Detroit gets tough: Fitness culture on the rise in the city

For a long time, Detroiters looking for a local gym had only a handful of options: Powerhouse Gym on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, the Boll Family YMCA downtown, and maybe some equipment at a city recreation center. But in the last five years, Detroit's fitness landscape has changed completely as new gyms have opened up in the greater downtown area.
Founded by Kimo Frederiksen in 2010, True Body Fitness, located on Michigan Avenue in Corktown, was one of the first of the newcomers. The gym, whose motto is "fitness without the attitude," exclusively offers private coaching with one of four personal trainers, including Frederiksen. Sessions take place in two smallish studios connected by an entryway in the brick wall.
"Many don't feel comfortable in a big gym," Frederiksen says. "We wanted to create a more welcoming space so people can be themselves. We never yell. Some do respond well to in-your-face coaching, but others respond better to positive feedback."

Kimo Frederiksen, owner of True Body Fitness
For those that prefer an uncompromising, hard-edged approach to exercise, Corktown's Detroit Tough might be the gym for them. "I can't tolerate whining or complaining about your situation," says gym owner Roger Dyjak. "I don't want to hear it."
After a pause and a laugh, he adds, "I'm not for everybody, and neither is the gym."
Opened in 2013 only a few blocks away from True Body, Detroit Tough offers a plain, no-nonsense, and, frankly, tough atmosphere. "Our slogan is 'Be harder to kill.' I've been broke, on the Bridge Card, divorced, saw my brother die in front of me, had my dad die of cancer. So it's more mental than physical. Anybody can lift weights. But it's about how to respond to a challenge -- when you get kicked in the teeth."
Dyjak has strong opinions, especially when it comes to fitness. "If I lift up my shirt and put a pic on Instagram, it gets 2000 likes," he says. "Everybody is obsessed with image. And I hate vanity." True to his word, there are no mirrors in Detroit Tough.
Every new gym in Detroit, it seems, has a motto. "Be ready when the whistle blows" is that of Coach Jarrod Bell's CrossFit BMW on Cass Avenue in Midtown. And members better come ready because workouts there are intense. A wall of whiteboards displays individuals' goals, benchmarks, times, and the "workout of the day." Music blares, Coach Bell bellows, and each day presents something different.
Coach Jarrod Bell, owner of Crossfit BMW"This is not a place where you can come in and just workout," Bell says.
CrossFit works on an affiliate model where each box -- the CrossFit term for gym -- borrows the principles of the system, but owners add their own character. Bell's box, one of the first in Michigan when it opened in 2011, has a stripped-down look with an open floor lined with straps, ropes, a few machines for cardio, and tires that look like they belong on a bulldozer.
"We implement just about every discipline of fitness, from gymnastics to Olympic lifting," says Bell. "You use your own body as a tool for exercise. And my job is to teach you how to move your body correctly."
People looking for structured exercise in Detroit have many options to choose from these days. Beyond True Body, Detroit Tough, CrossFit, and older staples like the Boll Family YMCA and Powerhouse Gym, there's Anytime Fitness, a downtown CrossFit affiliate, and several yoga studios. Hatch Detroit recently awarded a cycling studio, Live Cycle Delight, $50,000 towards their soon-to-be-open downtown location.
Supplementing a gym routine with outdoor workouts is much easier today thanks to improved facilities like the RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut, which are used by cyclists and runners alike. Cyclists have easier times taking extended rides throughout the city thanks to the increase of bike lanes. For a more social workout experience, running groups have become popular among Detroit residents.
"The fitness culture is growing along with the city," says Bell. "Demand is so high because people didn't have places to be fit before. But now Detroit is ready for all these gyms that have opened up. It's a great thing to see."
Dyjak, who grew up in the city, notes that Detroit has an illustrious history of fitness, from the renowned Kronk Gym for boxing to the numerous athletes that came from the city, such as Joe Louis, and the blue blood sports teams at Pershing and Cass Tech. He predicts even greater things to come.
"By 2020, Detroit will be healthier than San Diego, Boulder, and Eugene," he says.
This huge demand for fitness is evidence that Detroit may be turning a corner away from its less than stellar health record -- over a decade ago, Detroit was called the "fattest city in America" by Men's Fitness.
But all these owners acknowledge one major obstacle to a healthier Detroit. "Most Detroiters are living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford a gym membership," says Bell. 
"It's hard to be a part of a community when only the rich can afford your services," says Frederiksen.
While lower rents in Detroit generally allow gyms to offer more affordable rates, they're still not accessible to many residents. But these owners, not surprisingly, have enormous faith in the value of fitness, which is why some gyms offer "community" classes, or discounted group workouts for non-members. True Body, for example, hosts the Gay Boy Booty Camp on Fridays, so called because the money goes to benefit the Ruth Ellis Center, which supports at-risk LGBT youth.
Volunteering is another important aspect of Detroit's fitness culture. Members of Detroit Tough are required to commit to two hours of community service per month, and Dyjak himself volunteers at the Veteran's Center, with Healthy Detroit, and offers free classes at Butzel Family Recreation Center.
Bell, who grew up on Detroit's east side, started a nonprofit called Steve's Club Detroit, whose goal is to provide fitness education for at-risk youth. One of Bell's personal goals is to start a powerlifting team for inner-city youth.
These trainers are generous with their time because their work is ultimately about the betterment of others. "I always tell members that I want them to put me out of a job," says Dyjak. "I want them to know so much that I don't have to coach them because I don't want to be the overlord of fitness."
He's not kidding. In five years, Dyjak hopes to retire. "I think you should do something the best you can, then move on to next phase," he says. "I don't like doing the same old shit just to make money."
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is the managing editor of Model D and a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
Signup for Email Alerts