Some of the country’s well-known fitness trainers outline what it takes to be a great—not just good—trainer
Every couple of weeks, you will see headlines about how a particular celebrity lost a tonne of weight courtesy their personal trainer—or find a trainer, a favourite of the stars, doling out advice. Such news stories shine a spotlight on the growing breed of fitness professionals tagged as “celebrity fitness trainers” because, well, they train “celebrities”.
But what makes for a great trainer? And how do you crack this space? Passion is important, yes, certification is crucial, but there’s much more to it: the competence to oversee a client’s overall health and well-being, customising programmes for them, apart from understanding how to garner attention and take the odd risk. Celebrity endorsements help, of course, and celebrity trainers earn well.
The first time she heard herself being referred to as a “celebrity fitness instructor”, Yasmin Karachiwala remembers feeling both “embarrassed and shy”. “I was, like, I can’t put that tag on myself. It doesn’t sound right. I thought I was taking away from the celebrities,” says Mumbai-based Karachiwala, whose list of clients includes actors Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt. Over time, she has learnt to accept the title. “I think I have earned being called that and I don’t think it takes away from the work me or my clients do,” says Karachiwala, who has also authored two books, Sculpt and Shape: The Pilates Way and The PERFECT 10: 10-Minute Workouts You Can Do Anywhere.
For someone who has built a successful career over 26 years and become a leading name in the Indian fitness industry, it’s surprising to hear that Karachiwala never planned on becoming a trainer. “I was a lazy kid growing up. I was not good at studies or sports. All I was good at was playing pranks, fooling around and running away from any kind of work,” she says.
Her introduction to exercise happened during her college years in the late 1980s, when a girlfriend pulled her to an aerobics group class at a fitness studio. “I saw people dancing and thought, I am a great dancer, I have got this. But as things turned out, my first class was bad. I had coordination problems and people gave me the dirtiest looks.”
Be clear on the ‘Why’
Yet, the day came when her aerobics instructor asked Karachiwala, a regular student by then, to take a class. “I was aghast but my teacher said, ‘just play the music and teach whatever comes to your mind.’ At the end of the class,” Karachiwala recalls, “the very people who had given me hate looks had wonder in their eyes. I realised that I completely enjoyed the process and liked teaching people what to do.”
Shwetambari Shetty, co-founder of Tribe Fitness Club and fitness expert, Cure.Fit, in Bengaluru, remembers the happiness she felt at the end of her very first zumba class in 2011, though she had just one student. “It was a thrilling experience to teach her. When I finished the class, I realised that I enjoyed teaching her and I wanted to do this more often,” Shetty says.
The first step to becoming a successful fitness trainer is to know why you want to do it. Rishabh Telang, fitness expert at Cult.fit, Bengaluru, often meets youngsters who tell him they want to become trainers because it’s cool. As an experienced professional, Telang tries to help them make informed decisions. “I try to understand their ‘why’. They need to know that while the job looks cool from the outside, it’s really a lot of hard work and requires you to be mentally sharp. So understanding their ‘reason(s) why’ helps aspirants to decide if they really want to get into it.”
“To become a great trainer,” he adds, “you need to be passionate about wanting to make people fit. It starts with that.” As in the case of Karachiwala or Shetty, the task of getting people to move and train with you should excite you.
Brampton, Canada-based Rizwan “Sunny” Rabbani, 38, founder and head trainer of the YouTube channel MyBollywoodBody and a gym by the same name, started his career in fitness quite early. “I started working out at the age of 14-15 and by the time I turned 18, I started training people and making money out of it,” says Rabbani.
As an early starter, Rabbani underlines the importance of certification. “Becoming a personal trainer is a simple game. Yet, while you don’t necessarily need to have an undergraduate degree in, say, kinesiology or a bachelor’s in health sciences, you have got to do a basic certification to start,” he says. Karachiwala can’t stress the importance of the right certification enough. She says: “I often say that in fitness training, certifications are like your ABCs, they are the foundation. Only then you can form words, from which you learn to build short sentences, paragraphs, and eventually a story, right?”
Bollywood’s favourite Pilates instructor, Yasmin Karachiwala
Karachiwala’s list of certifications includes Basi (Body Arts and Science International) certified Pilates Instructor, Balanced Body Comprehensive Master Instructor, and Balanced Body MOTR Master Instructor.
So, where do you go for these courses? Telang recommends signing up for certification programmes offered by the US-based organisations National Academy of Sports Medicine or American Council on Exercise. The programmes are online and these organisations have affiliates in India. Basi, in Newport, California, is known for its Pilates teacher training programmes. For zumba certifications, a prospective trainer can sign up for their courses on Zumba.com.
