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After huffing through a set of bicep curls and military presses, I grab a 10-pound exercise ball and follow my fellow noon exercise class attendees out the door of Metamorphosis Fitness. We run through the gym’s University Hills strip mall, urged on by camaraderie and the fragrance of the dumpsters behind the big grocery store. Shoppers pushing carts stop and stare at us, bemused.
Do I feel self-conscious? A bit. But mostly, I feel sweaty, flamboyant, and strong.
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As we file back in, the workout playlist has transitioned from Robyn to Carly Rae Jepsen, and Styler Rising, the founder and face of Metamorphosis, turns from the rowing machines to shout out encouragements. They sport an electric blue mohawk and a tank top with a rainbow kettlebell illustration. As I begin a series of crunches, holding an eight-pound dumbbell, they walk over to my workout station and suggest I swap out the dumbbell for an equally heavy circular weight plate—prostrate, the plate is easier to hold onto. Even though my abs are quivering, they feel slightly more stable.
Before I know it, our 15-minute “as many rounds as possible” (AMRAP) cycle ends. Styler stands by a whiteboard and debriefs us, sharing how many rounds we got through and how we’re feeling. “What I care about is self regulation,” they say. “That you can take care of your body out in the world.”
This idea embodies Metamorphosis Fitness, a gym for people who haven’t felt comfortable in or empowered by traditional athletic facilities, as well as those who’ve never stepped inside one. All staff members are queer; and although many of its members are not, Metamorphosis prides itself on creating a distinctly queer-friendly atmosphere.
Unlike your typical gym, all classes begin with names and pronouns, and all the bathrooms are gender-neutral. And when Styler models how our arms should look when beginning a set of ring rows, they joke that “this is the only straight thing in this gym.”
Since posting a viral TikTok video in early February, Styler has seen gym membership nearly double. They’ve redesigned the interior and logo and acquired new equipment, but what hasn’t changed is Styler. With a warm smile and a strong jaw, they’re the heart and rock of the space. Members describe them as “very supportive,” “really good at articulating that everyone’s journey is different and meeting us there,” “the coolest,” “the vibe of the gym,” and “someone I trust completely.”
But for a long time, Styler says, the success and purpose they’ve now found was unimaginable.
“Eight years ago, I left a really abusive relationship. I was broken, completely and totally, emotionally and physically and everything,” they say. Cut off from friends and family, Styler moved with their two young children to a remote spot in Morrison, overpowered by the inertia of life as a veritable recluse.
Driving back and forth from their job at an IT company year after year, Styler passed a CrossFit gym and thought, again and again, what if? Eventually, motivated in large part by their kids’ frequent “observations about how unhappy I was,” Styler showed up to the gym with a check prepaid for a year.
“I took my first class and I was hooked—hook, line, and sinker, drank the Kool-Aid,” Styler says. “And the stronger I became physically, the stronger I became emotionally and mentally.” They racked up certifications for health coaching and personal training, including as a CrossFit Level 1 Coach, and entered bodybuilding competitions.
They reconnected with a sense of community—finding new friends, performing with a drag king troupe, and began a new life on a 56-animal CSA farm with their now-fianceé Jax. It was, Styler says, a true transformation. A metamorphosis.
Along the way, they came to realize CrossFit wasn’t as utopic as it first seemed. The brand advertises itself as practicing functional fitness: Every move is supposed to translate to something one might do outside the gym. But Styler saw too many attendees injure themselves with unwieldy, impractical moves like handstand pushups, and watched others withdraw, “disillusioned by the ‘go go go’ mentality.” (Not to mention those spurned by CrossFit’s less-than-inclusive leadership at the time.)
Buoyed by a new confidence, Styler opened Metamorphosis Fitness in 2017, named after both their own journey and the journeys to come. “I thought: How many people don’t have the opportunity to do this because they don’t know where to start?” Styler explains. “So they come here and we teach them where to start.”
The gym’s main offering are hourlong, intimate small group workouts, of which it hosts three to six every weekday, the earliest at 5:15 a.m. and the latest at 6:30 p.m. No two sessions are exactly alike, but all commence with a warm-up and involve a suite of shared exercises. (Styler and other trainers also offer one-on-one workshops.)
