What Price, Friendship…?

I have never thought of myself as someone who is likeable. From my earliest memories, kids and contemporaries teased me, challenged me, fought with me, criticized me, and when all that wasn’t going on they just ignored me. As a child, I couldn’t buy a friend, and my fondest memories of growing up were held in solitude; moments of wonder witnessed and appreciated by only me.

I took to individual sports early rather than team sports as a result of that isolation. Diving and weightlifting captivated me most during my early adolescence and into my teens. However, one trumped the other as the desire for big squats, big biceps, and a big bench press aren’t too consistent with fluid diving, graceful body rotation, nor a seamless entry into the water – big weights and the diving board just didn’t mix and in the end the weight room won.

I would rarely leave the comfort of my isolation growing up. What few friends I had are still my friends and I remain in touch with them to this day. As such, the word friend has carried a powerful meaning with me because its’ use by me is limited to so few. A true friend, I decided early on, would be a friend for life. As a one-on-one fitness trainer, I have had to reexamine my definition of the word friend and accept that the word friend has evolved for me – and I am glad.

Before I agree to work with a would-be client, I first interview them and explain in detail my perspective on exercise, fitness, and the relationship between trainer and trainee. My purpose in doing this is to ensure I am a good fit for them, and they for me. During the course of those interviews I always take time to explain that,

“I am not a bartender, I am not a therapist, nor am I a hairdresser.”

I’ve said it so many times now that it must sound pretty canned. I reiterate to my prospective client during these conversations,

“I’m sure you have a great job, a great family, and a great life. If you wish to talk to me about those things with me, please take me to lunch or buy me a beer and you can tell me all about them.”

Lastly, the rant goes,

“When we are in my studio working out, I insist that all conversation be limited to the topics of exercise, fitness, and proper eating – nothing more.”

On hearing this, people are always quick to agree and steadfast in assuring me that is “exactly” what they are looking for in a trainer. By the 3rd or 4th session though, I find myself hearing things that have nothing to do with fitness whatsoever; jobs, kids, spouses, hobbies, etc. No matter how much I try to squelch the non-fitness conversation, usually by the 10th or 12th session, I will know more about my clients than I ever wanted to. In fairness, they learn a bit about me along the way as well. Where I was once resentful of this dynamic, I now realize how valuable it has been in gaining trust. Trust is the key element in fitness education. More so, I am grateful for how this dynamic has enriched my life and my personality. I am a better person for these relationships.

My product is not the workout, though the workouts are always good. My product is not my equipment, though my equipment is state of the art. My product is not my ability to motivate, understand, educate, or even communicate, though I do strive to excel in all these areas. My product as a fitness trainer, is the sum of all these elements wrapped, and I believe I offer a fair product.

That said, I also realize I’m more likeable now than I was as a kid; I must be or people wouldn’t choose to pay and spend hours per week with me. The term client quickly gives way to the term friend and these people are my friends – and in time they become my friends first and clients second. They see value not just in what I have to say and teach regarding their health and fitness, but in what I have to say regarding life; politics, religion, philosophy, et all – even if they don’t always agree with my values.

Therein lies a trainer’s paradox; that these people are paying me for my time and expertise in fitness. At some point though, for my long-term clients, I believe they are also paying me for my friendship and they may not even be aware of it. In my life, I have traced no line more blurry than that, and I spend a great deal of time trying to distinguish the absolutes on both sides of that blurry line. Even now, I’m not sure how this makes me feel, and those feelings fluctuate from day to day. Are they my friend? Are they my client? Are they getting what they are paying for? What are they paying for? In order to successfully march forward each day, I must be the first one to see value in my product.

Lou Gehrig famously described himself as the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” I truly believe that I am the luckiest man on Earth, though I guess this can’t be accurately measured. I’m lucky for so many reasons – too numerous to count. Mostly I’m lucky because each day of my work life is the sum of effort, simplicity, reward, success, and friendship. What a great work day.

I work from home. My commute involves stepping over my dog as I enter the studio where I train my clients. I mostly dress in shorts and tank tops. My clients, those friends who entrust with their fitness goals, are willing to pay for my knowledge, drive to receive it, endure the physical discomfort of the exercise, and leave telling me how much they “love it”.

And for all of this ease on my part, my bills are always paid, there’s money in the bank, my fridge is always full, and I sleep warm and safe with a roof over my head. I earn my keep by helping people improve their bodies as well as allowing them to empty their psyches — and most days I do all of this in bare feet. Who would ask for more?

Yes, I earn my keep as a fitness trainer, as therapist, and even as a friend. Where I once couldn’t buy a friend, I now get paid to be one. In the end, I truly am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I wish those kids who pelted me with rubble, debris, and various insults at the school bus stop could see me now. See me? Hell they probably couldn’t catch me if I ran, and these days, I wouldn’t even think about running.  Be well.

12 responses

  1. I remember that speech well and always felt guilty whenever any personal topics came up during workouts. That seemed to happen more and more as time went on. But, I agree that your product is much more than the workout; you’re spending so much one on one time with people; it’s inevitable that you will get to know them and become friends. I think that’s a good thing. Good thing you’re so likable.

    • Candace – thanks! Its always happens and it is inevitable. What I have come to understand, accept, and even appreciate lately (not too late I hope), is that it feels better for people to actually be moving, often vigorously, when they purge the events of their day, as well as personal concerns.

      As for me being likable, I have one word for you; Lunges 🙂 How much you like me NOW?!?

  2. I have always liked the depth and breath of being the doctor with people. Early on in my work, I was much more detached as both I was advised to be that way, and I felt that way. With experience I learned that being closer with my patients did no harm and actually improved the medical experience.

    Freshen that up?

    How do you feel about that?

    A little shorter on top?


    • Dr J. – That may be first, and the only comparison ever made between doctor and fitness trainer — like comparing a Waterford crystal punch bowl to a fruit jar. But I do see the similarities and appreciate the parallel.

      Yes, “freshen that up?” I hope it never does come down to serving drinks in my studio — nor clipping bangs 🙂

  3. In my early days as a personal trainer I resented conversations outside of fitness-related topics and felt they devalued my product. After a dozen years of training mostly the same clients I had from day one, I realized that conversations of all kinds, and the resulting friendships, are the columns that held up the product. These I nurture, as they nurture me in many more ways than just income.

    Thank you for a great post. I am glad I found the blog. Please keep writing.

    • John – Thank you for dropping in. Sounds like you and I have the same perspective on this issue. Funny how growing older does this. Age and wisdom…

      Most of my clients have been with me for 7 years or more. Some days I feel like I should be paying them for their wisdom. True.

  4. Roy!

    I’ve felt for years that I should pay patients for the wonderful operations I get to perform on them. Of course during the time I spend with them when they are awake, “I work hard for the money.” 🙂

  5. Pingback: A Room Full Of Words… « Contemplative Fitness

  6. Great post, yep, it’s about being grateful for all people that come into our lives. Sometimes I wish for that fitness trainer/friend that would push me, but I’m cheap lol.

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