DENVER — Styler Ellis, Rachel Ballard and Meghan Nelson knew the feeling of not being welcomed in a traditional gym.
Uncomfortable stares, patronizing explanations and harsh comments in the gym are familiar for all three Denverites.
In an attempt to combat these problems, the three built their own spaces in VIBE Gym and Wellness Collective, Chin-Up Training, and Metamorphosis Fitness — three gyms in Denver designed to cater specifically to women and transgender individuals.
“We really wanted to create a safe space where all folks – regardless of size, shape, expression or identity – could come and enjoy reconnecting with their bodies through movement and fitness,” said Ellis, owner of Metamorphosis Fitness.
Nationally, women’s-only gyms have grown, with their founders claiming to address the same set of problems: sexual harassment and general discomfort in traditional gyms.
After years as a body builder who trained in “traditional gyms,” Ellis realized the focus on aesthetics and numbers on a scale were hindering their ability to build strength and pursue a hobby they loved.
Ellis surveyed 177 LGBTQ+ people in Denver and found several themes: discomfort with gendered bathrooms, feeling unsafe around other gymgoers and a hyperfocus on a person’s size, rather than their ability.
“Queer people often feel uncomfortable in situations where aesthetics are the focus,” Ellis said. “Most want to feel strong and healthy and reconnect with their bodies.”
Nearly 85% of Metamorphosis’ clientele identifies at LGBTQ+ and of that 85%, roughly half are transgender or gender-nonconforming.
For people who experience gender dysphoria, Ellis said reconnecting to one’s body after lifelong trauma or disconnect is paramount.
“The idea of physical exercise can be a really scary thing, so when people come into our gym, we have to be very mindful of the fact that we’re asking them to reconnect to a body that they might not identify with,” Ellis said. “We focus much more on understanding your body through movement.”
Rachel Ballard, owner of Chin-Up Training, fulfilled a long-time dream on Friday of owning their own empowering workout space.
Though Chin-Up has been open for personal training since 2021, the queer-owned-and-operated gym added classes two months ago and will dedicate open gym hours in January.
Ballard was surrounded by nearly 100 people at their announcement — competing on workout contests, crossing their fingers for a raffle ticket win and sharing hopes for their future at Chin-Up’s official open house. As they watched what was once a dream come to fruition, Ballard grinned from ear to ear on the second floor of their gym, a warehouse space in the Santa Fe Arts District.
“I know how being in a regular gym feels and it sucks a lot of the time,” Ballard said. “I would like to see as many people from the community as possible feel safe and at-home here.”
Ballard said having trainers who understand life for transgender and nonbinary people experiencing gender dysphoria is a vital step to helping people feel at-home in their bodies.
“I think it’s something we’ve all kind of experienced at one point or another where you’re just not living in your body,” Ballard said. “I want people to come here and feel good.”
The four personal trainers at Chin-Up offer small class sizes to ensure people feel comfortable and can get essential guidance when trying new movements. While Ballard hopes to outgrow the current space, they plan to keep classes small as part of the gym’s core mission.
“I think a lot of times, when I’ve attempted to go to gyms before, it’s a very male-dominated space and there’s a lot of expectation to know what you’re doing,” said Katie Stonehouse, who trains with Ballard at Chin-Up. “I’ve always been a little disassociated from my body and recently, I’ve grown in connection to my body.”
Meghan Nelson — owner of VIBE Gym and Wellness Collective — shared a similar origin story to Ballard and Ellis.
Nelson worked as a personal trainer for years and continued to hear nightmare stories from her female and gender non-conforming clients. Favoritism and sexual harassment were rampant, and many women who had children could not attend gyms because finding child care was too expensive.
“I was hearing so many people having negative experiences in traditional co-ed gym environments,” Nelson said. “There was obviously a need for people, especially women and trans people, that just don’t feel comfortable or sometimes even safe in traditional gym spaces.”
Nelson surveyed 10,000 gym-goers in Denver. The results highlighted a need for gyms with child care, flexible hours and classes geared towards groups other than cisgender men.
“We’ve really been able to curate this space for our demographic rather than it being a catch-all for anyone and everyone,” Nelson said.
VIBE offers free child care during a parent’s workout, which Nelson said has helped make exercise more accessible to many.
“A lot of times, parents end up really losing out on self care because they don’t have child care so they can’t come in,” Nelson said. “The free child care is huge for accessibility.”
Talia Visco, a physical therapist who has worked with Ballard, said creating stigma-free gyms is vital to spread a message that exercise is for everyone.
“I think millennials were some of the first women to prioritize that being a strong woman is normalized and important,” Visco said. “For me, having a space that perpetuates that, where working out isn’t just about being skinny, it’s about being strong and helping build a community, is really important.”
Alison Berg is a reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS. Alisonberg@rmpbs.org.