From battling mental health issues to eyeing a five gym empire

Rory Girvan has his sights set on expanding his gym business to include up to five locations across Belfast and beyond.

ut while his fitness and strength business Hench is going through an ambitious growth phase, it hasn’t always been as plain sailing for the champion power-lifter.

Rory’s battled his own mental health issues over the years, including a battle with his weight, and a pandemic which could have put an end to his business, livelihood and further aspirations for growth and expansion.

“We had the lockdown, which hits everyone, but our industry particularly hard,” he told Ulster Business. “We were faced with closing our doors at one stage. But instead we went all in.

“We were quite introspective and looking at ways of innovating, and emerging from Covid. We had a bucket list in terms of delivering jaw-dropping service going forward.”

The business started a decade ago as a one-man band. “It was just me and we had a small space on the top floor of our building alongside other people, such as artists,” Rory says.

The business then expanded into a larger unit in 2013 and it began coaching people in small groups. “It was trying to team them about how to do strength training properly, and get results.”

Hench currently has its main base at a large unit at Cromac Street in Belfast city centre, close to St George’s Market. And Rory says he has plans to expand further still into a neighbor property.

“Re-opening was a bit of quantum leap forward,” Rory says. “The unit had been vacant for a few years – we’ve injected a bit of vibrancy into it.

“Our mission is to help people become stronger for life. For me personally it’s a very important thing. I’ve been training for 23 years. I have achieved pretty much all goals in strength training, mentally and physically reaching rock bottom over the years, and then being on an upwards trajectory upwards – rebuilding mind and body.”

Rory says he’s invested £250,000 and plans to add an additional £250,000 as the business looks for other sites to set up in the city.

“We are at the stage where we have a finished site at Cromac and are now selecting other sites across city.

“The next stage, if all goes well, is expanding the existing site. There is a vacant unit we would hope to get – there are also different areas in the city.”

Asked about his target for new locations and expansion, he says it could include up to five gyms.

“Realistically, three to five sites. That is what we are aiming for. We would be looking at three sites in the next two to three years, and depending on how that goes take a decision to add sites in the city or look further in Northern Ireland.”

While Rory’s fitness and sports journey has taken him to the top on many occasions, he’s battled his own issues along the way, including with his mental health, and his own physical health.

“There was a time at university when I’d put on around 60lbs of weight. At the start of my career, I overworked myself so much that I got shingles.

“During each of those times what helped me to get to the next chapter was training, and focusing on that and rebuilding things.

“(Over the last 10 years) we’ve learned what works and we know what people need – there is sometimes a problem with fitness where it is led by wants and people are misled.

“We have invested pretty heavily – a gym within a gym. People don’t share equipment and they have their own personal coach and follow-on programme.”

It was a background in strength training alongside a degree in biomedical science, following by sports and exercise science, which paved the way for Rory’s journey with Hench.

“Unless you had a PhD in (an area of ​​sports science) it wasn’t much of a livelihood,” he says. “I lost my first graduate job due to mental health (issues).”

Despite trying to appeal that decision to let him go, Rory then joined the government-run Steps to work program in a bid to seek out a new career.

“I had tried to do things I didn’t love,” he said. “I had been training for close to 15-20 years. That was something I loved and was good at. Within about four months Hench was born.”

Rory’s own strength and fitness career has seen him named Ireland’s number one in power-lifting, as well as going on to represent Ireland in the US. He then turned his attention to mixed martial arts.

He said the gym model here hasn’t changed for a long time, with some trying to get as many people as possible signed up, many of whom may not use the facilities on a regular basis.

“For us, we want people to turn up and learn new concepts, techniques and principles. We want them to understand what they are doing – achieving their goals, building character and building their self-worth.”

Anyone in need of confidential emotional support can call Samaritans free on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or visiting Samaritans.org.

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