Feel the burn together

Lucy Cleland despaired of her love handles and lack of willpower. So she hired her own fitness guru and discovered that personal trainers are not just for stars
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As an adult and a Londoner, I have always managed to convince myself that my fitness choices are few and far between. I went for an induction to my local gym once and never went back. Self-motivation has never been my strong point, and I'm not alone in this. Last week, sports psychologists at Loughborough University announced the results of a study showing just how hard it is to fit exercise into the hurly-burly of modern life. There are so many demands on our time, they said, that few people find the motivation to commit to a regular regime, and that they give up all too quickly. Demoralised and guilty, we soon lapse back into our old, unfit ways.

As an adult and a Londoner, I have always managed to convince myself that my fitness choices are few and far between. I went for an induction to my local gym once and never went back. Self-motivation has never been my strong point, and I'm not alone in this. Last week, sports psychologists at Loughborough University announced the results of a study showing just how hard it is to fit exercise into the hurly-burly of modern life. There are so many demands on our time, they said, that few people find the motivation to commit to a regular regime, and that they give up all too quickly. Demoralised and guilty, we soon lapse back into our old, unfit ways.

I decided I needed to be forced, cajoled and bullied - humiliated, even - and that's where Alexis, a French basketball player-turned-personal trainer, came in. I knew that hiring a trainer was a pretty indulgent thing to do, but I wasn't making a fashion statement, imitating a celebrity, or trying to get a husband with my latest accessory; I was buying in a service because my own, admittedly pathetic, attempts had failed.

"One of the main advantages of having a personal trainer is that they will not only set specific and obtainable goals but, most importantly, will set the most appropriate routine within each session," says Matt Roberts, fitness guru to the stars. "Motivation levels are dramatically higher when working with a trainer and their ability to produce results on schedule is one of the key differences that a good trainer is able to bring to a client."

I and Alexis - who was firm to the point of bullying, and who also had a most impressive six-pack - went through my goals; from these, he devised a regime for me, based on two one-hour sessions a week for six weeks. He vowed that together we'd achieve my targets, which were to lose the love handles (or at least minimise them), tone me and change my attitude about fitness from being something tiresome and unachievable to something I'd enjoy again. His aim is to get his clients to the stage where they have the motivation to carry on alone.

Week One

I struggled out of bed at 7am and put on my alarmingly unflattering jogging bottoms and sweatshirt. I didn't care. I'd already imparted secrets to Alexis that no other man is privy to (ie my weight and the size of my waist). For once, this was going to be a refreshingly open and honest relationship.

"Morning," Alexis chirruped, in an annoyingly breezy and wide-awake fashion. "Let's go! It's assessment day!" The next hour consisted of him putting me through my paces and determining how unfit I really was. The fact that I couldn't jog to the park without stopping (about 500m away) was a bit of a giveaway. "Come on, push it, keep with me." "Did I tell you I hate jogging?" I gasped at him breathlessly, as my legs began to give way beneath me. He had little sympathy, merely raising an eyebrow in a "so what?" manner. It was the thing I loathed most in the world, yet there I was in the park, among that strange fraternity of early-morning joggers, puffing and blowing, cursing and perspiring.

Once back in the relative privacy of my flat (I had warned my flatmate not to come out of his room on pain of death), Alexis made me work all my muscle areas with three sets of various torturous activities - squats while holding a 4kg ball, push-ups (of which I managed three), crunches and leg raises, until I was sweating like over-boiled cabbage. He set me targets, noting down my efforts on his notepad. I had to keep beating my previous record: enormously difficult when my muscles were literally quivering with exertion, but at least I was trying (it's hard not to when a big man is standing over you with a "don't mess with me" expression on his face). I appreciate that some people might disdain this approach to getting fit, but the boot-camp mentality works just fine for me; I wasn't about to disobey.

Week Two

Having spent the last few days in agony, barely able to walk, I was dreading the next session, but knowing that that was what Alexis expected and that I'd be letting myself down if I were to give up now, I didn't.

