Photo by Illustration: Carolina Moscoso
Forty years ago, Nerio Alessandri requested a meeting with Giorgio Armani. Growing up poor in Cesena, Italy, Alessandri was used to making his own clothes, and he’d become quite good at it. Fresh out of school, he wanted to explore a career in fashion design.
Armani declined, but today Alessandri counts the fashion icon among his most devoted fans—not for couture, but cardio equipment. Rather than move to Milan to pursue fashion, Alessandri applied his design skill to his growing affinity for fitness. In 1983 he founded Technogym in his garage and began constructing a suite of exercise equipment. In the ’90s he expanded into workout software designed to sync one’s progress across a variety of machines.
The company eventually grew to become the official gym sponsor of the last eight Olympic Games and the favorite brand of professional athletes such as Rafael Nadal, celebrities including the Kardashians, and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. You can find Technogym machines in five-star resorts and aboard most tricked-out superyachts, not to mention in over 85,000 gyms and 400,000 private homes across 100 countries. More than 55 million people get fitter every day using the brand’s video content or hundreds of global fitness partners providing top-tier personalized training.
In my reporting for Bloomberg Pursuits, I embed within the world’s most prestigious lifestyle brands—everywhere from New York’s Plaza Hotel to the Las Vegas Strip—all to decipher what goes on behind the scenes of their services. To find out what it takes to be an in-demand personal trainer, I sought insight from the all-star team at Technogym. I spent three days at its starshiplike headquarters in Cesena to work with a coterie of international instructors as they perfected their form, led live group classes, and recorded videos. Then I hopped from London to Los Angeles, shadowing other personal trainers who coach sports and movie stars every day.
Here’s what I learned about the life of a personal trainer to the world’s elite.
The fitness revolution will be digitized
Instagram and TikTok have become integral to expanding a portfolio of clients. “We found all of our trainers through social media,” explains Attilio Grilloni, Technogym’s content director. When he began his international search for a world-class team of instructors, he combed apps to find individuals with compelling personalities and—most important—excellent form. The ability to properly explain technique for at-home viewers was key as well.
According to Alessandri, 90% of people who exercise are doing it wrong. It could be incorrect movement, speed, range of motion, heart rate, rest time, or the type of exercise for their physiology. Since Covid-19 emerged, “there have been more sports injuries than ever before,” he says, “because people are trying things on their own without guidance.”
Out of 400 auditions, Grilloni flew 40 aspiring stars to Italy for further vetting. The in-house team secretly observed potential trainers as they watched themselves played back on camera; those who cringed at seeing themselves on film were deemed better candidates—they were less self-involved. Eventually he whittled down his core team to six all-star “talent trainers”: Harry Sellers, Patrick Frost, Meghan Hayden, India Bailey, Deena Pierce, and Steph Nieman.
New York has the most intense clients …
For Alessandri it was natural to start a fitness company in his hometown. It was the Romans, after all, who conceived of the healthy-body, healthy-mind lifestyle.
But it’s New York that’s widely considered to be the fitness capital of the world, fueled by a less healthy work-hard, play-hard ethos that stretches from the boardroom to the squash court. “New York is easily 10 years ahead of other cities,” says Frost, who was ensconced in Manhattan’s boutique fitness scene before decamping to Miami. “Down here people come to class with sunglasses on and play on their phone.”
Lauren Kanski, who trains her high-net-worth clients on Technogym equipment, agrees. “New Yorkers will never miss a workout,” she says. “They’re the most overstressed people. They’re drinking too much and probably on some kind of substance.” Several trainers say it wasn’t uncommon to see finance guys at 6 a.m. who hadn’t yet gone to bed and still smelled of tequila.
… and the weirdest trends
New York is also the capital of fad exercise, says Chris Howell, who’s designed and outfitted luxury gyms for brands like Soho House.
The strangest one “was literally smoke and mirrors,” he says. “There were lights everywhere and misters spraying clouds of rosewater. Everyone had to climb on a treadmill in the dark at a 10% incline while John Cena yelled on the big screen. When you reached the top, they sprayed an evergreen scent, but everyone was falling off of their machines because it was so loud and disorienting.”
