It was a sunny Friday afternoon in spring 2010. I remember I just had a haircut. I also recall thinking, “What am I doing here?”
In a parking lot in Wellesley, I pulled a gym bag out of my car and headed into the Boston Sports Club. I’m prone to doing ridiculous things, and this was yet another for the list. I was meeting a personal trainer. A 6-foot, 2-inch pile of muscle with a neck the circumference of my upper thigh who told me I should come in for a session. I still don’t remember why I said yes.
I met this man, who calls everyone either “Bro” or “Dog,” while writing a story about Wii Fit. To research the story, I spent a week dragging my video gaming console to health clubs and team locker rooms around Boston, listening to what the pros thought of it. Albert Samano, the bro in question, was lukewarm on the games. He said they didn’t compare to a personal trainer, and a Wii couldn’t determine if I had proper form while working out.
He told me to come in for a session, I accepted. Three years later, Samano is one of my closest friends. A few weeks after we began, he started learning about my life — all of it. I learned about his. Despite our physical differences, the fact that I’m gay and he’s straight, and his abuse of hair gel, we are very similar people.
I appreciate everything that Samano (or Alby, as I call him) has taught me about fitness. He’s a top-notch trainer (he’d quickly remind me here that he’s a master trainer). But just as much — if not more — I appreciate his friendship. He’s taught me things about life, not just lifting. Every week over a weight bench, we pour our hearts out. He helped me through a very difficult breakup; I did the same for him. We talk about both deep things and meaningless things.
I introduced him to “Downton Abbey,” he introduced me to “The Walking Dead.” He makes fun of my lunchbox collection, I make fun of his “Star Wars” toy collection. I brought him to Boston Fashion Week. I also sat on his sofa as he convinced me to watch weird alien conspiracy shows, or Ultimate Fighting Championship — or whatever it’s called. That one didn’t stick. But we hang at his crib (his lexicon, not mine). Yes, I even call him Dog — and I call him Bro.
Bottom line: He knows more about me than almost anyone else on the planet.
‘[My clients] acknowledge that they’re abusing my services, but I think they also understand that I’m a professional. Outside we can be friends, inside it’s professional.’
“Bro, it’s an honor that you consider me one of your closest friends,” Alby said when I described this story to him.
Analyzing it all now, I’m not surprised that we became such good friends. I was fortunate that our personalities clicked and that he’s also a sage trainer. But we also spend an hour together every week. I don’t even see my friends that regularly.
I thought our relationship was unique, but not only did I find out that Alby cheats on me (“How dare you talk about ‘Downton Abbey’ with another client!”) but it’s not unusual for trainers to bond closely with their clients, both inside and outside of the gym.
When I told Sports Club/LA trainer Kelly Friedman that I hang out, hit the bar, and watch TV with my trainer, she didn’t blink.
“That’s not abnormal,” the 26-year-old Friedman said. “Absolutely. That’s very common.”
Friedman also forms friendships with her clients. She goes running with one every Sunday. She dines with others. These friendships don’t happen with all her clients. But some clients interact with her much the way they would with a therapist, telling her all their problems as they exercise multiple times a week.
“You end up sharing, they end up sharing,” she said.
Not surprisingly, she’s equal parts therapist and trainer.
“Oh, that happens every single day,” she said. “They know it, too. They acknowledge that they’re abusing my services, but I think they also understand that I’m a professional. Outside we can be friends, inside it’s professional.”
Jeff LaJoie, a 24-year-old trainer at Equinox, also trains and bonds with clients, and often finds himself listening to their problems.
“I’ve actually considered getting a degree in psychology and opening up a business where I do psychology and training together,” he said. “I’m there to provide an hour of absolute health. I don’t think that boils down to just exercise. I think that boils down to mental health and physical health.”
One of LaJoie’s clients, 39-year-old Fort Point attorney Melissa LaGrant, works out with her trainer three to four times a week. It’s inevitable that they end up sharing, and LaGrant raves that talking to LaJoie helps reduce stress levels while she exercises.
“If I don’t have that bond, then I’ll switch trainers,” she said. “You need to feel extremely comfortable with them, and you have to be brutally honest about everything. The more of a bond you have with a trainer, the more successful you become in your training relationship in general.”
Not everyone is a fan of these close encounters of the weightlifting kind. Harry Hanson, founder of the American Academy of Personal Training, says that sometimes friendships can get in the way of successful training sessions. He said that nine times out of 10 trainers blur the line between friendship and professional relationship with clients. A successful client-trainer relationship is not built on friendship, he says, it’s based on a good workout.
“A good therapist doesn’t tell you what to do, they listen,” Hanson said. “Personal trainers tend to interject, they try to give you advice. But you have to maintain that line of professionalism. Working with a trainer is like working with your doctor or your accountant. You generally don’t go out for drinks with them.”
Hanson, who runs his academy in New York and Boston, is a professional who has worked with celebs such as Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, and Tyra Banks. I entirely respect his opinion.
But I am also quite happy that not all trainers follow his advice. When I miss my sessions with Samano, I feel like I’m missing an important part of my week. No Alby means I don’t have someone to offer me advice, and vice versa. It means no “Downton Abbey” gabfests, and it means there’s no one around to call me “Dog” or “Bro.”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.