‘I Feel Like I Was Born a Trainer’
Ruffle socks and high tops framed the fitness world DeShay Williams unknowingly entered in 1988, a University of Virginia student whose freshman roommate was about to lose her athletic scholarship.
‘She was down because she wasn’t playing well, gaining a bunch of weight and eating Fruit Loops out of the box. I got her to start running some sprints with me. She lost the weight, kept her scholarship, and became a bigger superstar. I think of her as my first client.’
A lifelong athlete, DeShay decided to learn about the body after being rejected from the business school—instead majoring in Sports Management as part of UVA’s Curry School of Education. When there weren’t enough graduate students to teach an aerobics class, she got her first taste of life as an official fitness instructor on the forefront of every trend.
‘Before Reebok put their name on them, we were making aerobic steps out of wooden boxes.’
After graduating and moving to DC, DeShay eventually began working at a sports club not far from Definitions—an independent personal training studio in Georgetown owned by former accountant Earl Williams.
‘Back then, it was all about bodybuilding. Earl’s a rather slender guy and he realized it would be a good service to work one-on-one with people who felt really intimidated going into most gyms. He was a very popular fitness instructor, if you can imagine Earl in tights.’
They met at an annual fitness convention in Crystal City, but Earl doesn’t remember that. Two years later, they reconnected when DeShay went to see the new bikes at Definitions—the first studio in the District to offer Spinning.
‘Earl was kind of checking me out, and he was kind of cute, so it just worked from there.’
Married in 2000, DeShay and Earl have been running Definitions together for over 20 years. Originally a ‘teeny tiny’ suite, today the gym covers the lobby level of 1050 Thomas Jefferson Street. Personal training has always been their main business, but DeShay and Earl also offer their brand of interval classes—MRT—and rent their space to independent contract personal trainers.
While Earl is known as the gentle giant, DeShay describes her style as ‘lots of gentle pushing, and practical.’
‘I always approach it from a scientific perspective, because your body only moves so many ways. Your knee only does so many things. You take the body from where it is and figure out how to fix and progress it. The music changes, the clothes change, the toys change—but your joints don’t change their basic function. My job is to adapt the science to you and keep you engaged. It’s not my job to make you hurt and make you want to throw up.’
First and foremost, DeShay is an educator, teaching clients how to move beyond calorie burning and learn how to train their own, unique body.
‘It’s not a typical gym. We don’t go after sensationalized transformations seen on TV. It’s more about quality of life. A lot of people come in and they’re like, ‘I just want to be able to chase my grandkids. I don’t want to have a heart attack.’’
DeShay’s clients span every walk of life, body type, and generation. Her oldest, a 99-year-old Georgetown man who’d been with her for two decades, passed away in November. Her youngest, a 12-year-old with severe scoliosis.
‘A few years ago I did an interview on TV about Pilates and this mother called me to try and help her daughter, whose body leaned over with about a 40-degree curve in her spine.’
The young girl needed surgery, but her doctors wanted to delay putting a titanium rod in her back until she finished growing, lost weight, and gained more strength and flexibility.
‘This little girl was absolutely miserable. She was in so much pain and her grades were horrible. Her mother would drag her in to the gym. She hated it, but she liked me. She was the sweetest girl you’ve ever seen.’
DeShay created a tailored training program for the girl, who lost 25 pounds and successfully underwent surgery. When DeShay visited her afterward in the hospital, the doctor said she’d recovered faster than any patient he’d seen because her muscles were so pliable.
‘She’s 16 now, doing great, and mom’s happy. That was the most rewarding to see a little girl go from hating life to just being a regular teen in high school. She moves with comfort and confidence. It’s not your typical fitness story, but it’s someone getting back to functioning. Fitness has gotten away from that because we want the six-pack, and it can be all about aesthetics. But training is not about being skinny. You train so you can function better in your life. Most people don’t realize their body is not moving optimally until something goes sideways.’
For DeShay, working out is as much mental as it is physical. She runs the Exorcist Stairs often, and has a foam roller on every floor of her house ‘in case the urge hits.’
‘I have a list of over 150 favorite exercises—there’s not a thing in the gym that I don’t love. It’s a little bit of therapy and a little bit of vacation for me. I like the act of moving. I’m not competing in anything, but I’m training for life. If I don’t work out, I’m not even a nice person. It’s not kind to the world.’
In DeShay’s world, there’s no compartmentalizing. When her children aren’t working out at Definitions, DeShay says Earl is either at home making a class playlist, at Costco picking up gym towels, or they’re out at dinner, evaluating a stranger’s posture.
‘Everything bleeds into everything else.’
For a family that eats, sleeps and breathes fitness, DeShay understands most people don’t love to do pull ups and sprints. It’s about meeting them where they are.
‘People always ask, ‘What’s the best exercise?’ Well, it’s the one you will do. If you hate working out and it’s not convenient, you’re not going to do it. Make it a priority that fits into your life as seamlessly and routinely as brushing your teeth.’