Over a quarter of American health clubs closed in the first 18 months of the pandemic, including Butchered Bodies, a gym run by Taylor Metzger in Dallas, Texas.
There was a second where it looked all over — and then Metzger’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. A personal trainer with a background in interior design, who’d once crafted and sold pottery out of the back of his truck, Metzger adapted. “I moved my training sessions to my backyard,” he says, “where I crafted imaginative workouts.”
Trainees made their way to Mockingbird Lane, to a COVID-safe setup with functional fitness fixings — PVC pipes hitched to resistance bands, dumbbells for farmer’s carries in the grass — and a few surprises. “There were chickens running around,” Metzger says. His clients could take home the eggs they laid. Whenever it got too hot, as Texas often does, there was an old-school, on-site Airstream for cooling down.
Beyond the perks, Metzger’s clients kept coming back for the workouts, which were more engaging than they were used to. “We used equipment that was manageable for an outdoor space and a limited budget,” Metzger shares. “The approach focused on free weights, bodyweight exercises, resistance bands…unconventional workouts designed to maintain engagement without tedious rep counting.”
Over time, a running joke emerged at these sessions: “We felt like kids again at recess, entering back into the classroom drenched in sweat after having a blast.” Metzger took note of what worked, from the natural light, to the energizing music, to the loose, unconventional nature of the exercises, and knew he was on to something.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
Over the last two-plus years, Metzger has gone full phoenix. In December 2020, he paired with Evan Duncan — a Marine veteran, and a former gym operator in his own right — to launch a playground-inspired fitness club called Recess Fitness Club. The 1,800-square foot facility is now the largest independent gym in Dallas, with 1,600 members and an extensive waitlist. The duo is looking to expand to additional Texas markets in 2024.
Recess Dallas doesn’t have fowl strutting around the premises, but it does trade in the same nostalgic vibes that made the backyard iteration of Butchered Bodies such a success. The gym features swings, ladders, rope climbs, artificial turf, punching bags and even a Nintendo station. Metzger and Duncan are currently in the process of installing a slide from the newly-opened second floor studio. (We got a peek at the blueprints; it’s going to be sweet.)
This level of success was no guarantee…even as nationwide lockdowns began to let up. Not one of the 18 trainers that Metzger and Duncan initially hired were able to commit to the gym’s opening date. With 100% of their savings invested in the project, the founders trained clients themselves, working punishing 12-hour shifts, six days a week, until the club found some word-of-mouth momentum (and at last, some membership stability) by April 2021.
It’s Playtime, Dallas
It’s somewhat ironic that Metzger’s gym is school-related…considering he doesn’t look back too fondly on his educational years. “Traditional schooling wasn’t my path,” he says. “I often clashed with authority figures and faced bullying from peers.” But those very experiences led him to fitness in the first place: “I found solace in working out, getting stronger, building self-esteem.”
Of course, Recess Dallas doesn’t take its inspiration from grade school in general, but that sole hour in the American school day where students are encouraged to run around, experiment and play. It’s a clever branding choice (the club’s really leaned into it on social), but in an increasingly sedentary and isolated era, “recess reminiscence” also makes for an obvious and effective north star.
Consider: opportunities for physical expression and social connection are critical for adults, too. In recent years, researchers have gone as far as classifying adults’ lack of play a public-health issue.”Playing” doesn’t just mean meeting people and getting fitter; it can even mean healing. Duncan served for eight years in the Marine Corps and was stationed in Djibouti during the tragic Benghazi Attack. But he’s spent years training (and hiring) fellow veterans back home, and at Recess Dallas, champions the efficacy of the “work hard, play hard” ethos.
“Class at Recess”
Since Recess Dallas opened up its second-floor studio, it has debuted an array of creative classes (with thematic names, to boot). Here’s a snapshot of an average week at the gym, courtesy of Metzger and Duncan:
- Boarding School: A 45-minute full-body workout similar to Pilates, featuring the Heroboard, designed to improve balance, mobility, flexibility and core strength.
- Dropout: A lower-body-focused class, guaranteeing a burn with compound movements, ranging from moderate to high intensity.
- ISS: A full-body workout combining strength, cardio and plyometrics, accessible to all fitness levels, pushing boundaries.
- School of Rock: High-intensity upper body sculpting combining slow, controlled movements with heavy weights, promoting muscle growth.
- Assembly: A unique fusion of floor pilates and strength training, emphasizing the mind-to-muscle connection with surprisingly high intensity.
- Detention: A full-body bootcamp, targeting fat loss and lean muscle building, a perfect remedy for post-weekend indulgences.
- Grounded: A serene class incorporating yoga postures, gentle movement, breath work, meditation and relaxation for heightened mindfulness and a calm nervous system.
As we like to say around here — your wellness routine should be consistent, but that doesn’t mean it has to be conventional. This is excellent, inclusive programming, of the sort that will keep most clients’ bodies guessing and their brains fresh.
If you don’t live in Dallas (or do live in Dallas and can’t get off Recess’ waitlist), don’t fret too much. Not every gym has the branding or funding of a club like this, but many independent studios offer similar slates. At the very least, you can shop around on ClassPass (which, yes, did survive the pandemic).
Alternatively, make a point to incorporate the recess mindset into your personal training. To quote Recess Dallas, “There was a time when working out meant playing outside with friends.” Get some motivated people together to sprint stairs or skip rope in the park. Bring a ball. It doesn’t matter if everyone’s the same skill level, let alone age. (At Recess Dallas, there are sometimes Olympians working out next to grandmas.) The point is that you’re out there trying things, laughing off mistakes and getting better…one “school day” at a time.
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