The image of a personal trainer is usually a chipper, sinewy person in expensive gym wear, ready to pump you up, catering to either serious athletes or folks with serious disposable income. This may be ... largely true, but even as a member of neither of those categories, it’s still be worth looking into, particularly especially if you didn’t have to drop a dime for it. Many gyms memberships come with a complimentary session, and others may give you a free consultation before you enroll. So if you happen upon a free, live, personal trainer in the wild, don’t run away in fear of spandex, just see what they can do.

For starters, a good personal trainer may get a basic rundown on your own body, demystifying the mortal shell you’ve inhabited for decades. Though the types of accreditation vary drastically, a good one—mine had relevant degrees and sounded fresh off his final exams—should be knowledgeable about physiology and nutrition, capable of more general guidance in terms of diet and wellness. Out sitdown started out with a review of what I ate on a daily basis (“all good”), measurement of my vitals, and a bioelectrical impedance test, which passes an electrical current through you to determine your body composition—the particular blend of bone, muscle, and fat that makes you the lovable bag of flesh you are, all laid out in terms of pounds and percentages.

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Sounds Frankensteinian, but the test consists only of a scale with metal surfaces under the soles of your feet and for your thumbs to touch, and you feel nothing—though its considered a rough guide to body composition, it’s less invasive than calipers and quicker and cheaper than the fancier alternatives. Out from the machine came a shockingly fine-grained account of each limb and section of my body. It’s uncanny to watch yourself get broken down into its component parts for the first time—getting clarity on what I was made of and, if I wanted, how I could best change that makeup. (I thought things looked fine but my trainer said given our routine and maxed-out diet we should aim to pile on 17 pounds of muscle, which, uh, word. At least he acknowledged that this was a moonshot mostly intended to keep me striving.)

Next came a functional movement systems (FMS) test, intended to sort out any poor movement patterns—if, say, you squat ineffectively, or in a way that might endanger your health. The trainer asked me to maneuver my body into a number of faintly tricky static poses—squats and planks, and lunges, sometimes while holding a long dowel—and executing some small motions, as he observed closely and took notes. Since the test is intended to bring your weaknesses to the surface—finding all the exact little joints and junctures where your mobility or stability falters—you might find yourself wobbling and trembling in compensation, revealing where your body could use help.

All of this is done, presumably, to get to the actual exercise part. When I met him next, my trainer came ready with planned routine in hand and a timetable to stick to. I’d mentioned offhand the sports I play and what aspects I struggled with, and he had structured his workout plan accordingly. We began with gleaming dreams of being a marginally less shitty basketball player, which in my case means a less pathetic vertical leap and more lower-body strength for boxing out and posting up. And even I, ready to be a hater, had an excellent, edifying time.

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Why was this at all different from going to the gym on my own terms? A number of reasons:

You probably need much more specific goals than “lose weight” or “get real strong,” and they can help you locate those and devise a routine accordingly. If going to the gym feels like an aimless, improvised wander through a jungle of machinery that leaves you feeling damp and confused, you could use someone who is paid to be there to offer some structure. My guy was knowledgeable to ask about the specific areas of my basketball game that needed improvement, and tailored the routine on that granular a level. Even if all you want is sports-agnostic general fitness, there are probably specificity you need, given your starting point.

It is also the ideal medium for learning new exercises without hurting yourself. I wouldn’t attempt a strenuous exercise after only reading words about it, and it’s not always obvious how to translate a demonstration on video into real movement of your own. If you don’t have a friend who knows better, just having a human being there to watch the angle of your feet or correct the arch of your back may be reason enough to shell out, sparing you future medical bills. Once or twice I just pointed dumbly at devices I wanted to understand, and he patiently showed the way, even if they weren’t part of the day’s routine.

If you struggle with motivation, a personal trainer is a breathing reminder that you have spent money—fine, sure, sunk cost, whatever—and that another human has gone in on this with you. The mere presence of a human being goes a long way—even via verbal motivation, if that’s your thing. Just having someone standing there, cheering or not, makes you that much less likely to give up on the last few reps of your set, that constant temptation when your energy reserves are nearing depletion and there’s nothing to hold you accountable. And, of course, there’s also the added security of a dedicated spotter at all times.

Most importantly, if they’re competent, they can devise a better, or at least fresh routine for you to try. By disposition I am skeptical of most exercise science, seemingly too prone to fads and radical revision, but I’d still trust a) someone who has studied the subject matter and at least come up with some cogent philosophy and has helped clients get fitter without breaking themselves over b) me after having read a lot of lists on the internet and waded through some academic paper abstracts. His plan offered advice I never would’ve stumbled across myself, identifying the exact body issues that I am blind to—the ones I insulate myself from by sticking to old, safe routines. This session was the polar opposite of doing the same rotation of workouts for years until you fall into practiced, tedious comfort. Though soreness is not the proof of good work, the day after I felt obscure muscle groups awakening from deep slumber of underuse, which felt like enough of a sign to rattle me out of fitness complacency.

Also, you get a nice stretch at the end, the kind where someone leans on you and does all the work.

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