Members in each class (which are capped at 12) perform the same movements. However, each person can choose a weight that feels comfortable to them. (I started with 10 pounds but realized I was overestimating my strength and quickly switched to eight.) If a particular movement is itself too challenging or too easy, there are official ways one can “mod down” or “mod up” by adjusting the technique, which Styler details before each suite begins. In the past four years, Styler says there have been no major injuries.
As a gay, fundamentally flimsy man who stayed far, far away from the petri dish of toxic masculinity that was my hometown YMCA, I was reassured to see a variety of ages and body types struggling with push-ups alongside me. The gym’s regular members feel similarly.
Mary Addison Chapman, a project manager with a non-binary child, has been attending Metamorphosis classes for nearly two years. As someone who has “always struggled with body image and food,” tracking her (sizable) muscle gains—rather than her weight loss—has been a wonderful change. She’s now training for a triathlon in September. Chapman is so committed to Metamorphosis’s mission that she donates to the gym’s Angel Fund, which subsidizes low-income queer members’ gym fees. She says she can afford it because she “would pay at least twice as much for the same services as a different gym.” (Attending three classes per week costs $150 a month, but the gym offers significant discounts for three- and six-month, as well as annual prepays.)
Before 2021, if Greg Gauthreaux went to the gym, it was “in the middle of the night, so I could workout with nobody else there.” If there did happen to be others there, Gauthreaux, a gay software engineer for a local cable company, would realize that he “didn’t know how to use the machines and was too shy to ask for help.”
A few months ago, he saw one of Styler’s TikToks and soon showed up to the gym in a giant hoodie. He started with three individual sessions with Styler. Then it became three group sessions a week, and later five times a week. In February, he couldn’t do a single sit-up. Now he can do 20 or more and has begun rock climbing and kayaking with friends, activities he avoided for years. “My confidence level has just skyrocketed,” he says. On the day we worked out together, he was wearing a tank top, a new addition to his wardrobe, considering “[he] hadn’t worn a sleeveless shirt since [he] was a toddler.”
And even though Chancy Gatlin-Anderson, who joined Metamorphosis in July, said she has heard a couple bits of not-quite-body-positive language circulating in the gym in her first weeks, she said the gym is decidedly less fat-phobic than all others she has tried. “I don’t want to lose weight; I want to do active things,” she says, and that’s exactly what gym members have begun to bond over. Gauthreaux and other members went paddleboarding together in June; another group is hiking their first 14er in August. In that way, they’re realizing the premise of functional fitness that Styler so cherishes.
Near the end of one class I attended, a new member in her first week was absolutely convinced that she couldn’t hang from a pull-up bar for even half a second. Styler spent two minutes encouraging her, and when she tried, she hung on for a full fifteen. Styler and Paige Burkett, the gym’s vivacious and brawny operations manager, celebrated with cheers and foot-stomps.
After class, I asked Styler what it feels like to help people surprise themselves with their own strength, and they began to tear up. “I opened this gym four years ago with this higher purpose in mind, and to finally see it come to fruition is, like, mind boggling.”
One of Styler’s biggest takeaways from their brush with virality—their most popular video accumulated over two million views—has been the need for more gyms like Metamorphosis across the world. Currently, they’re putting together a certification program to train other gyms in Colorado to be “truly queer- and POC-friendly, as we feel we’ve earned the right to say we’re experts at that, at least in our community.”
It’s an admirable mission, but there may be one thing about Metamorphosis that is not replicable: Styler themself.
Case in point: to mark the end of Pride this year, Styler led an especially exhausting workout, culminating in a set of 100 jump ropes. “I was physically reaching my limit, and I started crying and broke down,” Gauthreaux says. “Styler got down on the ground with me, and said, ‘Follow my voice. Breathe. Each rep counts.’ Everyone came and joined. I let myself break down and bawl, but I finished the workout. I think it says a lot about the space Styler created, that I could feel safe enough to break down but strong enough to finish the workout.”