By Luke Rettig

Bigger and Stronger

I had one of my first obsessions in elementary school, when I discovered the unexpected joy of ham and cheese sandwiches. Having never tasted two ingredients more perfectly paired, I ate them religiously for years afterward. And when I first tried mayonnaise, I never ate another ham and cheese sandwich without Hellman’s spread.

More obsessions followed over the years: periods of intense interest in activities like motorcycles, skydiving, organic food, chocolate-making, bartending and rock-climbing. Obsessive personalities like mine often lend themselves to journalism, where one can turn most obsessions into nice little articles before abandoning the subject to something new.

My current obsession is weight-lifting, or “resistance training” as Paul calls it. Paul is my new personal trainer. He’s one of those friendly guys at the gym with the cool new sneakers, easy smiles and proportionally perfect, 225-pound Greek-sculpted bodies. I look more like a string bean, either blessed or cursed with the lifelong leanness of my father. At 33 years old, I’ve weighed 165 pounds for the last 10 years, with my body refusing to gain weight like a bank teller refusing to hand over the unmarked bills.

I was in 7th grade the first time I “lifted weights.” This was pre-season soccer training, and our first exercise was the inclined bench press, which my teammates and I hoisted up and down with the boundless energy and the witless enthusiasm of youth. Two days later, none of us could raise our hands in math class.

Fast forward to my first year after college, when I moved to Venice, Calif. and joined the original Gold’s Gym made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Between working on TV sitcoms and straight-to-Mexican-cable horror movies, I’d visit Gold’s Gym and gape at the power of steroids: the veins it produced, how it impregnated arms and legs with muscle. Seeing that we each have the miraculous ability to change our bodies, I wanted mine to become a temple of muscle.

I met Paul because my current gym offers a free assessment when you sign up. Having played sports all my life, I long ago dismissed the notion of a personal trainer. What could they teach me? I imagined a personal trainer standing next to me at the leg-extension machine, holding a clipboard, telling me to grab a drink between sets and counting my hard-earned money while I sweated.

During our first meeting, Paul listened to my story of skinniness and nodded soulfully when I confessed my goal of reaching 175 pounds. “OK,” Paul said, “here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna cut out your cardio entirely. We’re gonna put you on a six-day lift schedule. We’re gonna focus one day each on the big muscle groups: legs, chest, back and arms. And after each workout, you’re gonna rest four days before you repeat that muscle group.”

Paul had an instinct for planning. I liked his default positivity and immediate belief that together we could overcome my 165-pound curse. Already I felt a new confidence from within. “You’re gonna have to eat like a truck,” Paul continued. “You’re gonna break down every muscle in your body, and you’ll have to eat and eat and eat some more to recover. Sound good?” Paul asked. I nodded. “So let’s get started on the legs,” he said.

To make a long column short, we did legs that day, and while I could theoretically stand two days later, I could not stand without grimacing. With a personal trainer by your side, you cannot hide. Your personal trainer will stand next to you at every weight station, with a clipboard, instructing you to “get that weight up there.” My legs lifted more that day than they had in the two years prior. As I finished each repetition, Paul wrote down what I lifted and then told me to grab a drink.

I’m gaining muscle now – currently at 167 pounds – and I’ve never been happier at the gym. If you ever doubted the impact of a personal trainer, or any other seemingly decadent service provider like an executive coach or life coach, go try one for three introductory sessions. I’m lifting weights 30 to 50 percent heavier than I’ve ever attempted, and lifting them successfully.

Paul earns every penny because the lesson here is that human beings, with the rarest of exceptions, will not push themselves past their own professional, physical and intellectual limits. For that, you need another human pushing you beyond what’s comfortable, a professional pusher paid to improve your performance with a single-minded focus. In weightlifting and perhaps in life, if you really want to get bigger, stronger, lighter or smarter, you should pay someone to help you.