on, get out of the way...
What's your advice to someone starting out in strength training?
Respect strength as a skill. Treat learning it as you would a martial art or dance routine. Master the basics such as breathing and bracing correctly. Focus on squats, deadlifts, presses, pull-ups and loaded carries. Be a stickler for perfect form, all the time. The weight will follow. Short cut all this by finding a good strength coach, with a solid track history of helping people like you. Good luck, get stuck in and enjoy yourself.