Health

This Inclusive and Inspiring Fitness Studio in Petworth Turns Two in September. Here’s How It Got Started.

"If you're not a skinny white woman or a white gay dude with a six-pack, the fitness space on this boutique level does not speak to you."

Photo courtesy of Scott Henrichsen

It’s a humid Monday evening in August, and people are starting to trickle into Sweat DC, a Petworth fitness studio in a space previously occupied by a Bikram Yoga studio. Inside, Argo, a pit bull that is basically the studio’s mascot, greets newcomers and regulars who shake off any sluggishness from the work day with light stretching and small talk. The bathrooms—labeled “Sweaty Boyz” and “Sweaty Girlz” with an inclusive “Come as you are” room in-between—sport pride flags and inspirational quotes, like this one from Lady Gaga: Don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.

Down the hall, Gerard Burley, better known as “Coach G,” is leading a lower body and core-strength workout with two main objectives: get participants to sweat (hence, the studio’s name) and inspire them to be more confident in their own skin. The class of about 20 people engages in four phases of exercises involving stretchy bands, medicine balls, and dumb bells, all illuminated by lights suitable for a nightclub, while songs by 50 Cent and Katy Perry blast out of speakers—a solid source of motivation.

But nothing is more motivational than Burley himself, as he shows the class why he’s not just a trainer but a coach. The 45-minute class picks up in intensity while Burley checks the overall pulse of the room: “Y’all are looking like you just received that work email you don’t want,” he says. “Get rid of those work faces. Don’t be so serious. This is the best part of your day!”

This motivational aura is not just the style of his class, but it’s also Burley’s life mantra. “You should be confident in who you are and never be ashamed of it,” he says. “I think if we all live that way, we’ll all see where our connections lie and be the best version of ourselves.”

Burley wasn’t always this confident. Growing up an overweight, gay, black boy in West Baltimore wasn’t easy, he says. Before leaving home to start his freshman year as a sports medicine major at the University of North Carolina, his mother tragically passed away from heart failure, so he took to basketball and working out to escape the reality of his situation. At UNC, Burley trained Division I basketball players and learned how to be more than just a fitness guru—as players recovered from torn ACLs and were forced to reevaluate their identities, he learned how to be a life coach.

We’re like hairdressers because [athletes] talk to us before they talk to anybody else,” he says. “So I really learned how to care for people and put my clients super first. And I also know the day that you need to be pushed, the day you need a hug, the day you need a foot in your ass.”

Photo courtesy of Gerard Burley

After college, Burley headed to Bowie State University where he became the head athletic trainer. In 2010, he moved overseas to Rome where he played professional basketball and started “Coach G Fitness,” a private fitness service for US ambassadors. After two years abroad, he moved to DC and continued to work as a personal trainer. He joined an LGBTQ basketball league and, needing to buy new basketball jerseys, a teammate suggested Burley host a pop-up fitness fundraiser.

Burley called his friend, who’s a DJ, and hosted a music-backed workout followed by a happy hour. “I always wanted to combine the party atmosphere with the workout and just create that feel-good thing,” he says.

Taking notice of how exclusive Washington fitness culture can be, Burley hoped to change the way gyms marketed their services, aiming to create a spot his mother would’ve joined. “If you’re not a skinny white woman or a white gay dude with a six pack, the fitness space on this boutique level does not speak to you,” he says. After a series of pop-up fitness parties and demos, Burley opened Sweat DC in September 2017, an inclusive space for people of all body types and levels of experience.

Turning to his community in Petworth and its surrounding neighborhoods, Burley started training returning citizens from prison, such as Kevin Edwards, 36, from Columbia Heights, who now works as a gym assistant at Sweat. Edwards, who was incarcerated for 18 years, says that although he trained inmates in prison, he was surprised at how ready he was when Burley gave him the call to lead a class—Coach G helped him find the confidence he needed to lead.

“People need help, no matter what situation they’re in,” Edwards says. “When I jumped into the mainstream, Coach G was just like, ‘C’mon man you can do it.'”

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Burley recently met an elderly woman who lives above the studio. She invited him to get together with the Bible study group at New Samaritan Baptist Church in Northeast DC. After serving him a hearty meal (“They wouldn’t let me leave without eating,” he says), the group of 40-or-so parishioners gave him ideas on how to involve longtime DC residents in his start-up gym. He’s working on a program with the group for the fall.

Over the summer, Burley partnered with KIPP DC for a back-to-school community day with a fitness demo for the middle school students. He’s even working with the school administrators to plan a field trip to the studio in September so the students can experience one of his workouts on-site. He not only wants the students to focus on their health but to also dream of being entrepreneurs: “You’ve gotta have someone you can look at and be like, ‘That’s like me, I could be that,'” he says.

Burley recognizes that Sweat is one of just a few black-owned fitness operations in DC. With that, he’s created an inclusive environment for all—a high-level athlete training next to that older lady from the church group, for instance. Both should walk out feeling inspired, connected to a community, and confident they got a dynamic workout, he says.

After Monday’s lower body and core workout, an inspiring quote from T.S. Eliot appeared on one of the flatscreens, and Burley asked one simple question: Did we sweat? And the answer, of course, was yes. Sweat, we did.

Sweat DC has intro packs of three classes for $30 and also has a barter program for participants who can’t afford classes. (You can sign up to work the front desk or be a facility ambassador to earn credits.) For more info, visit www.sweatdc.com

Assistant Editor

Elliot joined Washingtonian in January 2018. An alum of Villanova University, he grew up in the Philadelphia area before earning a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, TheAtlantic.com, and DCist.com, among others. He lives in Bloomingdale.