Do the Sarkozy workout

Personal trainer Julie Imperiali has helped hone the bodies of the French President and his wife. Will her regime work for Genevieve Roberts, too?

Tuesday 02 February 2010 01:00

It's seven in the morning, an unearthly hour to be doing anything aside from sleeping. But today I'm meeting Julie Imperiali, the fitness trainer to the French president and his former supermodel wife, and her healthy day starts much earlier than mine. She is not only wide awake and ready to exercise, but is wearing discreet make-up and looking positively glamorous in her sports gear.

But Imperiali is clearly nervous. An article in an English newspaper last year suggested that her exercise regime improved Nicolas Sarkozy's sex life – something she is adamant she has never claimed and that I mustn't repeat. "It was absolutely horrible," she says. Despite the article, Sarkozy continues to train with Imperiali. "He's the first French President to have a personal trainer," she says. They now meet twice a week, and run together before exercising to stretch and reinforce the muscles.

It was France's first lady who introduced Imperiali to her husband. "I met Carla four years ago for just 10 minutes while I was working at the Ritz Health Club. She asked about my method and then asked me to train her at home," she says.

Frustratingly, but not surprisingly, she's reluctant to dish the detail on Sarkozy's personal fitness plan, but it clearly appears to be working for him. Newspaper and magazine commentators have often commented on the increasingly trim physique of the President, who was pictured last summer – sans love handles – with Carla Bruni on holiday at her family residence at Cap Negre in the south of France. Just days earlier his high-pressure job and punishing diet had been blamed for his collapse while jogging in Versailles. But Imperiali makes clear this is something that she is unwilling to comment on. Despite this glitch, Sarkozy's senior ministers are said to be losing weight to please their boss.

If it's good enough for the President – and gives me even the tiniest chance of getting the body of Carla (only shorter) – Imperiali's methods are definitely good enough for me which is why I am at the Spa du Fouquet, a hotel gym in central Paris, this morning.

First, Imperiali explains the basics. A fitness ball is crucial to her workout– and is reportedly a Bruni favourite. "My training is holistic," she says. "I combine yoga and Pilates and work with the Swiss fitness ball, which stops any pressure being put on the spine. And I want everyone to have a big smile on their face at the end of a class."

Her training regime concentrates on the perineum, the pelvic floor muscles that traditional Pilates strengthens. "It's important for both men and women," she says. "These are important muscles for balance and for posture." In her book, Julie Imperiali: Coaching Ventre Plat et Taille Fine, she writes that the perineum "plays a capital role in our sex lives". She sees the body as being like a house. "The perineum is the floor of the house. The shoulder plates are the roof, while the transverse muscles under the six pack make up the walls."

The explanation over, I take my place sitting on the Swiss fitness ball as if it were a stool and begin with some stretches, doing my best to copy Imperiali's posture. I try to concentrate on my "house", though I can't keep my mind on the job as I'm in danger of falling off the ball. It gets worse when I start doing the sit-ups lying over the ball and it rolls off to the side, taking me with it.

Another exercise involves standing with knees slightly bent, holding the ball with both hands in front of me, then swivelling it to make giant figure of eights in the air. I catch sight of myself in mirror – I look like I'm concentrating very hard on shielding myself from an attack of bees.

Despite this, I can see the appeal of training with Imperiali. She makes me giggle as I stretch and is so enthusiastic that I don't feel self-conscious about my lack of sporting prowess. And because it's one-on-one, she can pitch the training so I'm left feeling encouraged rather than despondent or so exhausted I need a little lie down. The next day I'm feeling stiff all over – and I thought she'd gone easy on me.

Imperiali, 27, grew up on a farm near Lyon in the southeast of France and trained in classical ballet. While she was growing up, she spent a lot of time in the gymnasium at Hauteville-Lompnes (Ain), learning championship-winning aerobic workouts.

She left her job as fitness manager at the Ritz Health Club in 2007 to concentrate on her private clients. She has more than a dozen clients who are willing to fly in from New York, London, and even Columbia to see her, and often take her on their holidays to continue their training. "We work together, we're a team," she says. "I help them get fit and lose weight, if they want to, but also work out a food plan and help them to enjoy life," she says.

Imperiali believes people should follow her workout once every two days, saying that the off-day is good for muscle recovery. But don't think this means spending a day lolling about. Every day, she says, should be started with a sun salutation, the traditional waking stretch routine in yoga, and should include a half-hour brisk walk.

Exercise, however, is just half the recipe to keeping in good shape. "I concentrate on nutrition also," she says. "People should never skip a meal, and proteins and carbohydrates shouldn't be combined." So no more steak and chips then.

Imperiali swears by several magic ingredients: lemon juice mixed with tepid water to detox in the morning and stimulate the stomach muscles, green tea as opposed to caffeine, and aloe vera juice which helps digestion and calms any inflammation of the intestines. She also recommends eating lots of fruit. "But eat it at least half an hour before a meal, or at least two hours after a meal, as otherwise it can interfere with digestion," she adds.

