Interview: Alchemy Gym’s new space an expansion of community

Alchemy owners Ethon Burns and Sarah Harkness. — photo courtesy Alchemy Strength and Conditioning

Local health and fitness aficionado, Ethon Burns, recently relocated his gym, Alchemy Strength and Conditioning, to a much larger space in Coralville (2325 James Street, Suites 6 and 7) and expanded the scope of his business in the process. Burns believes in a welcoming approach to promoting health and raw fitness and offers clients a safe and judgement-free space.

He eschews the frequently unsafe CrossFit mentality which pushes unprepared clients past the point of exhaustion, leading to injury and, all too often, permanent damage. Burns approaches workouts with the idea that “pre-hab” is always better than rehab and learning how to exercise properly, using the correct movements and gradually building toward more complex workouts, results in happier, healthier clients.

I spoke with Ethon about his education and experience, his overall approach to fitness and Alchemy’s new offerings including yoga taught by Iowa City guru Shara Power, dietary consultations with an on-staff dietitian, ongoing group classes and personal training. It was an enlightening conversation with a local fitness expert that, fortunately, didn’t include any burpees or kettle-bell swings.

Where did you grow up? How did you get to Iowa City? When did you first become interested in health, nutrition and fitness?

I grew up on a farm near Muscatine. After finishing my Associates I attended a music university in Nashville, Tennessee which ultimately didn’t jive with my future plans. I returned to the University of Iowa and started working on a nutrition degree but soon realized that physical fitness was much more interesting.

I’d always been into athletics but realized early that I personally didn’t enjoy organized team sports — they didn’t truly test me as an individual. I really excelled in martial arts and wrestling, where I could compete against myself. While in Nashville I joined a Taekwondo school and the master mentored me. We often talked about natural movement and physiology which jumpstarted my interest in kinesiology, the study of movement.

How did your interest in martial arts and fitness relate to your studies in school?

Martial arts are a learning experience — especially when it comes to self-discipline. Teachers love students who are ready to learn and able to differentiate school and personal time. For example, even as the internet brings people closer together, it also distracts us. It takes self-discipline to know when it’s appropriate to play and when it’s time to be present.

What was your first post-college job? Any tips for breaking into the field quickly after leaving college?

I’ve always worked multiple jobs just to keep my mind and hands busy. After graduation I moved to Chicagoland where I worked construction. During that time I started building my training business at LifeTime Fitness in Schaumburg. It wasn’t easy but eventually I managed to garner a client base and could let go of the construction work altogether. The more my training base grew, the more I outgrew the “big box”[-style] gym. After a year I left LifeTime, kept my clients and opened a small training studio near Streamwood.

How did you get into CrossFit?

I started looking around the area to see what was new and interesting in the field. There were only a couple CrossFit gyms in Chicagoland at that time. After scoping out one of them, I was invited in for a workout. The workouts were very similar to my client training style at the time and the community of the gym was friendly and inviting.

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Alchemy members push their limits. — photo courtesy Alchemy Strength and Conditioning

What did you like about CrossFit? What did you dislike about CrossFit?

CrossFit consisted of wonderful people implementing old school training tactics within the group fitness concept. The protocols combined weightlifting with gymnastics and body weight movements. The workouts were challenging and it was inspiring to be part of a group so willing to work hard and have fun doing it!

Initially I was dazzled by the newness and the fun of CrossFit but eventually I became disillusioned with it. The randomness of the workouts really didn’t lead anywhere. Fitness concepts were evolving at the same time CrossFit “the sport” grew in popularity. Eventually health and fitness took a back burner to competition. It became a moneymaker as more one-weekend, “get a CrossFit certificate” courses led to numerous under-educated, inexperienced individuals opening CrossFit gyms. Protocols were narrowed to a few select things necessary to meet competition requirements and suddenly the all-inclusive “everyman sport” became a lot more exclusive, making CrossFit the entity it is today.

There is controversy surrounding CrossFit’s physically detrimental workouts and its place in “bro” culture. How did those elements play into your decision to step away? What elements of CrossFit did you decide to keep at Alchemy? What did you discard?

