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The Plus Factor: Why trainers have ascended to role-model status

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Photo: Akin Akman

Well+Good is your healthiest relationship, hooking you up with the best, most interesting things/people/leggings in wellness. And nothing gets at this concept better than the plus sign in our logo.

Inside this plus sign, which acts like a gallery window, we showcase the most exciting, transformative trends and ideas that add wellness to your life. This week on The Plus Factor, we look at the ascendancy of fitness instructors to role model status and lifestyle influencers.

For a long time, members of the muscled set—from Jane Fonda to Jillian Michaels—occasionally achieved celebrity status.

But today, what they’re accomplishing isn’t just fame (which, for some, is certainly a perk—whether they’re inking mega-deals with major apparel brands, filling concert stadiums with thousands of fans, or landing on TV with reality shows like Work Out New York or get-in-shape competitions like The Biggest Loser). Instead, many of the most in-demand instructors have ascended to role-model status.

“When I became an instructor in 2004, it was so different,” says Barry’s Bootcamp CEO Joey Gonzalez. “We had to collect emails from clients and create moments after class for connection. Engaging a community was a little more difficult because the resources were limited.”

“The trainers always inspired, motivated, and supported the clients, and as leaders, have always been looked up to.”

While he notes that gym-goers have always looked to great instructors as role models—not just for their workouts, but for their personal outlook—now the numbers of inspiring teachers are so much larger. “The trainers always inspired, motivated, and supported the clients, and as leaders, have always been looked up to,” he says. “There was always that sense of people wanting to know more about their instructors and who they were.”

What’s the big change? For one thing, the incredible growth of the boutique fitness industry overall has contributed in massive ways, since there are simply more spots looking for top talent.”There are just so many more studios and places to teach. In that sense, there are so many opportunities,” says Shauna Harrison, PhD, a prominent San Francisco-based Under Armor trainer and yoga teacher.

Social media, too, plays a big part in this. No longer is the gym the only place where you can connect with your fitness instructor; they now go where you go (yes, even when you’re lying in bed), and are often posting updates round the clock. Which means that you might have Kayla Itsines or the duo behind Tone It Up reminding you to, for example, “change for yourself, not for someone else.”

Trainer Shauna Harrison
Shauna Harrison (literally) supporting others. (Photo: Instagram/@mackenzieyoga)

Akin Akman, a former tennis player and coach, is a perfect example of an instructor leaving his mark way beyond the four walls of a studio. A current star in the industry, it’s nearly impossible to get into his New York City classes at SoulCycle. (At the time of writing this on a Monday afternoon, I counted 33 classes he was teaching Monday–Monday of that week, and only two were not already on a waitlist.) He also teaches his own boot camp, Akin’s Army, at Bandier’s Studio B.

Akman’s got it-factor to spare and built his community the old-fashioned way, with sweaty fans who will follow him wherever he decides to teach and also online, where he’s built an organic Instagram following that’s approaching 30K. “I always had a great group of people that would only come to me,” he tells me—not as a brag, but as a simple fact, whether he was teaching tennis, kite surfing in Turkey, or boot camps at Crunch.

“Why?” I ask him. What’s the secret Benedict Cumberbatch quality for trainers?

“I’m able to motivate people in a different way, and I make it your lifestyle.”

“It’s really all mental,” he says. “The more you come, I start to figure you out, and then I want to help you get to your goal. And then once you’re there, I create new goals for you. I’ve always been able to do that. I’m able to motivate people in a different way, and I make it your lifestyle.”

After all, anyone can demonstrate a proper squat, but a select few instructors inspire you to do those squats over and over (and over…)—and then apply that same confidence to the rest of your life. And that’s a muscle that’s well worth flexing.

Know a trainer who has motivated you? Nominate your fave for Well+Good’s American’s Most Inspiring Trainer contest! And if you need somewhere to start, here are the 11 coolest new boutique fitness studios right now.