It would seem Denzel Allen's approach to fitness instruction is perfectly in tune with the Mill Valley lifestyle. Rather than barking out instructions or trying to pump up clients with bravado and shouting, he gently suggests a next exercise cycle or rewards the small exercise milestones with a simple "good" or "sweet."
At the Mill Valley fitness studio Strength Den, which he founded in 2018, a shingle hanging out front might as well read "all are welcome."
"My approach has always been pretty chill," Allen admits in the same casual tone he uses when coaching a client.
While his philosophy might match the Mill Valley scene, his skin color might make him stand out. He's an African American business owner in a town with a population more than 80% white.
"This community here pretty much welcomed me with open arms and it’s been pretty great to have business here," Allen said. "It’s definitely strange, but I think that’s kind of been the case for me growing up."
Allen grew up in Connecticut in a town that was predominately white. He wanted to play college football but was deemed too small. So, he found a place in the world of fitness training and landed on his chosen career path. Yet, all through his life, he constantly had to battle the trappings of racism.
"Growing up, some of the things I had to deal with were doing well on tests and being accused of cheating, being pulled over almost daily, which is why I moved from Connecticut to New York," he said. "And then in New York I got pulled over riding on a bicycle which I would’ve never guessed."
Even after moving to Mill Valley, he was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer while driving home from San Francisco with temporary license plates.
"I talked to people within this community and everyone’s like, 'I’ve never been pulled over with no license plates on my car,'" he said.
Which is to say, all those experiences helped shape Strength Den, and Allen's mission to help people improve their health. He cited statistics that found a small percentage of people in the U.S. step into a gym. It's the motivation for his indoor-voice coaching — the reason why he printed "Challenge the Status Quo" on the back of his gym wear.
"I want to kind of challenge that status quo and make it something that’s completely different," Allen said. "Way more accepting, way more inclusive."
Kate Schwering came to Strength Den unable to do even a single push-up. But on a recent day, she was deadlifting giant weights, gingerly flinging an iron ball into the air. She recalled the day she did her first proper push-up.
"I did it and I was surprised," Schwering recalled, her voice beginning to break. "I looked at him and I get emotional, yeah, he’s helping me change my life."
But even as Allen sets out to create an all-inclusive fitness refuge, his mind is painfully tuned to the incidents of racial disparity across the country that remind him of his own experiences.
"I mean it was just one thing after another, " he said. "Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd — the list goes on and on."
The death of Floyd hit him especially hard. Allen said following Floyd's death, he was so upset, he resigned from a professional fitness association that refused to issue a statement condemning the incidents surrounding Floyd's death.
"When George Floyd was killed, that kind of brought back all these emotions and parts that I was probably burying in me," Allen said.
These days, Allen is busy navigating around changing COVID-19 restrictions. Prevented from holding classes, he sees clients individually in a tent behind a yoga studio. Yet, as challenging as things are, he sees himself exactly in the place where he should be — doing exactly the thing he needs to do — helping people change their lives with fitness and health.
"I think that’s me seeing my purpose lived," he said.