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THIS TIME IT'S PERSONAL
IS A TRAINER WHAT YOU NEED TO KEEP YOU IN THE GYM?

Back in January, with your clothing pinching and your scale reaching previously unimaginable numbers, you joined a gym and vowed to get back in shape.

A few months later, you find yourself skipping aerobics classes. You're tired of the treadmill and sick of the Stairmaster. The results you saw in your first weeks have tapered off, and your clothes are shrinking again. You start getting too busy, too tired, then too out of shape.

And by the time a month has flown by and you haven't set foot inside the gym, you just try to forget about the place.

Among those who don't forget, or make excuses, are the people whose workouts are designed and supervised by personal trainers. But isn't personal training just for the extremely wealthy? And besides, who would pay somebody to watch them exercise?

More people than you think, that's who.

"Very, very few people in the country work out religiously year-round," says Rod Nagy, who moved here from Southern California (where they know a thing or two about fitness) to work with local Gold's Gym owner Joe Bueme to open more Gold's Gyms.

When motivation dips and frustration and boredom peak, "That's where you need a personal trainer to adjust your program and help you get through those highs and lows," Nagy says.

No one knows that better than Marlene Pleskow of Williamsville, who has belonged to the Buffalo Athletic Club for years and started to work with personal trainer Teri Tubbs two months ago.

"When you have the appointments, you keep them," says Pleskow, who works part time in the Kenmore office of her husband, Dr. Sanford Pleskow. When she's not working with a trainer, she says, she goes to the gym, where "I will do the cardio, but I don't necessarily do the weights."

She likes the cardio -- the usually fast-paced workout on a bike, treadmill or in an aerobics class that gets your heart pounding and provides a feeling of well-being. But fewer people spontaneously start working with "the weights" -- strength training using free weights or weight machines.

Twenty years ago, nobody used weights but big brawny guys. Now, says Nagy, "Studies have shown that men, women, people of all ages, whether you're a teenager or an octogenarian, need to push some weights. Moving those big muscles is what is going to help you increase your tone and your overall well-being."

'Off their seats'

"The BAC orients people really well; most health clubs do," said Bob Gosch, who won the Mr. USA title in 1989. He's now a golf pro and program director of SAFTI (Scientifically Applied Fitness Therapies Incorporated), which supplies personal trainers at local BACs.

But the temptation to park your butt on a bike and pedal for 20 minutes while you page through the Star can equal a less-than-challenging workout that grows less effective every time you do it. Personal trainers, Gosch said, "Get clients off their seats and on their feet -- using balance boards, cable machines, elastic bands, medicine balls, Swedish physio balls, body bars and hand weights.

"When you're exercising on your feet, you are supporting your own weight in gravity, which improves your body's core muscles. You have to support your body rather than leaning back against the back pad of a bike, for example," he says.

Most clubs offer dozens of classes, in which a room full of students follows one instructor's moves, sometimes working with weighted bars. But that doesn't equal the personal touch, says Chuck Pelitera, who has been a personal trainer since 1985 -- "before it was fashionable" -- and now operates Pelitera's Fitness Consultants in the Women's Wellness Center of Western New York, 835 Hopkins Road, Amherst.

One of Pelitera's clients, Jeff Harvey of Clarence, says he has never even belonged to a gym.

"I've been running for 20 years, and the last thing I want to do is get injured," says Harvey, after a Pelitera-assisted series of hip and leg stretches. "The big advantage to me in getting personal training is that I work with Chuck on how to be a faster runner, what weights to use, what exercises to do. If I were doing this alone, I'm afraid I'd get injured. Chuck puts me through set routines of exercises he's customized exactly for what I'm trying to do."

Pleskow also praises her trainer's ability to help her prevent injury during workouts. "If I try an exercise and it hurts my back, I tell her and the change she makes might be slight, but it always helps."

Trouble committing

It's too bad that just joining a gym isn't enough, because that's the easy part. But to get results, you have to actually work out.

There are two reasons why people's dedication to exercise wanes as months pass -- they get bored, they stop seeing results despite continuing to exercise, or both.

"The No. 1 reason people use us is that a scheduled appointment keeps you from skipping your workout," says Gosch.

The rules are set at Pelitera's center. "The first time someone doesn't show up for an appointment, OK. The second time, we charge them," he says. But it goes beyond that. "When people make the financial commitment to having a personal trainer, not only are they more likely to go to the gym for their appointments, they are also more likely to make other commitments to a healthy lifestyle, such as eating better," Pelitera says.

