Early starts. Gruelling schedules. Working late. Success and huge job satisfaction. Two leading fitness professionals shed some light on their rewarding careers. Interview With Personal Trainers BEN HARWOOD & GARETH BENNETT
Interview By Andrea Slivkova Smith
One has a delightfully sweet smile and a ‘boy-next-door’ look about him. The other has ‘rebel’ written all over him and goes by the name ‘The Machine’, testament to his training. Personality matters a great deal in this trade, and this formidable pair have been at the forefront of personal training in Herefordshire for a number of years. Their dedication to fitness – their own as well as that of their clients – is legendary. Ben Harwood and Gareth Bennett have proven over and over again that they have what it takes to draw clients to exercise, make changes to their lifestyles and keep their healthy habits going even when no one is looking. The two colleagues have been collaborating for more than a decade, recently in Ben Harwood’s newly opened Studio in Hereford. I interviewed the two personal trainers to find out more about this meeting of minds that is behind the success of their legion of clients. What does it take to be a successful PT?
Ben Harwood, 42, personal trainer with over 15 years of experience, founder of The Studio-Hereford and Buggyfit Hereford. A former football and rugby player, Ben took his first fitness instructor qualification whilst studying a Leisure Management degree and playing Rugby Union at UWIC (now Cardiff Met). He lives in Hereford with his fiancé Jenna and three children.
Gareth Bennett, 38, is a freelance personal trainer and Head Strength & Conditioning coach for the FA and Great British Women’s Goalball team. With 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, he has been running his personal training business Train-GB, training clients in a number of Hereford based gyms, including The Studio-Hereford, as well as via home visits.
You are both friends and colleagues. How did it all start?
Gareth: We met about 10 years ago when I started a new job at thePoint4, where Ben was the gym manager. I instantly liked his approach to the job. We work well together as group exercise coaches and have collaborated on many bootcamps and strength & conditioning sessions. When Ben opened his own training facility, I was more than happy to join forces again to help run the small group sessions and use The Studio to train some of my clients.
Ben: We have known each other since 2009 and have been good friends and colleagues since the early days of thePoint4. Back in 2009 there was a huge influx of new members at thePoint4 who needed inducting very quickly. Recommendations of instructors came in thick and fast, and Gareth’s was the name I kept hearing over and over. We employed Gareth as a fitness instructor and he has been working with me ever since. Gareth’s versatility and knowledge is his biggest strength along with his ability to get on with people. We originally collaborated by alternating group sessions at thePoint4 every other week and I can honestly say that pattern has continued to this day. When The Studio was at the planning stage, there was only one instructor I was going to approach. I trust Gareth to give his all in every session and I know that if I am away, The Studio is left in perfectly capable hands and that the clients get the highest standard of session.
What sparked your interest in fitness?
Ben: Sport from an early age. I played football at County level from the age of 11, then went on to represent the Midlands at rugby at U16 and U18 before playing at UWIC whilst at university. I only decided to do a Level 2 fitness instructor course when I was looking for something else to do other than leisure management! Completing the degree nearly put me off the industry before I had even started – I only went to university to play rugby, the rest was just a distraction.
Gareth: Growing up I wasn’t really fanatical about fitness, I hated cross country running and at school I was never serious about sport, I was more into it for the social side. When I left school and wanted to join the military, I got myself fit by running and circuit training, and although a career in the forces didn’t work out for me, I loved the physical training, so I enrolled on a sports coaching course at Holme Lacy College.
How would you describe the early days of your career?
Ben: I was once a quiet and shy instructor learning from some really confident and experienced coaches, and at times I questioned whether I was doing the right thing at all. I always liked to learn though and underpinned my first instructor course with lots of other areas of fitness to increase my knowledge. I have seen many different ways of teaching and coaching, some really good, some bad, and seeing both has improved me as an instructor from the early days.
Gareth: When I finished my sports coaching A-level, I got a part time job as a fitness instructor at Hereford Leisure Pool, doing gym inductions and general programmes for the members. After a few years and more training courses I moved onto the GP referral scheme, which really accelerated my knowledge and abilities. About five years into my fitness career I started teaching group exercise classes and only started personal training after 10 years in the industry. I wanted to be 100 per cent confident in my skills to help future-proof my reputation as a personal trainer.
Do you find the fitness industry has changed a lot during your career?
Gareth: Massively. The general population is a lot more health conscious these days and the number of training facilities in Hereford has tripled over the past 10 years. There is a vast amount of online resources available so you have no excuse to not keep on top of your health and fitness.
