Van has a gym membership and a new personal trainer who is “super nice and supportive”. Yet, not seeing results in one of those many mirrors on her gym’s wall is irritating, she admits. “This happens to many gym novices,” says Minh Truong, a freelance personal trainer. “People want immediate gratification.”
Truong, who has a degree in fitness science from Belgium, tells his clients to be patient and to remember that they are still doing their body a tremendous favor by exercising, even if aesthetically they are not there just yet.
Linh Ta, director of PT education at California Fitness & Yoga, guesses that there could be a personality mismatch between Van and her trainer. “Like dating, you want there to be good chemistry”, she explains. Truong recommends asking around and, if possible, observe how a personal trainer interacts with clients. At California Fitness, members are encouraged to bring friends along – a good way for fitness-curious to scope some of the trainers in action.
Linh and Truong could be onto something. When asked to describe her typical workout session, Van admits that she would prefer her instructor to be less of a cheerleader and more of a drill sergeant.
Why do it?
Personal trainers aren’t cheap. So why spend, the thinking goes, if you can master planking for free on YouTube or get fit with wearable tech? Lucy Bui, master instructor with California Fitness & Yoga who came to the wellness industry by way of professional sports, says that in her experience, the majority of fitness newbies need an accountability partner.
Essentially, what you are paying for is for someone to keep track of your progress once goals have been set and agreed on. You could argue that Apple Watch with its clever activity rings and Peloton’s smart bikes are just as good. They are useful inventions indeed, but nothing beats an expert’s eye.
It takes Lucy one look at the way you walk and stand to gauge your fitness level, your breakfast habits and areas that need attention. (A permanent solution for bad posture is strengthening your upper back, not straightening up before taking a selfie.)
In Truong’s experience, most people decide to splurge on an expert when they want fast results. Here, managing unrealistic expectations is key. “It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that a person who’s never set foot into a gym before but expects to look like an Olympian by year's end is going to be disappointed”, he says. To prevent this from happening, Truong insists on an introductory session with each client before they get anywhere near a dumbbell: “I want my clients equipped with scientific facts, not broscience.”
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More bicep for your buck
When deciding between a freelancer and a gym-affiliated PT, a cost-benefits analysis is a good place to start. With gyms, not only are you paying for the individual training sessions, but also shelling out on a pricey membership. In return, you get access to cutting-edge equipment, bottomless soap dispensers and a network of like-minded individuals who genuinely want to know how many push-ups you can manage.
A freelancer is more affordable and will come to you. All you need is a modest-sized exercise room and some basic bodybuilding equipment: a communal gym in your building or even your living room will do. Perfect for introverts, less ideal for those who need an audience to pump iron.
Alternatively, if you already have a gym membership, ask if they allow members to work out with an independent PT.
“Bananas are so passé!” scoffs Truong when asked about the post-workout staple. He prefers avocados; they are more versatile. “In the West,” says Truong, “working with a nutritionist is quite common, especially in competitive sports. But in Vietnam, it is not considered a must-have.” That being said, he continues, if you have the means, investing in a certified nutritionist can give you a killer body faster, because cutting out carbs to lose weight unfortunately also means that you are starving your muscles. So a balanced diet is a must.
For Linh, guiding clients’ dietary choices is an integral part of a personal trainer’s job. Having been with California Fitness for over 13 years and with an elite government gym before that, she's seen dozens of fitness and workout fads come and go.
Some are just a waste of time, others are plain dangerous. “Every now and then you get a customer who would insist on pushing himself or herself to a breaking point. Workout after workout.” A sure-fire way to get a serious injury, she warns. You want to feel pleasantly tired, not slightly broken.
If you can’t put your arms up in the morning, that’s “not a job well done, that’s over-lifting.”
Another analogy with romantic relationships all three experts mention is the importance of open communication. “If my client is unhappy, of course I don’t want to be the last one to know!” says Truong. After all, your PT wants what you want: to see your fitness level improve. “But even before that toned, well-sculpted body emerges,“ smiles Truong, “you can tell if the training is working if there’s a spring in the step and a sparkle in the eye that were not there before.” If you exercise regularly, results will come. In the meantime, stop fretting and enjoy the process.
Van is yet to admit to her instructor that she has lost motivation somewhere along the way. But her PT can probably tell that her excuse of being snowed under with work is just that, an excuse. The recommended three sessions per week have turned into a pro forma one, despite regular reminders from both her bank statement and the mirror. That’s a rather expensive (not to mention totally unnecessary) silence to be suffering in.