From Meat To Muscle: Sparrow Gym Is Prime

Move over, boutique-y fitness club and holistic touchy-feely work out spa: Sparrow Gym isn't about fig-scented hand soaps and ambient techno. It is the personal vision of a true Ann Arbor original -  a meat cutter who learned how to make muscles more cut.

The door to Sparrow Gym can be tough to find. It just doesn't compute, spatially speaking, that a busy gym is sandwiched between Eve's, a sushi restaurant, Sparrow Meat Market and Sweetwater Café. But there it is, a tough little workout space with a fiercely devoted cadre of members, a funky color scheme and everything you need to get started on that fitness regimen you've been promising yourself.

To say that the facility is not your standard model is a bit of an understatement. You won't be overpowered by that nameless gym smell or the sounds of heavy grunting or large pieces of metal being flung about. You won't find svelte-figured employees bouncing up to give you the hard sell on a "Gold Membership" or pitches about how they can erase your years of excess with Zumba or the latest boot camp fad.

"Only in Ann Arbor" is the take on Sparrow Gym. It's low key, friendly, and small enough that its members' personalities impact the character of the place. That may sound intimidating, but the truth is that non-branded, quirky spots like this are less and less common in our franchised downtown.

Founded by 29-year-old Josh Johnson about five years ago, the gym is jointly owned by Johnson and his boss of nearly 15 years, Bob Sparrow (also the owner of Sparrow Market). Johnson landed undergraduate degrees in accounting and business management from EMU and an MBA from the University of Michigan, but he had worked at Sparrow's meat counter since age 15. "I know how to cut up a cow and build a bicep," he boasts.

Although fitness was a big slice of Johnson's life pre-Sparrow Gym, he hadn't planned on opening his own fitness space until his own "touch" was made apparent. Helping his boss lose 70 pounds, however, made it pretty clear that his years of personal learning had made Johnson a bit of an expert.

"I also was overweight as a kid and would get picked on," says Johnson. "One day, at about 15, some kid just threw me the wrong way about being chubby. So I walked into the weight room and decided to change myself. I would grab a book or an article and pictures and teach myself something new every day about fitness and nutrition."

After helping his friend and employer drop the weight, a private gym started to make sense. After all, Johnson's touch had reduced Sparrow's waistline by several inches. Convinced of his abilities, the market owner approved Johnson's business plan almost immediately, became a partner – and Sparrow Gym was born. "I did it to help people get where they want to be physically. It made a huge difference in my life, and I've seen it change people's lives here. If I can do that, help others, and keep myself healthy – then I'm happy," says Johnson.

A different cut


The minute you enter, it's clear that the gym has a different energy about it – purple and lime-green painted brick walls, a fish tank next to the cardio machines, and a variety of oft-changed art adorns the walls --from modern paintings to client photos to pictures of Marilyn Monroe lifting weights. The gym, as you might expect, also plays an eclectic mix of music with a favorite being the funk stylings of James Brown.

"It's not yoga booty-ballet bullshit or protein drink posters in here," says Johnson of his décor. "I wanted art, and an eccentric vibe."

Today, Sparrow Gym has about 240 regular clients. Johnson employs a handful of part-time trainers to assist, but does the bulk of the training himself. Each client has a unique program of attack assigned to him/her, depending on needs and limitations. And the range is vast, from Olympic gold medalists, college athletes, triathlon and ultramarathon competitors, as well as hockey and baseball players making the transition from college to professional.

Besides athletes, Johnson counts VIPs and successful local movers and shakers (you can find the founder of a local non-profit toning her arms some mornings, and the president of a well-known hospital on others) on the floor. He also trains the rest of us – students, teachers, working Joes and Janes, seniors, pregnant women, survivors of illness or injury, and, of course, people fighting serious weight problems.

More than by the pound

About 100 members visit on any given day. When a member comes in, he or she is guided through a unique workout circuit created for his/her goals. The gym's trainers then supervise as members perform their circuit a set number of times, keeping an eye out for proper form and posture. No workout is the same from day to day.

It's a flexible model and the time, people say, goes by quickly. This may be because the atmosphere is casual and friendly. Instead of grimly-determined, knee pumping strangers on the machine beside you, clients crack jokes as they go about their workout routines. And, surprisingly, there is no competition for equipment or space because trainers carefully stagger the individual programs.

"It's so different depending on the client," says Johnson. "We do a lot of circuit training involving anything from toning, muscle building, cardio – each circuit is catered toward each person."

"You don't need an iPod here," said one female patron in the middle of a set of complicated-looking crunches. "Hardly anyone wears headphones, but if you want to it's no big deal - and no one bats an eyelash."

"It's a great way to start your day off happy – we've all got a lot of good and bad stuff in our lives – especially right now," says member and friend of Johnson, Ron Cagle. "It's the best way I know to get a workout – and a hard workout – while laughing the whole time. I think we are all just so comfortable in this environment."

The tiered pricing structure, Johnson says, like its training model, depends on the client's need. For instance, someone who wants to lose 100 pounds pays a little more because he'll need more trainer involvement. A quarter of a year comes in at about $600 for a person with standard needs. "We need to spend more time with some people," explains Johnson. "But I don't set anything in stone either."

Location, location, location

"Every day is a new day in the farmers' market," laughs Johnson. Some challenges are to be expected: Parking is tough at certain times; traffic can be bad. Others are less obvious: The local homeless sometimes make the front door an evening resting point and must be (gently) moved on in the morning. Sometimes they wander into the gym, but more often, the excitement comes from elsewhere. "I frequently see some kid being hauled away by cops for shoplifting," Johnson shrugs.

He has no plans to move Sparrow Gym. "I love it here," he says. The place brings out the flair in some of his clients as well: "I even have a 31-year-old client who, for some reason, comes to work out once a week dressed up as the Hulk or He Man. I have no idea why, but it makes things interesting."

Business has been very good, especially because the gym relies almost entirely on word-of-mouth marketing. "I'm pretty much at capacity. Right now the greatest success is keeping the business going strong and keeping up on my own health and fitness. You have to have a balance between working hard and playing hard," says Johnson.

"It's all like a show. If my show isn't good, people aren't going to come – it's not just the quality of the training. You have to have a magnet at your door making people want to come in every day. For us, a part of that is the community formed by the people who come here."


Leia Menlove would be working out if she didn't just have surgery on her leg. She is an Ann Arbor-based writer. She is also a frequent contributor to Concentrate. Her previous story was An Open Ceiling for Ann Arbor Non-Profits.

All Photos by David Lewinski

All photos taken at Sparrow Gym

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