PAUL GAGNON: He Trains the Hollywood Stars

Interviewed by Irene L. Hause
Written by Patricia A. Mills
Photos by Tim Kopack
Muscle Up Volume 4, Number 7
June 1982

At an age when most of his peers are working at entry-level jobs, 24-year-old Paul Gagnon numbers among his clients such names as Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, and Robin Williams. A California fitness instructor, Paul works on a one-to-one basis with people in their homes or at the Paramount Studios’ gym, which is available to those involved in projects on the lot. Recently he trained Robin Williams for his part in The World According to Garp. “We worked on getting Robin trimmed down for his role,” Paul relates of ‘Mork’ and ‘Popeye,’ “so what I did was to combine a lot of aerobics, running, and training with weights, using high repetitions with low weights.”

Paul has put together two home gyms for Steve Martin, whom he has known for several years. Custom-designing for individual fitness programs is his main focus of interest, “sitting down with a client, talking about what he wants to do with himself physically, and then deciding what equipment it will take to accomplish this.

I’m a motivator. People will admit to me that they don’t have the motivation to exercise, that they need me there to make them do it. I psych these people up and plan their exercise programs in a way so that they can adapt it to their schedules. One result of my training method is a higher energy level so they can perform better in what they do.” It’s this aspect of Paul’s services which is most appealing to people like Martin, whose careers dictate grueling schedules.

Paul adheres to a serious rationale in training the Hollywood elite and permits no horseplay or interruptions during workouts, but he admits that sometimes there are problems. Famous clients may be “so much in demand that if you don’t go to the sound stage and pick them up and almost grab them by the arm and take them to their workout, they can come up with any excuse in the book,” he says wryly. “Some would even rather visit their psychiatrists than go to the gym!” To minimize complications, he works only on a referral basis, with payment in advance, so clients usually show up to get the benefit of the time they’ve paid for.

He had once worked as an instructor at a health spa prior to “stumbling into” his job at the Paramount Studios’ gym by way of a contact who introduced him to Orlando Perry, the studio’s physical therapist. Paul had enjoyed his position at the spa until his boss told him he was spending too much time per customer. He felt a certain irony in that: “I was giving people the individual program they were promised when they walked in the door. I would go into detail on how to do the exercise properly, not just show them once, say “Do it!’ and then walk away.”

In the face of philosophical conflicts with the spa, he left and hooked up as a salesman for Dynavit, a computerized exercise machine, then kept in touch with customers who bought and used it. Among them were Steve Martin and some of his friends. They wanted Paul’s continued help because, he says, “This bike is so complicated that you have to take them through exercises with it. It’s a $3,000 machine. Then they want a little more than just pedaling a bike, no matter how many readouts it gives you. So you get them into a little bit of everything, and then you show them what can be done with weights.”

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Paul’s interests in both exercise and people goes back to his Wisconsin boyhood, where athletic involvement was part of life in an exceptionally sports-minded family of six brothers and one sister. His older brother Jim played pro football with the Seattle Seahawks, and Rob, two years younger than Paul, is a starter for Notre Dame as an offensive guard. Pete, another Gagnon brother, is also a personal-fitness programmer and recently teamed up with Paul in California.

Paul’s original goal, he says, was to play football at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He began weight training as a senior in high school, working out with six different state champions in powerlifting, and eventually built up his six-foot-one, 160-pound frame to 220 pounds.

I had dreams of becoming a Mr. America,” he recalls. But before he was ready to compete professionally, a sledding accident in his last year of college stripped away that possibility. As the health and physical education major took a cross-country shortcut on his way to class one snowy morning, his sled veered off the trail into a fallen tree. A branch poked into Paul’s back, breaking ribs and rupturing an artery to the lung. His chest cavity quickly filled with blood, and the lung collapsed. Dragging himself a mile and a half to campus, he was rescued by a fellow football player.

After several hospital stays, surgery, and therapy, Paul was finally released from medical care, weighing only 158 pounds. The trauma that erased his hard-won physical prowess caused him to sulk for about six months, he says. “I finally looked at myself and said, ‘I’ve been up there in good shape, and I can train back.’ And I did! I went back up to 220 pounds in a year and a half and was in better shape than before the accident because I got into a lot of cardiovascular work to strengthen my lung.”

