As Mary Kirasich straps into the Glute Flex, pulling down the safety bar and clipping metal rings to stay in place, she looks as though she’s buckling in for a ride on a raging roller coaster. But Kirasich, dressed in running shorts and a tank top, knows better.
“This ain’t no amusement park,” she says, from a supine position. Then she grits her teeth and starts thrusting her hips toward the ceiling, lifting a stack of weights with each movement.
The Glute Flex is one of the latest fitness apparatuses cooked up and welded together by Kirasich’s personal trainer, Jay Cooper. And while Kirasich is impressed by how well it works at activating her gluteus muscles, she also hates it with a passion — a passion nearly as fiery as her butt feels after a few reps.
Cooper, 61, is a devotee of the hip-thrust exercise, which he says can help activate the gluteus muscles up to 300 percent as effectively as other moves. But, he says, “most gyms aren’t equipped to do that specific movement.”
Then again, most gyms aren’t owned by people like Cooper, a self-taught, patent-holding welder who spends the few-and-far-between client-free hours blow-torching up new Frankenstein fabrications in his at-home welding studio.
At a typical fitness studio, a trainer would likely have Kirasich attempt this move on a free bench.
“But the free bench is typically too high off the ground,” says Cooper, whose studio, Jay Cooper’s Body-Flex, has been in its current location, just behind NASA’s Johnson Space Center for about three years.
“Then you’ve got to brace it, or you’ve got the concern of it tipping over. Then you’ve got to lay a bar across the pelvis with some type of pad, doing this hip thrust kind of move,” he continues. “And I said, ‘There’s got to be a better mouse trap.’”
So he made one. This current version that Kirasich uses on a Thursday afternoon in August represents a final draft of a project that Cooper swears must have started with 1,000 parts as he tried to configure a way for users to keep their feet raised to the same plane as their hips, while still keeping the bench low to the ground.
“What’s amazing,” Karisich says between reps, her voice breaking a bit as she waits for her breath to come back, “is that Jay has a mathematics background, and he knows enough about engineering that by trial and error, he can make these.”
Cooper wipes away the praise with a bout of his signature self-deprecation. “Most of my engineering is just me up on a welding table with a measuring tape,” he says.
And there’s plenty of truth to that.
“I had to poor-boy it,” he says, matter-of-factly about the past few years, during which he had to move locations, and devote some of his welding hours to daily radiation treatment as he battled prostate cancer.
It’s been a blur, he says. And he’s still not sure how he was able to piece together his gym, forged in the fire of his personal crucible.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. But the why made me wanted to figure it out. The how would come to me, and I think most of us are willing to pay the price if the promise of tomorrow is bright enough,” he says now. “You just do what you have to do.”
That’s a life motto he earned at a young age, growing up the youngest of four boys who all worked for his father’s family business as soon as they were physically able to.
“We did everything. Everything. And of course, as kids, we hated it,” he says. “But now, as an adult, it’s like, ‘Well, yeah. I can do this. I can do that. And you realize the gift that was given to you, just to try.”
That’s his motto in his garage as he welds. And it’s clearly the motto he passes along to clients like Kirasich in the studio.
“Mary, we’re coming up on our seven-year anniversary,” he tells Kirasich, who is one of his most devoted clients. “And we’ve never had a fight.”
“There are times when I’ve been in pain for days,” she says, eyeing Cooper with a look that says she’s been mad at him before.
They both laugh.
“Whenever I have a new piece coming in, there’s some cringing. Some, ‘Oh, what are you building for us now?’” he says.
“I’m his guinea pig,” Karisich teases. But then she acquiesces that she loves the machines he makes — especially how he manages to create pieces that easily fit her 5-foot frame, and still work for his taller clients.
That’s a big sticking point for Cooper — so is the ability to create apparatuses that can provide his client who uses a wheelchair the same level of muscle toning and aerobic action as all his other clients.
“The ability to problem-solve, it’s so important,” Cooper says. “You think, ‘No, I’ve never done this before, but once I figure it out, I know I’ll be able to do it forever. And that’s an amazing feeling.”