Stretching the Truth About Area Trainers

Brad Pitt plays a Washington trainer in the new Coen brothers film, "Burn After Reading," but his real-life counterparts say his character shows "a lack of education."
Brad Pitt plays a Washington trainer in the new Coen brothers film, "Burn After Reading," but his real-life counterparts say his character shows "a lack of education." (Fact Or Fiction?)
By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The most unexpected twist in the new Coen brothers movie, "Burn After Reading," isn't the ending. It's that the main characters of an espionage thriller set in Washington aren't senators, cops or even rascally reporters: They're trainers at a gym called Hardbodies. As played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, with his hair sculpted into a blond pouf, they're a dumb duo convinced that a disc recovered in the women's locker room contains top-secret files they can use to score blackmail money.

Although they appreciate the Pitt casting, the city's real trainers were hoping for something more flattering for their first on-screen portrayal. So, to give them a chance to set the record straight, I asked them to fact-check the film and reveal what it's truly like to be in the Washington bench-press corps.

Do trainers fit that stupid stereotype?

The days of meatheads and bimbos are coming to an end, promises Lance Breger, head private trainer at Mint Fitness in Adams Morgan. As fitness has matured into an industry, it's attracted bona fide professionals with a better understanding of body mechanics, different populations and the need for modifications. "The trend now is toward four-year degrees at least, as well as one of the top three certifications. The new model of trainer has studied this for a long time," Breger says. And the ones in this town are certainly worldly enough to know not to try to sell secrets to the . . . well, we won't spoil the movie. (If you don't know your certifications, the standards come from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Sports Medicine.)

What should trainers do if, while stretching a client, they hear a loud noise?

Pitt leaves a poor man writhing and screaming something about having "cracked" his posterior, but Kevin Scanlon, fitness director of the Energy Club in Shirlington, says that would never happen on his watch. "There are progressions you go though when stretching. You get to a resistance barrier, you stop, contract and release," he explains. "The [rear end] cracking comes down to a lack of education."

Are classified documents lying around in health club locker rooms?

As you read this, chances are good a similar disc is sitting next to someone's sweaty sports bra. As Scanlon says: "Members leave everything and anything. Wedding rings are a daily occurrence. BlackBerrys, briefcases." He does, in fact, remember (from his days at the swanky Sports Club/LA) a panicked man calling about misplaced "confidential files," though he doesn't remember if the files were recovered. The blackmail part seems like more of a stretch, though.

How often do you drink smoothies?

Viewers have to suspend disbelief when Pitt and McDormand are slurping from Jamba Juice containers. That has to be a Hollywood special effect, as the closest JJ location is somewhere in Philadelphia. But frozen blended juice concoctions are a trainers' staple because of the crazy hours they work, says Sega Songha of Verve Fitness in Rosslyn. "It's difficult to get a healthy meal in when we have session after session. We might just have 15 minutes. So we can get one with extra protein, or put some wheat grass in there." Other folks might get away with scarfing down fast food, but that doesn't fly in the gym, even if a sugar-loaded smoothie that tastes like dessert is just as bad for you. Angel Stone, founder of Eshe Body Studios in Arlington, jokes that trainers drink smoothies while wearing revealing outfits to prove they've worked out hard enough to deserve one: "If you're going to consume 600 calories in one cup, you need a tight-fitting top."

How much does appearance matter to trainers?

If you think you're self-conscious about taking your shirt off at a pool party, think about the expectations a trainer has to meet. In "Burn," McDormand's character wants to use her share of the ill-gotten gains for a slew of plastic surgery procedures. And though none of the trainers I interviewed have gone that route (or need to, for that matter), they can see why she'd want to. "It's a very aesthetic industry. People hire trainers they want to look like," Breger says. "I've had clients come up to me and say, 'I want the X or Y that you have.' Unfortunately, it's often more important [to the client] than your brain." Although clients often view them as "bionic health nerds," Breger says, it's hard work to look that good. As Stone adds, "I get sore, too, and I like ice cream."

Do trainers spend their time at the gym Internet dating?

Scouring dating sites seems to fill McDormand's work hours, and it's not so far-fetched to believe that a real trainer could be doing that, too.

With schedules that often start at 6 a.m. and end at 8 p.m., there's usually some downtime in the middle of the day, Scanlon says. And it's better than the alternative of hitting on co-workers and clients, which definitely happens, much to the chagrin of everyone else there.

"What if there's a fight? Then there's drama in the club. It's like 'The O.C.' with dumbbells," complains Breger, who has seen this kind of thing a little too often.

Can clients count on trainers to care about them?

Pitt's and McDormand's characters seem more focused on breaking and entering than on helping gymgoers achieve their goals, and trainers say it's critical to find someone who will focus on you. "Some don't listen to clients' needs," Stone says. "They have this I-know-all-and-I-can't-be-corrected attitude." Making unrealistic promises is the trainer behavior that Breger can't stand. And Scanlon just picked up a client who was the victim of the worst kind of treatment from her former trainer. "He beat her up pretty good: hurt her shoulders and knees. And she'd prepaid him, and he'd never paid her back for her unused sessions. Those people are out there," he says. Sounds to me like the plot for a horror movie.

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