It looks like Denzel Allen’s approach to teaching fitness fits perfectly with the Mill Valley way of life. Rather than barking at instructions or trying to exaggerate clients with bravado and yelling, he gently suggests a next exercise cycle or rewards small exercise steps with a simple “voucher” or ” sweet “.
At Mill Valley’s fitness studio Strength Den, which he founded in 2018, a shingle hanging in front might as well read “everyone is welcome.”
âMy approach has always been pretty cool,â Allen admits in the same relaxed tone he uses when coaching a client.
While his philosophy may match the Mill Valley scene, his skin color might make him stand out. He’s an African-American business leader in a city that’s over 80% white.
âThis community here welcomed me with open arms and it was pretty awesome to have business here,â Allen said. “It’s really weird, but I think that’s kind of the case for me growing up.”
Allen grew up in Connecticut in a predominantly white city. He wanted to play college football but was deemed too small. So he found a place in the world of physical training and landed on his chosen career path. Yet throughout his life he had to constantly struggle against the pitfalls of racism.
âGrowing up some of the things I had to deal with were doing good test scores and being accused of cheating, being arrested almost daily, which is why I moved from Connecticut to New York,â did he declare. “And then in New York, I got stopped on my bike, which I would never have guessed.”
Even after moving to Mill Valley, he was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer on his way home from San Francisco with temporary license plates.
âI spoke to people in this community and everyone was like, ‘I’ve never been stopped without license plates on my car,'” he said.
That is, all of these experiences helped shape Strength Den and Allen’s mission to help people improve their health. He cited statistics which revealed that a small percentage of people in the United States walk into a gym. This is the motivation behind his indoor vocal coaching – the reason he printed “Challenge the Status Quo” on the back of his sportswear.
âI want to kind of challenge that status quo and make it something completely different,â Allen said. “Much more tolerant, much more inclusive.”
Kate Schwering came to Strength Den unable to do a single push-up. But one recent day, she was lifting giant weights, carefully throwing an iron ball into the air. She remembered the day she did her first real push-up.
“I did and was surprised,” Schwering recalls, her voice starting to break. “I looked at him and I was moved, yes he is helping me change my life.”
But even as Allen sets out to create an all-inclusive fitness hideaway, his mind is painfully tuned in to incidents of racial disparity across the country that remind him of his own experiences.
âI mean it was just one thing after another,â he said. “Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd – the list goes on and on.”
Floyd’s death particularly touched him. Allen said that after Floyd’s death he was so upset that he resigned from a professional fitness association that refused to issue a statement condemning the incidents surrounding Floyd’s death.
âWhen George Floyd was killed, it brought back all of those emotions and all of those parts that I was probably burying inside me,â Allen said.
These days, Allen is busy navigating the evolution of COVID-19 restrictions. Forbidden to give lessons, he sees clients individually in a tent behind a yoga studio. Yet, tough as things are, he sees himself exactly where he should be – doing exactly what he needs to be doing – helping people change their lives with fitness and health.
âI think it’s me who sees my goal lived,â he said.