Taking it personally

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Taking it personally

Just when the gym-goer Hong Ka-young, 33, thinks she has finally mastered the right posture to flex her quadriceps and can get down to some serious working out on the leg extension machine, her personal trainer immediately gives her a tap and says, "Hey, relax your shoulders."

It's something Cammy Dennis, a certified personal trainer, goes through over and over again. "The majority of people just watch other people doing exercises and they never do it right," she says. "They just copy what they see and I have to re-educate them."

Hiring a personal trainer may be a new concept for Koreans, but it is a well-established practice in the United States. Many trainers in the United States even make house calls to make sure a client is working out properly.

In Korea, though, personal trainers are close to nonexistent. Staff trainers are available in nearly all fitness centers, but that is not the same thing. "Most Koreans don't know the difference between staff trainers and personal trainers," says Kweon Man-Geun, Mr. Korea 1997. In fact, the local outlet of the Gold's Gym franchise recently stopped offering personal training due to the lack of demand.

The ratio of staff trainers to clients may be as high as 1 to 300 in some Korean gyms. "Personal training is really when you are working one-on-one with somebody," Mrs. Dennis says, "for usually half an hour to an hour. And you're doing more than just answering a few questions. It's hard for a client to get individual attention when you have 30 people in front of you."

Before she begins coaching anyone, Mrs. Dennis first checks the client's health enough to start a program by having him or her fill out a questionnaire. The next step is to find out a client's goals. "If you are just answering a few questions on the floor, that's not really helping," she says. It takes a more active approach to help a client properly.

In addition, personal trainers need to have knowledge about any special needs a client might have, such as an injury or a recent surgery. Mrs. Dennis says she has had experience dealing with everything from high blood pressure to multiple sclerosis.

The 39-year-old personal trainer didn't realize until a year ago that she was the only personal trainer in Korea certified by the American Council on Exercise. Established in 1985, the council is the largest nonprofit fitness certifying organization in the world, and it claims to have more than 100,000 fitness professionals in more than 77 countries. But in Korea, Mrs. Dennis is the only one.

Mrs. Dennis moved from the United States to Tokyo 10 years ago and later started out there as an aerobics instructor. Interested in being a personal trainer, she realized she needed to have certification and approached the American Council on Exercise. Once she received certification, she became so busy that she had to turn clients away.

The mother of four says that, regardless of what other gyms have experienced, she has had no problems finding clients in her three years in Korea.

"Unfortunately, people perceive personal training as a quick fix," she says. "Everybody wants to lose weight tomorrow and change the way they look tomorrow. And they think a personal trainer would do that for them." She does not think Koreans are too shy to hire a personal trainer. Instead, she says the industry here is set up differently, and Korean gyms are going through a transition. "I think the younger generation will pick up on that very quickly. They are the ones that I see with a lot of personal trainers right now," she says.

Nowadays, more fitness centers provide English-speaking staff trainers. Michael Chang, the director of Seoul's Olympic Sports Corp., a gym in Nonhyeon-dong, says the ability to speak English is very important when he hires a staff trainer for his gym.

Those interested in getting local certification as staff trainers can take a course from the Korea Bodybuilding Federation. Established in 1987, the federation began providing courses five times a year for the education of staff trainers from 1993. The eight-week course, titled "Coach Academy," focuses on basic bodybuilding skills and nutrition.

A federation spokesman, Kim Myung-soo, says getting a staff training certificate is an important part of finding a job. So far, about 2,000 people have graduated from the program, with 80 percent working as staff trainers.

For information, call 02-3431-4523 or visit the Web site at http://bodybuilding.sports.or.kr.

by Patrick Fok

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