Ben: I’ll sound prehistoric when I say this but it is unrecognisable from when I began. Most gyms had a strict NO PHONES policy then. Ten years on, have a glance around any gym and it is routine to be taking selfies or filming your latest pose. Advice is given out by ‘experts’ in the gym or online with the latest ‘shred-til-you’re-dead’ programme… I’m still getting my head around this, how many people’s Instagram username ends in ‘PT’ or ‘FIT’. The industry is evolving and growing rapidly.
The fitness industry is known for anti-social work schedules. How do you balance your work with family and other commitments?
Gareth: Work-life balance, what is that?? It is the most difficult part of being a successful personal trainer. Monday to Friday I start at 6.30am and most days I don’t get home till 8pm. If I’m lucky I might get a couple of hours off in the afternoon, but then I am busy setting up programmes, invoices or learning for continued professional development. I also work half day on Saturdays. You really need to live this job if you want to make it work.
Ben: I would love to be able to say that I have a work and family balance but I don’t. The last 18 months have been the hardest and most time consuming part of my career so far but completely worth it. I’m very lucky to have an understanding and patient partner in Jenna. From my first client at 6am on Monday to the final class on Saturday, most weeks I coach up to 35 hours of PT or private groups, then additional ten to 15 hours of Buggyfit or group sessions at The Studio and outdoors around Herefordshire. Add all the admin, social media and emails, and I’m probably looking at a 70-80 hour week. I switch off at the weekends though, spending time with Jenna and the little ones.
Are you early risers or night owls?
Gareth: I used to burn the candle at both ends but now as middle age has sprung on me out of nowhere, I like to be in bed before 10pm.
Ben: I struggle to fit everything in, still trying to find balance but to make my business work I have to put the hours in. I am both an early riser and a night owl. A lie-in on Sundays is 7am at the latest, before the babies jump on my head!
Did you have a plan B?
Gareth: I never had a plan B, I threw myself into this career with 100 per cent commitment.
Ben: There was never a Plan B. I’ve been fortunate to work in fantastic facilities that have created great opportunities for me. I will always be involved in fitness in some capacity, perhaps mentoring or assessing others.
In your opinion, what makes a great instructor? What qualities have helped you in your career?
Ben: I’m a grafter and I don’t like to fail. I like to learn, keep current and find niches. I’m always open to ideas and will try to make things work. I like people and helping them see results. I like the happiness on the client’s face when they are achieving. I’m lucky to have had some amazing results throughout my career, and I want more.
Gareth: Adaptability – being able to adapt to your clients’ needs, physical or mental. Thinking quick on your feet. You might have to change exercise or sessions on the spot. All gyms have a slightly different vibe, or maybe training outdoors or in someone’s home, you need to adapt to your surroundings.
Ben: Engaging with the client or the group. Adapting a session or exercise to be specific to the target and respond quickly and seamlessly if the session isn’t going to plan. Also sound knowledge, good problem solving skills and an ability to tune in to the individual, without being dismissive or putting up barriers, are crucial. So many instructors fall at the first hurdle because of over-confidence, not putting the client before themselves, not understanding the client’s needs. Keeping sessions fresh and challenging is important. I have clients training with me now and still getting results after 12 years. A good instructor stands the test of time.
As a professional, how would you describe your style?
Ben: Relaxed but focused. I like to ensure that my clients know they are in very capable company without overpowering them with too much jargon or technicalities. I like to get things done, and most importantly, show my clients how they are performing and achieving.
Gareth: I am definitely a social chameleon, I change my style to suit my clients’ personalities and needs. Some are after a more fun and enjoyable style of training, others are more interested in the technical and learning side of the sessions.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Ben: My strengths include getting on with people, being adaptable, professional and open to listening to others. I have seen good practice and bad practice and always tried to use this experience to improve my own performance and the service of the facility I am representing. I have been privileged to train scores of clients to achieve their own personal goals – weight loss, weight gain, health improvement, injury rehabilitation, sports performance at national level, and several Paralympic and World Championship gold, silver and bronze winning athletes. Mornings can be my weakness, I am rarely late but I need at least one strong coffee to get going! My biggest current weakness is the lack of time for my own training. This is something that I am trying to address.
So many people fail in their efforts to lose weight. What is your solution to this?
