By Rich Arenschieldt
Two decades ago, two guys began a fitness revolution in Houston. Long before The Biggest Loser or Extreme Makeover, Houston Gym co-owners John Langman and Johnnie West developed a wellness philosophy geared toward getting people to join (and stay at) the gym.
Twenty years later, that overwhelmingly positive approach has enabled this duo to connect with thousands of Houstonians, one repetition at a time.
“We met at Fitness Exchange, where both of us worked,” West says. “We were ‘personal trainers’ before there really was such a thing. In those days, no certifications or specific educational requirements existed for the work we were doing—we just developed individualized programs to meet the needs of our clients.
“At that time, Fitness Exchange had some of the best physiques in the city,” West adds. “The training we received there really helped shape how we worked with people, and in a sense helped define the type of gym we wanted to create.”
Working out in front of others is anathema to most—people are intimidated, and everyone feels less than perfect. For those just beginning a self-improvement process, walking into any gym could be considered an act of personal heroism. All of these emotions resonate with Langman and West.
“We started as sort of a neighborhood gym where everyone felt at ease, no matter what their income, physical characteristics, or station in life,” Langman says. “To us, none of that mattered. We wanted to work with people individually. That was the frontier that we wanted to explore. We had been in the industry a long time and had a good sense of what people wanted from their trainers. Our first location was just off of Memorial Park—we started offering ‘boot camps’ there long before it became fashionable. It wasn’t glamorous, but people knew they could get the attention they needed.”
Their current facility at 1501 Durham is north of Montrose, adjacent to the Washington Avenue corridor. “As the result of our central location, we are accessible to just about everyone,” West says—something apparent to any casual observer visiting the gym. “Our membership includes gay and lesbian clients, straight professional men and women, and members of the trans community. On any given day you will see a 60-year-old straight female working out next to a 25-year-old gay man. It’s a diverse group here, and everyone gets along.”
This inclusive attitude wasn’t always embraced by the fitness community. “The industry has changed so much,” Langman says. “When we opened, most clubs had separate workout days for men and women—something we successfully sought to change.
“From our first day, we had the foresight to welcome everyone,” Langman continues, “regardless of their race, creed, income level, sexual or gender orientation. We strived to ensure that every client was treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their specific situation. We didn’t want to be known as a certain ‘type’ of gym.”
Longevity has its advantages, and these two businessmen personify “connectivity,” knowing almost everyone involved in Houston’s fitness community. They count Nelson Vergel (founder of Body Positive), Fred Walters (founder of the Houston Buyer’s Club), and many others among their close friends.
Though the gym has a calm, low-key vibe, it’s home to many serious local bodybuilders. Several nationally ranked male and female contenders train there, working out alongside everyone else, often sharing their insights and expertise with others.
“Since we are a more middle-of-the-road gym (as opposed to a health spa), it’s a different environment here,” Langman says. “Information and assistance flows freely amongst our clients. If someone here is participating in a bodybuilding contest or other event, other members will support them by attending. It doesn’t matter if it’s the ‘Mr. Olympia’ competition in Las Vegas or a local fun run—people here help each other in any way they can. It’s a great characteristic of this gym.”
“Though there are some serious competitors here, we realize that people come in all shapes and sizes,” West says. “Someone who is struggling with their weight or other fitness issues needs to know that they will feel welcome.”
Confronted by media stories that often promote quick fixes and miracle cures, both men maintain a more traditional fitness philosophy. Their approach focuses on steady improvement and a trajectory leading to wellness through low-intensity, high-repetition-style training, rather than continually pushing clients to extreme levels.
“Television has done our industry a great disservice,” Langman says. “It shows individuals who are confronting serious issues being degraded and demeaned by trainers who should be inspiring them. People who see that in the media will never set foot in any gym.
“Men and women are inundated by images that aren’t connected to reality and don’t apply to most people,” Langman says. “What’s crucial is that each person realizes what they can do and what they can achieve, within their specific ability. You (and your trainer) need to have a certain sense of maturity about the whole process. Only then can clients rise above unrealistic expectations. We meet people ‘where they are’ physically, and move forward from that point.”
Through the years, Langman and West have witnessed clients who have experienced significant transformative body changes. “Years ago, we had guys who were just fighting to stay alive, each of whom were an inspiration to us. Many of our clients have been training here for decades—including a 90-year-old we have known for 30 years. He was so dedicated that, after suffering a stroke, he left rehab early to return to the gym.”
With 15 trainers in-house, Houston Gym can meet just about any fitness need. “We select our staff very carefully, using a specific set of interview criteria [to hire trainers with] expertise that the gym requires,” West says. “We look for individuals who possess a strong, positive attitude who can easily energize clients. It doesn’t matter how much education you have—if people aren’t motivated, they won’t come back.”
Houston Gym has a mantra that many would find counterintuitive in an industry associated with pain, sweat, and exertion: “People must enjoy what they do here,” Langman says. “We have to make sure they have a good time.
“We treat everyone with a lot of kindness,” he adds. “Over time, we’ve learned that it’s necessary to gauge each person’s level of ability by being attuned to and genuinely caring about them. This guides most of what we do, and it’s a skill set that all our instructors and trainers possess. Sometimes you have to be incredibly patient with people—adaptability is the key.”
Houston Gym has a core belief, one that Langman articulates with a quiet passion: “No matter what shape people are in, you have to love them. This is a crucial piece of the process that many gyms and trainers overlook. Fortunately, we don’t know how to do this work any other way.”
Visit houstongym.com for a free guest pass and information about their 20th-anniversary events.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.