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It's Not Just a Job, It's a Workout

May 16, 1999|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The phone rings for the third time tonight. You have tried to avoid his calls and pages, but they are relentless. Lifting the receiver out from under a half-finished bag of Doritos, the feeling of guilt washes over you with the sound of his "Hello." Then come the questions: "How long has it been since I've seen you?" he asks. "When can we get together again?"

Although this may sound like a phone call from a jilted lover, it's your personal trainer urging you to return to the gym. In Southern California, the best bodies know a good personal trainer is more than just a repetition counter: He or she is a nag, a guru, a therapist, a baby-sitter and a friend.

It's hard for clients to understand why trainers would want to be all things to all people, but it's not an easy living, explains Kipp Kahlia, a trainer at the L.A. Women's Gym in Atwater Village.

"My clients can't help it when their lives change, and they can't train as often," Kahlia says. "But meanwhile, my income is going up and down, and my bills aren't changing."

Not that getting clients to the gym is the only motivation trainers have for being friendly. Kahlia considers television writer and client Elaine Aronson a good girlfriend.

"I called Elaine recently, and she had this cautious joy in her voice when she realized I was calling socially," Kahlia says, laughing.

"Kipp has a very magnetic personality. After about two to three weeks of training, she knew everyone in my life. Now I spend more time talking to her than to anyone I work with," Aronson says.

Being friends with clients does have its drawbacks, according to Sharon Moss, a trainer at Gold's Gym Hollywood.

"Every client is different. Some try to take advantage of it," Kahlia says. "They'll say, 'Why are you charging me when we are such good friends?' "

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For Kahlia and Aronson, outings outside the gym are separate.

"We don't talk about training when we are at a movie. We talk about kids and husbands," Kahlia says. "I also don't critique what Elaine is eating. It's her responsibility once I give her the information. I don't want to police anyone."

But policing is part of the approach of Critical Mass, a celeb-heavy training studio in West Los Angeles that is as intimate as a small living room.

"Most trainers rely on diet and exercise. We go the other route, getting into people's lives," says David Kelmenson, who co-owns the gym with Steven Kates. This can involve everything from zooming up to Mr. Chow's in a flashy Porsche to check up on what a client has ordered for dinner, to being on hand to do damage control for a client who downed a pint of Haagen Dazs after a lover's quarrel.

"I don't get my jollies from listening to other people's problems," Kates says. "But if we are going to climb a mountain together, it's better for the team to know each other. And getting lean is much harder than climbing a mountain."

The benefits of getting close to clients include $100- to $200-an-hour fees and satisfied customers like actress Rebekah Hoyle. "I love being able to go into the gym and vent. One time, I had a breakup with my boyfriend and I was all over the place. David and Steven brought me down to reality."

Another Critical Mass client swears that if faced with the choice between training and psychotherapy, she would choose to train. "I see results faster, and I can talk about my problems too."

But dealing with so many people's problems takes an emotional toll on personal trainers.

"We understand that clients have to let things out and that's part of what we get paid for, but it's unfair when we get slashed," Kates says.

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"It's hard because you always have to be in a good mood and awake no matter what time it is," Moss says. And sometimes when she shares her problems with clients, "I hear later that they are angry because they don't want the focus to be on me."

In other cases, one person may try to make things romantic.

"A lot of times clients misread when you give them attention in the gym. They want to take it outside the gym too," says Will Russell of Body Builders Gym in Silver Lake.

Moss has been the object of romantic overtures in the gym, some even bordering on sexual harassment.

"I had one guy say to me, 'I've known you seven years now--when are you going to give me some?' "

It can also be difficult for trainers to stay in dating relationships. Moss blames her profession for the breakup of an eight-year relationship.

"Most of my clients are men, and my boyfriend was jealous because I talked about them all the time," she says.

David Gosselin, a Moss client, has experienced similar frustrations with his girlfriend.

"She asks why I don't have a male trainer," he says. "I told her that for me, Sharon is a workout partner, someone to motivate me, and that's all."

Ironically, the pressure to stay in shape is one of the most stressful things for Moss about working as a personal trainer.

"After training clients for up to 13 hours a day, the last thing I want to do is work out," she says. "I've even hired a trainer for myself on occasion!"

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Love your trainer? You can enter him or her in the MET-Rx World's Best Personal Trainer Contest. The categories are (1) bodybuilders and advanced exercisers; (2) endurance and sports-performance athletes; (3) regular exercisers and weekend warriors; and (4) deconditioned/rehabilitated exercisers. Sixteen winners will receive cash, home gyms and other prizes. Call (800) 79-METRX by June 30 for a contest packet.

* Booth Moore can be reached by e-mail at booth.moore@latimes.com.

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