- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

District resident Richard Strauss plays in three or four softball leagues at a time if his balky back permits. That’s a significant “if,” considering that back pain once forced him to convalesce on his couch for several days.

Not this spring.

The 36-year-old is back on a three-league schedule, thanks to workouts with personal trainer Karim Al-Jabbar, a former Miami Dolphins running back who works at Sports Club/LA in Northwest.

Personal trainers, once considered a luxury, are being used more often to help people recover from injuries, provide motivation and clear away the confusion from too many exercise infomercials.

Mr. Strauss, who began working with Mr. Al-Jabbar nine months ago, says working with a trainer keeps his motivation high while preventing future injuries.

“He built up my core before expanding to the key muscle groups,” Mr. Strauss says. “My back is definitely stronger. … I have to still be mindful of my limitations, but I have enough core training and conditioning so that I won’t get hurt.”

Leah Flickinger, senior editor with Women’s Health magazine, says people seek out personal trainers for a variety of reasons.

“They’re looking for someone to help with weight loss, get stronger and be a motivator,” Ms. Flickinger says. “If you’re struggling to get to that last rep, [personal trainers] can say, ‘You can do it.’”

Also, as any marathon runner can attest, cheers — even from a stranger — can mean the difference between finishing the race and fading fast.

Personal trainers are not regulated by any one governing body, but several respected organizations offer credentialing services that should give customers a measure of comfort.

Trainers may have degrees in exercise physiology or physical education, but clients should look for certification from any of these three groups: the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Council on Exercise.

Ms. Flickinger suggests listening intently during one’s first interactions with a potential trainer to find out if the trainer is right for you.

“Be very wary of a trainer who wants to talk to you about stuff outside their knowledge base, like nutrition,” she says. “A lot of gyms will be selling their supplements. Take that with a grain of salt.”

Cynthia Sass, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a personal trainer, says that as a rule, people should avoid accepting complex nutrition advice from a personal trainer.

“They can give general information, like why saturated fats aren’t good for your heart,” Mrs. Sass says. Unless the trainer has a dual specialty in exercise physiology and nutrition, however, it’s best not to lean on him or her for specific guidelines.

Like nutrition, physical fitness is a topic teeming with complex information. Mrs. Sass says that’s why so many people seek out personal trainers to make sense of it all.

“A lot of people initially think it’s common sense — walk, lift some weights,” she says. “But when you do that, you don’t know as much about it as you think you do. There are questions you need an expert to help clear up.”

Mrs. Sass says to be skeptical of any trainer who wants to extend the number of sessions indefinitely.

“If you feel like your trainer is trying to keep you [as a client] and you feel you don’t need them any longer, that’s a red flag,” she says.

“Breaking up” with a trainer can be as awkward as leaving a longtime hairdresser, she says.

To avoid any confusion, she recommends being upfront during the first session, making it clear just how long the process likely will be and what goals you hope to meet during that time.

“A good trainer is not going to keep you as client forever unless you’ve made it clear that’s what you need,” she says.

Pete McCall, a master trainer with the Washington Sports Club, says a personal trainer can become a necessity for someone with a busy schedule.

“People only have an hour a day to exercise. A trainer helps them maximize the efficiency of that hour,” Mr. McCall says. “It’s like hiring a mechanic to work on your car. I could spend all day trying to figure out how to replace the clutch, but it’s worth my time to go to a certified mechanic.”

He says some of his clients of late are coming in to prepare for either an upcoming wedding or an adventure vacation, such as hiking in Peru.

Mr. McCall suggests that people ask personal trainers to recommend other clients to whom they can speak before signing up with them.

“I’m surprised how seldom people do that,” he says.

Robyn Weinstein, 24, of the District says she chose Mr. McCall as her personal trainer after taking one of his group classes at his health club.

“I liked his attitude, the way he encouraged people,” Miss Weinstein says.

She hoped he could shake up her staid workout regimen — and help her shave off a couple of pounds in the process.

“I was sick of doing the same thing. … I would read magazines and fitness books, but that would get old,” she says. “Now, he puts a new workout together for me every two weeks.”

Taking time to choose the right trainer is important, considering that hiring a personal trainer can be expensive. Mr. Al-Jabbar says a one-hour session with a personal trainer can run from $60 to $120, depending on the trainer’s background and specialization. Discounts often can be had for those who buy sessions in bulk.

Before the first barbell is lifted, the trainer should make a thorough assessment of his or her client.

That means learning the client’s medical history, taking his or her blood pressure and finding out if there are any extenuating health concerns that could affect the training.

“If your blood pressure is elevated, you shouldn’t be training,” Mr. Al-Jabbar says.

Those initial sessions should involve the trainer examining the client’s form on every repetition.

“They shouldn’t take their eyes off you for a second in your first session,” he says.

Though the trainer must listen, give personalized instruction and consider the client’s health history, the client must do his or her part to make the relationship work.

“Be clear about what you want,” Mr. Al-Jabbar says. “Everybody goes in there modestly and says, ‘I just want to get in shape.’ A good trainer will ask what that means.”

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