February 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Donna's Detroit

Detroit Tough exercises bodies, social responsibility

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It’s not like any health club I’ve ever seen. Three mammoth truck tires dominate one wall. Equipment includes industrial-weight chains, Bobcat treads and sledgehammers. There’s not a treadmill or weight machine in sight.

This is the environment created by Detroit’s new field marshal of fitness Roger Dyjak, who with his year-round outdoor “Train Like a Savage” program, has whipped countless bodies into shape over his 24 years as a personal trainer. Now the savage is coming indoors with a health club appropriately named Detroit Tough.

Dyjak’s no-nonsense approach to health and fitness is perfectly at home in 2000 Brooklyn, a former warehouse in Corktown, tucked behind the Detroit Institute of Bagels and PJ’s Lager House. The gym’s entrance is on Beech.

Before it even opened, which was officially Saturday, Detroit Tough attracted firefighters and a couple of enormous men training for the World’s Strongest Man competition in Los Angeles. Last weekend they pushed ponderous weight sleds from one side of the gym to the other even as dust flew from construction of the massage room and a Pilates Reformer studio. Dyjak’s personal training clients have been flipping the 800-pound tire, climbing the huge cargo net and setting 15-foot lengths of chain writhing in waves across the bare cement floor.

“As soon as I got the keys to this place, people started asking me if they could work out,” Dyjak said. He’d been putting a class of dental students from the University of Detroit Mercy through his Savage regimen, working them out on a campus parking lot. Two months ago he took them to Detroit Tough before there was even any equipment in place.

Detroit vibe

The theme is decidedly Motor City with battered car parts and hubcaps decorating the walls. A rusty cigarette machine now dispenses protein bars.

Dyjak, though he lives in St. Clair Shores, is rabid in his passion for Detroit. “If I was going to come back and open a facility, it had to be in the city I love more than any other city,” he said.

Dyjak has recruited five other coaches — he prefers this to “trainers” — to teach classes from yoga and Pilates to weight training and belly dancing. He will continue to facilitate Train Like a Savage, but now instead of taking devotees out in the woods to train he’ll lead his troops through the city, using the environment as a gym.

Obviously, Detroit Tough is not your traditional health club. But looks and equipment aside, it’s extremely different in philosophy. “It’s not about you” is painted over the barbell rack. “It’s about the team,” said Dyjak. To that end, chalkboards on the walls are filled with scrawled workout goals of individual trainees, where everyone can see one another’s aspirations.

Healthy bodies, healthy city?

“In the fitness industry too many people are wearing headphones and watching TV and they’re not engaged, they’re not having dialogue. They go there for 30 minutes and then they leave,” he said.

“What I care about is making a better community. What I care about is making a better Detroit.” So the club will organize regular volunteer days in the city. Dyjak wants each Detroit Tough member to volunteer two hours a month.

“We want people to work together, to sweat together, to volunteer together to build a better city. The city is not going to happen unless we all work together,” Dyjak said.

“This is so important to me that we made it part of our business model to work together with the surrounding (suburban) communities and with our local nonprofits. Without that I wouldn’t do this.” The sentiment is shared by Dyjak’s two silent partners.

But, lest this sound like the Church of the Savage, it’s still a gym, and fitness is still the goal. Dyjak is fond of saying “the only bad exercise is the one you’re not doing.” He just has a particular idea about what fitness entails. In his mind achieving a healthy body comes with an obligation to a community that may not be all that healthy — yet.

He keeps saying he wants to “eradicate homelessness in Detroit in a thousand days.” He’s not sure yet how he’s going to accomplish that, but he’s training an army of action-oriented people to help him.

“We do some crazy things here,” he said. “When you’re challenged to do something seemingly impossible, like flipping an 800-pound tire, and you succeed, it changes how you think about yourself.” And if that’s possible, why not take on the needs of our city?

Roger Dyjak, 42, of St. Clair Shores, puts his students through their paces in a fitness class at Detroit Tough. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Dyjak's no-nonsense approach to health and fitness is perfectly at home in ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)