Some of Rodney McClanahan’s best days as a youth were spent at a mechanic’s shop in west Brownsville on the Military Highway. It was from the ages of 5 through 12 that McClanahan shadowed his father, whom he described as being a “big buff dude,” as his dad repaired and tinkered with cars at Rodney’s Garage.
The big Rodney would introduce his namesake to another passion – lifting weights – as the son became the father’s partner at Tito’s Gym on King’s Highway off of Boca Chica Boulevard. Young Rodney was smitten. Someday, he vowed, “I’ll have my own gym.”
Drive down the Military Highway today, heading from Boca Chica and approaching FM 802, and inside an industrial, sheet metal-looking building there are fitness enthusiasts squatting, pressing and dead-lifting weights. It’s the Hardknox Strength & Performance Barbell Club. Once, not that long ago, it was Rodney’s Garage.
McClanahan has achieved his dreams in the same place where he once looked up and saw his dad fix cars. “When I was 10, I visualized my gym and imagined how it would be laid out,” he said, looking over his 5,000-square-foot facility. “And here it is at my dad’s old garage.”
In 2013, McClanahan wondered how long it would take to fill up his gym. He had his answer by the end of the year. The place was packed with clients, or as McClanahan calls it, “the Hardknox familia.”
“I wanted to create a diverse and community-based gym,” he said. “I wanted a place that would draw people from all walks of life, from the everyday Joes to athletes to grandpas and grandmas.’’
The collegial and welcoming atmosphere he wanted Hardknox to exude has worked so well that it’s where he reconnected with one member of the familia that would become his wife, and where no less than four other romances were sparked over barbells and led to marriages.
“He’s created a little community here,” Brownsville police officer James Marren said of McClanahan’s gym. “He knows the name of everyone who walks into this place.”
Camaraderie and fellowship runs high at Hardknox – and so does hard work. McClanahan calls Hardknox “the strongest gym in town.” McClanahan devised all of the fitness programs in-house. He puts the emphasis on strength and power with his own energy-system training that leans heavily toward dead-lifting, pressing and squatting.
His gym is no frills in its interior and has no air-conditioning. “The weather outside is the weather inside,” he said plainly.
It’s the hard-knocks approach that’s attracting weight-lifting enthusiasts to what McClanahan affectingly calls “the castle” on some of his Facebook posts. The mix of weight-lifters at the west Brownsville gym includes college and high school athletes and high-level enthusiasts who participate in body building and CrossFit competitions. Then there are the police officers, teachers, business owners and middle-aged men and women who have gone years without any consistent exercise.
“I’m elated by the success stories we’ve had,” said McClanahan, who has undergraduate and master’s degrees in exercise science. “We want to improve your mental and emotional health as well as making you stronger.”
As much as he loves his castle of a gym, McClanahan in early 2019 will be moving Hardknox to a brand new 9,000-square-foot building on Pablo Kisel Boulevard near Sunrise Mall. His beloved gym on the Military Highway has outgrown its space. It will retain the industrial warehouse look – and one other thing – there will be no air-conditioning in the main workout area of the new gym.
“I asked them, (clients), and they said, ‘no air-conditioning,’” McClanahan said. “They still want it to be Hardknox.”