Personal trainer Dan Donahue monitors the workout of client Juan Francisco on a pulldown bar.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
The distance between where you live or work and a fitness center will color the choice of where you train but should not be the sole consideration.
A two-time gold medalist in international bodybuilding with two decades of personal training experience (including at Baja’s famed Rancho La Puerta spa), Dan Donahue suggests people look for the following in a gym: good customer service, cleanliness, a variety of equipment and the maintenance thereof, group exercise classes, and qualified personal trainers.
That last element may be the least straightforward, so let’s start with what a personal trainer does — and it’s a lot more than count our presses and lifts, urging us to do “one more.”
“I help people achieve their personal fitness goals,” Donahue says. “Some people need to be motivated each session. Others just want a basic program for what they can do on their own. Most clients fall somewhere in between. A well-conditioned person may need a coach to take them to the next level. I have worked with people who want sport-specific training. Older clients may need weight resistance to combat osteoporosis or balance training to prevent falls. Some people need workouts to get them into surgery strong and then to recover from a procedure; physical therapists are very happy when a trainer is involved in the rehab, because we can work as a team.”
“I suggest hiring a trainer for at least a few sessions to develop a program suited for your needs.”
— Dan Donahue
If you belong to a gym, you can observe the way trainers work with their clients. But before hiring one, ensure they have personal training certification from an organization accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (you can search for accredited programs at credentialingexcellence.org/accreditation). Certified trainers have studied anatomy and physiology and must take continuing education courses.
Donahue suggests asking a trainer how many years of experience they have, where they have worked, and what their personal philosophy is for working with clients. Most good trainers offer a preliminary consultation during which they gather information, such as what your fitness goals are and whether you have any physical limitations that need to be considered.
“You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to fitness,” Donahue says. “I suggest hiring a trainer for at least a few sessions to develop a program suited for your needs.”
Function Follows Form
Many weight machines focus on a set of muscles; some include graphics that show its target-muscle locations and diagrams on how to use the machine. But that information is necessarily limited to what can fit on a flat portion of the equipment and misses nuances of form, hand/foot placement, and cadence.
Barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells can be used in a range of exercises, but you are on your own to figure out how to work the muscles, which muscles to work, and the difference between a wide and narrow grip on barbells, among other things. Without direction, you may be ignoring certain muscles.
“If you do an exercise wrong, you can do more damage than good,” Donahue cautions. “I see people training with weights too heavy for their conditioning; that’s a recipe for injury. And you want slow and controlled movement versus using momentum. Proper form, cadence, and rest between sets of an exercise are important. Some people hire a trainer to correct their form and spot these things.”