Frost says he was offered a gig at a concept studio that strapped clients into harnesses with bungee cords and had them crawl around like spiders. “It was basically a bunch of rich White women bouncing on trampolines,” he says. He’s also seen boxing blended with treadmills and once got invited to teach rowing classes at cryogenic temperatures. Despite his last name, he declined.
Trainers work out muscles—and problems
Every single pro I shadowed agreed that they often feel more like a therapist than a fitness coach. Hayden, another of Technogym’s talent trainers, is even looking into getting certified in counseling, because so many of her students come to her with their life problems. The No. 1 issue? Relationships. “I’d say about 60% of my clients have told me they’re having affairs,” notes another trainer. “And I’m sure they haven’t even told their real therapists about it.”
Marital issues also play out in a fitness setting. One instructor regularly spends an hour hearing about a husband’s exploits with drugs and prostitutes while on international business trips; the next hour is spent training the man’s unwitting wife.
Sellers used to teach a couple who’d work out together. During their divorce they had to draw up legal papers to share custody of his cycling classes. “One of them got my Monday-Wednesday-Fridays, and the other worked out Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday.” Sunday was a day of rest for all three.
The sky is the limit for design
Marco Bonelli, co-founder of M2atelier, an architecture firm in Milan, estimates that the size of wellness spaces has doubled since the start of his career a couple of decades ago. He’s been the design lead on numerous hotel and residence projects, including the soon-to-open Core location in New York. He says gyms now occupy spaces once reserved for lounges or bars, often with the most scenic views from the property.
His biggest request in recent memory was to carve a bathtub for post-workout recovery out of a solid block of onyx imported from Iran. (The leftover stone was fashioned into postmodern sculptures that were placed around the gym.) Lissoni & Partners, another Milan design team, recently added a home fitness space in Amsterdam’s canal zone that required drilling below the water table and sending workers in scuba gear to pour a cement barrier around the expansive basement.
For private clients, customization is key. Technogym’s partnership with Dior has been a must-have for many fitness buffs—the ergonomic white treadmills go for a cool $9,000. “And don’t forget about monogrammed dumbbells,” Howell says. One NFL player wanted his home gym wallpapered with old photos of himself catching touchdowns. Another client asked for everything in the gym of his $8 million apartment to be painted in “Halloween orange.”
Antibacterial hand weights at almost $20,000 a set were all the rage during the pandemic, but the single most costly amenity Howell has come across is the “altitude room,” a sealed chamber that can replicate atmospheric pressure at different elevations. “You can go for a run on Everest if you want,” he says. The technology will set you back $100,000 before putting any equipment inside.
Jacob Neely, a Technogym affiliate, thinks he’s kitted out the best private gym in Manhattan, where two apartments on the 51st floor of a Midtown residence (about 5,000 square feet) were combined into a dedicated space with saunas and massage rooms in what would’ve been bedrooms. His client lives in a third apartment on the same floor.
Mark Wahlberg’s personal trainer, Brian Nguyen, estimates that the home gym in the actor’s Beverly Hills mansion, which listed for $87.5 million in April, had $500,000 worth of equipment and included a sled-pulling piste.
BMI—and BDSM—shows up in DMs
Not all requests are about getting fit. “Half of the DMs I receive are about my feet,” Sellers says, “and I used to play rugby. I have disgusting troll toenails, so I really don’t get it!” Frost agreed it was common. “Oh, feet? Yeah, all the time.”
For Sellers, it started when he arrived at the gym soaked through from a rainstorm. Without an extra pair of shoes, he taught barefoot. “Right after class,” he says, “I got a DM on Instagram from an anonymous account complimenting my feet and offering to pay me for foot photos.” (He declined.)
The trainers I spoke with showed me numerous messages asking for even kinkier things. “Will you watch as I give myself a wedgie?” one read. “Will you watch as I smash a pie in my own face?” asked another. Some went further: “Can I put on a dog collar and have you zap me?”
