Joe Gray: A Different Kind of Product Reviewer

Joe Gray was the first YouTube channel that we did a promo on for the Garage Gym Magazine channel because I enjoyed his approach to reviewing products. I’m glad that we were able to talk him into sharing some of that knowledge and perspective with our readers. Read on to learn more about Joe’s philosophy, his process for doing product reviews and why he’d rather not get paid for what he does.

With so many garage gym sites in existence and most of them focusing on reviews, why did you decide to throw your hat into the ring, so to speak, to start your blog? What do you think you bring to the table that’s different?

During my Master’s degree I realized that I enjoy writing. So, the blog, the Instagram, everything has been purely a personal endeavor. I love giving back to the community that has given me so much, but if I ever don’t enjoy what I’m doing, I’m out. In fact, a personal value of mine is Being Real. So, I’m going to stay true to myself and honor my time and commitments. I think where that gives me an edge in the review space, blog world, etc. is that I’m not forcing myself to put out content. I don’t NEED to publish an article every week. Or a new YouTube video every Sunday. Or review the new Rogue “whatever” as fast as possible. I’m going to write, record, and review what I personally would want to read, listen to, and watch. Sometimes that means scrapping a dozen article concepts because I just don’t like how they pan out. Sometimes that means an extra month or two to record, re-record, and re-re-record a review. I’m not putting anything out that I wouldn’t personally take time to dig into. I’m not saying that others aren’t happy with their content, I just know that I’m doing things a little differently.

You’re a busy guy, what led you to get into doing product reviews?

If you read my blog my background is in corporate training, I’d call myself an Instructional Designer. One of the key cornerstones of being a good instructional designer is stretching yourself in various facets, experiencing new things, and simply learning from all walks of life. I really started this as an experiment, as a way to test some new skills and put myself out there to grow. Video recording and editing, voice overs, writing, analytical writing (without being a bore), and more. I simply wanted to see what I could do.
Without any certifications or formal education in exercise science or the like, I have a hard time writing and recording anything like recommendations, specific programming requirements, those kinds of things. I’ll leave the heavy lifting in those areas to the people who went through education and train hundreds and thousands of clients over their career. So where could I go, to perform my experiment knowing that? Product reviews! Basically, I felt comfortable giving others my opinion on a product that I use frequently in my gym. The thing is, one of the reasons I like doing reviews, is because I rely on reviews from others to make a decision. So, I do my research before buying something because nothing feels worse than buyer’s remorse. So really, it was part experiment and part staying in my lane.

Joe Gray is an equipment reviewer, father and at home athleteMost reviews are done shortly after the reviewer gets the product, I’ve seen reviews done a few months after purchase but that’s rare. Why did you choose to go with one-year reviews?

No knock on anyone who does reviews at any stage in their lifecycle. There is a need for all walks of life here. But for me personally, I could not care less what your opinion is on a new piece of equipment after having it for a week or two.  I can read the product description and get 98% of the gist of most reviews. I’m not getting anything but a re-written description of what the manufacturer already told me. I want to know if after some time you go back to that bar over and over again. I want to know if that powder coat stays black, or fades and chips after the abuse of chalk, sweat, and deadlifts. I want to know if you sold the bar, to buy a different bar, because Rogue came out with something better at half the price! You just don’t get that in the first few weeks. You need time to unravel the pros and cons of equipment. You need reps on reps on reps before you can honestly tell someone whether something is going to last or fall apart. I’m not in the garage gym game to buy replacement parts every year, I want a one and done purchase for life. But that’s why I started doing what I do. 1 year or more just gave me a nice benchmark and some wiggle room. You know after a year of regular abuse what that thing is going to look like in 2, 5, or 10 years.

I completely agree, I’ve been excited about multiple products in the beginning only to have them fall apart a month or so later. I’m looking at you Bowflex Adjustable Dumbbells! I know some people love to buy new stuff constantly but I’d much rather buy something I could pass down to my kids.

So how many years have you been doing reviews?

I had to check my YouTube channel for this, looks like one year. I really started my review journey with my Edge SSB.

How many products do you review at a time?

Because everything I review is what I purchase and use in my gym, it really varies. I’ve had points where I’m writing 4+ at one time, and points where I have none in the cooker. Depends on when I open the wallet.

