No, You Can’t Pimp Me Out: Finding Strength Through Sensitivity in the Gym
It was the mid-1990s when I first started working in a gym. I stood proudly behind the front desk of Gold’s Gym, Hollywood, neck-deep in gym culture and rubbing shoulders with all kinds of trainers, salespeople and personalities. But I was naïve, assuming all trainers were good role models in regards to being healthy and having their clients’ best interests at heart. Cycling meant simply to ride a bike and diuretics were something I used to binge on in hopes of looking thinner. Here, these words were being floated around in regards to steroids and body building. It was a time when supplement use was rampant — even my sweet, fresh-faced colleague had used GHB as a muscle-building enhancement — or at least, that’s what I was told after he wound up in a coma.
When Max, the young ex-Russian soldier offered to train me, I was thrilled. He was in amazing shape and the exercises he taught me were new and effective — but as a trainer, I found his militant style…a bit too militant. Despite a lack of nutritional expertise or insight into my eating habits, he told me I couldn’t eat cake at my friend’s birthday party. I knew right then that we would never last.
While I continued to enjoy working at Gold’s, it was more for my colleagues and the people-watching. There was the woman who spent most of her time on the dip machine, shaking her full head of bleached hair while pouting her enormous, neon-pink lips. There were the celebrities like Mickey Rourke who once asked (very politely) if I had any cigarettes, the lovely Tony Pearson and former Mr. Universe (among his many accolades) who has one of the most fascinating and inspiring life stories I’ve ever heard…and I enjoyed working there — but I never got the sense that we were selling a sustainable, realistic idea of fitness.
It was my trainer-friend Brano who suggested I should become a trainer. I had trained with him plenty of times and liked how he challenged me. He could always tell when my performance was lacking (“You were drinking last night weren’t you?”) and seemed to care (“Are you on your period? You look bloated.”) Unfortunately tact was not one of his strong suits — but because we’d already built a rapport, I appreciated his honesty. It was he who introduced me to Body Makeover Systems founded and led by the late, Michael Thurmond (who later became known for his work on the controversial TV series Extreme Makeover). I took his training course in order to work for him (before actually getting certified as a fitness trainer) and I have to admit, I learned a lot. It became obvious right away that he knew what he was doing both as a businessman and as a trainer — so when he turned to me during a class discussion, I remember his comment vividly.
I have no recollection of what I’d said to make him think that but he said it teasingly, with a smirk.
“My boyfriend says I’m a rock.” I blushed furiously while feigning nonchalance. Such a lie. Michael had called it, pure and simple — and somehow I felt ashamed of it. Why did I feel like being sensitive didn’t have a place in the gym?
Michael was in charge of all client assessments and for the sake of privacy, had us take turns sitting in and observing his technique. Each assessment involved the client stripping down to his/her underwear and standing in front of him while he listed off the body parts that needed work in rapid succession — along with the prescribed exercises — into his voice recorder. He would then give that recording to the assigned trainer. Before he would start assigning us clients however, we were told that we too would be assessed by him — and so I understand firsthand how it felt to be assessed in this way. ‘Cattle calls’ I called them, because the way he rattled off his assessments sounded much like someone auctioning off cattle — and that’s exactly how it felt. I would like to say it was quick and painless but I couldn’t help but feeling a little scathed afterwards.
What was missing was any aspect of sensitivity…relatability…instilling a sense of confidence and encouragement rather than vulnerability and self-doubt. I discovered that while some of my clients preferred a drill-sergeant approach, others needed more gentle encouragement — and still others, a mixture of both. Sensitivity did have a place in the training world — or at least, I would incorporate it into mine.
I started looking for another place to work. The first place I approached was Bodies in Motion (where I was already a member) recently under new management. I felt like this could be a good fit; no pushy salespeople, the space was big without being aesthetically overwhelming…I felt comfortable there. My good friend Tracy and I were there to work out so I was dressed conservatively (and appropriately I might add) in workout attire when I asked the manager if she was hiring. She looked me up and down and said, “Yes, but you’re going to have to dress up a bit…wear make-up…I’m going to want to pimp you out”. Those were her exact words — because I asked Tracy after if she’d heard the same thing and she nodded in stunned agreement. I think it’s worth mentioning that this woman was rather heavy-handed with her own make up and seemed out of place. She didn’t even bother to ask me about my qualifications first. I decided I didn’t want to work there after all because what the hell’s wrong with making clients feel comfortable and like they can take me seriously — as their trainer?!
By 2006 I had moved back to Canada, hopeful that getting certified there would somehow make a difference in attitudes towards clients and trainers. I discovered that, much like in Los Angeles, my wallet and I preferred working out at the YMCA rather than a boutique or big meat-market environment. I shared a mutual respect with those who were serious and focused on their workouts — and for the most part, no one bothered us. By the time I got re-certified however, I had moved and needed to find somewhere closer.
I landed at Extreme Fitness — only right off the bat I didn’t want to work for the manager there because he was completely inappropriate during my job interview. Yes, he was complimentary and offered to hire me on the spot — but in an unprofessional, slimy way. Instead, I took a job there as administrator for their health and wellness clinic (under a different manager) after learning I was pregnant — but was still privy to all the goings-on with the training/sales management team. They would laugh uproariously at new and potential clients behind their backs — with the focus entirely on sales rather than their well-being and wishes. While they confided their ’hilarious’ anecdotes to me about “clueless” and “hopeless” clients, I was appalled by their lack of empathy and respect. It wasn’t until I had already left on maternity leave — with a lingering bad taste in my mouth — when I learned that those managers had been fired and the gym was changing ownership.
Flash forward some ten years and here I am, back in the game — except once again, I refuse to play by anyone else’s rules (aside from Canfitpro’s code of ethics and principles of course). I have already found some interesting developments in the gym culture — namely, F45 with their team-spirit-fueled circuit training, deliberate lack of mirrors and plenitude of high-fives. Orange Theory seems to have a similarly encouraging, group-training energy. But these places aren’t for everybody — nor is this type of training. There are many who don’t like to train around other people or feel overwhelmed in a gym. For these people, online or home training is a viable option (as I write this, virtual training has become the new norm) but beware of those cookie-cutter workouts and meal plans that assume everyone has the same metabolism and abilities. If you have any kind of imbalance, weak joints or certain medical conditions, it won’t matter how hard you work out, you will likely cause further damage or injury by not addressing these issues in your workout. Finding the right trainer is essential; someone who’s sensitive to your sensibilities while still pushing you to be your best.
As Theodore Roosevelt so famously quoted, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Mindset is a huge part of being healthy and until we start acknowledging that and respecting each other’s individual journey, fewer people will be encouraged to make positive changes. We’re all unique and training smart is more effective than training hard. This is the ultimate challenge as a trainer and what motivates me. Your job is find a person and/or venue that motivates you.