Moving to California soon afterward, he lived in the San Fernando Valley and trained with Vince Gironda for three months. For a while he worked two jobs, and the pressure made it impossible to maintain his weight at a competitive bodybuilding level. It finally pushed him into changing his career focus to the education side of exercise. “I wanted to stay in the field,” he says, “and teach people to know their bodies, to give them a basic understanding of what it takes to gain weight or lose weight, and how fast you can do it in a safe way.

It’s not just going in and lifting weights and pumping up. I start people out at a very low level and teach them how the muscles are built up or toned down. Once they understand basic exercise physiology, I begin working them progressively from the point they’re at.” Paul determines that by testing people before they start their exercise program. He puts them on the Dynavit to check their cardiovascular condition, then goes through a series of stretches to test flexibility, and finally determines their level of agility and balance. In this way, he can put together a combination of techniques that assures steady progress without injury or discouragement.

All of Paul’s training programs are based on the scientific principles of exercise physiology, and his routines differ from client to client, depending on their needs. At any given time, his clients may range from a completely sedentary man of 45 who can’t even come close to touching his toes who must be taught stretching exercises for flexibility, to actors training for a specific image, such as Christopher Reeve did for Superman: The Movie.

The time frame a person has to achieve the desired results is also a factor in tailoring an individual regimen. “Usually the request is to lose weight and tone up in a short period,” Paul explains. For this type of client he uses “cardiovascular exercises that involve high heart rate, which burn off more fat, in combination with light weights using a lot of repetitions for tone. The intensity of the workout is also stepped up and repeated twice a day, always isolating and working the weak points.”

This is best done on an individual basis, he insists. Class situations, especially where some students are more advanced than others, can create a false motivation factor that is actually destructive. “You don’t want to be lagging behind the others, so you push yourself too hard and get so sore you couldn’t move if you wanted to. You can pull muscles by jerking or improperly controlled movements. Then it takes you three or four days, maybe up to a week, to come back from that soreness, and you’re right back where you started.”

Along with the individual exercise plan, he advises clients on proper diet. It’s at least 75% of what you’re going to look like. You can work your butt off, but if you’re putting in the wrong kinds of food, your body isn’t going to react. You’re not going to feel that good ‘high’ from the burning of good food. Like a car – you put in watered-down gas, it won’t run right. Your body is the same. What you put into yourself and how it’s assimilated and burned up is how you’re going to be able to output energy.

It’s just basic nutrition. Just watch what you eat, avoid refined products and simple carbohydrates, stay with fruits and vegetables, and supplement it with a well-balanced vitamin when you’re training hard.”

The diet and exercise components of Paul’s program are enriched by the concentration techniques he teaches. He believes that the more you think about what you’re doing, the faster you’ll progress. The most exciting part of his job, he says, “is seeing the dramatic changes in somebody who’s done nothing but bad or negative things to his body. In a matter of three days, I can get a person to stop certain things he’s doing and do a few good things. In a week, that person’s outlook can change so much, you see that big come-around. That’s the most rewarding thing for me.”

The only downside of his job is that the hours are long, often starting at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., supervising six or seven workouts during the day. He sometimes finds himself running short of the time or energy needed to keep his own body at the level he would like. Obviously, though, his sense of accomplishment in educating people and changing their lives keeps his enthusiasm high.

Unmarried, Paul is a confirmed California transplant. He calls the West Coast “a land of opportunity,” seeing it as a place where more options are open to him than in his native Midwest. Paul very recently branched out by starting his own sales company, PJG Exercising Equipment, in Santa Monica. He is satisfied with his career direction and talks of someday obtaining a master’s degree in health and of opening a gym with his brothers Rob and Pete.

Paul’s’ feelings about his calling as a personal fitness programmer run even deeper than satisfaction at seeing his students progress, or training them for successful appearances in movies and television. His idealism about the field of physical fitness training amounts to a philosophy of life. “When people are in touch with themselves and their bodies,” he says, “and get into the shape they want to be, they look better, they feel better, they function better, their whole outlook is better. Maybe that would be the thing that would hold our society together – if everyone was happy with the way he or she felt, physically. Fitness gives you confidence: you’re sure of yourself. Then you can go and do about anything you want to do!”

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