NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Even in times of plenty personal trainers had the whiff of indulgence about them, coddling actress Sarah Jessica Parker back to her pre-natal abs or enabling Madonna to bypass her last 10 years.
But not all personal trainers have celebrity clients and with the economy in free fall their non-essential service is feeling the same pain as their belt-tightening clientele.
So to cope, many have made the journey from exclusive to semi-private.
"Business is down across the board," Neal Pire, an exercise physiologist and president of Inspire Training Systems, said in an interview.
"Small group training has been growing over the last five years, but exponentially in the past year," Pire, who trains personal trainers, said from his office in Bergen, New Jersey.
"Price-point has been a real consideration for the client."
Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise (ACE), agrees.
"As discretionary income shrinks, personal trainers try to accommodate by working with two-to-four individuals at a time," he said from Seattle, Washington.
"It's not private but the trainer can make more money on hourly basis. Rather than $80 an hour, he or she can charge three people $40 each," said Bryant, whose non-profit organization sets certification standards for trainers.
Bryant says clients are benefiting from the camaraderie and motivation of the group, even as personal trainers work harder to boost their interpersonal skills, what he calls "the art of personal training."
"Rather than rely on the gadgets and gizmos, trainers are recognizing that the way to separate themselves is to develop strong relationships," he said.
Bryant said the most robust group trends are, at first glance, opposites. At one end there is boot camp, a vigorous, non-stop workout involving calisthenics, jumping jacks, and crunches. At the other is yoga, a practice that coordinates postures and stretches with breath.
For David Harris, senior director of personal training at Equinox Fitness, they reflect the Zeitgeist, as well as the individual.
"It's an interesting counterpoint. The boot camp approach is in play because of the times we're living in, it's more aggressive. Conversely, we're also seeing more participation in yoga," he said.
"Each offers stress relief," he said. "I think it depends on temperament. Boot camp is more for the extrovert needing to throw off a lot of energy. Yoga is more for the introvert pushing past personal boundaries."
While the industry might be reeling from the recessionary body blow, experts are confident it will regain its footing.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects employment of fitness workers will increase 27 percent over the 2006-2016 decade, as more people spend time and money on fitness.
"The landscape is changing but the future is very bright for fitness business," Harris said.
Pire agrees: "I see many second-career trainers -- from attorneys-turned-trainers to corporate-ladder-climbers-turned-trainers to stay-at-home moms-turned-trainers. It is not your traditional college-based education to workplace experience."
Maybe these hopefuls figure the best way to combat uncertainty -- in the job market and at the gym -- is with a well-formulated plan.
"The most important thing a trainer can do is help the client determine specific goals," Pire said.
"If you don't know where you're going, how do you know when you get there?"