Jesse Johnson makes his living working as a master trainer at VIDA Fitness (U Street location) but he agreed to share some of his tips and advice with us for free.
The U Street location is one of five of the gay-owned chain’s D.C. locations. A sixth is slated to open this spring in Ballston (Arlington, Va.). Johnson is 33, gay and left a career in corporate staffing to join the VIDA team in 2011. He averages between 50-60 clients in mostly 30-minute sessions per week. Find out more at vidafitness.com. Free introductory classes are available this month. The offerings are listed at vidafitness.com/uniqueclasses.
Johnson’s comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How much does the coaching you give your clients vary from year to year as new studies and findings are made available? And how do you know if something is just another fitness fad vs. something we should really heed?
JESSE JOHNSON: There are always going to be fitness trends, that’s a given. However before we alter what we tell our clients, we look to peer-reviewed literature. One or two studies doesn’t give much evidence — that’s not enough proof. We definitely pay attention to what is trending and we try to stay as current as possible, but we don’t incorporate it until it’s been through a more rigorous review process.
BLADE: What trends have you seen of late?
JOHNSON: In the collective big picture, there’s been a big uptick in group training. The term that’s thrown around is fitness cocktails where somebody may do a couple classes back to back, some cardio, maybe some core body work, different muscle groups — there’s been an uptick in that. And also more of what we call functional training. People want to be pain free and strong. Sure, there’s always the aesthetic benefit of lifting weights, but what people really want is to be functionally strong into their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
BLADE: Anything else?
JOHNSON: I think workouts are becoming more mindful as people use technology — apps and wearable tech to be more aware of what they’re doing. From a metric-tracking standpoint, it’s easy now to tell your heart rate, number of calories burned, number of steps taken in the course of a day with Fitbit, Myzone, the Apple watch, to the apps themselves like the Peloton apps are pretty innovative and help people be more aware of what they’re doing, how frequently. There’s more mindfulness in working out. Also people see going to the gym as more of a club or social space among millennials and Gen Z. They work out with friends, it’s seen as more social, not punishment after a weekend of drinking.
BLADE: How much does the industry really change? For instance, would you say there’s anything significantly different you’re telling your clients today vs. what you might have said when you started at VIDA nine years ago?
JOHNSON: Well, knowledge has increased dramatically and a lot of it is due to the fact that this industry didn’t even exist 40-50 years ago. People didn’t have the same needs then they do now. But a lot of the basic fundamentals are the same — keep moving, stay active, eat purposeful and do things you enjoy doing. If you enjoy doing it, it’s easier to make it a habit. I’d say we take more the sniper approach today vs. the machine gun approach. We target more instead of just spraying a bunch of bullets hoping something hits.
BLADE: So often with nutrition it seems you’ll hear one thing, then five years later the exact opposite is what experts are saying: don’t eat eggs, no eggs are good. Stuff like that. Does fitness advice change that drastically as well?
JOHNSON: Not as much. A lot of it has to do with whether people are already moving or not. We don’t take them right out of the gate to a high level of intensity. We let them work up to it. But no, I can’t think of any particular exercise we were advising a few years ago we’re saying, “No, don’t do that one anymore” or anything like that.
BLADE: What do you do if you see people working out on their own using improper technique? Can you really hurt yourself with bad form, like lifting with your back and that kind of thing?
JOHNSON: Well we try to be as polite as possible. We’ll only approach someone if we thinkg they’re about to injure themselves. But knock on wood, I haven’t seen very many injuries at VIDA and I like to credit that to the large staff of personal trainers we have on the floor. There is an inherent risk to working out — you can hurt yourself, but it doesn’t happen very often.
BLADE: Is it better to stay at a weight level at which you can maintain excellent form or push yourself out of your comfort zone with heavier weight even if your form suffers a little?
JOHNSON: Numerous studies have found if you take a lighter weight and do more reps but push yourself to your failure threshold vs. doing fewer reps of a heavier weight to failure, the outcome is the same. And there’s a higher risk of injury with heavier weights. We like to focus on form and technique before we progress, especially if somebody is just joining the gym and they may not know much about resistance training. You can always add weight later.
BLADE: How many of the New Years resolution folks really stick with it? Do you see many of those same faces by March or April?
JOHNSON: Almost all my new clients stay with me for months, sometimes years. However statistically within the industry, the number is very low. The honeymoon period on average is about six weeks and it’s a shame because often you see your best results 12-16 weeks into a program. You’ll see more immediate results sooner but that’s when it starts to get really spectacular.
BLADE: How bad are the wait times for machines at VIDA? Is it pretty crazy at peak time?
JOHNSON: I’m not gonna lie, the gym is very busy and there are peak times. But the U Street location is more residential and we have between 50,000-60,000 square feet of space so there’s not a lot of wait time for many of the machines. And people tend to be pretty aware. They’ll let you work in with them.
BLADE: How gay is it?
JOHNSON: I’d say 50-60 percent of our clientele is gay.
BLADE: Some lesbians and trans folks as well?
JOHNSON: There are lesbians. I don’t personally have any trans clients but we have 30 trainers on staff so there may be some but yeah, it’s mostly gay men. Obviously everybody is welcome.
BLADE: Has that ebbed or flowed much over your years there?
JOHNSON: No, D.C. is a pretty good city to be a gay person in. I haven’t seen any major change.