Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Quest For A Personal Trainer

For reasons I won't go into too much, I'm currently looking around for a new Personal Trainer. You'd think it'd be easy. You may think you'd just put "Personal Trainer London" into Google and take the first hit you found.  If only it were that easy.

Over the years, I've had a few PTs.  I've also spent a lot of hours in a gym over the years, and so have a fair idea what I'm doing.  So you may ask the question  "why do you need a PT?"  and it's a good question.  In thinking what I want from a PT - and whether I need one at all - I've actually spent a lot of time thinking - and here are some of my thoughts

What does a PT do?

A personal trainer is someone who puts together a training plan just for you.  It's personal to you.  At least it should be.  Whenever I mention to anyone that I have a PT, they are likely to have images of someone standing over me shouting at me to lift me, do more reps, jump higher, etc.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Of course, that's exactly what a bad PT will do. They will turn up with their favourite list of exercises and they'll just tell you how many of them to do.  And they'll charge you for the privilege.

But that's not what I want from a PT.  I want someone who will listen to what I like and don't like (everyone will have exercises which they enjoy and ones which they don't.  A good PT will take that into account when designing the sessions, and strike a balance between exercises which you should be doing, and those which you enjoy.  

It's also about encouragement too.  When I'm with the PT, I find myself able to do more than when I'm on my own in the gym.  For me, having someone standing there to convince me I can do really does help.

What do I want to achieve?

Someone once said to me - and it's hard to deny - that from the point of view of a PT, the ideal would be for a client to see results that they notice, but not too quickly.  That way, the client is happy to carry on paying, but the PT gets to keep them for a long time.  I'm sure some PTs do work that way, but I'm sure that some don't.  The trick is the find one who doesn't.

There are many reasons why you may want to have a PT.  For me, it's a desire to get a bit leaner, and to get stronger and fitter.  Of course, that sounds like everyone's reasons.  Except I didn't say in there that I want to lose weight.  I don't really care how much the scales say when I stand on them - for me it's about making things wobble slightly less rather than getting smaller.

The sessions you would need to do in order to get from 120kg down to 80kg are very different from those you'd need to do to get from 80kg with a bit of fat to 75kg of lean muscle.  And the latter is what I'm aiming for.  

One of the reasons I sometimes feel disappointed in a gym session is when I don't feel like I've worked hard.  Of course, the day after a really good session, you're never going to achieve as much in terms of weights and reps, but in my mind, a good gym session is one where you finish it thinking that you couldn't have worked any harder.

Where and when?

Every single gym you go to will have in-house personal trainers.  Some of them are employed by the gym, and some of them are freelancers. Generally, the freelancers pay a very large monthly fee which allows them to bring their clients into the gym without their clients having to join themselves.

Some PTs will come to your house,and some will have their own private studio - effectively a little gym with just one or two people in it.

For me, training at home never worked.  I need a PT to push me harder than I could push myself, and with limited equipment at home it's hard for a PT to do that. You can do cardio boxing (which I dislike with a passion) or you can do push ups - but without weights, bars or rings it's hard to do anything which is going to put on serious amounts of muscle.   If you're someone who needs a PT to motivate you into moving more, then this may work - but it never really worked for me.

The best situation for me was always in the private studio.  Just me and the PT and nobody else around.  It allows for concentration, open conversation (talking to your PT is very important) and no distractions.  But the limitation is, of course, that the private studio will generally not be as equipped as a proper gym.  There will certainly be more equipment than you'd have in your house, though.

Finally, there's the option of seeing a PT at a gym.  Depending on the gym you go to, there may be loads of PTs all trying to train clients at the same time.  Especially if you are going at one of the busier times of the day.  You'll also be surrounded by lots of other people.  This may not bother you, but it does bother me. 

I have settled on lunchtime as my best time of the day for doing to the gym.  When I went before work, I would always spend the entire session thinking about work, and geting my mind into work mode, wondering what email had arrived overnight, and what would happen that day.

