Exercising a personal trainer option

Small groups get benefits of custom training without the big bills


February 25, 2005|By Mary Beth Regan | Mary Beth Regan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On a recent Friday night, the women start arriving. There's J.J., Miss Butler, Jamaican Rum and others.

Samora Morris, 30, a well-built competitive runner, has given the women nicknames. And he's ready to start shouting and moving.

But this isn't some swinging singles scene. It's the Merritt Athletic Club near Woodlawn, and the women are dressed in their favorite sweats, T-shirts and sneakers.

For nearly two years, this small group has met with Morris, a certified personal trainer, to blow off steam by jump-starting heart rates, pumping iron and stretching their weekly tensions away.

"We're like a small family," Morris says.

Although they weren't aware of it, the women, who range from their 30s to their 60s, are on the cusp of a trend: The American Council on Exercise has found that small-group personal training is on the rise nationwide, with more people teaming up to split the cost of sessions while cashing in on the expertise of professionals.

"This is one of the top trends that we are seeing in 2005," says Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist at the California-based organization.

The council, which certifies more than 65,000 personal trainers nationwide, surveys its member trainers each year.

Area fitness experts say they are seeing the same trend here toward group fitness training at large clubs such as the Maryland Athletic Club, LifeBridge Health & Fitness and Brick Bodies, and at smaller operations such as ProActive Fitness, a Pilates studio in Severna Park.

Individual instruction is offered, but Brick Bodies, for example, has launched a "Women on Weights" program, a group training effort, at its five locations. Trainers put members into small groups with others who have similar goals.

"We're finding that it's a better way to keep people working out," says Neil Westford, personal training director for the chain.

Small-group training usually means two to three people working with a personal trainer, although some groups may have four or five members. Unlike larger exercise classes, group training focuses on goals specific to the individuals. Members often motivate each other in their fitness goals, and often they develop friendships.

The members of Morris' group did not know each other before they started exercising. Now they show up as often as three times a week to support each other. Tish Imafidon, Dawn Butler, Judy Jones, Del Fuller and Glenda Hunter-Johnson consider themselves friends. A few of them even took Morris to dinner several months ago to celebrate his new day job as a social worker.

The group approach is also practical. Small-group training can significantly cut the cost of sessions, while still allowing exercisers access to specialized instruction.

Many people pay between $45 and $85 an hour at local gyms for one-on-one personal training. It's not unheard of for trainers to charge $100 per hour.

At Merritt, participants in Morris' Friday night group pay $20 per session.

At the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium, four women team up every Monday and Wednesday morning to split the cost of training with Stephen Holt, ACE personal trainer of the year in 2003.

Holt commands as much as $80 an hour for individual instruction, but these women pay $27 per session.

"It's much cheaper," says Maria Queral, who has been working out with Holt for more than a year. "But we still get good supervision."

Exercisers such as Queral also are turning to personal trainers because they want to vary their routines and maximize results.

Debbie Thacker, who works out with Queral in Holt's twice-weekly group, says she wasn't getting the results she wanted from aerobic exercise classes. "I've seen more results from this than from anything else I've done here," says Thacker.

Stephen P. Haywood, fitness director at the Merritt Club near Woodlawn, says the biggest mistake he sees people making is not varying their routines. "I see people coming in here year after year doing the same thing," he says, "Their bodies get used to the exercises. ... They aren't challenging themselves."

The American College of Sports Medicine estimates that as much as 62 percent of the adult population is not exercising enough to stay healthy. The organization urges adults to get between 20 and 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five times a week. In addition, adults should be lifting weights twice a week and working on flexibility as much as every day.

Not everyone is sold on group training, however.

David J. Levin, owner of Max-Out Personal Training in Reisterstown, works with elite college athletes and prefers the one-on-one approach for best results.

"I've worked in big gyms where they do that," Levin says of group training. "But if you get too many people, it turns into a three-ring circus." Levin charges between $45 and $75 per session.

Still, many people prefer the camaraderie and motivation of working out with others.

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