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.

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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.

Job training at Bally involved learning how to blast clients' quads, but mostly it was centered on sales strategy and rebuttals.

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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After weeks of unsuccessfully hounding gym members and shadowing trainers, I finally landed some clientele. Taylor assigned me a young married couple who'd just joined. Reg and Karen Miller stood huddled in the corner of the lobby, each clutching a beach towel. They were both tall and voluminous. Karen in particular looked as though she'd been poured into her sweatpants by an unsteady hand, with extra droplets of body splashing out everywhere.

I took it as my sacred duty to mold these two in my own image.

"This is our first time here with a personal trainer," Reg announced redundantly.

I began backpedaling, but it was useless to try to un-say something by using more words.

"Well, you made it -- that's the hard part," I said. "Working out is easy."

It wasn't entirely true, but it sounded authoritative. The hard part for me, I soon discovered, was maintaining the same heightened aura of excitement continuously, while Taylor lurked around the gym like an enemy in the bush. I soon became an over-caffeinated radio host, narrating my every movement and explaining its utility. By the time we finished our hour together, I felt more exhausted from talking than Reg and Karen looked from their workout. I was sick of my own voice, and it seemed impossible that they could feel any differently. But they did. Wiping his flushed face with a beach towel, Reg asked, point blank, how much my services would cost.

I couldn't believe it. Somebody had willingly requested to hear my closing spiel. It was the moment I'd been waiting for and also dreading. After all, whenever anyone tried to close me, I felt the urge to strike them with a blunt object -- and the gym was nothing if not a buffet of blunt objects.

I'd learned never to start talking numbers right away, so instead I dwelled on the neutral topic of summer plans. Karen stretched her arms in a trapezoidal shape above her head and told me about their upcoming vacation in the Bahamas.

"Oh, perfect," I said. "By July, you'll definitely be ready for swimsuit season."

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could stuff them back in. It was too late, though.

"I happen to think I look just fine in a bathing suit," Karen said, hugging her arms across her midsection. "We just wanted to tone up a little."

I began backpedaling, but it was useless to try to un-say something by using more words. Karen walked off in a huff and Reg lingered only a moment longer to shake my hand before joining her. I never heard from them again.

As soon as I realized I was no longer going to be a personal trainer, I nearly suffocated in a plastic sumo suit. My friend Jamie and I were at the bar inside Club Firestone when the DJ sought out volunteers for a sumo wrestling contest. The two of us looked at each other and there was no question about it: we were in.

"The last time I saw you, you wouldn't have needed one of these suits," Jamie said ten minutes later, as we pulled on inflated plastic bodies that mimicked sumo wrestlers' rotund physiques. Jamie was on leave from the Marine Corps, and he had a Marine's requisite crew-cut and gaunt, sunken eyes. We hadn't seen each other since before he'd enlisted the previous year, and he had no idea that I'd lost so much weight.

I pulled my suit up by the mock-loincloth. The stiff, coarse material had the same stubby texture as the skin of a hot-air balloon. With my shoulders stuffed inside, the referee strapped a waxy hair-helmet to my head. I'd just gotten used to breathing inside the humid, claustrophobic getup when an announcer introduced us and rang the bell.

I lunged at Jamie, wobbly on my feet, and connected hard, flinging him against the rope of the boxing ring. The elasticity sent him barreling right back at me and we bumped our big fake bellies like rams locking horns. After much scrambling and grappling, I was eventually declared the winner.

I could not wait to take off my plastic albatross. It was heavy and it itched, but there was something else about it that made me uncomfortable. At first, the sitcom-irony of wearing an obesity suit made me feel definitively svelte in contrast. It had been a while since I felt that way. Then the moment passed and it seemed ridiculous to let a costume convince me that I had become who I wanted to be. My personal trainer's outfit, I realized, formed another such costume, and suddenly I felt ridiculous inside of it too.

Was I only in shape compared to my former self? I wanted to be in shape, period -- with no context needed to qualify it. I wanted the weight to be lost, not merely hidden from view. I wanted no difference between how old friends and new acquaintances viewed me. The only problem was that if I ever got my wish, there would be no way for me to know it. I would never see myself through anyone else's eyes.

I was tired and I had to work the next day, even though it was clear I had no business working at Bally any longer. After we shed our sumo suits and got dressed again, I said goodbye to Jamie.

"It was great seeing you," he said, nursing a slightly bruised eyebrow with the watery ice cubes in his glass. "I can't believe you lost so much weight."

"Thanks," I said.

"Good luck losing the rest of it."

Images: 1. REUTERS/Rick Wilking; 2. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger.

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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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