By Allan Ripp
Personal trainer Joe Sinagoga had an unusual occupational problem: someone kept taking his rocks.
Sinagoga, 58, is among a tight-knit group of fitness fanatics whose preferred workout spot is the Arthur Ross Pinetum, a scruffy patch of Central Park, south of the Reservoir and west of the Great Lawn, where two bare pull-up stations are the only equipment on hand. Minimalist to the max – and competing with nearby kiddie swings, picnic benches and dogs running off leash – the outdoor micro gym attracts a friendly swarm of gladiators whose pumped-up routines are a sight to watch. On a nice day, it’s New York’s version of Muscle Beach.
The Pinetum is also where Sinagoga – better known as Central Park Joe – runs his clients through their cross-training paces, from burpees and pull-ups to core strengthening and resistant sprints, a cruel-looking musher’s exercise involving a large belt attached to both trainer and trainee. And then there are the rocks.
One Halloween a few years ago, while lugging around a pair of 50-pound kettlebells in his backpack, Sinagoga came across a “large beautiful” rock on the ground. “It spoke to me and said, ‘Take me, I’m yours,’” he recalls. “It was around 45 pounds, perfect for interval lifts. I started leaving the bells at home and integrating rocks into my own workouts, and then for my clients. They were a big hit.”
He learned there was a long tradition of rock lifting in Scotland and Iceland, where strongmen contests feature boulder tosses and slag-dragging matches. Some of those rocks have achieved mythic stature, like the Húsafell Stone, a 409-pound heart-shaped slab of Icelandic granite that draws would-be Samsons from around the world for a chance to carry it for even a few strides around a sheep pen. It’s less than a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. (During Iceland’s Strongest Man competition in 2017, the winner managed to walk the Húsafell Stone nearly 300 feet.)
But Sinagoga found that even your average misshapen Central Park rock enhances a workout. Check out his Instagram page, where he can be seen hugging – and hauling – a glistening hunk of slate, captioned: “Nothing feels as good as picking up a heavy rock and taking it for a walk. Preferably shirtless.”
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“The great thing about stones is how uneven and awkward they are – two identical looking ones can have entirely different masses and composition,” he says. “Each time you lift one you have to find a new grip and redistribute its weight while shifting your balance. Because your hand placement is always changing and you’re constantly adjusting your stance, you gain real-world strength with different muscle groups and aren’t likely to develop joint or back issues as with barbells and machines. Clients tell me when they go back to the gym and pull a weight off the rack, it feels so fake.”
Often in the park as early as 5 AM, Sinagoga sourced choice specimens and carried them to the Pinetum. Soon clients were bringing their own rocks – from New Hampshire, the Adirondacks. “One lady who plays a lot of flag football texted me from a match on Randall’s Island that she found this compact rock that was really heavy and just right for her size. She threw it in her car and brought it over to the park,” he says. A training partner accidentally dropped a 200-pounder that neatly split into two sections for 80 and 120-pound lifts. But some of his rocks are as light as 10 pounds for beginners.
For a while the rocks sat in harmony around the Pinetum – Sinagoga got to know which ones were a match for certain clients. Some were good for overhead lifts, while especially thick rocks might work better for dragging. With several of his clients rock-training at once, the Pinetum can begin to resemble the Roman Forum.
But gradually the rocks started disappearing. Was it a rival trainer? Vandals? Geologists? “I’m pretty sure the parks guys were carting them away,” says Sinagoga. “They didn’t want anyone tripping over them or smashing them, which I get.” He surmises his collected rocks were taken to a depot just south of West 81st Street for relocation, and thinks he’s seen some of his finds pop up in new plantings.
“Once they become part of the planned landscaping, I don’t touch them,” he says. He also makes a point now of never leaving any rocks exposed on paths or in the middle of the Pinetum where they could either trip up passersby or tempt show-offs inclined to view a random large stone for shot-putting or other mischief. When he’s finished working out, he’s more than willing to return his weights to their original location.
Sinagoga forages for new rocks in far corners of the park, from the Ramble to the woodsy north end. “I have a few hidden around but some of those vanish, or I forget where we left them. So, off we go searching for more. Frankly, it’s taught me to be more creative and resourceful. I can understand what the squirrels have to go through.” Lately, he’s had his eye on one oversized pebble on the bridle path.
The Central Park Conservancy, the donor-funded nonprofit that maintains the Pinetum along with the park’s 840-plus other acres, is circumspect in responding to questions about Sinagoga’s found equipment. “Moving rocks can disturb the health of Park landscapes and create dangerous trip hazards,” a spokeswoman writes in an email, avoiding direct reference to Central Park Joe. “When landscapes are disturbed or damaged, the Conservancy works to restore and maintain [them].” Pressed on whether staffers would remove any rocks left lying around a well-trafficked area like the Pinetum, the spokeswoman is more direct. “Yes,” she replies.
Megan Moriarity, press officer for the New York City Parks Department, echoes the view that rocks and jocks aren’t an ideal mix, adding, “We encourage all New Yorkers to minimize their impact while working out in their local parks.”
One Conservancy worker spotted recently whose cart was parked near the Pinetum confirmed that large rocks left exposed will be moved. “You just can’t leave 40-pound objects out in the open or in a flower bed where they don’t belong,” he said, with Sinagoga training just a few yards away in the rain. “It’s not just that some rocks could be dangerous but you don’t like to see people dragging them around making divots and ditches in the ground.” He did express admiration for Sinagoga, especially when told of his age. “The guy’s got a diamond cut body,” he said. “And we’ve never had any complaints.”
Originally from West Philadelphia, Sinagoga moved to New York in 1994 to work with a clothing designer but had to pivot when the friend’s financing fell through. A coin flip led him to take a job at an Upper East Side wine store (the other job was with a moving and storage company), and he quickly realized how out of shape he was standing on his feet all day. “I’d basically become a fat slob,” he says, “well over 200 pounds, not exercising. Just one week in the shop was killing my legs and joints and I started working out. In 1998, my wife Deb went to Europe and got me a gym membership to occupy me while she was away, and from then on I was devoted to physical fitness.”
But it wasn’t until undergoing intense rehab following shoulder surgery in 2012 did a 50-year-old Sinagoga begin thinking he could train for a living. “I was swimming a lot and an older guy approached me at the pool and asked if I was a trainer,” he recounts. “I told him I was and we put together a twice-weekly program – suddenly I had my first client. Then, word of mouth happened. For a while I was moonlighting at various gyms but eventually was able to leave the wine job behind.” Now, with around 15 regular clients at any time, including couples, he says, “you couldn’t pay me to train at an indoor gym, especially after the restrictions in place from the pandemic.”
Sinagoga, who gave away his size 36 pants after he trimmed down to 167 ripped pounds years ago, is thinking of taking a petrology course to better understand his earthen weights. “The park is filled with great rocks containing unusual minerals and sediments,” he says. The former wine merchant and clothing salesman dreams of opening his own open-air gym someday where his rocks would be safe. “As long as we get to train in every kind of weather and have natural distractions to force your concentration, like bugs and dirt, kids and frisbees, slippery surfaces, dogs and tons of other people. I guess that’s why I keep coming to the park.”