Describe your review process: What do you look for when you unbox a new product and what are the key indicators you measure during the review process?Joe Gray using the Edge Fitness Cambered Squat Bar

Right out the gate I’m probably just like everyone else. Did the company communicate well in the order and shipping process? Did it arrive in one piece? Is it damaged in anyway? If assembly is needed, was it easy? Were the tools provided?
From there I’m really just testing the item out. I’m normally trying it for its “intended” purposes first, then I get a little squirrely and try and see what dumb stuff I can do. I’m looking to see the range of the product that might be outside of the manufacturers intended use. If it’s a bar for instance, I’ll squat with it, press with it, carry it, add chains, add bands, maybe curl it, whatever. I want to see how it functions in different capacities. From there, I take whatever worked and keep going, and whatever didn’t and file it away for the review, and I start putting the item through the full tests, which obviously if it’s a bar or a GHD or a lat attachment might look drastically different. But the goal is to document the pros and cons as I go.

You do one year reviews. How do you keep track of your key indicators over time, do you make notes after each use or do you write the review when you get the product and update it as time passes?

When I started I was essentially playing catch up. I was doing reviews on my rack, bars, etc. that I had for 2 years or so and hadn’t taken any notes. Now, that’s very different. I take notes from the very beginning and start building some general concepts, thoughts, and ideas. I luckily have a desktop computer in my gym so I take notes in Word as need be. I’m not necessarily formulating a cohesive review at that point, just jotting down things like “Your hands don’t fit on this piece” or “I wish it moved at this angle as well”. After I feel like I have what I need to do my first impressions review, I’ll start to formulate it. I might also do some research online and see what others have asked on the product. “Does it hurt your neck?” if that gets asked on 5 different google searches and on every Reddit post, I’m going to make sure to touch on it. Then as we build to the 1+ year review, I try and note and review the posts I’ve done with that product. What did people ask after the first impressions, what comments did I get on YouTube, what else have I learned. I compile all that to try and make what in hopes is a more comprehensive 1+ year review. It just takes time.

What is a deal breaker for you with a product? Quality, customer service, shipping times?

If your products are crap, but you take care of your customers, I’m probably ok. If your shipping times are slow, but you communicate well or you are a small shop, I’m probably ok. When a company is just fake in my eyes, I step away.
So, if I’m working with a small shop like Edge Fitness Systems, I know the communication and turn around isn’t Rogue. I’m expecting a 2-4-week turnaround with probably one or two emails total.
If I’m working with a large retailer and I’m spending a premium, everything better be perfect. I’m not settling for a tear in my new bench or a scuff on my new bar from Rogue, Ivanko, or Legend.
While I don’t personally own Titan products, I think the expectations here are important too. You are paying sometimes 30% of other companies. There is going to be some quality control issues in every step of the supply chain. Personally, I just don’t have time to mess with that. I’d rather pay $300 and get something and be done, than pay $100 and take a chance that I’m turning back around, making multiple phone calls, and waiting another 3 weeks to finally use my item.

What would be something that would make you not try a company’s products again?

The one company that burned me was EliteFTS. They had their SSB come up on a HUGE sale a few years back. It was something like $100 off, plus it qualified for free shipping which was another $80 or so. Myself and a bunch of others ordered the bar and were super pumped. They started calling people the week after and telling them they had made an error. You could get the bar for the $100 off, but no free shipping. It felt like a bait and switch. Let me get you on the hook with this fantastic deal, and then let me reel you back in a week later when you likely already told everyone you were getting the bar and you weren’t about to back out. I cancelled my order and ordered the Edge bar that same day. I actually converted every EliteFTS sweatshirt, shirt, and beanie I had into garage towels and removed them from every mailing list and contact point I had. At this point, I don’t own a single thing from them. Might have been a little over the top of a response, but I’ve yet to see EliteFTS offer anything that someone else does at a competitive price point. So, I don’t feel like I’m missing out anywhere.

Joe Gray testing the Thompson Fat Pad for Garage Gym MagazineWhich companies have you found to be consistently trustworthy in terms of product quality?

For me, Rogue has yet to let me down. Fast shipping, easy delivery, quality products. Nothing breaks, everything does what it is supposed to, but that’s not exactly earthshattering news for most people. Ironmaster, Powertec, Concept II, Spud all probably fit in the medium category and normally pump out solid, quality, useable stuff.

Are there any smaller companies that have pleasantly surprised you with the quality of their products and/or service?

