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Trainer’s lifelong love for exercise translates into business success

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. She has contributed regularly since 2009 to the Bay State Banner, and since 2016 to VIEW BIO
Trainer’s lifelong love for exercise translates into business success
Joe Sumrell of Inside Out Fitness Concepts (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Inside Out Fitness Concepts founder Joe Sumrell traces his interest in physical fitness way back, probably to age 6 when his mother started him in judo classes. Throughout his school years, he played just about every sport available. Later on, he took up competitive bodybuilding and earned the shelves full of trophies that line IOFC’s walls and storefront on Dudley Street in Roxbury. And at 58, Sumrell still competes in track and field, where he is ranked nationally and internationally in multiple events.

At a glance

What: Inside Out Fitness Concepts

Where: 513 Dudley Street, Boston

Phone: 617-983-5700

For more information, visit: https://iofcboston.com

A penchant for business emerged in childhood as well. “I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” he says. Youthful enterprises included having his own paper route and using found materials such as discarded plastic-coated wire to craft bracelets and necklaces, which he sold to schoolmates.

Before opening IOFC in 1995, Sumrell spent time as a trainer in other gyms, but soon realized these settings kept him from tailoring each client’s experience fully.

“I wanted to be a professional,” he says, “and to be a professional you have to have control of your environment, even with something as simple as the music you play. Every trainee is different.”

Naming his business “Inside Out” reflected his desire to avoid society’s preoccupation with external appearance, he explains.

“In other gyms I was in, it felt plastic. In our culture nowadays, everything is based on how you look and how you’re perceived,” he says, perched on a stability ball in his Roxbury gym “Here, we try to kick through that barrier and help people focus more internally on who they are in terms of character and integrity.”

A long-term process

IOFC’s first location was in a small “hollow shell” on Thayer Street on the industrial fringes of the South End. The first two pieces of equipment were donated by a friend. The current Dudley Street space that IOFC has occupied since 2001 has a more traditional amount of “furniture,” as he calls it — but sometimes he feels it’s barely necessary.

“To me, you’re the machine,” he says. “This stuff around us is cool, but you’re the machine. The way these machines work are based off of human mechanics anyway.”

He now has three employees, including his son Jordan, 27, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a degree in kinesioloogy from UMass Amherst. IOFC is not an open drop-in fitness center. The model is that everyone comes in by appointment and works with a trainer. Business has been steady, and seems to be maintained through a social media presence, word of mouth and the fact that once people start a program there, they stick around for an average of three years.

“People come here and they don’t leave,” Sumrell says. “This isn’t a quick fix – it’s a lifestyle. It’s a different road, and it takes time. This is a teaching environment.”

IOFC has maintained a roster of about 60 trainees for much of the past 20 years, he says. They include high school and college athletes, professional athletes, and others from all sorts of walks of life: police officers, firefighters, school teachers, MBTA workers.

The 1600-square foot gym space appears small by some standards, but Sumrell feels it’s what he needs.

“Most people are used to gyms being ‘big boxes,’ and people tend to measure success by square footage,” he says, “but growth is measured by how the people are growing. And in terms of our boundares, we don’t have any. We have outdoor space out back, and access to threee football fields.” They also do offsite work with Simmons College, and in afterschool programs for Boston Public Schools.

He treasures his teaching role, but clearly, it’s a tough love approach at times. He and his team expect IOFC trainees to put their full attention into the instruction, and are not happy when they fail to do so.

“We intentionally repeat exercises in cycles, in phases,” Sumrell says. “If you come in and look at us like you never did this before, and you’ve done it 10 times already, you’re going to get called into the principal’s office because you’re not retaining information. This is not adult daycare. You come in here, you’re expected to learn.”

It’s all about love

Sumrell grew up “all over” as the child of a military family and studied chemistry and music at the College of Marin in northern California before coming to Boston at age 20. He worked for years a chemist at a DuPont pharmaceutical facility in Boston. While employed, he completed coursework to become an ACSM-certified trainer. He saved money, bought company stock, and took advantage of an early retirement buyout when he was just 35, which helped him finance his startup.

He credits his military stepfather with instilling strict attention to detail. Gesturing toward two young men on the training floor starting their day’s session with Jordan, he explains, “Even a simple movement like they’re doing right now … We watch everything. While they’re swinging their arms, we’re looking at their middle trunk area to see what’s happening, or not happening, with their bodies.”

When he’s not at IOFC, chances are Joe Sumrell is out playing music. A bass guitarist, he plays jazz, R & B, funk, reggae, and more with a number of bands around town, sometimes performing three or four gigs a week. He recently recorded a CD, “Selah Moments,” with the band Day Seven.

If owning a business has its headaches, Sumrell doesn’t show it. His is a business of relationships, and he sees each relationship as a “circle of love” with a give-and-receive process, he says, that injects life into both his trainees and himself.

“The thing that overrides all of this — and it sounds corny — is love. I love people, and I love to see people progress. Is it trying at times? Yes. But I’m in that place — a bubble of peace. I’m going to enjoy this life while I have it, and enjoy the people around me. And hopefully that rubs off on others.”