A Day in the Life of a U of R Personal Trainer

An Insiders Guide to Personal Training and Fitness at the U of R


A personal trainer becomes accustomed to the environmental oddities in America’s fitness facilities—the smells of sweat, iron and rubber, the humming wheels and conveyors of cardio machines, the strange multicolored array of giant bouncy balls, stretchy cables and bone-shaped dumbbells. It all becomes customary and mundane, making it difficult to imagine an outsider’s perspective of such an idiosyncratic setting.

Morning, noon, and night, exercisers fill the glass windows like live manikins on display. The entrance-way of the two-story, 73,000 square-foot building is guarded by a security machine, its Under Armor to “protect this house.” Students must enter their personal identification number and provide their hand print to infiltrate the arena.

Just beyond the turnstiles, members engage in various physical activities—moving up-and-down, side-to-side, lifting, bending, squatting and twisting on the variety of machines that the University of Richmond’s Weinstein Center offers. Their faces scrunch with intensity and purpose, and many isolate themselves in the secluded sounds of their earphones.

Physical fitness is the body’s ability to effectively move and support everyday functioning in leisurely and work related activities. It consists of 11 health-related and skill-related components, such as strength, flexibility, cardio, speed, agility, coordination, and body composition. It is also associated with the body’s ability to resist hypo kinetic related to sedentary behavior, or lifestyles with “too little activity.” It also aids the body’s to response to emergency situations, like a heart attack, and its ability to recover from trauma, such as injuries and infections.

Exercise consists of the movement patterns of different muscle groups with a specific goal in mind—to get physically fit. Despite the rapid decline in America’s health status, most goals focus on physical fitness for appearance sake. Women want to “tone” and “tighten” specific body areas like their abdomens, buttocks, and legs. Men want to increase their strength and size of their muscles, especially in their chest, shoulders, and arms.  With over 66 percent of Americans classifying as overweight, weight loss is a common goal across genders, ages, sizes and abilities. The least reported goals are health-related goals, for example, to improve blood pressure, sleep, or blood flow.

Gyms have changed the way Americans exercise to reach their goals by minimizing the difficulties of outdoor elements and providing a wide array of innovative fitness “toys” to work with. The fitness industry now generates $19.5 billion annually due to rapid technological, kinesthetic, and scientific advancements. In order to assimilate, the U of R invested $10.3 million to expand and renovate the Weinstein Center in 2007. Its new active living design provides a convenient, comfortable, and aesthetically inviting environment for many students by seamlessly blending the benefits of indoor, outdoor, group and individual activities. The Weinstein Center hosts the majority of U of R students’ fitness activities, with more than 1,000 members attending daily, and is now ranked as No. 15 for best college athletic facilities in the nation.

“My favorite thing about this gym is the layout and how many different activities there are,” one of my regular clients, Jayme Epstein tells me, reflecting the positive response of exercisers to Weinstein’s active living by design program.

The most popular form of exercise is the cardio machines, located on the first floor in various layout patterns to face the wall display of 10 flat-screen TVs. Employees are warned to avoid classifying this as the “girls area” during orientation because of stereotype threats, but it really is where most women and dieters congregate.

Exercisers set their own speed, intensity, and incline on these machines as they run on rotating belts called treadmills, cycle on upright or recumbent stationary bikes (now with the option of viewing a virtual reality simulation of different outdoor environments), climb revolving stairs on the stair master, or challenge themselves to a total body work out on the Elliptical, a machine that glides your feet in pedals and moves your arms with handle bars in the motion of a cross country skier.

While these provide an easy way to burn calories and improve heart and lung capacity, many of my clients complain that the machines function similarly to the concept of a hamster wheel, a monotonous motion around the wheel without actually moving through space.

“I cannot spend more than 5 minutes on the treadmill without wondering how much time is left,” my new client, Chelsea Prue, confesses in the assessment room during our first Friday morning session. “I have to cover the count-down timer with my [sweat] towel to stop myself from counting down the seconds until I’m done.”

