Stacey Margaret Jones: Calling in the Fitness Pros

This Reluctant Athlete has always been her own trainer. I’ve gotten sport-changing advice from friends who were more experienced in each of the workouts I pursued—Sarah for running, Mary for Jazzercise, John for cycling and Paulette for yoga, among many other Helpful Helpertons.

But as a graduate student and an educator at the University of Central Arkansas, I know one of the most important things to keep in mind in any pursuit is that we don’t know what we don’t know. And because I’m not only sometimes reluctant, but also an amateur, I thought it might be time to see what a professional could contribute to my health and fitness.

So I found a personal trainer.

Of course, I’ve heard friends talk about how trainers have helped them significantly over the years by guiding them to faster marathon times and to triathlon success. Other friends rely on trainers to help with one of the most fundamental fitness goals of all: just making it to the gym to work out.

I wanted to find out what I don’t know that I don’t know about my overall fitness and what may be missing from my weekly routines that mix running and/or cycling with Jazzercise and yoga.

  • What do I think I’m doing well that could be done better?
  • What are things I think about fitness and training that are just plain wrong?
  • Am I being overcautious in what I allow myself to do?
  • Or, am I taking foolish risks?

Once I decided to check out personal trainers, I knew immediately who I wanted to interview and seek a session with for this column: Robin Dayer. I previously encountered Robin in a BarreAmped class at her new Conway fitness center, Burn Studio, last September. This wasn’t just because her class was amazing, but because multiple people have told me about her fitness and health expertise and how incredibly motivating, and ethical, she is. In fact, one friend describes Robin as one of those people who has truly found what she should be doing in life.

Robin donated a “sample” initial personal training session to me for this column, and we set a time to meet for 30 minutes. When I arrived, she was finishing up with a class, and we repaired to a comfy lounge area to talk about my goals, issues and habits. During the course of this discussion, I also casually interviewed her about things to watch for when looking for a personal trainer.

When I left the house to meet her, I told my husband that my main fitness goal these days is to lose weight. He said, “She’s not going to agree with that!” (Of course, he has to say that…) Robin earned my husband’s seal of approval right away with her response to my declaration that I wanted to lose 5 to 8 pounds. “Oh, I don’t see you as a weight-loss candidate,” she said. Robin doesn’t weigh people or take measurements unless her clients ask for such metrics to monitor their progress, but she did say that if my clothes aren’t fitting as I want them to or if there are other quality-of-life issues associated with weight, she could understand. (I noticed she still didn’t say she would put me on a weight-loss fitness plan, though!)

We talked for about 10 minutes about my weekly routines and fitness activities, which include a lot of running and cycling along the Arkansas River Trail and atfitness in Arkansas home in my Conway neighborhood, as well as training when I am preparing for the Little Rock Marathon on Half-Marathon or the Big Dam Bridge cycling tour. She also asked about any injuries or physical issues I have. I mentioned my somewhat tender lower back, probably due to scoliosis, and my even more tender and recently recovered knees.

I thought about my rather sedentary lifestyle before I moved to Conway in 2003, and how even if I wanted to run year-round in South Dakota, the harsh winters would have made that impossible. Here in Arkansas, I’m able to be out year-round, as long as I take heat-exhaustion precautions.

“You do a lot of cardio, so I don’t see us working with that a great deal,” she said. “People always think that they’ve got to do big cardio work-outs, but that’s not how their bodies really change. The change you notice will come from strength-training.”

Before we went to an assessment-style workout, we talked about what to look for in a trainer. I had done a little homework, and I was pleased to hear Robin echo what I had read found in my own research.

Robin’s advice on finding a personal trainer:

  • Make sure your trainer is certified, and research what his or her specific certification means. Robin is certified by the American Council on Exercise as a personal trainer and described her certification preparation and process as “that kind of thing where you don’t see your family for a year while you study and then you take a very demanding exam.” She has also earned certifications from the Cooper Institute as a Master Fitness Specialist and Advanced Personal Trainer as well as for functional movement screening, Schwinn (as a certified indoor cycling instructor), from FiT TOUR for Pilates, and from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America for group exercise instruction. There are many certifying organizations, so spend a little time finding out standards for each. Don’t assume your trainer is certified just because he or she is on staff at your local gym or fitness center. Some facilities hire people to work as trainers without any outside training, much less oversight and testing.
  • Make sure your personal trainer is focused on you and your individual needs—that is what you’re paying for, right? Trainers who are MIA during sessions, on their phones while they’re supposed to be assessing you or who dictate routines that hurt and don’t help aren’t sufficiently engaged with and attentive to you. (She also doesn’t recommend any gym’s trainer services if you aren’t assigned to one trainer, but rather get substitutes without being asked if that’s okay with you.) “I’m always watching my clients, learning about them and thinking about what they need to do next,” said Robin, and trainers can’t do that if they aren’t attending to your session.
  • Don’t work with trainers who try to give you diet advice or sell you vitamins or supplements on the side. “Anyone giving you nutrition advice needs to be a registered dietitian,” Robin said. It’s worth noting that fitness professionals are approached regularly by people selling nutritional plans and supplements, but they shouldn’t be trying to sell them to you: That’s not a certified trainer’s area of expertise. “People ask me a lot what I eat, but I try not to give too much information about that because what works for me won’t work for everyone. What I know about is training, so that’s what I concentrate on.”
  • Trust your instincts about working with someone who pushes you enough but doesn’t risk your health with overly aggressive workouts.

After our discussion, Robin took me over to the treadmill to run so she could assess my cardio stamina. I ran at a pace at which I could still talk and have a conversation with her. Then, she took me to an area where we could try out various exercises with free weights, along with other strength-training activities in sets of varying numbers of reps. All along, I could see her watching me carefully, noticing when I compromised form because I couldn’t do something correctly with the amount of weight I had or to protect my knees. She made comments like, “I can see correct form is important to you!” and “You’re looking great!” throughout this part of the session.

She was so encouraging to me, I felt like a million dollars when I left her studio that day. The next day, however, when I got up, I was so stiff, I could hardly walk to the coffee maker when I got up with the dogs at 5:30 a.m. This is meaningful to me, because I work out almost every day in some form or other, and I hadn’t felt that sore for a long time.

It was a “good sore,” though, because it wasn’t painful. This is what made me feel the most trust for Robin and has spurred me to start a personal training plan with her over the summer. I want to turn myself over to someone who will push me without hurting me, who will help me advance without risking what I have accomplished, and who will always encourage me with her belief that I really can do it—because she knows me well enough to know what I can do.

I can’t wait.

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