Why I Wasn't Fit to Work as a Trainer at Bally Total Fitness

I shed 80 pounds in two years, but that wasn't enough. I still didn't look the way I wanted to -- and clients at the gym could tell I wasn't satisfied.


As soon as I found out I would become a personal trainer, I nearly choked on focaccia. A friend had started working for a gym recently, and when she suggested during lunch that I come by for an interview, I gasped mid-sandwich and some half-chewed panini chunks lodged in my throat.

It was my inaugural post-collegiate summer. I was living off bonus sandwiches from my job at Panera Bread and dying to work anywhere else. I was also logging in lots of gym-hours. After shedding 80 pounds in two years, I found myself stuck. The scale had become a thing of stubborn insolence, refusing to budge even a centimeter in the right direction. In response, I launched a surgical strike on all muscle groups. New forms slowly delineated beneath my skin, like a shaken-out bed sheet descending on pillows. This development led me to believe I might be capable of training others.

Tacky Euro techno beats boomed aggressively as I entered Bally Total Fitness. An effervescent trail of sauna-steam wafted from the locker rooms. Soon, a thin strip of a boy appeared, announcing that the fitness overlord, Taylor, was ready to see me.

Through the cloudy glass wall of Taylor's office, I could make out a tall Asian man with a cinder block chest pacing the floor in red sweatpants. Before I could knock, he was holding the door open and ushering me inside. The handshake was agony. Taylor's thumb pressed into the back of my hand like the barrel of a hole-punch. I stopped squeezing back right away, which was obviously the point.

When he asked why I wanted to be a personal trainer, I took a manila envelope out of my backpack. Inside was a stack of pictures, which I removed and slid across the desk.

"This was me two and a half years ago," I announced.

Taylor inspected the top photo. It was me at my abject worst, weighing over 300 pounds. The whole family was standing in a row together, but I appeared to take up half the frame: face too big for my head, eyes like perforated squint-pockets, sweat on my arm thick as Doberman drool, shirt absolutely epic.

As Taylor flipped through the photos, one from the following year caught me by surprise. In it, I was stuffed inside of a suit, my arms extended broadly as if awaiting princely robes from menservants. Although my cheeks looked like they might be smuggling acorns, my smile was electric. Charged by the thrill of a life-changing weight loss, I had actually wanted to be photographed for the first time in years. I remembered feeling as though I were finally out of the woods. Sitting in Taylor's office now, I couldn't fathom how I'd ever felt that way when clearly I'd still had so far to go.

At the bottom of the stack was my most recent photo: kelly-green polo shirt (size L), exposed tuft of chest hair, lazy summer smile. Surely this version of me would be unimpeachable by future standards.

I lightly tapped at the pictures and explained that they were the reason I was qualified for the job. I knew how frustrating it was to be motivated for a weight loss that never quite came together, and I knew how to get over that. I knew everything.

Taylor put the final picture aside and steepled his fingers.

"Most of our guests think they burned off five pounds just filling out the membership forms," he said. "If you start working here, you have to keep that feeling up all the time. Belief is a powerful thing, and it's a big part of this job."

I nodded. I'd been nodding continually like my head was on a pivot. Taylor told me more about the job. I would start off at minimum wage, but once I got some clients and got certified, I'd quickly move up to $20 an hour. It sounded so easy. Before I left, he got up from his seat, held out his hand, and I stuck mine back in that steel trap.

Job training at Bally partly involved learning how to blast clients' quads and nuke their glutes, but mostly it was centered on sales strategy and rebuttals. I had to learn how to convince people that I was the essential ingredient in making their gym membership work. This entailed stalking the sweatiest denizens of the gym floor and trying to rope them into a trial session with promises of achieving the same progress I had.

About a week into the job, I came across an overweight man seated alone in the weight room, struggling through a set of shoulder presses. The weight bar in his shaky hands looked perilously close to slipping onto his clavicle, where salt-and-pepper chest hair exploded out of his brown tank top in every direction. I rushed over and steadied the bar in my hands. The man in the tank top thanked me and wiped some sweat off his face with a musty rag.

"If you really want to work those shoulder muscles some time," I said. "I know some exercises that'll devastate them."

"Yeah?" he said. "I'm listening."

He was hooked! It was all happening. I rattled off some fancy-sounding exercise techniques and what they would accomplish. With my hands on my sides like the statue of a battlefield general, I told him that, although he might not believe it, I once weighed over 300 pounds.

The old man looked me up and down before tossing his rag to the floor. Then he fit his hands back into the rusted grooves of the weight bar's grip.

"Nah," he said, "I believe it."

A million rebuttals bubbled up so quickly it was clear they were already perched on the edge of my subconscious. How could he tell? Could everyone else tell? I needed to know whether he just wanted to get rid of me or if he really meant it. Asking out loud might have gotten me fired, though, so I just walked away and tried to put it out of mind.

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Joe Berkowitz is a book editor and freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the Awl, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Salon, and McSweeney's. Read his blog.

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