Unlike many diets, she does not label food as good or bad, and does not expect her clients to give up all their excesses. While Sarkozy does not drink alcohol, his wife remains a bonne vivante, fond of smoking and drinking. And Imperiali herself drinks alcohol, though she tends to reserve it for when she's socialising with friends at the weekend.

Having been inspired by my own private training session I vow to stick to her regime although I'm not sure how I'm going to manage without my daily three-or-more cups of sugar-laden coffee. I already walk for at least half an hour a day so I just need to increase my pace slightly. Waking up to a sun salutation and tepid water with lemon is slightly less tempting, but if this means I'm one step closer to a supermodel body it's got to be worth a go.

I also follow Imperiali's online training regime. I especially enjoy the work with triceps that she calls the "muscle of glamour". It's true – how can anyone wave gracefully if their arms wobble? Perhaps triceps are the secret to French chic.

Even while I'm doing pull-ups to tone my arms, Imperiali emphasises posture. The online video tells me to pull my shoulders back. She says that some 80 per cent of people curl their shoulders forward, the classic "desk posture" that I know I'm guilty of. By the end of the week, I'm sure I'm feeling a little more flexible.

I'm avoiding snacking on anything except fruit, and am avoiding sugary food – including sweet fruit – in the evenings. Separating proteins and carbohydrates is harder, they go everywhere together. Potatoes seem utterly pointless without protein, sushi is suspicious, and I have a giant craving for a roast. But after a few days my energy levels pick up in the evenings, and lighter dinners stop the slightly swollen feeling of overindulgence that often accompanies a long, lush dinner. The biggest improvement is my stomach muscles, which are noticeably firmer in just a few days. They're down to the Swiss ball figure of eight that has quickly become my favourite part of the routine.

On the other hand I'm not managing a sun salutation every morning, but then, there's very little sun at this time of year. And I'm starting to look longingly at coffee shops – it seems wrong to live in Paris and abstain from café culture.

Still, despite the lack of solar power and ultimately a return to coffee, it has taken just two weeks to notice an improvement to my fitness levels.

While Imperiali's method may not be revolutionary, she has taken the best of eastern and western exercise regimes and combined them with common sense, resulting in a training programme that I suspect I could stick to long term. Which, compared to faddy diet-and-fitness methods, is a result. And whenever I feel tempted to give her training a miss, I simply think: "What would Carla do?"

Coaching Ventre Plat et Taille Fine by Julie Imperiali (Leduc Editions, £14.77)

Fit for office How politicians train

* Barack Obama starts his daily routine at 7.30am, focusing on cardio one day then weight and strength training the next. He also plays basketball to keep fit.

* Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state (right) is up at 4.30am for a 40-minute gym session.

* Gordon Brown completes a half-hour vigorous jog through Westminister, surprising passers-by with a Prime Ministerial run-by in St James Park, Hyde Park and Green Park.

* Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, reguarly visits the gym and has a passion for hiking and cross country skiing.

* Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, is a fitness fanatic. She alternates between morning workouts or a run around the grounds of her home.

* Vladimir Putin keeps in shape with one of his favourite sports, judo, in which he currently holds a sixth dan. He has also been seen swimming in a Siberian lake. Larissa Khatchik

Follow your leader: Sarkozy's regime

* Never skip a meal, especially breakfast, which Imperiali says is the most important meal of the day.

* Drink fluids throughout the day, ideally between one and a half and two litres of water.

* Dinner is traditionally a time to share a meal with your family. "Don't give up on dinner," Imperiali says. "But eating vegetables and lean meat, such as chicken, is good for an evening meal."

* Don't give up fat. Lipids, or fats, should make up between 30 and 35 per cent of calories each day, Imperiali says. "Essential fatty acids are crucial for the heart and skin," she explains.

* Eat balanced meals at regular times. "Snacking between meals upsets the rhythm of your body," says Imperiali.

* Eat a balanced diet – it's 50 per cent of keeping in good shape. Try her "magic" ingredients: green tea to replace coffee, tepid water with lemon for breakfast to detox and stimulate the stomach muscles, and aloe vera juice regularly to help digestion and calm any inflammation of the intestines.

* Safeguard a few hours a week for exercise and for relaxation and wellbeing. It's crucial, and as Imperiali says: "If the head of state can find time, I'm sure you can also."

* You only need do a full workout once every two days – the rest day gives your body time to recover between sessions. But try to include a half-hour brisk walk into your daily routine, even on off-days.

* Practise the traditional yogic sun salutation when you wake up each morning.

* Keep your perineum muscles in shape by contracting them several times a day. Squeeze the muscles whenever you remember – it's the feeling of clenching inside as if you are stopping yourself midway through weeing.

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