Most people don’t go to the gym for the decorations. They don’t shell out money to be surrounded by the turquoise, glassy glow of aquariums or to hoist dumbbells into the air next to mint-green walls and the black-and-white photos that adorn them. A gym’s interior is nothing more than the backdrop to its members’ workouts — unless, of course, those bicep curls and squat thrusts are taking place inside the colorful walls of Sparrow Gym. For members here, the gym isn’t simply a place to pump iron, but a place to feel inspired. It’s a haven where art, personality and a love of fitness come together in a single space.
Tucked away in the corner of Sparrow Market, it’s clear that this Kerrytown gym is going to stand out from others the moment you walk past the meat counter and onto its creaky hardwood floors. Tom Petty and Beyoncé hits blast from the speakers. Movie and music posters stare down at equipment from boldly colored walls. Even the unconventional floor plan begs for a double-take — a junction of small, equipment-lined rooms hidden from the view of the entrance. It’s not your typical, overly sterile gym. There isn’t a single advertisement for protein supplements hanging on the wall, and rows of identical cardio and weight machines are nowhere to be found. But for Josh Johnson, the gym’s founder and main trainer, the offbeat fitness center is exactly how it should be.
“You see a lot of places look the same when you go to the gym,” he said. “It can be intimidating and overwhelming when people see a bunch of equipment. I wanted to create an atmosphere where people wanted to walk in every day.”
The gym is striking on an aesthetic level — bright hues wash each wall and clusters of photos cover nearly every inch — but the purpose behind Sparrow’s decorations isn’t just paint-deep.
“I think the art is something that makes people not think about what they’re doing,” he said. “If you’re doing an exercise and you think it sucks, and you look over and see a picture of Marilyn Monroe doing the bench press, you probably won’t think about that exercise. Instead, you’ll just think it’s an amazing photo. You’re kind of making people forget about where they are.”
Opened by Johnson and Sparrow Market owner Bob Sparrow, the Sparrow Gym has only been in operation for six years, but it has already made a name for itself as a business and quasi-art showcase. It houses pictures of everything from Muhammad Ali to the University Hospital stairs, and has a membership at nearly full capacity to boot. It’s a colorful success story for such a young fitness center, especially since it was born out of an idea the two had when they were working out together.
“I was just getting out of grad school, and I was looking for a job in some kind of financial position,” Johnson said. “I had been working out since I was 17, but it was something I never saw myself doing professionally in the future. But helping people feel good about themselves — that’s what made me think doing this would actually be an option.”
Transforming the gym space — and his customers’ experiences there — didn’t stop when Johnson first designed the gym, though. He is constantly updating the gym’s interior, with paint jobs occurring almost monthly along with frequent changes in pictures and wall art. While the endless makeovers might pose a tedious challenge for some, Johnson’s interest in art and photography keeps the design process as fresh as the end product. Some of the pictures hanging are given to him by clients, but the rest are taken and printed by the trainer himself.
“I try to snap a picture whenever I’m working out outside and a shot really stands out,” he said. “I like to throw people off by hanging something beautiful and artistic that still has a fitness edge. I want to show them beautiful places in Ann Arbor that they didn’t even know existed and encourage them to get out and about to see them.”
This attentiveness to the atmosphere doesn’t go unnoticed by Johnson’s clients. For School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Melissa Golliday and junior Zoe Kanters, these artistic touches keep their workouts from becoming monotonous while still feeling relaxed.
“It’s a great environment,” Kanters said. “He definitely creates a space where you can make it your own.”
Added Golliday: “He lets everyone put a splash of color on the wall if they want to, and that’s really something that appealed to me when I saw people I knew on his wall.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, ok, this is a good, safe place to be where I’m going to feel comfortable.’ ”
Still, it’s the personalization of the workouts themselves that really stands out to Sparrow customers. Unlike traditional gyms, which can force clients to fend for themselves in a dizzying array of fitness equipment, the trainers at the Sparrow offer each person their own workout plan. This custom list of exercises is often created on the spot, based on members’ specific fitness levels, goals or even moods when they walk through the door.
“Josh is really good at creating a workout for you that day,” Kanters said. “He recognizes if you’re in a show or not feeling that great. He pushes, he always pushes, but you’re comfortable with him.”
For Johnson, maintaining this level of personalization means creating specific workout plans for more than 140 people per day. He and the other trainers also keep in constant touch with their trainees, even if that means picking up the phone and sending messages directly.
“The communication here is awesome,” Golliday said. “You might get a text message from a trainer that says, ‘Hey, are you working today?’ or, if you haven’t been to the gym in a while, ‘Where are you?’ That’s a huge motivator.”
It isn’t easy to keep this level of connection between trainers and clients. Johnson is no stranger to 15-hour workdays, shifts spent bustling about Sparrow while offering friendly words and detailed exercise instructions to the members training there. He also requires newcomers to get referrals from friends who are members before they’re admitted, a way for him to maintain the atmosphere in the gym. It’s a lot of fuss for a man who also trains Olympic swimmers on the side, but when you factor in the sense of community and personal comfort his efforts create for clients, maybe the fuss is worth it.
“We’re artists, and Josh knows that,” Kanters said. “We need workouts that cater to our breath, that cater to our flexibility and stamina. They’re really good at understanding what people need, and that’s what makes the Sparrow Gym so unique.”