Bucking the trainer-as-friend trend

Posted Aug. 08, 2011, at 4:01 p.m.

A while ago, making a big splash in the fitness industry, one of the bigger gym chains decided to ban personal training.The CEO said trainers were basically “rent-a-friends” for clients.

I’m a personal trainer and I admit it: Sometimes I have to nudge a few of my clients to chat less and exercise more during our sessions. Some talking is important because it helps the trainer judge how hard the client is working, plus we get to understand the stress-causing factors in a client’s life that might be affecting their bodies. But trainers are there to help clients safely challenge their physical limits, not to be a therapist or confidant.

Is one-on-one training really necessary? It depends. A few months ago, I was frustrated with the results some of my training clients were getting. They were spending between 60 and 90 minutes with me a week, and most of them didn’t like working out on their own or taking classes outside the training sessions. That meant that out of the 10,080 minutes in a week, they were exercising less than 1 percent of the time. That’s not enough. I’d been studying the latest trend in fitness: small-group training with two to eight people working out together with a trainer. That’s a hybrid of one-on-one personal training and group exercise classes. I decided to give it a whirl, mandating three 50-minute sessions a week.

After I managed to convince a few clients to give it a try — a hard sell since they didn’t want to give up their one-on-one time — the results were way beyond my expectations. Clients who had plateaued suddenly started losing inches and pants sizes and getting markedly stronger, even if they didn’t follow a strict diet.

Why? Well, first, they were spending more time in the gym, and I designed the workouts to shock their metabolisms. But I think, more importantly, the camaraderie of the group actually made them work harder than they normally would during a one-on-one session. There was less talking and more doing, and the doing was amped up as a result of healthy peer pressure.

Small group training, done properly, is a lot of extra work for the trainer. Workouts have to be designed in a way that fit the needs of the group, with exercises than can be adapted for each client. Plus, the trainer has to have a careful eye on everyone to be sure they are working safely and effectively. This includes keeping in mind individual fitness levels and muscle imbalances while at the same time making sure no one feels like they are being singled out or left behind. I’m usually pretty wiped out after a group training session, much more so than after training clients one-on-one or even leading a group class. But seeing the results of the small group training experiment has sold me.

Small group training isn’t for everyone, though. For those who aren’t comfortable in groups, have physical limitations, are recovering from illness or injury, have a significant amount of weight to lose or have unique goals, one-on-one training might still be the best choice — as long as the client and trainer don’t spend the session catching up on what happened last night on American Idol.

Wendy Watkins is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at the Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club in Brewer.

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