Evenings weren't much better.  Given I have a long commute home from work, if I go to the gym after work I am distracted by the fact that I've got an hour and a half home afterwards; and if I go near home, the chance of my getting up the motivation for a decent session after an hour on the tube is pretty low.

And so lunchtimes it is.  I means a slightly longer lunch from work - but one thing about becoming a regular gym goer is that you become a shower and change ninja.  None of this "standing around in the shower" malarkey.  Just a quick shower, quick change and out.  I then eat something back at my desk...

The hard sell

So, I know what it is I want from a PT, but then I need to find a PT who can give me that.  Every PT's website is full of stories of clients losing lots of weight, fitting into their wedding dresses and running faster marathons.  Every PT's website is full of pictures of happy people on treadmills, and people smiling whilst lifting weights.  Of course, that's the public face every PT wants to portray, but it's hard to get behind that and work out whether a particular PT is going to train me in  a way I'll be happy.

A few years ago, I went to see a prospective PT and he sat me down in the office next to the gym and told me how they work.  Firstly he showed me what a kilo of fat looks like.  Then he told me that in order to control my routine, they preferred that the only place I exercised was in their studio.  And of course, the only way to get there was to book a session.

Whilst that was a blatant example of wanting to milk me for more sessions, I've had others do similar.  PTs will tell you that you need to take four days a week off from exercise in order to let your body rest.  They will tell you that running isn't going to help, and that you shouldn't be too strict with your diet.  I've had PTs try to sell me every shade of the "slow results" track which is so lucrative for them.  Needless to say, I've never signed up with a single one who did that.

A good PT will start by asking what you want to achieve.  They will ask how you feel about exercise and what you are doing currently.  They will ask about your current diet, and ask how well you are sleeping.  And if they can't help you to achieve what you want, then they will walk away.  A bad PT who's just in it for the money would never walk away from a prospective client.

The bullshit

Another thing I've found prevalent in PTs is the adoption of the latest trendy fad in exercise or diet.  In the UK, there's no mandatory registration for PTs. Anyone can throw on a pair of shorts, call themselves a PT and charge you fifty quid an hour you make you do stuff in the gym.  And an astonishing number of PTs are just people who's spent a lot of time in the gym who decide to make a living from it.  I know of one PT who's seen a few of his clients in hospital; no surprising given his only qualification was a six week course.

It's easier to bullshit diet than it is exercise.  So many PTs will have their favourite diet.  They will have theories about certain foods stimulating the production of certain hormones which affect how you build muscle.  And the answer always seems to be in the form of some supplements.  Often those supplements made and marketed by the company which produced the research in the first place.  Strange that.

Of course, it's not all rubbish.  If you want to build muscle, then you'll need a high protein diet.  And if you aren't going to be eating a lot of lean meat and beans, then it wouldn't hurt to have a few good quality protein supplements.  Nothing wrong with that bit of theory at all.

There are two fundamentals beneath the whole thing.  If you eat less and exercise more, you will be leaner.  And if you use your muscles more, then will get bigger.  In the effort to make themselves stand out from the market, it seems like quite a lot of PTs have strayed into pseudo-science in an effort to market themselves.

So how am I going to pick one?

I realise I've painted a pretty negative pictures of PTs there.  It's not all bad.  There are some good ones out there.  The problem is finding them.

So, I intend to ask a LOT of questions.  If the PT is offended or dodges are legitimate question, then they are probably hiding something.

I'll ask them what results I am likely to achieve, and if they don't mention somewhere in their answer that everyone is different, and nothing is guaranteed, then it's time to walk away.

I'll ask how long their clients tend to stay with them, and ask for some stories of times when it hasn't worked out with clients, as well as the success stories.

I'll ask what their thoughts on diet and nutrition are.  If they say something sensible, that's good; if they waffle on about supplements and fad-diets then that's bad.

And I'll see what questions they ask me.  If they don't ask about my attitude to exercise, my attitude to food and what I'm expecting to achieve then I won't sign up with them.

Wish me luck, and let's hope I manage to find one of the good ones.