Let me start off with saying I don’t dislike CrossFit in and of itself. It’s the CrossFit fanatics-at-large who’ve taken the system to a negative end. The core of hard working individuals I’d worked with before devolved into a mass of masochists participating in what were essentially “workout competitions.” It became a badge of honor to work to complete exhaustion with no letting up until injury — and too often not even then. Injuries plague CrossFit but the CrossFit mythos masks it all — especially the huge gap in ability and fitness between the average CrossFitter and a professional CrossFit athlete. For those reasons I finally decided to leave the scene behind.

I wanted to get back to health and “raw fitness” benchmarks. I wanted to help individuals become healthy and fit while maintaining the best aspects of a group fitness community. I wanted people to enjoy exercise and to relish their hard work! I wanted to spread positive, health-promoting information and leave all the propaganda at the door.

What is the philosophy at Alchemy Strength and Conditioning? The exclusivity of CrossFit scares many people away. Could a couch-potato like me join and be successful? What can experienced CrossFit members expect?

At Alchemy we offer a much broader spectrum of exercise methodology thereby making fitness more fluid. We want Alchemy to be appealing to newcomers, offering a chance to meet like-minded people with similar levels of fitness and ability. The hope is our concept of “raw fitness” (less skilled or less sport-driven exercises) is exciting and tangible to all. Though we certainly tap into as much intensity as individuals can produce, it is our mission to do this without fear of judgement or failure. There is no way to fail here. We want our clients to feel better and to help them succeed without chastising anyone for some intangible metric of success. It’s all about consistency of effort, intention and heart.

We also have a place for those interested in more skilled motions (i.e. muscle-ups, more advanced gymnastic/weightlifting motions or Olympic lifting). Experienced people (especially [those experienced] in CrossFit) will find a more regulated and specific program to help develop faster and bust plateaus. Warmups are not “workouts of the day” or a bunch of contrived motions only perpetuating damage to overworked joints. We do “pre-hab” warmups seeking to alleviate muscular imbalances. We must establish strong and stable joints first and then build strength and increase volume. Several of our clients are competing CrossFit athletes who’ve improved dramatically during their time with us! At Alchemy, we build athletes no matter your starting point.

The new space features more room for training. — photo courtesy Alchemy Strength and Conditioning

Why are you moving to the new space? What are your future plans for expansion and what other services will be offered?

We have outgrown our current location. Personal training has taken-off and we need a separate space for PT clients’ privacy. Class sizes have also grown and it is our duty to offer a safe, more personal, environment designed to achieve fitness goals. We are also expanding our offerings with boot camps and yoga. We have a popular, highly certified, intuitive yogini (Shara Power) who will be offering classes and a dietitian (not a nutritionist, a true dietitian) holding private, one-on-one consultations and coaching.

We are staying on top of the industry by maintaining strict continuing education requirements for our trainers. We also have an Adaptive Bodyworks professional available to aid in effectively reducing injury while increasing the supple aspects of the body. The additional space allows for all of this growth.

Is there a culture of social inclusiveness at Alchemy that might not be present at other gyms? As a business owner, given our current political climate, do you feel it is necessary to be more vocal about Alchemy’s welcoming and inclusive environment in order to combat the anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQIA and racist ideology that seems to be so prevalent lately? How do your personal values reflect your business philosophy?

We are trying to maintain a “gym family” where we keep personal drama to a minimum and everyone is present to enjoy time away from the daily grind and relish in the “suffering” of the gym. There’s a wonderful mental release in a good workout. Alchemy is a judgement-free zone. Clients can come in and be their own true self. We have characters of all types here and we love them for who they are. We have students, police officers, stay-at-home moms, construction workers, lawyers, food servers, doctors, bank employees, teachers, athletes — you name it. Everyone’s here to work hard while having fun.

The iron isn’t judgmental. It’s not picky. It doesn’t care what your income is. It doesn’t care who your significant other is. We workout free of judgement and welcome all, regardless of sex, race, religion, sexuality, gender identification … We are cultivating an atmosphere in which dedication and caring are paramount. We strive to be good to our clients and to be better human beings. Those values drive my business. I leave politics at home so as not to alienate anyone. Everyone is welcome at Alchemy so long as they are accepting of the equality of others.