The most recent are the MAG grips. The cost is up there, and I provided some notes on how I think they could improve their game from a business/sales side in my review, but these things are just solid in every sense of the meaning. Function, quality, versality, you name it. I mentioned Edge Fitness. If I lived in or around Ohio, there would be a good chance I’d own all things Edge— rack, GHD, etc. Quality guy, quality products. Not the Ferrari’s of the specialty bar universe, but quality, U.S. made, for extremely competitive prices. A little old school in their mentality on some things, no plastic protection on their Monos for instance, but awesome company.  While I don’t own anything from them, Black Widow Training Gear does some cool stuff and Dean is a stand-up guy (I’ve emailed him and back and forth on ideas, I just never hit the trigger).

I agree about Dean from Black Widow, he’s a good guy although he’s extremely busy! Regardless, I’m a definite believer in Black Widow’s stuff. I’ve got a couple of items I’ve purchased over the years that I’ll send you to try out for a year. I use them but not enough that I can’t live without them for a year. In any case, I relish the chance to adjust my training around not having this or that piece.

Totally agree on Dean. Solid dude just doing his thing, I look forward to handling some of his equipment!

You have several ways for people to get their hands on your content: YouTube channel, Facebook page, Instagram feed, the Gray Area blog and of course the writing youJoe Gray using his MAG Grips do here at Garage Gym Magazine. Each outlet has its own personality— people come to Instagram to see something cool, Facebook is how we share what we think about things and what’s happening in our lives and YouTube is where people go when they want to learn something. Why did you choose those particular outlets?

Instagram, YouTube, and the Blog were always going to be my main outlets. I found out fairly early on that I could set up a Facebook page and a Twitter, link them to my Instagram, and let them roll with content. I just check in on them throughout the week to make sure I’m not missing comments, questions, DMs, etc. and participating in the right areas. Facebook also gave me a way to connect with some family members who like to support me and what I do, and of course join groups like Home Gym Forum. In my mind, YouTube was the place for static stuff. Reviews, monthly recaps on training, exercise demos I wanted out there forever, maybe some PRs, that kind of stuff. It was essentially the video version of my blog. Sometimes they work together in terms of what I publish, sometimes something is just better written or filmed. Instagram was more the daily grind kind of thing. Videos of my programming, ups and downs with the weight, maybe a pic of a meal or my daughter here and there, and in general the way to connect with other like-minded garage gym athletes on an ongoing basis. So, with the three main components, I felt like I had my communication basis covered in terms of outreach with the time commitment I was willing to put out there.

You’re also a member of some of the home gym forums on Reddit. It’s fairly easy for subforums to spiral down into tribal arguments about one thing or another.

I love Reddit. I’ve often said it is the Internet in a nutshell. The best of human kind, mixed with the worst, a lot of porn, and a lot of dog and cat videos. The Home Gym section is about 98% people who really just want to talk about something they are passionate about, help other people get into the garage gym game, and then share their conquests in convincing their significant other that they needed a new bar, or their Craigslist scores, those kinds of things. You have the 2% of people that are just there to start something.  But what’s cool, is that I can see the community grow and learn from each other.

As I said, subforums can have some threads where people get seriously passionate about their point of view. Where do you find the most passionate disagreements about equipment? Is it more this manufacturer versus that one or whether it’s better to buy or DIY?

So, a year ago you had a VERY drastic divide between Rogue and Titan. This was like, Montagues and the Capulets type of fighting. What you can see now, is most people have their preference, but they are both very open about their preference and very open about why the other company is a perfectly valid option as well. We went from “If you want to get a pile of metal $h!t on your door step, order Titan” and “Well I guess if you are a trust fund kid you can buy Rogue”, to “Look, I don’t like Titan and I’ve got more money than time. I bought 100% Rogue equipment because it was easy, fast, efficient, and the stuff is quality. But if you are on a budget and have some spare time to possibly call and complain, Titan is right up your ally. Make the decision that fits your budget and needs”. The same can be said about the use of machines, cardio equipment, and more. People would start off yelling about any machine at all being a sin against the iron gods. Now we have people pushing Powertec, Hoist, even Legend and Hammer Strength. Ultimately, we are seeing people be better at understanding that different people have different goals, budgets, space limitations, and more. So, your equipment, isn’t my equipment, and doesn’t need to be. Same with the DIY equipment, buying brand new, or scoring it all used. Different journeys for different people.

I’ve never spent a lot of time on message boards personally beyond doing research for a specific topic. Way too easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole but I think they’re great for people who are starting a garage gym.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my other favorite resource, the Bodybuilding.com Equipment Forums. Reddit and that place could not be further apart though. Reddit is much more budget friendly; the equipment forums have some $10k+ gyms that are just mind blowing. Both serve a purpose in my search for the best garage gym I can put together, and also provide great opportunity for me to engage with my fellow garage gym athletes.

When you need a piece of equipment, what’s your typical process for finding it at a good price? Do you look online first or reach out to other garage gym owners to see ifbefore and after shot of used plates after Joe Gray has worked his magic on them anyone has a recommendation?

I try to keep the majority of my new purchases to the Black Friday window. That keeps me honest throughout the year so I don’t buy every shiny new product that catches my eyes, but also typically allows me to grab some deals at the same time. The rest of the year I’m typically building my wish list and scouring Craigslist and the other used market sites. If its something on my wish list for several months and not even a hint of Craigslist coming up big for me, I’ll buy it during that Black Friday week. Of course, if its something that is simply a limiting factor in my training (when I bought my Rickshaw to replace my trap bar and farmers handles is a great example), I’ll pull the trigger during the year. I’m fortunate to make good money and be able to do that.
I’ve always done my research based on reviews and general feedback of products. But when I looked for those reviews, it was never the manufacturers website. It was always some random, non-affiliated site. That’s where you get the real deal information. People with nothing to gain or lose by putting their real honest opinion out. That’s why I really like the Equipment Forums, Reddit, and various YouTube channels. Plus, you get to ask your pertinent questions to the reviewer.

Do you buy the products you review or do receive products from manufacturers to try for free?

So far, everything is purchased except for one set of products I received from you for the sake of review which is yet to be published.

Spoiler Alert! Ha! Seriously though,  I think that it’s a win-win because the public is going to benefit from you doing the review versus my very cursory review style. So I think in the long run it actually makes our publication better. Besides I expect each piece of equipment back after the review ha ha!

100% on the win-win on the reviews. I’m not against receiving free products for a review, but I’d have to be very upfront with the company. Like I mentioned before, I’m not about to start doing CrossFit WODs because some company sent me some kind of WOD shin protectors. I’m also going to be very clear with them that I have a process. They are not going to rush my reviews or thoughts. If the product doesn’t fit my routine, my goals, my gym, its not getting a favorable review. Perfect example is the Spud Inc Lat Saw. Spud makes some cool stuff, especially for garage gym athletes. But the Lat Saw, while quality wise is excellent, just didn’t work in my space no matter how much I wanted it to. I’m not sure most companies want that thorough of a review over time. It exposes flaws, it shows weaknesses. They want people giving out the “I just unwrapped this and its AWESOME!!!!” reviews, because 5 stars drives sales. No worries on my end, I keep doing my thing.

Home gym owners don’t have a uniform personality. That’s partly because different modes of training lend themselves better to different locations in the home. Garage and backyard gyms tend to be strongman, powerlifting or CrossFit havens, basement gyms skew towards powerlifting and bodybuilding, spare bedrooms lend themselves to bodybuilding and living room workout spaces tend to be used more for yoga and video based fitness programs like Daily Burn and Beachbody. Do you try to balance out the products you review to meet the needs of the various markets even though you train in a garage yourself?

I’d love to say yes, but no. Since I spend my own money on the products, and use my own time to put them to work, take notes, record and write up reviews, I’m just not going to review something for the sake of a review. I actually enjoy Yoga, I love strongman type training, implement a decent amount of powerlifting style work, and would classify myself as a bodybuilder first and foremost. So, I touch a lot of areas just because of my style, but I’m not the person to ask about Bumper Plates for Olympic lifting or a WOD. I’ve never done a WOD, and my power clean is atrocious. If I did a review on those items, I wouldn’t personally trust it. What is a 250lb dude who can only clean 200lbs going to tell me about Olympic lifting? So, it goes back to my original thought of staying true to myself and doing things I would actually dig into.

Several reviewers have turned their hobby into a self-supporting source of income. It may not pay bills but it at least pays for itself, is that a goal of yours?Joe Gray testing out the Gripster attachment for a different feel during a triceps workout

I’m not going to lie, if someone offered me a stable income, 401(k), and benefits to review products all day long I would. But I actually really enjoy my day job for multiple reasons and don’t plan to retire to be a product reviewer. When I first set out on this journey, I said I didn’t want to pocket any money. I just wanted to learn, have fun, and give back. So, anything I might ever make, I plan to donate in some fashion. The other thing is, to really make money you have to buy a bunch of extra stuff. You could flip it on Craigslist afterwards, but you need to be buying new bars, new toys, and all kinds of things every month to keep people engaged and to open up new revenue opportunities. I don’t have much more room in my gym, and to do my full 1+ year reviews I’d have to find a place to hide all that new stuff. I mean, I’m never going to be the first to market one of the newest and greatest items. Plus, I hate clutter and I’m possibly a little crazy when it comes to getting rid of things I don’t use. If it makes it through a 6-month span without being used, it is gone! The way I do things and my personality has almost forced me out of the money-making business on reviews.

Two things cast doubt on articles done by some reviewers I’ve read: they review the product after having it for a short time period and/or they do a lot of sponsored reviews which can make them biased towards certain manufacturers.

Obviously, the short time period piece we have covered. The sponsored review piece is tough. Companies that can afford to do affiliate programs are smart to do so. More reviews, means more word of mouth, means more sales. And the people making money off buying gym equipment? Brilliant! But it screws the smaller companies that just can’t do that. Or even worse, the smaller companies that are already selling you the product for a hell of a deal. They would need to charge the customer more, to give a kick-back to the affiliate. So, we get a TON of reviews for Rogue, American Barbell, Vulcan, and the others, and very few for the small guys or companies that just don’t do that. Plus, you aren’t buying a $300 bar from Rogue with the goal to generate affiliate money from it, to turn around and give a negative review. You’d lose money! And we know it’s an entirely different perspective when a product is free, versus $100 of your own paycheck. So, I’m with you. I don’t blame anyone in that entire web for what they do, I read their reviews, I anxiously await the new shiny unboxing, and some of these guys are just flat out awesome people doing awesome thing. I think the mass reviews they can pump out this way drives more attention to the industry which means companies like Rogue can continue to put money into R&D and give us cool new stuff. I just know that personally, I take those reviews with a grain of salt and I see many others do the same.
One side note here. You have to be REALLY careful with the sites that do reviews as well as simply catalogue equipment. A solid example, if you wrote an article on the best GHDs on the market and listed Legend, Rogue, Vulcan, Power Lift, etc. Most of the time the author has used one of those. BUT, they’ll gladly affiliate link to any of them they can. Not a fan of this style at all and I think it is deceiving to the reader. You are in essence hiding an ad for a product under the slim shade of a review. Not cool!

In that situation I have to wonder how someone could maintain objectivity?

For me, if I was getting products for free or even at a discount, I’d make sure to follow my process. I do this in my day job, the projects that are successful follow a process. The ones that are chaotic are the ones that have no structure. So, for reviews, if I make sure I stick to my programming guidelines, I follow my approach of testing, tweaking, and all around doing what I do with new products, and I stick to my timeframes of a few months in and then a year or more, I really have little room to be biased. You aren’t going to fill a full comprehensive 1-year review by saying “I used this twice and it was nice”. You HAVE to have details about what you use it for, why, where its good, where its bad. It needs chalk stains, sweat stains, and a few dents and dings. It needs to be dropped, stepped on, and then thrown around the garage. It sounds kind of like a cop-out, “I just do what I always do” … But seriously, try writing a 2+ page write-up of your experience over the past year with a product that you only used a few times or really weren’t jazzed about. It’ll be pretty clear.
I’m not expecting anyone to send me anything. I’m a small fish in a large pond with a weird name and a bad attitude. My reviews are honest and take way too much time to drive any kind of sales for a new company or new product. That’s okay. I’ll keep doing me, and let the other guys take care of the rest.

Read Joe’s articles here in our Reviews section and definitely check out his blog at Gray Matter Lifting!  If you’re interested in getting involved in the Garage Gym Competition he created on Instagram, go here for rules and how to enter.

If you’d like to follow his training, you can do so on Instagram @gray_matter_lifting or subscribe to Joe Gray on YouTube.

About the author

John Greaves III is a writer based in North Georgia with nearly two decades of experience in training at home. A former amateur kickboxing champion, John now competes recreationally in powerlifting. He takes a physical culture approach to training; believing that strength and health need not be mutually exclusive. In addition to his nonfiction work, John has written two fiction books, A Different Kind of Giant and A Little Lesson in Manners that are available on Amazon.com.

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