Q&A: FRASER SMYTHE
The personal trainer on the need for relatable goals, the importance of nutrition and the pleasure of seeing a 40-something thrive
Interview: Ellie Costigan
You have quite the sporting background. Tell us about that.
My dad has always been sporty, so I was running from an early age. By the time I was eight or nine I’d started boxing, and playing tennis at county level. By the age of 12, I began taking boxing more seriously and eventually represented young England. While you’re competing, boxing is an isolated sport, but the rest of the time you’re together you share your experiences and help each other out. I found myself giving people training advice, doing a bit of pad work with them. That’s how my interest in becoming a PT grew. When insurance became a necessity, I did my personal training qualification and took things up a gear.
You’re more than just a personal trainer, though. What else do you offer?
I’m now a fully qualified level four sports massage therapist, corrective exercise and rehab therapist, and nutrition coach. I’m doing a level five in sports therapy at the moment, which is just below degree level. Being trained in all those areas means I can offer what I call a ‘complete approach’. When people come to me, their fitness level could be anywhere on a broad spectrum—from someone who’s wheelchair bound and been referred for exercise by a medical professional, to an ex-elite athlete. So, we might begin with joint mobilisation, stretching and flexibility exercises, or we might start with semi-hardcore stuff. Whatever your level, we can get you to where you want to be and my training means I can make sure you do so as safely as possible. It means I can take on a far wider spectrum of clients and do more with them than somebody who’s solely a PT.
Tell us about your approach. What does a typical training session entail?
It’s specific to each client and depends what their goals are, but it centres on six basic movements: vertical push-pull, horizontal push-pull, squat, lunge, dead lift and gait work. Within that, there are so many exercises. I always do a body check-in on the day—I don’t let people off the hook all the time, but if someone says they’re really tired, for example, I’ll switch the workout around and do more of a cardio-based session, or we’ll do some fun games.
It can be challenging to mix things up every time, but there’s always a way of making it work. One of my clients specifically doesn’t like the cross-trainer, for example, so as a reward for her commitment I only ask her to do four minutes and that’s it—we then go boxing or do safe, low-impact stuff. She’ll end up finding it absolutely exhausting and will have hit all her targets, without even realising it. I try to deliver the unexpected, while making sure the required level of intensity is always hit.
What sort of goals do people come to you with?
A lot of people come to me for weight loss, but when you start exercising—especially if you’re doing resistance exercises, which I often work on to make sure your biomechanics and gait are correct—you recruit muscle fibre. Muscle fibre is heavier than body fat, so if you’re hopping on and off the scales, it can be quite demoralising. Scales aren’t good for anyone. To counter that, I’ve got an ultrasound body fat composition measurement system which tracks your progress scientifically, be it in terms of body fat or VO2 output. But not everybody wants to be that scientific—the goal has got to be relatable. Sometimes it’s better to ask what they want to look like: Brad Pitt in Troy, or Brad Pitt in Fight Club? Or, what dress size do you want to be? Alternatively, we might measure objective information such as their fitness parameters, and how far we can go with certain exercises. It depends what motivates you. What the client wants to achieve is top of my list.
Equally, it’s important that we set a goal and a training plan that’s realistic. If somebody says, “I’m going out on Friday and it’s highly likely I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine”, I’m not going to tell them not to do that, because it’s going to happen, right? Instead, if your nutrition hasn’t been great for three or four days, we’ll do an extra heavy workout in the next session. But only if you’re up for it—if not, the reality is you’ve gone backwards a little bit. It’s a see-saw act.
Do you tend to incorporate nutrition into a training plan?
I’ve found it can be quite off-putting to throw everything at a client at once. I tend to ask them to do a seven or five-day food diary, then if they’re really motivated to change their nutrition I’ll supply them with the dos and don’ts, depending on what they’re working towards. If someone wants to go straight in, I’ll set them parameters and tell them what they need to eat. In general, though I’ll give tips and advice or meal suggestions, but I won’t say, “Have an apple at 9am and a tin of tuna at 12”. If you want to do that, we can do that, but I’ve found coaching and offering constant contact is more effective.
How important is the relationship between nutrition and fitness?
Massively. If you are working on body fat loss, for example, not eating is one of the worst things you can do, especially after training, so getting that nutrition plan in place is paramount. I’ll ask them when their next meal is and what they are going to have. You need to be upfront about everything you’ve eaten, so we can work around it—we’re in it as a team. It’s often an education: a lot of people don’t really know what their plate should look like. These are all discussions we can have.
Can you tailor a training plan to fit around a busy schedule?
Absolutely. First of all, I will do everything I can to accommodate your available time windows. Secondly, I can supply you with nutrition plans and short bodyweight training sessions for when you are travelling. I can give you a 20-minute workout to do in the morning and it will tick all the boxes. Importantly, though, if I had a client make a request for three weeks of training plans after only one session, I’d be quite hesitant to give them a full programme, because I don’t know their limitations. Safety always comes first—I know, it’s a big word and you think, man, is this guy going to wrap me in cotton wool? No, but we will exercise within your limitations.
I try to educate clients, so you’ll always get notes to follow up a session, telling you what I would like you to do at home. And if you ever want to ask me a question, you can just ping me a message and I will get back to you within a few hours. I think that constant accessibility is a comfort to people. I can also do home visits, within London.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
All of it. I get to see such a cross section of people. When people come to see me, they’re doing so of their own volition—we’re working towards a goal and I love that I am part of their journey. We as humans are meant to be active, so I get to put that back into people’s lives—and safely. I’ve never had a client injured while training with me. When you have someone in their mid-forties doing exercises you see 20-year-olds doing, it’s great. And they love it. It’s wonderful to help somebody get to that position.