Versa Gripps entail straps around the wrists and broad straps across the palms that attach the lifter to the barbell. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

Sorrento fitness accessory goes global

SORRENTO — The biceps, shoulders and quadriceps on Mamdouh Elssbiays — really all of his muscles — expand to what looks like at least twice the size of his actual frame. The Kuwaiti professional bodybuilder adorns the cover of March’s Flex magazine, a bodybuilding publication.

He poses inside a gym, muscles glistening. Clear in the shot are straps on each of his wrists. “Versa Gripps,” the bright red accessories read.

The product, created and distributed by a Sorrento couple, Heather and Michael Parker, has taken its place in popular fitness culture. This magazine cover is by no means their company’s first, and Elssbiays is among at least 23 other professional bodybuilders who help market the grips.

In their Pomola Avenue office, a massive cutout of a 2010 magazine cover shows the first time Versa Gripps was featured prominently in Flex. The Parkers picked up the display during a convention when they just stumbled across it at the Flex booth. Since then, their company has become increasingly visible among fitness communities.

“Our company has really changed how people work out all over the world,” Heather said.

If you can tear your eyes away from “Big Ramy’s” triceps, you might note the Sorrento-made Versa Gripps attached to his wrists.

A recent order for custom Versa Gripps came in from a Gold’s Gym located in Japan.

The staff travels regularly for trade shows, where Michael is dubbed “Mr. Versa.” They’re featured in fitness podcasts and YouTube channels. The #versagripps hashtag on Instagram is filled with gym selfies. The grips are featured in Netflix documentaries.

The straps — wrist wraps with a broad strap that extends across the palm and wraps around the bar or barbell — provide support, stability and extra lifting capacity for users who are working out.

Stated another way, a lifter wearing these straps becomes one with the bar.

According to Michael, they’re key for the two main motions we make while lifting weights: pushing and pulling. They take pressure off of a grip by redistributing weight away from a user’s fingers.

They also can lock a lifter’s hands into place when he or she is doing a bar exercise, such as pull-ups.

“You have various factions within weightlifting. Everything from physique to bikini to fitness. All these different aspects,” Michael said, explaining that the company has now begun to operate worldwide. “It fits for all of them … It is not a flash in the pan, it is here to stay.”

According to Michael, the company puts out about 500 to 750 pairs of the straps per day. Willa Parker, their daughter and the marketing director for Versa Gripps, said they have a turnaround time of about one or two days after an order is received.

Part of this is because the production line at their red, barn-like complex uses computerized sewing machines operated by staff.

“It’s very efficient, does a really good job, you don’t have the mistakes you’d have with free hand,” Michael said while showing off the operation.

Each machine can be tailored to make a slightly different grip. In late March, the company was manufacturing a series of red and gold accessories emblazoned with the Gold’s Gym logo. Other colors include pink, camo, orange, lime green and purple.

Recently, the company partnered with the New England Patriots to provide custom-made Versa Gripps, which Heather said was specifically requested by quarterback Tom Brady. They’ve also made pairs for the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys.

For Willa, one of the company’s key strengths is its inclusive management style. She said the various departments interact regularly and staff members aren’t just stuck in the area that they work, a dynamic she described as “cross-cultural.”

“We have a really positive work environment. We work as a team,” she said. “People are taking their work really seriously. It’s not just a job; it’s more than a job.”

For David Sprague, 22, of Franklin, that became clear when he was able to attend this year’s Arnold Weightlifting Championships in Ohio. He’s a customer service representative for the company who was able to see how the business interacts with customers at a major trade show.

“That was a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “Around here, it’s really not that much into fitness, but when you go and you see people into fitness and what the product does, it’s just like, ‘wow.’”

His colleague Aleena Gray, 22, of Sullivan, echoed his experience. She interned for the company last year, and has worked full time since last May. She graduated from the University of Maine’s business program, and she completed those course requirements while working for the Parkers.

“I’m really excited to be a part of this,” she said. “There’s a lot of room for growth and they’ve really allowed me to do that.”

For Michael, the company’s success is inseparable from his faith.

“God has been a big part of our business and he has opened doors that I could have never opened up,” Michael said. “It’s also been a lot of fun. The people we meet. Lou Ferrigno, Sylvester Stallone. We meet them at shows.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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