Jeffrey Gross is not your average personal trainer—at least in terms of being open about his HIV status and the people he wishes to help ( seniors and those with HIV/AIDS—although he will train everyone, regardless of age or HIV status ) . He talked with Windy City Times about helping those people, having AIDS himself, exercise tips and the top mistakes people make when they work out.
Windy City Times: Tell me about your background. How did you get involved in fitness?
Jeffrey Gross: I've been a bodybuilder since I was 18. ( I'm 49. ) When I was 25, I was diagnosed with HIV. It was OK until I was 30—until I developed full-blown AIDS. Then some serious issues developed, [ including going ] down to 59 pounds. I was supposed to die, but I didn't.
I then went into a family business once I got better. But after I really got better, I decided—given my background and my views on the gay community regarding self-esteem and confidence—to get back into fitness. I wanted to work with people with HIV because I wanted them to feel better about themselves; HIV doesn't define the individual himself. I [ like to ] work with people with what I call life-threatening illnesses; I don't see the diseases as terminal.
WCT: What are some of the special needs that your HIV/AIDS-affected clients?
JG: The major difference is that, with HIV, food is digested differently; people get these guts and there is fat loss, especially around their legs and butt. You can't replace the fat, but you can build the muscle around the legs, arms and butt.
WCT: You also help seniors. How long have you been helping them?
JG: That's my new [ er ] thing. I've been [ recently ] certified by the National Institute of Health Sciences as a senior fitness specialist. I got interested just by taking a seminar on senior fitness.
I noticed how long other trainers were training people that were older; they were training them like they were 25. It's all about health and longevity and making sure their bones stay strong.
When training, it depends on what age group you're working with; it's different for 80- versus 50-year-olds. For the 80-year-old, I'll do exercises as simple as moving up on a chair and moving around so they get used to their mobility. It's more about training to live on a daily basis. Women get osteoporosis, but so do men; men shrink. My dad, growing up, was 6' 2'; now he's 5' 8'. However, the bottom line is the same for everyone: to feel better.
I love working with seniors because they are much more motivated than younger people. They're motivated because they have a sense of mortality—and I obviously have a sense of mortality, too. [ Laughs ] They're much more dedicated.
WCT: How important is stretching? There are now reports that it may injure you.
JG: It's very important. You need to warm your muscles before you work out—always, always, always. Then, you do the same when you're done.
My philosophy is mind, body and spirit. If one of those is not in balance, then you're not in balance. People should incorporate yoga in their workouts; it's all core and stability, but it's also about clearing your head.
WCT: Everyone should be careful about what they eat, but should HIV/JG: I was always told to eat more things like sour cream in order to gain weight [ because of AIDS ] , and that is not a recommendation for the public. However, the food depends on the ailment. I have to be really cognizant of what the problem is—if I know it. People are not required to tell me if they [ have an ailment ] . I will ask people if they're HIV-positive only to find out what meds they're on.
One of the things that makes me rare is that I am HIV-positive and most people don't go out there and say that. I think there's a [ comfort ] level with [ HIV-positive ] clients; they feel more comfortable with me.
WCT: Strength training versus cardio: Do you favor one over the other?
JG: It depends on the situation. Obviously, if someone's overweight, then it's cardio and strength training. If you have someone like me—who does not do any cardio at all— [ it's different ] . If someone comes to me with diabetes, we're going to start on the treadmill. If someone has high blood pressure, I'm not going to start him with heavy weights; it'll be light weights and cardio. Most people should get in cardio every day—walk instead of take an escalator when you're at the mall, [ for example ] .
[ The client is ] the boss as far as what your goal is, but let's keep it realistic. Some people are like, 'I'd like to be buff in four weeks.' Well, that ain't going to happen. [ Laughs ] Some people get dismayed when they find out it's going to take 12 weeks.
WCT: What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when they exercise?
JG: You mean, by themselves? [ Laughs ] The biggest mistake is that they use weights that are too heavy; they get improper form and hurt themselves.
Another mistake [ involves ] eating; in order to be successful, it's 50 percent food and 50 percent exercise. If you have Dairy Queen or McDonald's after working out, that just screws it up. People don't eat well. Sugar metabolizes to fat, so you can gain more weight from a fat-free food than from a food that has fat. Carbs are empty calories, so you're better off going to Mrs. Field's and having half a cookie than you are eating a bunch of [ fat-free cookies ] .
Also, people should work out with free weights instead of equipment. [ Lastly, ] people should work from bigger muscle groups to smaller muscle groups; otherwise, you could tear something. People should not go from triceps to chest to shoulders; you could get a rotator cuff injury. You need to go from shoulder to triceps. I also feel that, if you work out three times a week, one of those days should be only for legs. Squats are the best exercise you can do; it's cardio and muscle-building.
Call Jeffrey Gross at 312-907-1720 or 312-909-0733, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .