Staff Reporter

Karen Voight, who is the personal trainer to Elle MacPherson, Helen Hunt and Tina Turner, needed help with her "Lean Legs and Buns" exercise video.

Kathy Smith, the nationally syndicated fitness columnist whose 24 exercise videos have sold a combined 10 million copies, needed advice on how to develop a workout tape.

Actress Marilu Henner, deciding to produce an exercise video, needed someone to design a program.

Where did all these fitness divas turn for help?

To Sheila King arguably the top trainer of personal trainers.

In a city where looking great can be a prerequisite to just about everything, King and the hundreds of students she has taught have made an indelible mark on the fitness scene in Los Angeles. Instead of the industry being directed solely at sweaty hordes jumping around in aerobics classes, King, 42, has helped redefine fitness to include programs with one-on-one attention. She has accomplished much of this by developing the curriculum for fitness instructors in the sciences division at UCLA Extension.

"She's the one who saw in the early '80s that personal training was going to be a big thing," said June Schneider, a former student and personal trainer who now teaches at UCLA Extension. "She also saw that personal trainers were not, for the most part, well-trained themselves. She has a lot of integrity, and that's very rare to find in the fitness world."

Besides working at UCLA Extension, King serves on the advisory board of the American College of Sports Medicine's certification committee and helps select the editorial content that goes into Shape magazine in Woodland Hills.

Her notoriety is spreading globally, thanks to the Internet. King's fitness columns on Microsoft Corp.'s Web site for women, Underwire, give her a broader audience that asks hundreds of questions each month.

How does she juggle it all? "It's really tough. Sometimes I write the columns and say, 'God, practice what you preach,'" she said.

King says that personal trainers typically charge anywhere from $60 to $75 an hour, "but it depends on what the market will bear. I've seen it as high as $125 per half-hour. I don't know him well, but I know the guy who trains Madonna and he makes a very nice living."

When the rich and famous show off their buff bods and credit their personal trainers, demand for personal fitness attention goes up and more fitness gurus become interested in being certified instructors. Around 50 people a year complete the training at UCLA Extension.

"A lot of people see a trainer and say, 'I want to look like that!' " King said. "But not everyone is genetically endowed with beautiful bodies, and people need to see role models that make sense to them. I really like having these smaller groups with people you can relate to."

While being a personal trainer does not require certification, King believes that the knowledge students get in her classes makes them more prepared to face the myriad problems that may arise when working with a client.

When she instructs trainers, King gives them the basics of anatomy, physiology and weight management. Her repertoire at UCLA includes reviews for trainers seeking national certification, exercise physiology classes specifically for fitness instructors, and management of fitness facilities.

King also takes on the mental games that can arise between a trainer and a client. She emphasizes to her students that they have to set boundaries a personal trainer can't lose the weight for his or her client. They have to instruct and motivate clients on how to do it for themselves.

"The most important thing is that personal trainers can't foster dependency in their client," King said. "It's a matter of giving people tools to use in their tool kit and helping them manage their own health throughout their lives. You have to teach people how to live when the personal trainer isn't going to be there."

King also tries to instill a healthy dose of empathy.

"I see a lot of personal trainers who say 'I'm going to develop the workout for the client,' " she said. "It should be 'we.' They are an advocate, they are not the one making the changes. You are only an educator and a motivator. A lot of them balk at that."

The best personal trainers, she says, know the limits of their knowledge. When she works with other trainers, King encounters many who feel insecure about acknowledging that they don't know the answer to every question, like "Should I add bee pollen to my soy protein shakes?"

"There's a lot of ego out there," she said. "There's a lot of 'I know what's best for my client.' But really I'm not a dietician, I'm not a psychiatrist and I'm not a marriage counselor. The best personal trainers are those who refer them to somebody."

King earned two degrees in kinesiology, the science of human muscular movement, from UCLA, and she is the co-author of a text on body composition assessment used by first-year medical students.

When working on an exercise video for Henner, King helped the actress fine-tune her choreography for the camera. With Smith and Voight, she offered ideas on how to format their moves for a video audience.

"Obviously they can get anybody they want, so I was flattered to be asked," King said.

The quest for physical perfection goes hand in hand with those who seek out a personal trainer. King agrees that sometimes it gets to be too much.

"We've got a media that puts out pretty unrealistic icons," she said. "It just comes down to how the muscle attaches to the body, and genetics what mom and dad look like. Some people are just never going to look super lean, some won't get big muscles and some people just can't gain weight. Do your best and leave the rest. Quit obsessing about one body part and enjoy your life."

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