Fad gyms arrive with the frequency of a New Year’s resolution, and often disappear faster than the will to live up to them. But a mainstay among the local muscle set is Houston Gym, the only fitness club owned and operated by gay man John Langerman, alongside his hetero partner Johnnie West
by Steven Foster
Photo by Dalton DeHart
They can possess an Olympian seriousness or the have the louche vibe of a singles bar. They come in giant box store cookie-cutter types like LA and 24 Hour Fitness, or the unique but designed-within-an-inch-of-its-life Fit. All gyms offer personal training, and locally, the tony Timberline Fitness makes the most of this niche. There’s even the nonprofit division, of which the Y is king, with the jewel in its Houston crown being the downtown flagship, recently given a very for-profit-appearing makeover. They can pop up overnight, as Washington Gym has, or vanish in an instant, which is the case with the no-surprise-there demise of Crew.
But Houston Gym, now in its 16th year, has defined itself as a unique mainstay in a sea of sometime-radical steroidal change. Sure, the place may have expanded a bit, raising the ceiling in their now-iconic metal muscle box on Durham, but expansion has never come at the expense of lowering the bar. This is a serious gym, and its vibe, while friendly and inclusive, is never cloying, as can sometimes be the case with other gyms and their assault from commission-hungry, numbers-driven sales drones. While the clientele tends to have an almost competition-like focus, even the casual fitness buff can feel more than comfortable here. And as for the meat-market angle, you might be able to catch someone’s eye between sets, but any flirting is no more overt or out of the ordinary than it would be at any Starbucks. Just because the owners worked together at the former Fitness Exchange does not mean any scandalous vibe traveled with them.
The owners probably have one of the most successful partnerships in Houston businesses, fitness or otherwise. John Langerman—smaller, Caucasian, with sharp features and focused, shrewd eyes—is gay. Johnnie West, in comparison, is massively muscular, African-American, with large bright eyes and an easy smile. Save for a bit of gray around West’s temples, both men look remarkably as they did when they were fixtures at Houston’s premier gay gym, the aforementioned Fitness Exchange, Al McLaren’s beloved, bemoaned icon of homo-fitness. Not all FE alumni have been so fortunate, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in town talking smack about the two Johns.
Competitive female bodybuilder Tina Chandler is just one of Houston Gym’s high-profile fans and members, and has been for years. And it’s not as though the gym was always located in a hip Houston corridor to attract the likes of Chandler and other heavyweights of bodybuilding, or other clientele, for that matter. When Langerman and West began their venture, the neighborhood was practically barren wasteland, quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks.
“We were kind of like the pioneers,” Langerman admits.
The former wild west is now more like the Wild West End, and Houston Gym has its own settlement around itself, complete with exercise-inducing Mexican restaurants, gastro pubs, chicken fried steak joints, Washington Avenue (the Sunset Boulevard of Houston), and a quickly gentrifying neighborhood of mini McMansion townhomes. And just as their bodycentric gym ethos complements their surroundings, Langerman and West complement each other.
“We’ve worked together so long, we kind of know what works and what doesn’t,” West explains. “We know what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are.”
Langerman’s strength is in marketing, which, paradoxically or obviously, however you choose to look at it, may be crucial to Houston Gym’s success. The facility stubbornly refuses to cater to the fleeting moment of the GTL Ed Hardy crowd that’s synonymous with nearby Washington Avenue. Though Houston Gym does have the all-important weekly Zumba workouts, you’re not going to see a wheatgrass bar spring up by the entrance desk anytime soon.
“I’ve always been interested in fitness. I was a trainer while I was in school,” explains Langerman as he talks about his marketing past. When the subject turns to West and his strengths, he too shuns the usual signs of the preening egotism or exhausting self-promotion of other fitness gurus. His background?
“Biochemistry,” West admits humbly.
Even when the obvious is stated—that they are probably one of the most serious gyms in the city—they demur.
“I would say we’re probably [in second place],” clarifies West.
“Behind Hank’s,” agrees Langerman.
That said, Houston Gym has about 45 employees and upwards of 3,000 members. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but we’re one of the top-rated fitness clubs in the country,” Langerman explains. “Many of our employees have been with us, six, seven, ten years. We just don’t have a lot of turnover.”
That also goes for the membership. For a business rife with exercise dropouts and gym hoppers, Houston Gym’s clientele remains remarkably loyal and steadfast. In addition to Chandler, it’s not uncommon to see bodybuilder John Fish working out there. Wes Simon is even a trainer.
“The bodybuilders are a small part of the club,” says Langerman. “But they do bring a level of education and experience and excitement that other clubs don’t have. When Tina competes in Las Vegas, we’ll have 30 to 40 members fly up to go see her. It’s really humbling to see that. Even when we have a local show, a lot of people go to support that. And I think that really says a lot about our members.”
The observant can tell you: take a drive around town in this spirit-is-willing-and-now-so’s-the-flesh period of time shortly after January 1, and you’ll see legions of dedicated fitness buffs jogging. Memorial Park seems far more crowded than usual. Street corners and crosswalks demand a bit more vigilance due to the increased traffic of the two-legged set among the ubiquitous four-wheeled menace. Parking lots at gyms seem to be as packed as the malls were just before Christmas. But then the new year wears on and all of those resolutions gradually begin to fade as the midsection begins its persistent, inevitable softening.
Who better to ask how to stay with those promises than the owners of one of the most successful independent fitness centers in Houston? Surely one of these men has the key to keeping your fitness goals. Surely.
And what is that key?
“Getting off your ass,” says Langerman flatly. Then he laughs, and West smiles.
“Usually what happens when someone joins the gym in January is that they set their expectations too high,” West explains. “They say they’re gonna work out six times a week, when they’ve only worked out once the year before, or they haven’t worked out at all. What we try to do is help them just stick with two or three times a week. I think that’s the secret: don’t set your expectations too high.”
Unless, of course, your expectations are to have one of Houston’s most respected and highly successful gyms.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.