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3rd Street Gym: The Hardest Workout in San Francisco

Photo by Joseph Schell

I thought I was prepared for Boxing Boot Camp. I had spent three months upping my workouts at the gym to four times a week, including lots of cardio, weights, and sauna time. I dropped 10 pounds and 10 beats per minute from my resting heart rate. Surely I was ready for what 3rd Street Gym promotes, in its warmly homespun way, as “San Francisco’s Last Honest Boot Camp.” I wasn’t.

If you live in Potrero Hill or any of the surrounding neighborhoods, you know the face—and body—of Paul Wade, Dublin-born owner and trainer of 3rd Street Boxing Gym. His boot camp flyers can be found on telephone poles, store windows, and coffee shop bulletin boards across the southeast city. Wade’s Giants-pitcher beard and twinkling smile can distract you momentarily from his lean, ripped physique, which serves as both an invitation and a warning sign to the rigors ahead. 

Make no mistake; this is the real deal. For four weeks, from 6:00 to 7:30am every weekday, around 30 or so brave men and women convene at the gym, located in the heart of Dogpatch. After 10 minutes or so of jumping rope to Eminem and Linkin Park, Wade leads the group through a 45-minute, daily-changing conditioning regime that makes my own gym routine look—at the risk of sounding sexist—girlish. (For the record, about 40 percent of the boot camp participants are women). 

Seemingly endless rounds of army-style crab-crawls, push ups, and sprints alternate with resistance band work, foam rolling, and even some yoga. At least once a week, Wade leads a street-twisting run up Potrero Hill that I thought was intense until a repeat boot camper told me that he sometimes has the group carry medicine balls above their heads. All the while, Wade is stern but encouraging, his drill-sergeant routine leavened with a lot of humor and inspiration. 

Post-conditioning, it’s time to glove up. Learning to spar—for real, not in some 24-Hour Fitness class style—is the main reason to do the 3rd Street program. The instruction is hard-core and authentic; Wade is a former Golden Gloves boxer, and he tailors his instruction for individuals as well as the class as a whole. Learning to hit and be hit is exhilarating. It’s also hard as hell. I’m a big guy, 6’4” and 190 pounds, so you’d think I’d have some advantage in size, if not speed. But by the end of the sparring sessions, I found myself absolutely spent, both physically and mentally. I wasn’t the only one.

By the end of the first week, several participants had peeled off. I was keeping up cardio-wise, if just barely. However, by the end of the second week, I could hardly lift my left hand above my chest. Whether it was from the conditioning or the sparring, my back and shoulder muscles had become so knotted that simply raising myself from my bed to sitting was a wincing ordeal. 

Here’s the rub: I’m 41 years old. If there’s one thing among very few things I know, it’s when I’ve reached my physical limit. With some embarrassment, I dropped out, leaving men and women made of sterner stuff to press on. 

You’d think I’d be reluctant to recommend the boot camp, but quite the opposite. I do think it’s important to know your limits, and also important to find out where they are, and to stretch them as much as possible. For those who make it through the four weeks, the boot camp could be a potentially life-changing experience.  

Three weeks, two acupuncture sessions, and many rounds of best-girlfriend-ever massage later, I’m feeling much better. I also find myself thinking about going back to 3rd Street a lot. Next time, I’ll be ready. Next time.