The thing is, I hate the Aw.
"Aw," says my wife.
The Aw is my wife's way of saying, "You are a sad and pathetic man, dear husband."
For my wife, the Aw is sympathy wrapped in pity covered in hopelessness.
"Aw what?" I ask, standing tall in my underwear.
"Nothing," she says.
"You can't Aw me and then dismiss the Aw without explanation. Aw what?"
"It's your body," she replies.
"What's wrong with my body?" I ask.
"Just look at it. It's so … Aw."
Blindsided by the full-body Aw, I try to defend myself.
"I can't help if I'm a purebred from a bad gene pool," I say. "I go to the gym. I'm doing the best I can with what I've got."
"Honey, I don't even know why you exercise," she says. "You always look the same. Aw."
Sadly, I know she's right. Because no matter what I do, my body does look exactly like it did 10 years ago. Which, I suppose, is more than Anna Nicole Smith can say. But still.
"Maybe I need a little help," I say.
"Liposuction is very expensive," she points out.
"Actually, I've been thinking about a personal trainer. Y'know, a lot of people have one now."
"A personal trainer?" she asks. "One of those well-built guys who teaches you the right way to exercise?"
"Maybe I'm doing all the wrong things for my body type," I say. "Maybe a personal trainer could help me change my shape."
"Sweetheart, if you think a personal trainer can make a difference in the way you look, why don't you try one for a week and see how it goes?"
I turn to the bathroom mirror, suck in my stomach and say, "Y'know, I think I'm going to try."
"Do you really think it can make a difference?" she asks.
"You never know."
"Aw," she says.
"Hi, I'm Todd," says Todd Lamperski, my new personal trainer at Tower City Fitness.
"Please don't hurt me," I say.
"Have a seat," Todd replies with a smile. "I want to get to know you before we get started."
"Well, let's see. I'm a Pisces. I enjoy long walks on the beach and I really love mystery novels."
He smiles. He laughs. Five minutes in and I've got this guy wrapped around my finger.
He asks me about my health, my family history and if I currently exercise.
"As a matter of fact, I worked out this morning," I say proudly.
"Great! What did you do?"
"I did some low-level cardio work, combined with a series of lateral bicep movements."
"What did you do?" he persists.
"I walked to the refrigerator, pulled open the door and grabbed a bagel," I admit. "By the way, is chewing considered exercise?"
Another laugh. I am so money.
"So, do you have any specific fitness goals?" he asks.
I point to someone in the gym. "Sure, I'd like look like him," I say.
"You already do look like him," Todd observes.
"Not the fat balding guy," I correct him. "That guy with the nice body over there."
"Aw," Todd says.
"Do you know my wife?" I ask.
Todd puts down his paperwork and says, "Let's get started, shall we? Today, I just want to test your upper body, find your strengths and weaknesses, and see if you're injury prone. I usually like to take it easy at first and ease people into things."
"You don't need to do that with me," I assure him. "I'm ready for you. Give me all you've got."
Suddenly, his smile changes. To drooling. "Are you sure?" he asks, wiping the foam from his mouth.
"Or y'know, I'm really OK just sitting here, talking, too," I say.
"Get up," he says.
After a five-minute warmup on the elliptical machine, I follow him to the weight-training area.
"This is the bench press," says Todd. "Lie down. Keep your eyes level with the bar. Then, bring the bar down to the top of your chest for a nice, full stretch. Then, push back up without locking your arms. Give me a set of 10."
"This is all going way too fast for me," I say.
"Lie down," he says.
I position myself, bring the bar down to my chest and push it back up with no problem.
"Don't bounce up from your bottom stretch," Todd says. "Never, ever bounce. Give me a 1-2-3-4 count down. Pause a beat. Then a 1-2 count back up. I want slow, controlled motions."
"A little bossy, aren't we?" I observe.
I do one repetition his way and say, "This is way harder. I like my way better."
"That's why I'm here," he explains.
After the set, he says, "One minute rest and then I want 10 more. How was that weight for you?"
"OK, I guess."
"Great," he says. "Let's add more."
"So what did I ever do to you?" I ask.