Gareth: Consistency! Whether it’s exercise or eating habits, the most successful clients are the ones with consistent changes in their lifestyles. Too many people just want a quick fix and follow faddy diets or short bursts of unrealistic volumes of training in a short space of time. Although it’s great to have goals such as ‘lose weight for a holiday’ or ‘fit into a pair of old jeans’, people with a mindset of a generally healthier lifestyle all year round will get better and long lasting results.
What are your views on the current obesity crisis? What could be done to help?
Gareth: There should be more corporate responsibility. You only have to walk into a supermarket and the first thing you see is a mountain of chocolates and isles full of sugary, low nutrient foods, but I can’t see that changing – if people keep buying it, shops will keep selling it. People need to take more personal responsibility with their lifestyle choices, but with so much temptation out there, it is hard to stay on the straight and narrow.
How do you help your clients achieve their goals?
Gareth: I have a great mix of clients and their goals vary from your typical weight-loss-and-get-fit goals, to those who need an annual prehab injury prevention training when they are competing in marathons or the annual ski trip is coming up. The athletes I train are more focused on sports performance, for example the England Blind Football team. It’s exciting to watch them play on an international level after we have spent the last 18 months preparing for the competitions.
What obstacles do your clients often encounter?
Gareth: Child care, work commitments, injury or illness, financial issues. Finding a crèche helps or taking your children with you to a session such as Buggyfit. Home training or hotel training can be done if work commitments affect your time to hit the gym. And you can always go for a walk or run if a gym membership or home equipment is not an option.
Do you have favourite classes to teach or take part in?
Ben: I love to get involved with whatever I teach. Over the years I have taught mainly HIIT or Tabata-style classes as well as circuit-based, barbell conditioning and spinning. I would like to do more but there are only so many showers I can have in a day!
Gareth: Spin is one of my favourite classes to teach because I can have a good cardio blast whilst I am working, so I don’t have to find that time elsewhere in the day.
What is your typical training week?
Ben: It pains me to say it but I don’t train enough, that’s the nature of the business right now and I’m learning to change this. I have recently started teaching Spinning at thePoint4 on Monday morning so that sets me up for the week ahead. I get involved with group sessions at The Studio as much as I can, particularly with the Barbell Complex classes as I have always enjoyed lifting. If I squeeze in a run or two during the rest of the week I am lucky. I would like to do more for myself.
Strength training and lifting are my go-to form of training if I have limited options or time. I like to run because I find it a real challenge. I have done a couple of marathons and although I hated the training, I like the feeling of being taken completely out of my comfort zone. If my head is on it, I’ll do it, whatever the challenge. Who knows, I might even set myself a few challenges in 2020 to force me to make more time for myself!
Gareth: I like to get out on my bike during the summer months and in winter I tend to run. Depending on my work commitments, I will do up to four resistance sessions per week, plus the fitness I get through work so in total anything between eight and 14 training sessions a week. As I am getting older and my recovery time is slowing down, I have to stretch or do yoga daily.
How do you motivate yourself?
Ben: I am self-motivated but business – coaching others – has recently become a priority. My health always comes first and having little ones has made me look at my work-life balance too. I want to be around more to watch my children grow up, they have given me a new perspective on life and an added need to look after myself as well as others.
Gareth: I think everyone has peaks and troughs with their motivation, including me! But I feel quite lucky that I spend most of my days in the environments I work in and sometimes I can use my clients’ motivation to help me get out of a trough. Also I will enter a few biking sportifs and running races throughout the year to have something to focus on and to keep me training.
What do you do to relax?
Ben: Sitting quietly and not having to listen to my own voice. I like to watch sport, particularly football, not that it’s very relaxing, but I get up to watch my team Aston Villa as much as I can in the football season. My family are the most important to me and any time spent with them on the weekend, outdoors if possible, is the perfect way to spend my down time.
Gareth: A nice glass of wine or beer, in moderation of course, and a good movie is a perfect wind down for me.
Do you find your training and recovery are different now compared to a decade ago?
Gareth: My recovery time has definitely slowed down and I have to make more effort to keep on top of my flexibility and mobility. This means a 30 minute stretch after work while watching TV. I also do yoga and foam rolling, and treat myself to a sports massage once a week.
Ben: My training ten years ago was always a million miles per hour! If I wasn’t wiped out totally, I didn’t feel like it was worth training. Training like this can make you feel great, but I understand my body more now and the physiological limitations and adaptations. My recovery has always been very good and I have been lucky to get back into training at higher intensities relatively easy, with few injuries. I certainly feel more tired than I did ten years ago but I think this is more to do with mental fatigue rather than physical. Running your own business certainly tests your endurance and mental capacity every day.
