Chad Richards has this philosophy: Fitness should be fun.
It's the foundation upon which Richards and co-owner wife Laura built their Next Level gym at 644 Locust St. in North Lawrence, and it's what drives the couple as they strive to build a mega-gym - in Chad's words, a "one-stop shop for fitness."
That philosophy also is what gets Chad Richards, his five personal trainers and a client or two outside, rain or shine, nearly every Wednesday for the kind of admittedly "crazy" workouts of the sort that tend to snarl traffic.
"Yeah, we get a lot of looks," Chad Richards said, "a lot of people slowing down. They're a little confused what's going on. But we think it's good. People pay attention. Not everybody knows there's a fitness center in the area. We have an antique store on each side of us, so not a lot of people know we're here."
Anybody driving by the gym around 11 a.m. just about every Wednesday is bound to see some unusual sights. Like folks walking around, loaded barbells overhead, dragging additional weights along the ground. Or flipping tractor tires, tossing kegs, pushing vehicles or climbing trees with ropes.
"Wednesday became strongman day," Chad Richards said. "It's our alternative day, our day for strongman, extreme, crazy workouts. The other two days we work out are more classic workouts. But Wednesday kinda fits into the crazy category. It's the day the trainers play."
Sometimes Richards & Co. get crazy inside. This week, for example, the gang toiled inside because of significant snowfall.
But some of the Wednesday workouts require a trip outside. Just try pushing a vehicle around a 1,700-square-foot studio.
"Some of the biggest stuff, the crazy functional stuff, we have to go outside," Richards said. "So we'll go in the parking lot, utilize the park down the street. We try to stay resourceful."
For the most part, the wacky Wednesday workouts are for Next Level staffers only.
"It's the basis of what we sell, the intensity we share together," Richards said. "That's the mind-set we bring to our clients. But we work out together so that we're all on the same page, so we all bring that same intensity, that mind-set to our clients."
Next Level isn't all extreme all the time.
Richards works closely with a local chiropractor, using Active Release Techniques - a soft-tissue massage program - to help rehabilitate injured athletes. Other clients simply seek to improve sports performance. Richards isn't above dropping the name of a former Kansas University basketball player or three as examples of the latter.
"We're not just an extreme fitness center," Richards said. "We have clients that are in their late 60s who have had bone-density issues. And I trained Jacque Vaughn for six years, Billy Thomas for two years, Steve Woodberry for two years. So we go from post-therapy clients to professional athletes."
A trainer in Lawrence for a decade, Richards - a Kansas University grad, like his wife - struck out on his own and opened Next Level in 2005.
The business has grown gradually but steadily, and Richards is looking to expand.
"We want to get in a bigger space," he said. "Even here, you can do some fun stuff outside of bench presses and curls. We can take you into more functional strength training, like what goes along with American Gladiators-type stuff, but we need more space."
For motivation, the Next Level crew went to Denver to visit Kyler Storm, an American Gladiators champion who used some of his winnings to open the X-treme Fun Gladiator Arena.
"We got some ideas from him," Richards said. "He was doing some crazy-type things, where it doesn't seem like you're doing fitness because it's fun. We want a business that includes that kind of thing, where, when you get off work, you're not dreading it. It's like adult P.E. I don't know if you remember it, but that feeling you're about to go to P.E. class or out to recess. That's the feeling we want to bring back. We want to change that mind-set. We want it so people can't wait to get out of work and go play. That's the philosophy we want to bring to a bigger place."
Richards envisions a bigger place that includes games like kickball and Gladiator-style gauntlet running and powerball.
That said, Richards isn't about to put just anybody in the gladiator pit.
"We still do all the basics," he said. "We do a consultation initially, a fitness test, flexibility and strength. Then we develop a program that suits everybody. We try to start everybody so they don't get hurt, but we still try to make it as fun as we can."