Be a Health, not Fitness, coach
“Yes, doing certifications is fantastic and you need them to be able to build enough credentials for yourself, but this advice would have been enough 10 years back. Today, clients want more from their trainer than just a certification,” says Shetty. She adds that clients expect trainers to guide them to make changes to their lifestyle: from their diet to figuring out how to enhance sleep quality.
“Today, if you want to distinguish yourself, you need to learn not just about fitness but overall health and well-being. You want to be a health coach, not just a fitness coach,” says Shetty. Telang likens fitness to a science, and says that the difference between a good trainer and a great one is the ability to design customised programmes for clients. “After all, everyone is unique, so you need to understand them before you design a programme.”
The art of taking risks
Becoming a successful trainer is also about taking risks. Karachiwala is credited with bringing Pilates to India in 2006. Starting it out of a studio at home with expensive equipment, she remembers fending questions like, “What is this Pilots-Palatees? Why is it expensive? Why are you doing it?” It wasn’t known in India but Karachiwala says that never deterred her. “I fell in love with it and I knew that once people tried it they would like it too.”
Shetty says she had to dip into personal savings and even sell her house to co-found Tribe Fitness Club, her studio in Bengaluru, in 2014. “It was a calculated risk. The thinking was if it didn’t work, I would go back to being a freelance trainer or go back to corporate life,” says Shetty, before stating the moral of the story: “To succeed as a trainer, you need to be willing to take risks and make bold decisions.”
Sometimes, taking a risk can also be about pivoting off a casual idea thrown at you, like Rabbani did with MyBollywoodBody. With 4.4 million subscribers, it is an extremely successful channel today and has helped him expand his business.
But in 2014-15, when social media wasn’t the beast it is today, Rabbani chose to start the channel based on a suggestion by his then client, actor, director and comedian Rupanjit Bal. “He thought I had a jolly personality and so, one day, he just went, “Why don’t you try YouTube?” A quick class and a bit of experimentation later, Rabbani started uploading ‘How To’ fitness videos. “I started posting videos primarily for my clients but soon, more people started to like my content and I just got more motivated as the likes, shares, comments and views grew,” he says.
Training the stars
The names of stars she has trained over the years roll out smoothly as Karachiwala talks of the experience of working with the big names of Bollywood. “When I used to conduct my group fitness classes in the 1990s, I had Dimple Kapadia, Aishwarya Rai, Chunky Pandey, Farah Khan, all the Bollywood wives, Maheep, Bhavna, Seema, Neelam, among others, coming in,” says Karachiwala, noting that when it comes to getting celebrities as clients, word-of-mouth endorsements work like magic.
“The way it happened was, someone would go, ‘there’s this class (by Yasmin) and you have to try it.’ That is how so many people came,” she says. She credits Kareena Kapoor Khan for getting the word out about her Pilates classes.
Karachiwala may not travel with her actors but, as she has said in earlier interviews, she designs workout plans they can do while on outdoor shooting schedules. Shetty is currently training celebrities she prefers not to name, adding, “The idea of being known as a celebrity’s trainer doesn’t excite me.”
The salaries of celebrity trainers are always a subject of great interest. Kris Gethin, actor Hrithik Roshan’s trainer, purportedly earns Rs. 20 lakh a month. And 12 hour-long sessions with Karachiwala could cost you
Rs. 20,000 a month. Shetty agrees that being a trainer to a star is a good job if earning money is the focus. But, she says: “Thing is, if you think you are going to make some deep impact in their life, you are not. Celebrities have a million things to focus on and fitness is just one aspect of their lives.”
Using social media
When it comes to creating posts that can go viral, Rabbani has a lesson or two to share. Liked for his unique multilingual presentation style, Rabbani made headlines a couple of years ago with a marketing campaign aimed at catching comedian and actor Kevin Hart’s attention. The trainer created a huge billboard in Toronto, with Hart’s face blown up and the accompanying text reading: Yo! Kevin, I heard you are in Toronto. I’m a big fan. Can I take a selfie?
Comedian Kevin Hart with Rizwan ‘Sunny’ Rabbani, founder of YoutTube channel, MyBollywoodBody
Not only did the billboard get Rabbani a selfie with Hart, it made him a celebrity for seven days, he says. “We started posting the picture of the billboard all over social media and asked our friends, family and followers to tag him. We had his attention in a matter of hours and then we were all over the Western media. If I am not mistaken, I had about 70-80 interviews that week,” he says. That campaign helped his fitness channel gain a good following. “In these times where everybody is about views and likes, you have to do some out of the box, crazy things to get the public’s attention,” says Rabbani. Karachiwala uses her social media responsibly. “You will never see me doing some crazy exercise or trying to look good. I try to put out content on simple exercises that people can do at home,” she says.
Rabbani sums it up perfectly when he says, “With time, you will have experience and recognition. With time, you will have the admiration and respect of people. So make sure you are on top of everything: your basic certification, social media content, the way you look, the way you talk. Everything matters.”