Like many other clients who report the same complaint, I remind Prue of the six-lane, 25-yard swimming pool in the Natatorium, a chlorinated alternative to natural bodies of water, where she could practice various arm and leg motions (called strokes) to swim back and forth in patterns (called laps). The Natatorium also hosts water aerobics classes where she can learn to use different pool toys, like the Styrofoam noodles and kickboards, to burn calories and gain muscle.

I also advise Prue to try running or walking the 1/10th of a mile-long indoor track, where she can view the basketball games and other recreational sports being played on the three basketball courts below.

“People have a misconception that being physically fit means you have to spend hours on the treadmill, which holds very little truth,” I tell her during our Friday morning session.  “If you want to be physically fit you have to do something you enjoy, that stimulates you and keeps you coming back for more.”

“You also have to work on fitness components outside of cardio,” I continue my usual lecture. “But you have to do strength training as well, which support your weight loss effort and build muscle to prevent your skin from literally sagging off the bone.”

I begin my first meeting with Prue as I routinely do with all new clients. Prue fills out a liability waiver and Physical Activity Readiness-questionnaire (PAR-Q), while I ask her questions about her fitness goals, preferences, barriers, and limitations.

“Well, I used to be on the soccer team when I was an undergraduate freshmen, but I haven’t really had a ‘good’ workout in the past 5 years,” Prue begins. “I’ve gained about 50-pounds since then too and my body just feels gross. I try to run when I can, but the less I exercise the harder it gets.”

Prue’s narrative continues:

I guess my fitness goals are to loose weight and tone my abs and legs mostly, maybe some of my arms—I just don’t want to have man shoulders, you know?

When I used to workout, I liked the way I looked and felt more confident and comfortable in my clothes. I also liked the feeling after leaving practice, tired, but in a good way, and that sense of accomplishment.

Things I don’t like—hmm… there is a lot! I don’t like how boring the gym is, like I said about the cardio machines. It takes a lot of effort and time to get my ass to the gym, and after a long day of work and class, it is the last thing I want to do. I just don’t have the motivation or discipline, whatever you want to call it.

Injuries. Well, I’d say I have pains more than injuries. My lower back and neck are always sore. My knees and ankles crack; and my wrist and fingers crack too, but they also hurt a lot, I’m not sure why. I don’t take any medication and I don’t have any chronic conditions—so I guess I’m ready to go!

I take notes on my clipboard, my reading glasses on and therapist-persona out and thriving. Once we are finished with the introductions, I perform a series of assessments to measure her baseline level of physical fitness. I ask her to squat, by sticking her fanny out and back, like she was sitting into an imaginary chair, keeping her arms raised and parallel to the ground. I explain and demonstrate, asking her to mimic my motion.

I notice muscle distortions typical of a college student—an arched lower back, a distended stomach, a sunken chest, and a protruding head above hunched shoulders. My chiropractor calls this trend among young adults “the postural devolution” of the information age, as we descend from upright on two feet to a crippled, hunched wheel chair from sitting and staring at the computer screens. Exercise can help slow the devolution, by stretching tight, overused muscles and strengthening underused ones.

We use this assessment time to warm-up and prepare her muscles to prevent injuries and get the blood flowing to her muscles.  I ask her to perform a sit-and-reach test, a 3-minute step test, a sit-up test, and a push-up test to measure her baseline level flexibility, cardio, muscle strength and endurance. Prue’s discouraged face tells me that she is aware of her poor performance.

“You can only improve from here!” I encourage her.

I mentally map out today’s workout plan, taking all of the information from the assessment room into account. I tell her we have already warmed-up but in the future, I recommend she start with 10-minutes on a cardio apparatus of her choice to prepare her muscles and prevent injury during more challenging exercises.

We veer to the right, pass by the front desk and ascend up to school-spirited blue and red stairs.

“Uh oh, I really don’t like going up here,” she says as we near the top. “It’s weird working out with the boys and body builders. I feel like a loser with my 5 pound weights and trying to figure out the machines.”

“Don’t worry about them, I’m right here with ya!” I try to give her some confidence and support as we enter the intimidating abyss of strong, at times hypertrophied, bodies.