Offers to be a “money slave”—to pay extravagant sums that finance a trainer’s lifestyle as a form of virtual BDSM—crop up. These and other requests are often exceedingly polite. One said, “Hello, would you allow me to lick your shoes clean? May I also place the soles of your feet on my face? Kind regards.”
Drool emojis, requests for dirty underwear, and inquiries about OnlyFans accounts are also typical. “I get a lot of women asking me about favorite sex positions,” Kanski says. “But also so many bathroom questions, like ‘How much farting is too much farting?’ If you’re asking it’s probably too much.”
It’s a long, sweaty road to the top
Personal trainers usually start in a big-box gym, Howell explains, where they try to convert members into private clients. Fees are split evenly—new trainers keep about $75 of a $150 session—as they build a book of business robust enough to move to a boutique gym. There, they rent space by the hour and take home a larger percentage of a now $200 hourly fee.
Word-of-mouth can do wonders, as it did for Neely, who earned the devotion of a seemingly random gym rat after beating him in a pull-up competition. (He did over 60.) Shortly thereafter the man began referring Neely to all his friends, and Neely now trains the who’s who of the fashion world. He counts several A-list models as his clients, including Gisele Bündchen.
As they make a name for themselves, trainers can up the fee accordingly. Kanski has heard of trainers commanding $350 to $450 an hour, but a monthly retainer is the ideal, running the gamut from $5,000 to $15,000 per client. If the fee is handsome enough, they drop everything, as Nguyen did when Kate Hudson needed him full time for eight weeks to get camera-ready for the Knives Out sequel. “She was already incredibly fit, so I was her co-pilot, getting her down from 19% to 12% body fat.”
The pinnacle of personalized service is the growing cottage industry of private MDs—doctors who take on four or five patients for $50,000 to $100,000 a year and provide a fully integrated experience with weekly peptide and B12 injections, regular blood work and health screenings, and nutrition and fitness counseling in conjunction with trainers.
But for all that, the only requirement to become a trainer is accreditation from a licensed education provider. Kanski has racked up numerous certificates, including a bachelor’s degree in physiology, but, she says, “in all my years of instruction no client has actually ever asked to see my accreditation.”
Billionaires are difficult …
The most eccentric clients are major players in the business world, and they fall into two categories. “They either want to continue bossing people around, or they want me to tell them what to do,” Kanski explains.
Her most demanding client in recent memory was a billionaire’s wife who’d pay about $1,000 for Kanski to spend the morning at a villa in the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“I was at her disposal from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m., and I waited by the pool not knowing if or when she’d come out of her room to work out.” Sometimes Kanski would sit around until someone dismissed her; other times the client would “do a little training, then she’d walk away, look at her phone, then resume the workout without ever talking to me or explaining what was going on. It was the easiest but most painful $1,000 I made, because I felt so disrespected.”
The quirkiest session Sellers had was with a man who wanted to be trained at the same time as his teacup pig. “The pig’s walker met me at the door,” he notes. The London pad was full of expensive art, along with several pieces of Technogym equipment that were on display like sculptures.
… but athletes are impossible
Every year more than 30,000 people visit the Technogym headquarters, many of them professional athletes who come to train on equipment at the company’s showroom. Ferrari’s Formula One racing pit crew, for example, went to Cesena to design a workout program that would reduce their tire-changing time from five seconds to four.
But there’s a fine line between consistency and obsession. “I have a pro golfer who has eaten two mashed avocados on Ezekiel toast every morning for as long as I can remember,” explains Dallas-based Damon Goddard. An NBA player demands crushed ice—not cubed—for the water in his post-workout plunge bath. One of Neely’s clients listened to Rihanna’s Work on repeat for a full year of training. Played 17 times an hour each week for 12 months, that’s over 70,000 times the titular lyric was uttered.
And obsession can often tip over into superstition, especially when trying to replicate optimal competitive conditions. Goddard trains an NBA player who wears the same socks—always inside out—for every game. “He’s never washed them. Ever. They’re atrocious.”
Another of Goddard’s players once listened to Post Malone before he put up a career high in points scored. “Now he has to listen to Post Malone every time before he goes out on the court, and the worst part is, he hates Post Malone.”