trainer tell-all

Why You Really Work Out

Photo: Jason Horowitz/Corbis

Until I began working as a personal trainer in Los Angeles at one of the largest nationwide fitness clubs, I thought the point of going to the gym was to get fit and lose weight. The company’s training program for new employees quickly disabused me of that notion. Since most people who sign up for a monthly or annual gym membership can’t easily afford even the lowest rate for a full-time trainer, trainers must charm, seduce, and manipulate new members into signing contracts for multiple sessions, much like a stripper hitting her lap dance quota. To this end, trainers closely follow an elaborate script. Central to that script is figuring out the Who, What, When, and Why of a potential client — but the Why is what matters most. Not the Why the client told us (usually losing weight, getting in better shape, etc.), but the real, unspoken reason they’re coming to the gym.

For example, at first many middle-aged women will say that they want to look like they did when they were 21. This seems reasonable, but why? Was her life better when she was 21? Did she receive more male attention when she was 21? Is there a younger woman in her life who makes her feel inferior? Without this information, I’m much less likely to get her to make a major financial investment in a training contract.

One of my clients, Tiffany, was the wife of a powerful executive at one of the major TV networks in Los Angeles. Tiffany was 36 years old and absolutely gorgeous. Her body was trim, tight, and sexy. Tiffany did not need personal training, yet when I first met her and talked to her about a training contract, she told me she was unhappy with her body. Anyone who looked at her could tell that Tiffany’s problems had nothing to do with her body. It didn’t take me long to find out that her real problem was her husband, Mike, who was sleeping with a woman ten years younger than Tiffany. Tiffany came into our gym that day not to lose five pounds but to show Mike that she could still be sexy like his mistress.

Antonio was a powerful gay Hollywood agent. Initially, he said he wanted to lose weight to “look trim for the young boys.” But even though Antonio was the first client who paid me extra to train him with my shirt off, his real motivation had nothing to do with sleeping with men. After one workout, he broke down after not being able to complete a set of squats and wondered aloud why he bothered staying in shape. Antonio was 40 and lived alone in a gorgeous downtown high rise. He spent ten minutes every morning meticulously making his king-size bed with no one to share it with every night. He never found a man that satisfied him emotionally, and his loneliness was eating away at him. Antonio needed a friend.

Ally was a UCLA student who came from serious money. Her mother constantly told her to get a personal trainer because she looked overweight. Through positive feedback, I tried to reinforce that she was not fat. (My intentions misinterpreted, I often found myself coyly invited to a Bruin sorority party.) Ally showed up to work out with me three days a week not to lose weight but to gain her mother’s approval.

Matt was just out of the Los Angeles police academy and had been placed with his new partner in North Hollywood. He once told me about a bust he had made the previous night involving two transvestites and a 17-year-old boy in West Hollywood. His partner joked that Matt was lucky he was armed because the 17-year-old could have “kicked his ass.” Matt was smaller than the other police officers, and during the morning workouts at the academy the other officers had made fun of his size. Yes, Matt wanted to put on some muscle, but what he really wanted was more self-confidence around his new peers.

Closing a contract with a potential client means finding out a client’s deepest insecurity, then continuously reminding them of it while supporting them through their struggle. That said, therapy is just one part of the job: There is a more superficial way of keeping clients intrigued.

The stretch is designed as a reward — it’s the finish line that most clients wait for. We were trained to make the stretch as personal and intimate as possible. Take a hamstring stretch, for example. I could easily stretch your hamstring by having you lie on your back while I push your leg at a right angle to your body. Instead, I was taught to have you lie on the stretch bed on your back, then face you while I lean my body over you as I stretch your leg, with my knee resting on the stretch bed next to your hip. This puts me in a dominant position — essentially a mounting position. The other stretch position is to have you sit in front of me, your back against my chest and torso, and stretch your arms back toward me. This puts my head right behind yours, and when I talk I’m essentially whispering in your ear.

Hence a common saying among trainers: Some women are just “paying for the stretch.” As one of my clients — Britanny, a very pretty voice-over actress with a forward sense of humor — affirmed before each session: “I’m horny! How much longer till you stretch me?!”

Why You Really Work Out