COLUMBIA — In a fitness center north of downtown Columbia, a group of men in workout attire stand in a circle with their heads bowed.
Trainer Willie D. Hall is leading them in prayer.
"Amen!" they all shout when he finishes.
It's after an intense workout for some, who head for the exit. One man stays after the prayer for a training session with Hall, and he heads toward the workout balls. Gospel music plays in the background.
"When they come in they know it's something different," Hall said. "It's personal."
Hall, 52, is the founder of D-Life Fitness Christian Gym, which offers personal training to people of all ages against a backdrop of faith.
As a pastor, certified nutritionist and exercise therapy specialist, Hall uses the gym to combine his lifelong love for fitness with his ministry for his clients to see results.
A mission to serve
Located in the rear corner of a shopping plaza on Vandiver Drive, D-Life has become a second home for many.
Hall holds physical fitness classes six days a week. Whether he's leading a one-on-one training session or an aerobics class for 10, he makes his classes and workshops affordable. The gym has a no-contract policy, allowing Hall to show clients he is invested in their fitness goals without causing financial hardship.
In addition to running the gym, Hall conducts weekly aerobic classes with the Boys & Girls Club of Columbia. He also invites clients of Alternative Community Training, which serves people with disabilities, to D-Life twice a week for a motivational workout.
On April 26, Hall began a series of free exercise sessions every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Douglass Park.
He also teaches Bible study at the Comfort Suites, 1010 Business Loop 70 W., at 7 every Tuesday night.
He said he wants to "awaken the city" and reach as many people as possible. In time, he hopes to franchise D-Life facilities in different parts of town.
"I look at my calendar daily, and I see how many people I'm impacting," he said. "I have a lot to offer the community as a whole."
Hall believes D-Life has the right spirit because he doesn't just train his clients physically, he prays with them.
Rena Robinson said she was battling a host of illnesses — diabetes, scoliosis and fibromyalgia — and joined D-Life to feel better and get stronger.
She said she found more than a good workout — Hall gave her scriptures to read to keep her motivated.
"When I came here, it wasn't just about exercising," Robinson, said. "It's a very inspiring, caring environment that you just don't get from other gyms. It's more like family."
A life built around fitness
Born in Hayti, Mo., a town of less than 3,000 in the Bootheel, Hall says he remembers his uncle making him and his brothers do push-ups and pick up heavy blocks. His uncle finally gave him a set of weights when Hall was just a boy.
Hall's parents were farm workers who raised their children in the church. They also instilled in them the importance of hard work, he said. At the age of 7, Hall was picking cotton 10 hours a day for 75 cents an hour.
By high school, Hall had become a student athlete with the potential to make it into the big leagues. He recalls his high school football coach, Joe Forest, as a mentor who pushed him physically.
"I was strong as ever," Hall said. "In the weight room, I was lifting whole machines. My max on the bench was 545 pounds."
Hall graduated with five football scholarship offers. Learning that he and his girlfriend were expecting a baby, he turned down his scholarships and enlisted in the military.
The two married when he was 19, only to divorce a year later. Bitter about the career he'd given up in football, Hall said his life began a downward spiral.
"A lot of us don't want to admit our past," he said. "As a young man in the Army, I did some crazy, wild things. But as I like to say, life changes."
After an honorable discharge, Hall landed in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In 1995, Hall read about a 74-year-old female body builder in a magazine, who inspired him to start bodybuilding. At 26, he began to compete.
He took third place in his first competition and described the pursuit as a "joy." Developing his body to the point where it was different intrigued him, he said.
"It's amazing you can change the anatomy of the body," Hall said. "With the proper technique, you can do anything you want to do with the body."
In addition to competitions, Hall worked as an independent trainer for 20 years and opened his own facility in Fort Lauderdale. It was the birth of D-Life.
While it was a gym rooted in Christian principles, he welcomed people of all religions, ages and races.
"I don't see color," he said. "I see people in need."
After three years in business, the facility in Florida closed last year, but this was not the end for Hall. He was sent by his church in Florida to preach at the New Life Faith Praise & Worship Center, housed in the Comfort Suites conference room. In August, he moved to Columbia and opened his second D-Life facility.
MU student Brittani Andrews 23, began training with Hall in August and started losing inches after four weeks. She is now training for fitness competitions.
Andrews said she considers Hall her spiritual father, as well as a trainer.
"His spirit just automatically connected with me," Andrews said.
"I'm starting to push myself. I'm more motivated now than ever."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.