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When training gets too personal

One-on-one workouts can lead to romance, but that can put trainer and client on the spot.

October 14, 2002|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

The client-trainer relationship is a unique one and should not be entered into lightly. Client pays trainer to get him or her into shape, but sessions are rarely perfunctory. To put it bluntly, there's all that touching and sweating and grunting and scantily cladness and rippling of muscles going on, not to mention the chitchat between reps about everything from last night's football game to sticky divorce proceedings.

Having a bad body image day? Trainers can make you feel like an Olympic athlete. It's that closeness that often leads to friendships, and friendships that sometimes progress to dating. And therein lies the rub: How far should the client-trainer relationship go?

"There is a lot of gray area," says Tom Heavy, national personal training director for Crunch Fitness. "We can only control what happens within the four walls of the club, and we tell our trainers that they need to keep it on a professional level, don't let it develop beyond that.... We can't tell a trainer you can't go out with someone, but we highly recommend they don't."

"There have been circumstances where I've been invited to parties or wine tastings or family get-togethers," says Eric LeClair, a trainer with Foothill Gym in Monrovia. "If it's an event with a lot of people that's out in public, no problem."

Some clients, though, make it clear they'd prefer a one-on-one situation. "Usually people ask what my rates are," says LeClair, "then ask if I'll come to the house, or they'll want to meet for lunch. But in this industry image is almost everything and I don't want to jeopardize my career."

Anyone who has spent time in a gym knows there are those trainers who seem to revel in a reputation that borders on skanky -- the ones who touch clients that way and are all too happy to offer private sessions. And when clients are the aggressors, trainers must fend off advances without sparking animosity and retaliation.

Since trainers aren't licensed -- the way doctors, therapists and lawyers are -- they're not legally bound to the same ethical standards that prevent intimate contact and dating. Realizing that an unsullied character is worth its weight in barbells, some personal trainer certification programs, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, have recently started discussing how to handle client-trainer relationships. Gyms also are teaching their trainers how to keep everything on the up and up.

Spokespersons for a half-dozen gyms in the L.A. area were asked if trainers have ever been fired or memberships revoked because of inappropriate conduct; some reported no problems and others declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.

Alyma Dorsey, manager of personal training at Crunch in Los Angeles, sees the potential for problems with some trainers, including one new woman who is "absolutely gorgeous." No client has asked for a date yet, but "I see how they look at her and they're going to want to train with her because of how she looks, not because she's a good trainer. Her training is a little girly and not aggressive, so I tell her how to walk through the gym with an air of confidence, like she owns the gym, and that's going to make those guys think twice about hitting on her."

Not that all client-trainer relationships are bad news. For every horror story or unhappy ending there's a good one, some resulting in a walk down the aisle or a lasting friendship. "We had a good rapport right away," says Sydney Gilner, a script supervisor from Highland Park, of her former trainer. "He's such a nice man. And he looks great, too, thin and muscular but not, like, scary. But he had a girlfriend, and getting involved is bad karma. We were friends, and we're still friends."

"If you come in with the idea that this is going to be a strictly professional relationship where you just talk about how many sets you're doing, typically those are very short-lived," says Dino Nowak, general manager of Equinox gym in Pasadena. "It's more rewarding if you become friends. The ultimate goal of a trainer is to get results, and a good relationship increases compliancy -- they're looking forward to working out. It's not like going to the dentist. There is a line you can cross, getting too personal too soon, but retention is much higher when a trainer can be himself, be friendly, be someone the client can trust."

It ultimately comes down to individual comfort zones, whether that's going to a movie or going further. Some who have crossed the line say they learned a valuable lesson in the process.

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