They stride the gym floor like Titans, prowling for the weak and flabby. They shout orders. Sometimes they make people cry.
These are the personal trainers, or PTs. The men (and sometimes women) whose job it is to whip us into shape for an hourly fee of around £30 to £65, or up to £1,000 if you happen to be a famous actor and need to achieve the superhero look for your next movie.
Once viewed as indulgent eye candy for bored housewives with too much leisure time on their hands, they have become commonplace. For many, a session with a PT is as much a part of a rounded fitness routine as a treadmill and kettlebells. During lockdown, the nation even had its own personal trainer, Joe Wicks, whose chirpy daily online sessions helped millions of us stay active and broke up the monotony of the morning.
When gyms shut, the future looked bleak for the profession, but enterprising trainers reinvented their business models and moved online, some with such success that they increased their client base internationally. When restrictions eased, sessions moved outdoors. In early June, when the government announced that personal trainers could train clients in parks, many set up boot camps in the local rec. They went from paying high rents in commercial gyms (often up to 50pc of their fees) to charging groups of six to ten people £10 per session.
Boris Johnson has enlisted the help of one too. The PM admitted he needed to lose weight when he was hospitalised after contracting coronavirus in April. This week he was seen being put through his paces by Harry Jameson, who describes himself as an “elite performance coach”. Mr Jameson has previously worked with Love Island presenter Laura Whitmore, former England footballer Wayne Bridge and boxer Oriance Lungu.
It appears Boris has made a good choice, but picking the right PT can be a minefield. There is no barrier to entry and plenty of people are in the job for the perceived status and glamour, rather than to genuinely help clients achieve their goals. Generally, good gyms require their PTs to have qualifications and public liability insurance. Personal recommendation and reputation are good indicators of ability, while size, gimmicks and theatrics are not. Throwing muddy tyres around the park while dressed in combat fatigues may look impressive, but it might not be making you any fitter.
Once you’ve picked your PT, he or she should discuss your fitness history and goals with you and then design a programme that works for you based on factors such as your age, fitness level, lifestyle and pre-existing injuries. For first time PT users it’s important to be honest about your ability and any niggling aches and pains.
Be prepared to try new things. Last year, for example, I spent every Monday morning for 12 weeks with PT and endurance athlete Paul Roberts at the Tribal Gym in Chertsey, Surrey, dressed in a wet rubber vest, attached to wires with electric current being fed into my muscles. Paul signed me up to one-to-one Electrical Muscle Stimulation sessions. During these I was set a range of exercises to perform while my muscles were fired up with varying electrical intensity. The result was short, focussed muscle workouts, without any strain on joints or tendons (perfect for older people). The sessions were by no means easy and were incredibly effective and efficient.
A good PT should also have some analytic tools to assess you and your needs. In my sessions with Paul I was put through a VO2 Max test, which analysed how my body used oxygen and calculated my optimal fat-burning heartrate. The results revealed that years of gruelling high intensity circuit training to stay thin had been largely pointless. My optimal fat-burning heartrate was between 93 and 98 beats per minute, achievable with a purposeful walk. The data allowed me to completely change my fitness regime. I dialled down the intensity of my gym sessions and concentrated on long walks and cycles, more weightlifting and just one HIIT session a week. Consequently, I got more toned and lost inches.
PTs should certainly motivate you. They should give nutrition advice, monitor your progress and help you towards goals. One thing they cannot do however, is to lose the weight for you, if weight loss is your goal.
Indeed, the one immutable fact about using a PT once a week is that it is not a silver bullet. No matter how gruelling the session, or how much your PT shouts at you, one spurt of exercise a week is not enough. Despite your weekly fee, the onus to shape up is always on you.