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Getting personal with your trainer

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Personal trainers transgress all sorts of boundaries. They yell at us if we drop the medicine ball, berate us for the burger we had the night before and demand to know how much we really weigh.

But the real transgressions may lie not with the aggression or intimidation but the intimacy that can develop between a trainer and their client. The right trainer can become our secret sharer in our most humble, yet personal dreams; to fit back into that dress again, to reignite some spark with our spouse, to feel better about ourselves.

We surrender our control to them when we step on the scales and let ourselves be shamed when they ask us how much we really had to drink the night before -- and why. And then there's the banter -- dead moments resting between repetitions that gets filled with talk.

That too breeds a certain familiarity, a peculiar closeness. I can understand why Heather Mills McCarthy seemed to be constantly accompanied by her 22 year-old trainer Ben Amigoni, during the dark and stressful days of her divorce.

Her trainer was probably party to earlier vulnerable moments; the stubborn baby weight that was hard to shift, the tedious and draining repetitions with the dumb bells, not to mention the difficulties of exercising with one leg.

Now her trainer seems to be getting her through her divorce; no doubt talking to her about 'focus' and 'determination' in a peppy, goal orientated style favored by personal trainer and life coaches.

Creating a bond

At the gym I joined in London I noticed 'training couples' with a fresh eye - the buff male trainers sharing a joke and prolonged eye contact with a 50-something female with a baggy T-shirt and self conscious shuffle or female trainers that looked like Gisele Buchanan stretching the quads of a man with the concave chest and bandy legs.

The buzz of Eros surrounding these 'training couples' was a stark juxtaposition to the less than erotic surrounds of the gym, and acted as a sweetener to the slog, boredom and monotony of exercising.

Phillip Hodson Fellow of the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy says, "There's another factor, which is intimacy. You've shown your worst to the trainer - your tub of lard, your love handles, your thighs that rub together and then other feelings flow. There's salvation in this, there's acceptance. If your heart has recently been broken, there's the rebound effect and personal acceptance and that is like a drug. Also it's an ego thing -- we're working on me, me, me."

There are no figures available for how many many people in the UK have personal trainers but gyms say it's on the increase. Nick Hudson, Training and Development Manager at Holmes Place Health Club say less than one percent of the centers' 200,000 members used the personal training service in 2000. Now "up to 8 per cent of our members have a personal trainer and it's continuing to grow."

Join a gym and you will be offered a personal training service for a premium costing up to £500 for ten sessions. Freelance trainers who operate in parks or client's homes charge anywhere between £25 to £130 an hour.

A typical personal training client at Holmes Place is female, professional and aged "upwards of 40" says Hudson.

"In the UK only 65 per cent of people use the club more than once a week. That's why most people start with a personal trainer, for motivation," says Hudson.

More than a motivator

But dig a bit deeper and you'll find often what brings the client to a personal trainer is more complicated.

"Some people when they start seeing a trainer feel vulnerable," says Hudson.

"That's one of the biggest things -- in every instance it boils down to self esteem. There are boys who want to get bulkier and girls who want to lose more weight."

Sally Smithers, 28, of Canary Wharf, London has employed a personal trainer for a year. The impetus was a break up with her boyfriend.

"I thought my appearance had something to do with it," says Smithers. "Before he dumped me he told me I was fat."

The initial session, when she was weighed and discussed her goals, felt like a surrender. "I told him I would do whatever it takes to get fit and he said he would help me."

She admits training does get intimate: "It can be quite tactile, him helping me stretch and stuff. And its emotional as well -- the first time I was able to run around the oval was so amazing and he was there for that."

Smithers also noticed another transformation: "The more fit I became, the more confident I became, the more my feelings for him developed. But he's in a relationship and I don't have a chance."

Growing attraction

Phillip Hodson says there's a strong link between transformation and budding sexual feelings.

"What is the sex for? It's trying to alter opinions about yourself. Sex is the way we do transitions, to revalidate ourselves as viably desirable. In turn the personal trainer becomes a two-footed God. They are offering you a way to achieve something you can't do on your own -- it's going to be a better you."

But Ben Hollows, 24, a marketing manager on a fitness kick, is more cynical.

"I've noticed that my gym puts the male trainers with females and pair the females with males. It's like they are trying to encourage a sexual dynamic even though it may be subtle. I think they know it will help with training," he says.

It works for Ben.

"I want to spend time with Natalie, my trainer. She is completely hot. But it's good, it means I try harder for her and I am in the gym more. It also means I book more sessions with her than perhaps I can't afford. Its like that sexual frisson actually translates into dollars."

Nick Hudson says if a personal trainer starts a sexual relationship with a client they should no longer train that person. He also cautions trainers not to get too involved in their client's personal lives.

"One of the things we tell our trainers is you've got two ears and one mouth so be careful where you offer advice. Know your boundaries. Be friendly with your client but avoid making them your friend because it can eat into the effectiveness of training."

In many ways there's something of the zeitgeist in the proliferation of personal trainers and our relationships with them.

It's not just the moral panic over obesity and fitness levels --it's that personal trainers touch some deeper themes of our times; a touch of celebrity, the undivided personal attention, the promise of transformation and improvement and most of all, the allusion of intimacy without the responsibility.


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"There's salvation in having a personal trainer, there's acceptance," says psychotherapist Philip Hodson.

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