For the rest of the hour, we move around the gym, trying various machines and testing different body parts.
"Here's a great tricep exercise," Todd says. "They're called ‘skull crushers.' "
"What happened in your childhood that filled you with such anger?" I ask.
Todd replies, "Hate me now, love me later, I always say. In the middle of working out, most people hate my guts. But that's the challenge. My job isn't to hurt you. It's to push you to the next level."
"How come I'm not grunting yet?" I ask. "Shouldn't I be grunting?"
"You want to grunt?" he says with a glimmer in his eye. "I can make you grunt."
As we finish, he says, "Today was pretty easy. Now I've got a good sense of your upper body. Tomorrow, we'll work your legs."
Then he laughs again. Only it isn't the good kind of laugh like before.
"Ready to get started?" he asks.
"Not so fast," I say. "How do I know you are who you say you are? I'd like to see some identification."
He takes me into his office and shows me his International Fitness Professionals Association certification. "There are a lot of different ways to become certified, but the IFPA is the industry standard," he says.
"Fine, I see the certificate," I nod. "But how do I know you're really Todd Lamperski?"
"The leg-extension machine," he says. "Now."
"We're just going light and easy like yesterday, right?" I ask.
"I thought about testing your lower body today, but forget that," he says. "We're just going to do a hard leg workout."
"Did I mention I changed my mind about that whole give-me-all-you've-got thing?"
Four sets of leg extensions are followed by four sets of hamstring stretches followed by four sets of leg curls.
"Guys usually hate to work on their legs," he says. "Even though legs are usually where you can see results the fastest, there's just nothing fun about them."
"I know. This has really been rough. Well, see you tomorrow."
"Nice try," he says. "It's time to squat.
"The squat is the king of all exercises," he explains. "Done properly, it can work every major muscle group. Done wrong and you can really hurt yourself badly and be out of commission for months."
"All those in favor of option two, raise their hand," I say.
He shows me how to place my body properly under the bar. How to lower myself slowly and keep my backside back. And how to focus on my form. "A lot of people cheat on squats," he says. "They don't go down far enough and they're not getting a full extension and range of motion."
After the first set, he asks, "How does that weight feel?"
"Really good," I say.
"Really good?" he asks.
"Good," he says.
"You're putting on more weight, aren't you?"
"Yes," he nods.
For the next 45 minutes, we work my quads, my calves and my hamstrings.
"Just one more thing today," he says. And we go back over to the leg-extension machine.
"We already did this," I point out.
"Right. Except this time, we're doing a strip-down set," he says.
"I am not taking off my clothes," I say.
"I want a set of 10," he says. "Then, without any rest, I want a set of 12 at a lower weight. Then I want a set of 15 at a lower weight. And finally, give me a set of 20 at a really low weight. No rest between sets. The goal here is to completely fatigue your muscles."
"But you had me doing twice that weight before," I point out.
"Talk to me in three minutes," he says. "Go."
I do my first set. "No problem," I say.
He lowers the weight. "Now give me 12," he says.
The first 10 are as easy as the first set. The last two are a little tougher.
He lowers the weight again. "Fifteen right away," he says.
I push. By the fourth push, there isn't a whole lot of push left in my pushing.
"Don't quit on me," he says. He grabs my ankles. "Keep going," he urges. "Gimme all you've got. This is how you grow. Five more."
So often in life, people say things in the heat of the moment and regret what they've said afterward. In the heat of this particular moment, when I blurt, "When you were born, I bet the doctor smacked your mother, Todd Lamperski," I feel with confidence there will never be one iota of regret.
"Hate me now, love me later," he says again.
"Hate you now, hate you now," I gasp.
"Come on, this is the last set," he says. "Twenty."
Even with his help, 20 feel like 200.
I get off the machine and stumble to my knees.
"Perfect," he says, "That's how you're supposed to feel."
"By the way, what was that?" I ask.
"What was what?"
"That burning thing in my legs," I say. "Whatever that burning thing was, I didn't like it."
"That's lactic acid," he explains. "As you lift, you tear down muscle tissue and lactic acid is being oxidized in your blood. You grow when your muscle tissue rebuilds."