After our jog to the park - without stopping this time - he produced boxing gloves, much to my glee. I really let loose, pummelling away with all my might, sweat flying. Whenever I let my guard down, Alexis gave me a cheeky bash, fuelling my anger and therefore my punch. He taught me that all exercise should come from the core of the body, so whatever I was doing I had to contract my abdominal muscles, not only to achieve a flat stomach, but also to promote overall strength, power and control. I had a definite tendency to rush through the exercises, but the slower you do them, the more effective they are - and the more painful.

Week Three

By now, I was feeling no pain the day after my sessions, though they remained gruelling. Alexis remarked wryly that I was no longer wearing a large baggy sweatshirt in an effort to cover up, but a more fitted vest. I blushed, and said I hadn't really thought about it, butI was feeling happier about myself and more confident. I hadn't lost much weight, but my body was definitely trimmer and muscles were appearing that I'd never seen before.

Week Four

I was halfway through my programme and it was assessment time again. We went through the same regime as we had on my first session. Apart from the jogging, I didn't seem to have improved much. I was disappointed, but Alexis wasn't surprised: "People tend to be very eager in the first session. They want to impress the trainer, so the adrenaline kicks in," he said. "[The second time round] they know what they're in for, but now they have been taught to do the exercises in the correct way, which means they are working muscles that have been previously unused."

My results just made me more determined. I had thought the sessions would get easier as I became fitter, but Alexis only turned up the heat, pushing me as far and further than I thought I could go. I hadn't stopped dripping with sweat and my cursing was as vehement as ever, but I felt good. The work-outs were positively affecting my mental state - I was calmer, more energised and focused.

Week Five

I didn't resent my early morning exertions any more; training had become part of my lifestyle. And because I knew I had to be on top form, it curtailed any over-indulging the night before. Down went my consumption of alcohol; up went my intake of water. During a session, I could drink up to two litres. My muscles were toning up, my stomach contracting and the jog to the park (and around it twice and back again) was achievable, just about. I started walking to work instead of taking the Tube, remembering to squeeze my "glutes" as Alexis had taught me, not caring what the person behind me must have thought.

I can't say I exactly enjoyed my hours with Alexis - until afterwards, when I glowed with mild euphoria from the endorphin rush - but they were never monotonous, something that had turned me off exercise previously. He varied the programme by concentrating on different areas of the body. After the obligatory 20-minute cardiovascular work-out, we might go hell for leather with the boxing and upper-body work, or he'd make me lunge across the park or hang from the monkey bars in the kids' playground, legs flailing beneath me as I clung on for dear life. You learn to overcome any embarrassment very quickly, smiling to mums strolling past with their pushchairs, as though this is the most normal thing in the world. I realised I had become part of the gritted-teeth brigade. Alexis's own physical strength and fitness, his threats of punishment and occasional compliments on my progress spurred me on - as did, of course, the chance to lay into him with the boxing gloves.

My time with Alexis is coming to an end. I will miss his encouragement, his threats to give me a "beasting" when he feels I'm not giving it my all, and his inability to count to 30. His excuse is that he's French, but it's just another ploy to push me through the pain barrier and get the most out of me. That's the thing about a personal trainer: left to my own devices, I'd stop at the first twinge of pain or hint of sweat. I haven't become a fitness junkie or achieved a body of J-Lo proportions (although I do OK in the bottom department), but I feel good about myself, and that, after all, is half the battle. I'm going to commandeer my flatmate into taking over the whistle, if only so I can do the laughing for once as I leave him in my dust as I speed off in my new Lycra leotard (perhaps that's going too far). And now that summer is here, I can't think of anything nicer than joining the jogging fraternity in the park.

For all the pain and hard work, overall this has been one of my most healthy relationships. And, for once, when we part I know I will walk away without heading straight to the pub to drown my sorrows. All that sugar in wine can play havoc with the thighs.

Alexis Ajavon Baron Cohen: 07950 920155 - six-week packages from £670; Matt Roberts Personal Training: www.mattroberts.co.uk; for a trainer in your area log onto www.nrpt.co.uk

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