Victor Dean, who won his weight class in the Mr. Buffalo contest last month and has been a personal trainer for six years at Gold's Gym, agrees. "It's not just that you have an appointment, because if you really don't want to, you're not going to make it in anyway. It's the trainer making that personal connection and really motivating you."

People working on the same program week in and week out will probably stop seeing the dramatic improvements they saw at first, the experts say.

"A person who grows comfortable with one workout and does it all the time becomes efficient as the body adapts to it and stops seeing results," says Gosch. But that's not all: "People can get overuse injuries from high repetitions, or muscle imbalances from always working the same muscles," he says. "Changing workouts means that the body doesn't get overused in one movement plane and the head doesn't get bored."

Dean prides himself on his innovative workouts. "I do a lot of balance-stability-agility training, a dynamic method with thick rubber bands. I do a decent amount of regular old bicep curls and calf raises, but I also try to keep it dynamic. A typical client would be working out two or three times a week on a program that I'm desiging and updating for them, and then they come and see me. Every time they see me we do some kind of funky wild and crazy workout," says Dean.

Derek Alessi, who operates Alessi Personal Fitness Centers with his brother, Don Alessi Jr., says, "If I gave you the key to one of my gyms and said 'Go ahead, knock yourself out,' I would bet over time you probably wouldn't be in any better shape, because you wouldn't know what to do, when to do it, how to eat, how all of it works together."

After consultations about metabolism, diet and exercise, Alessi's clients get a personalized workout plan. Then, Alessi says, "We change it all the time, so their muscle tissues don't adapt. For most people, an adaptation period, where your body adapts to the workout, is about two weeks. For highly trained athletes, it can be as quick as one or two workouts."

Another advantage to working with a trainer is that "a person exercising alone can't work out as efficiently as a person working with a trainer," says Gosch. "Unassisted, most people will complete 12 to 15 sets in a half-hour. With me setting up machines for them, they can complete 30 to 40 sets in the same time. A trainer is a barrier to distraction and from other members, who generally respect the fact that you are paying for the trainer's time."

Who are these people?

What type of person gets personal training? A person who's already in great shape, with money to burn and lots of time on their hands?

Not always.

Dean says, "I do train people who are wealthy, but probably half the people that I train get a second job or are barely making ends meet, but they realize the benefits of it. I do free consultations here at the club, and we have a 'three sessions for $99' thing."

Even if somebody can't afford to continue working with a trainer, after the orientation, says Dean, "they can go online, look at some Web sites, take these ideas and expand on them. If you're creative, you can change foot positions, add a disc, add a band, not just sit on a piece of machinery."

"Three training sessions are better -- by far -- than nothing," he says. Training at Gold's Gym ranges from $50 for a one-time half-hour session, to $33 per session when 10- or 20-session blocks are purchased. Hourlong sessions, when purchased in blocks of 20, cost $48 per session.

The trainers agree that they see everyone from extremely fit, athletic people to people who have had problems with their shoulders, backs, hips or knees. Dean says, "Just recently I've had a lot of older people hire me who are trying to delay knee surgery or increase their bone density."

Pelitera, who is a doctoral student in exercise science at the University at Buffalo, is an assistant professor of health and physical education at Canisius, and was strength and conditioning coordinator for Canisius College athletic teams for 18 years, says, "Because of my background, and because I've been doing this for so long, I get a lot of referrals from doctors and physical therapists."

A single session with Pelitera or one of his trainers lasts from 60 to 90 minutes and costs $32 per session. The cost is $26 per session if the client buys a block of 10.

Gosch's SAFTI trainers work only in Buffalo Athletic Clubs. Prices range from $40 for a one-time hourlong session to packages of eight hours per month for $240.

At the two Alessi Personal Fitness Centers, which are at 300 Delaware Ave. and on Transit near Sheridan Drive in Williamsville, clients sign up for hourlong sessions three to five times a week. The cost runs from $35 per session with the five trainers to upwards of $100 per session with one of the Alessis.

The image of a personal trainer as a drill sergeant who barks out orders at the recently couchbound is far from accurate, the trainers agree. Gosch says, "I've trained people two to three times a week since 1990, and we've had variety, good conversation and results. As much as you see us laughing and having fun out on the gym floor, we are getting the work done."

Marlene Pleskow agrees. She learned about Tubbs when "I ran into someone I knew from the gym at holiday time, and she said, 'I have a new trainer and she's wonderful.' " Now, as a result of her two hourlong sessions a week with her trainer, Pleskow says proudly, "I am a powerful woman!"

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com