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‘World's Fittest Man’ Opens Gym in Potomac

The former Potomac Outdoors site is area residents' newest option.

“World’s Fittest Man” Joe Decker has traveled all over the world promoting health and fitness. Now the Guinness World Record holder is trying to change how people think about getting in shape here at home, starting with the opening of a new gym in Potomac.

Occupying the former site of Potomac Outdoors, at 7687 MacArthur Blvd., Level Fitness grew out of a partnership between remodeling designer Howard Kandel and investors David Plotnek and Jay Kaufman. Kandel and his wife, Sarah, had been workout enthusiasts for several years and felt there was no good facility available nearby to Potomac residents. “We’ve always had a need for a fitness club in the area,” he said.

It was “a fluke” that the Potomac Outdoors space became available, said Kandel. But when Sarah Kandel, now the club’s member services director, saw the empty space, she called her husband and told him to come see it right away. Said Howard Kandel, “It had this energy coming out of it. … At the time we weren’t sure what we were going to do, but we knew we were going to do something there.”

He signed the lease in December of last year and approached Decker to be fitness director in February. Since opening its doors in May, the club has enrolled 225 members, and it has just finished converting Potomac Outdoors’ former bicycle shop building into an aerobics studio and class space.

POTOMAC RESIDENTS may be experts on places to exercise outdoors, but they’ve traditionally had very few choices nearby when it comes to gyms.

The Potomac Community Center offers a small exercise room for $125 annually to county residents, a pittance compared with the average cost of a private gym. Around the corner, the Potomac Tennis and Fitness Club has 10 cardiovascular machines and a comprehensive weight room, plus perks like towel service and steam rooms, for a $99 initiation fee and $75 a month.

Fitness Express in Cabin John Mall offers an innovative 30-minute circuit workout for women only, which involves moving quickly between cardio stations and hydraulic resistance machines. The club costs $49 per month with a $139 initiation fee for a one-year commitment, with lower prices for two or three years. By comparison, Level is a pricey new option at $90 per month with a $200 enrollment fee.

But Kandel says that the idea was always to create “a higher-end, boutique, fitness club that [was] going to cater to people who wouldn’t necessarily want to go to a Gold’s gym.” He wanted to create something unlike other gyms. “We’d always talked about what’s not out there in terms of a fitness club or a gym,” Kandel said.

Decker, who himself wanted “to [create] something unique and different from the average, ordinary gym,” was a perfect match. Level, he said, “is not geared towards the big muscle-head-type guys,” but rather is a place where friendliness and atmosphere come first. Decker chose the staff to embody his idea of a gym: “Great personality and no ego.”

Decker has a lot of personality himself. He grew up in Illinois and was a talented high-school football player but lost his college scholarship — and nearly his leg — to a condition called “anterior compartment syndrome.” He joined the Army for three years, but following a short stint in college thereafter, he blew up to 260 pounds. When he went back to finish his degree, he decided it was time to get in shape.

“When I first started, I couldn’t run a mile or even do 10 pushups, I mean like a lot of people out there.” But Decker says he “just kind of kept going” to where he is now. Decker earned his Guinness title in 2000 in a 24- hour fitness challenge comprising 13 athletic activities. Among other feats of endurance, Decker ran 10 miles, biked 100 miles, kayaked six miles, did 3,000 crunches and 1,100 pushups, and lifted a total of 278,540 pounds.

He’s since traveled to India and Nepal and throughout South America and the United States talking about personal fitness. He published a book in January and recently came back from a trip to Uganda. “And I’m looking to [travel] a lot more.” But for now, he’s at Level five days a week.

WITH ITS HARDWOOD floors and framed mirrors, the interior of Level Fitness looks more like a new-American restaurant than a gym. Instead of men’s and women’s locker rooms, the club has a wall of oak lockers in the main workout area and provides two stylish private bathrooms for changing and showering. The second floor features a nutritionist’s office, curtained changing rooms, and wicker chairs arranged around a mat area for stretching and abdominal exercises. A glass wall overlooks the machines downstairs. “We want it to be extremely non-intimidating and comfortable, and I think that’s what we’ve created,” Decker said.

Decker starts every day with a 6 a.m. “boot camp” fitness class open to all members, which he says regularly attracts 10 to 15 people. And that’s just the beginning. In addition to personal training, aerobics, yoga and Pilates, the gym is planning a slew of less conventional offerings like fitness classes for children, seniors and couples; events for singles; even an evening workout session followed by a cocktail hour.

“We’re going to try to have all kinds of fun and do all kinds of cool stuff – stuff that no one is doing out there now,” Decker said. “I don’t want to follow trends; I want our instructors to set trends.”

Decker keeps a close eye on membership numbers and traffic patterns in the gym. He knows Level can offer innovative fitness programming because it’s smaller than the well-known health club chains like Gold’s and Bally’s Total Fitness. Those places come with “a lot of negative things,” he said, like indifferent staff and lines to use the equipment. “We wanted to put together a place completely free of all that. ... People here will get to know your name,” he said. “We want it to be the ‘Cheers’ of gyms.”