PORTLAND – Personal trainer James Hollenkamp was explaining a stretching exercise to two clients — teenage soccer players Kate Hopkins and Phoebe Shields.

“Toes on the ground, chest against the ball, thumbs up, then put your arms in a T,” said Hollenkamp, 30, as the two girls began to position themselves with the help of a giant exercise ball.

Hollenkamp continued to tell the young women what they should be doing — how flat their backs should be, how their shoulders should rotate — as they did the exercises. As I watched, it occurred to me that I’d have a hard time trying to explain an exercise this explicitly, detailing every angle and movement of the body.

I’m the kind of person who moves but doesn’t quite understand why.

“Every trainer here has to be able to do all these exercises, definitely,” said Hollenkamp, one of the personal trainers at Dynamics Fitness & Performance on Forest Avenue in Portland.

Makes sense, I thought.

Next thing I knew I had my chest pressed against a ball, my toes on the floor, and my arms reaching behind my back and toward the sky. The first problem was that with my head down I couldn’t see Hollenkamp as he showed me what to do.

The second problem was that every time I tried to move my arms back or over my head, they resisted me. I found that my range of motion is something akin to that of a brick wall.

“That’s fine, you’re doing fine,” said Hollenkamp, always cheerful.

He explained to me later that a big part of his job is evaluating his clients and helping them set realistic goals. So in my case, increasing my range of motion from nothing to an inch might make sense. But his clients at the moment were young, competitive athletes, so their goals were different.

For them, Hollenkamp was overseeing a one-hour workout session that involved some stretching and endurance, but mostly his focus was on increasing their strength — leg strength in particular.

One exercise he had them do involved holding a 17-pound “bell kettle” weight in one hand and lowering it to the floor slowly while raising the opposite leg in the air and keeping the back straight. He called it a “Romanian dead lift.” As he watched them, he looked for the flatness of their backs, the direction of their feet, and corrected them when necessary.

“When somebody starts here, we do a functional movement screen, to see what they can do. Some people have strong upper bodies but not great balance,” Hollenkamp said. “So we want to make sure there are no imbalances.”

Hollenkamp also acknowledged that some people’s idea of a personal trainer includes a lot of yelling, the “no pain, no gain” idea. But Hollenkamp used a conversational tone the entire time.

Another difference between Hollenkamp’s place of employment and some people’s idea of personal training is that Dynamics is not a big health club where people wander in and out. Everyone is there to work with a trainer, or take a class.

The morning I went, there was only one other trainer and one other client working while Hollenkamp worked with his two clients. (One-on-one training usually runs $40 an hour).

There wasn’t a lot of equipment either. There were balls, free weights, a pull-up bar, and several heavy-duty elastic cords with handles, to use for resistance exercises.

Near the end of the hour, Hollenkamp had the young women work on a routine in which they would lift free weights, then do pull-ups, then jump rope, then back to the weights.

They started with light weights — 12 pounds in each hand was considered light for them — and graduated to 20 pounds, doing four or six repetitions while lying on their backs on a bench.

My job was to “spot” them — stand over them and make sure I’d be in position to catch the weights if the athletes started to waver with fatigue. I also counted the reps for them.

As Kate — who is 14 and from Gorham — started her 20-pound reps, Hollenkamp told me to watch her and make sure she didn’t “hit herself in the head.” Luckily, Kate has been getting stronger and she did her 20-pound reps with much more ease than Hollenkamp had seen in the past.

“That’s great, you’re getting stronger,” Hollenkamp told her.

Hollenkamp said the kind of training he was doing with Kate and Phoebe was “old school,” but that for people just trying to get fit or have more stamina, there are lots of innovative new ways to work out. At one point, another trainer in the facility had a client whaling on a giant truck tire with a sledgehammer.

“You’ve got to make it fun too,” Hollenkamp said.

Hollenkamp had worked in sales — sitting in front of a computer 14 hours a day, he said — before being laid off. He says he was in terrible shape and started coming to classes at Dynamics, looking for something to do. He started feeling better about himself, and thought it might be fun to help others feel better too. So he got his personal trainer certification.

“It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the life,” he said.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]