The upstairs exercisers pump iron weights and spot each other as they lift over-60-pound barbells off their chests. Their grunts and pants don’t bother me, I am a personal trainer and accustomed to my house guests’ behavior. But, I can understand why Prue would feel intimidated. The first trip to the gym is like eating dinner at a strangers house and not knowing where the glasses are, how to act or what to say. As a host, it is my job to make her feel welcomed and comfortable in my home.

We rotate through the various areas of machines, and I explain each type of equipment.

We begin with weight machines, odd chairs with different movable levers and pulleys attached to a stack of rectangular weights to choose from. Each chair is specially designed to work different muscle groups in a controlled motion, which is great for beginners who are unfamiliar with the odd muscle movements or unable to stabilize their body while lifting weights.

Seated weight machines are also very limited because the machine determines the path of motion and options rather than the exerciser being in control. A progression from seated machines is free weights, usually in the form of barbells or dumbbells.

“The barbells are over here,” I point Prue in the direction of our next destination. “This is the bar that you load the weight on. It usually weighs about 45-50 pounds by itself.”

I lift the iron bar off of the weight rack and tell her to hold it under her chin, against her chest to prepare for a squat.

“These add a challenge to the body weight exercises we did in the assessment room. Remember the squats we did, where you sit back in an imaginary chair?”

Prue nods yes with a glazed look of intimidation.

“This barbell adds weight and resistance, so you can get more work done in less time. As you get stronger, you can add these round iron plates to each side, which will make the exercise harder,” I explain.

I place two 10-pound iron plates on each side of the bar. I ask her to perform ten squats. As she sits, her face reddens and her cheeks puff. When she is finished, she looks down to her thighs, smiles, and squeezes her already swollen thigh muscles. After just one set, Prue already feels and sees results.

“Dumbbells are my favorite form of exercise equipment,” I tell Prue as we walk to the next corner of the gym. This corner has mirrors on all sides so Prue can watch and correct her own form.

“Exercising with dumbbells mimics more real to life motions, where you use multiple muscles and limbs in different directions,” I being my spiel and pick up two 7-pound dumbbells from the array of different weights. “That way you can target more than one muscle group and get a better workout in, using up less time.”

“For example, you can do a squat while pressing your hands above your head to work your shoulders,” I demonstrate and she follows. “Or you can work your chest and your abdominals by performing a chest fly and then crunching up as you bring your hands together.”

We perform a few different exercises then rotate to the cable machine, an exercise apparatus consisting of movable levers and pulleys connected to iron weight plates, similar to the seated machines, but require the exerciser to stand and stabilize their own body’s motions, similar to the dumbbells and barbells.

Forty-five minutes later, we arrive to the last area of Weinstein’s adult-styled playground— the different inclined, declined, and parallel benches. I teach her back extension exercises, where she bends over an angled bench into a V shape, and lifts to a 45-degree angle with the ground. But, I can sense Prue’s attention is divided from her body’s task. Every time her head peaks, she pauses and watches the synchronous activity through the glass of the multipurpose room. We cannot hear the music, but we can feel the beat and guess which lyrics by the rhythmic exercisers.

“That’s body sculpt, its one of my favorites,” I respond to her interest. “You learn how to use all of the fun fitness toys to strengthen and tone, like what I showed you with the dumbbell and body weight exercises. It’s really popular. I really like body pump for weight lifting too. That class uses barbells—really intense.”

I grab a class schedule from the door and recommend a few to her.

“Yoga and Pilates would be great for you because it works on stretching, breathing, and core strength, and helps with stress,” I point to the class time and day on the month’s calendar. “I also like spin and toning classes because it combines cardio and strengthening in a one-hour session.”

I ask Prue if she likes to dance. She says no. Well, if Prue did, Zumba and Chazzersize are really fun dance-aerobic classes.

Along with many physiological health benefits, physical fitness is also associated with benefits of the holistic health model—that is, it improves psychological, social, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.

Taking exams, writing papers, living independently, constantly changing schedules—college students are under constant physical, psychological, and emotional stress. A 2007 survey reported that 91.5 percent of respondents believed that students have more psychological problems now and 42 percent said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function. When the body is under constant stress, it decreases the immune system’s functioning, and approximately 50 to 70 percent of all illnesses are stress-related.

Luckily, physical activity improves the exercisers’ physiological health, and as a result, physically fit people are less susceptible to diseases and illnesses and more adaptable in stressful situations.

Stephen Sowuleski, a professor of Introduction to Physical Fitness course at VCU, invited me to listen to his lecture on exercise and stress. The VCU students sat casually, dressed in gym clothes and ready for their post-lecture group workout session, one of the many hand-on class requirements.

“Physical activity provides students a relief from stress,” Sowulewski told his class . “It can help reduce the intensity of the stress response and relieve muscle tension, that we talked about on Tuesday, and it can also improve your mental health.”

“Physical activity has been shown to reduce anxiety and is just as effective as medicine when dealing with depression,” Sowulewski  continued. “It also helps regulate sleep patterns, as long as you don’t workout too late at night. The body needs time to cool down and allow the heart-beat to slow down, so allow yourself three hours post-workout before getting ready for bed.”

I raise my hand. “Why is it important for college students to exercise, as a demographic type?”

“Well, exercise is the key to success at school,” he replied. “As you know, it improves your immune system and physiological health. It also provides a positive self-perception of student’s health, body concepts, and their feelings of progress, control, and time-management. Other studies we didn’t talk about today have found that exercise is related to less work-related stress, and increased amount of house actvities, sexual functioning and overall physical activity.”

The Weinstein Center provides a healthy outlet to many stressed college students at the U of R. It houses structured exercise as well as alternative leisure and recreation activities. It provides a game room with pool tables, ping pong tables, and virtual dance game. There is also a steam room to relax tight muscles and meditation classes to help ease the mind. The Weinstein Center also leads outdoor trips white water rafting or hiking. Students can also “get high on campus” on the ropes course and climbing wall, or play an intramural sport like basketball or badminton.

“That’s one of the goals of our gym,” a U of R student, Lucia Anderson, who has worked as the Sport Club Business and Marketing at the Weinstein Center for two years. “We try to provide a healthy alternative for students, where you can have fun and spend time with your friends. It’s more than an exercise center, and a lot of students take full advantage of what it offers.”

Prue and I finish our session on the mats that overlook the entrance to stretch and cool-down. I count the benefits of exercising in college on my fingers, starting with my right thumb.

“Exercise will improve your health, appearance, stress, sleep, brain functioning,” I switch to my left hand. “Bone development, metabolism, sleep, and establishing healthy life habits before its too late.”

I talk about her baseline measures and review areas of focus.  I tell her that I loved working with her, but unfortunately I have to take a leave of absence because of a hand injury.

“What am I going to do without you? I loved today, I am just afraid I cant get my butt to the gym,” Prue says.

“You just have to stay motivated Pruester,” I tell her. “You’re doing this for you, not me. Remind yourself everyday why you want to exercise, and make it a priority, schedule it into your datebook like another class or appointment,” I advise. “It is also important to always have a plan before working out, rather than just diving in.”

I suggest the following exercise plan to Prue to help her lose weight and tone up:

  • 30 minutes of muscle strength and endurance exercises, using seated machines, free weights, dumbbells, 3 days/week
  • 30 minutes of cardio machines, 5 days/week
  • 1 hour of flexibility Pilates or Yoga 1 day/week

“I promise it may seem like a lot, but once you start exercising on a regular basis, it gets so much easier,” I tell her. “It will actually be harder to skip a gym day because your body will start to crave the endorphins cardio provides—especially after you experience that runner’s high feeling.”

She laughs and begins telling me about her runners high while training for a marathon six years ago. We conclude our session with a handshake and smile, “Wish you the best of luck.” “You too.”

Three weeks after our initial meeting, I receive an email.

Hi Emily,

Thank you so much for giving us such a great workout yesterday! It was so well thought-out and I loved all the exercises… So sore! I’ve stuck with the plan, and already lost 7 lbs ad already see results. The classes you suggested were a ton of fun. I hope your hand is feeling better, I cant wait for you to return. Thank you so much I really appreciate how awful you make my body feel, haha


Chelsea Prue is my last client for the semester before I take my medical leave. Her email reminds me of how rewarding it is to witness my fitness babies grow up, loose their baby fat, and mature into self-sufficient gym members. I love helping others progress and reach their goals—its why I do what I do.


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