Have injuries ever stopped you from training?
Gareth: I have been quite lucky on the injury front. I suffered with plantar fasciitis ten years ago, which stopped me running for about nine months, but I got over that with some custom made orthotics.
Ben: I had a nasty ankle break that had to be pinned after a 50/50 challenge. The boredom at home and not being allowed to work for eight weeks was the worst part of it, I missed the social interaction. I did my rehab and made a speedy recovery, but it put an end to my football career.
What is your view on the subject of cardio before or after strength training?
Gareth: If you are going to do strength and cardio in the same session, absolutely do the strength at the start. Firstly, if you are lifting heavy and doing technical lifts, you want to be as fresh as possible to concentrate on the lifts, to have the energy to keep good form and posture – this helps prevent injury. Secondly, when you do an aerobic session after you have depleted some of your carbohydrate stores, you will more likely burn into your fat stores for energy. Having said that, if time is an issue, you could combine your weight training into a short circuit training session, it would have the same effect on your system as a general cardio workout. Two birds with one stone in a 20 to 30 minute session.
On the subject of nutrition, what is your view on cutting out entire food groups?
Gareth: Personally I don’t think you should cut out a food group from your diet, each has its own benefits and nutritional qualities. As long as they are eaten in the right quantities, they will be beneficial to health and performance, even adherence to a healthy lifestyle. The low carb/no carb diet is a perfect example of this – over the years it has been given a plethora of names: Atkins, Caveman/Paleo, recently the ketogenic diet… Although you might get some short term results, is it really feasible to never eat carbohydrates ever again?
Do you have any vices? Chocolate? Cheese?
Gareth: Yes, all of them!!!
Ben: Cheese over chocolate! Red wine most definitely yes. I own a very nice dual-temperature wine fridge containing some very nice wine. I fancy myself as a bit of a connoisseur and that’s probably only because I have drank a lot of it over the years. I like beer and a good steak, or a hot curry on weekends. I don’t drink during the week anymore as it affects my ability to get up at 5:30am! My new vice is doing the typical dad thing that I hoped I would never do – looking over the dinner table at the children’s plates wondering if they are going to leave anything. This I need to address before it becomes a problem.
How strict are you with yourself when it comes to lifestyle, training and nutrition? How do you deal with temptation?
Gareth: Generally I am quite strict with myself, but I am only human and at times I go through spells of eating too much or drinking too much. Who doesn’t enjoy a drink or two in the summer? But I don’t let those spells last too long and will get back on track by training more and restricting my calorie intake after a spell of indulgence.
Ben: Life would be boring if we didn’t allow ourself a treat now and then. I recommend my clients have a weekend treat, a drink or a few added calories on a good meal or takeaway. I respect the super-human PTs out there who never do this, it shows good self-discipline and self-control, but it’s just not me. I like a beer or a glass of red, an Indian on the weekend or a roast dinner on a Sunday with the family, I won’t be stopping that any time soon. I have always been a firm believer in making the right choices most of the time and letting yourself have a day off once in a while. The problems only arise when the once-in-a-while becomes frequent and normal, then this has to be addressed.
Lastly, one thing you would change about the fitness industry…
Ben: I’d like to see gyms become more inclusive across the board. There are so many barriers to exercise and wellbeing these days, retention of members is almost a thing of the past. Some chains can lack personality and a sense of community, and members feel like they are just another membership, forgotten as soon as their direct debit is set up. Smaller and more personable set ups such as The Studio or other local gyms founded by local instructors make clients feel like they belong and that they are as important as any other person.
Gareth: Since the explosion of social media there are almost as many phones in the gym as there are dumbbells. It really annoys me when I see people sitting on the equipment posting selfies about training instead of actually training!
Ben: I wish people would stop pushing ludicrous products and faddy diets. They often trick people who may lack knowledge into spending their hard earned money on products that promise to make them fit, healthy and lean. These shortcuts undermine the hard work of fitness professionals, they have no place in this industry.
Thank you for the interview. Wishing you both all the best!
Ben Harwood – THE STUDIO Hereford 1-2 Fields Yard, Plough Lane, HR4 0EL Tel: 07970 465 703 Facebook: The Studio – Hereford Email: email@example.com. www.thestudiohereford.co.uk
Gareth Bennett – TRAIN-GB Tel: 07429 132 276 Facebook: Train-GB. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.train-gb.co.uk
Founder and editor of FitNet.
Previously gymnastics coach, massage therapist and personal trainer with 20 years of experience. Former gymnast and dancer.