Finally, it's my turn to stare.
"Listen," I say. "I'm only going to say this once: Don't mess with my lactic acid again." To prove my point, I crawl to the locker room without looking at him even once.
I limp into the gym.
"Hello," says Todd.
"Sadist," I mumble.
As I walk out of the locker room, I ask, "How long are you supposed to wait to work out after you've had a banana split?"
"Y'know," he says, "I'm trying to lean out right now. I'm on a very strict, very lean diet. And the thought of a banana split makes me extremely angry."
Then he turns away from me and says, "Today, we're going to work the chest nice and hard."
"I was just kidding about that whole banana split thing," I say.
"Nice and hard," he repeats, staring blankly at the wall.
After the fourth set of bench presses I say, "Wow, that was tough."
"One more set," he says.
"Are you kidding?"
"Do I look like I'm kidding, Mr. Funny Banana Split Jokeman Jokester?"
Nree weights. Dumbbells. Chest machines. I do them all. At one stop, he brags, "I invented this exercise."
"Thank God for you," I say.
Naturally, we end with a strip-down set for my chest.
"This isn't like the strip-down set for my legs, is it?" I ask.
"No, this is totally different," he says. "Yesterday was a painful strip-down set for your legs. Today is a painful strip-down set for your chest."
"I was just kidding about that whole banana split thing," I repeat.
"I'm laughing inside," he says. "Push."
"Back and biceps today," he says.
"That is so great!" I enthuse. "I was hoping to work my back and biceps today. And thankfully, my prayers have been answered."
"I find it hard to believe you've never been beaten up," he observes.
From the pull-up machine to seated rows, to midlateral pulldowns, he doesn't let up for the entire hour.
As I sit down for four sets of seated dumbbell curls he says, "I want a set using both arms together, then each arm individually."
"When's your birthday?" I ask.
"March 19. Why?"
"I hate March 19."
Finally, he pulls a small black bar out of his pocket.
"Time for forearms," he says. "Hold this bar in front of you and twist both sides in opposite directions. Keep the bar as still as possible. I want two sets of these, 45 seconds each."
I take the bar and start twisting. After a while, I can really feel that burning thing again.
"How long has it been?" I ask.
"Six seconds," he says. "Come on. Finish this, then one more set of these and you're done for the day."
"This has been the greatest day of my life," I say.
"I find it hard to believe you've never been beaten up," he says again.
"How do you feel?" he asks. "It's shoulders and triceps day."
"Shhhhh," I wince. "My eyelids hurt."
"Y'know, most people aren't sore after they work out with me the first week." He pauses. "Then again, most of the people I train have worked out before."
"That'll be 15 yards, unsportsmanlike contact," I say.
"Let's start with a triple superset," he says. "Three shoulder exercises in a row. No break."
In the middle of the first set, he says, "Watch your elbow in relation to your hip."
In the middle of the second set, he says, "The extension of your arms should be parallel to your shoulder blades."
In the middle of the third set, I ask, "If I say ‘Beetlejuice' three times in a row, will you disappear?"
"Well, that's it," Todd says at the end of the workout. "You had a very full week. I took you through every major body part. And remember, there are so many different exercises you can try. Just keep experimenting. You need to change it up all the time because your body always adjusts to what you're doing."
I shake his hand.
"Thanks," I say. "I have to admit, I really learned a lot with you this week."
"Glad I could help," he says.
As I walk away, I think, Jeez, he's actually a pretty good guy. He's got a good combination of toughness and understanding. He really knows his stuff and he's just trying to help people be more productive in their workouts.
"Hey," he shouts from off in the distance. "Did we forget to do sit-ups on Wednesday?"
On second thought, I hate him.
And so there I stand. Again, in front of my wife. Again, in my underwear.
"So whaddya think?" I ask.
"I can't believe I'm saying this," she says, "but I can really notice a difference."
"I am not kidding you," she says. "I can actually see a little bit of a change after just a few days. Keep it up."
"A few more weeks of this and I'll probably be driving women crazy," I say.
"You think so?" she asks.
"Aw," she says.