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Get Ripped at the Gym, Not Ripped Off

By Nicole Bode | January 28, 2011 3:28pm

By Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Senior Editor

I wasn't prepared for the hard sell the first time I got hustled by a personal trainer at the gym.

I was halfway through a workout, with my earplugs in and my mind zoned out on the treadmill's built-in TV, when a muscled man in a skintight T-shirt hopped onto the machine beside me.

He said something I couldn't hear. I thought he was trying to tell me I dropped my wallet or that my shoe was untied.


Once the earplugs were removed, he opened fire with a series of questions better suited to a car salesman.

"How long have you been coming to the gym?" he demanded. "Are you happy with your current workout, or would you like to get more out of it?"

Suddenly, I was in the hard sell, which rivaled the most vicious stylist at a cosmetic counter. It didn't let up for weeks. I even considered switching gyms just to avoid him.

Personal trainers can help you build muscle, or just build a headache, with their constant assault at some gyms.
Personal trainers can help you build muscle, or just build a headache, with their constant assault at some gyms.
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Flickr/Vu Bui

Although I felt ridiculous about it, I knew wasn't alone. Friends shared their traumatic experience of being stalked by gym trainers over e-mail and cell phones, or of being mocked for their physique in a sick attempt to get them motivated.

I wondered who slipped these trainers the guidebook on how to become a total pain in the rear — and not the kind that comes from lunges.

According to one insider, it's the gyms' fault. Many of the big chain gyms hire their trainers on a commission basis, forcing them to hustle for a living, according to personal trainer and nutritionist Jessica Watkins, who opted out of the hard-sell experience to work in favor of smaller, independently-operated gyms.

"They push the trainers to sell themselves, and that's the only way they make money," said Watkins, 27, who works at the 14th Street Y in the East Village and Ludlow Fitness on the Lower East Side, "That's how they pitch it, they're like 'oh, you can make so much money.'"

Watkins said her colleagues in the field who worked on commission earned minimum wage at the beginning, and had to work their way up the ladder by hustling new members at the gym's sign-up table or by cleaning the weights.

Some gyms even make their trainers try to sell the house brand of nutritional supplements to their clients to earn a higher salary.

Watkins said the temptation of a free session that comes with a new membership can be hard for people to turn down, creating a perfect storm of clients with no intention of continuing with private sessions and trainers desperate for a sale.

But she said there are a couple of warning signs for would-be clients to watch out for before they consider signing up for training.

No. 1: How pushy are they?

"If they're pushy in one area, they might be pushy in all areas. You always want somebody who is going to listen to what your goals are," Watkins said.

She suggested making sure the trainer is giving you a workout that targets the parts of your body you want to focus on.

No. 2: There's a fine line between motivation and dependency.

It's good to help clients break through their own fears or weaknesses, but it's a slippery slope for some trainers whose goal is getting clients hooked.

"I push my clients, but I don't push them so they become needy," she said. "It's really just showing them what they can handle for themselves. It's a breakthrough for them."

She added that the real thing that keeps clients coming back is results.

"To hear, 'I fit into my wedding dress' and 'I got compliments on my arms' — That’s the thing that brings people back to you," she said.