client: Alex | personal trainer: Jeff Mendoza, Curl Fitness | location: Newport Beach, California

Changes. Sometimes improvements aren't obvious when you work with a client regularly. This was the case for personal trainer Jeff Mendoza, who has trained 10-year-old Alex for 2½ years.

"On [a recent] day, Alex walked out of the gym, and I didn't think anything of it until a member in the gym said, 'Wow, he's walking really well,'" explains Mendoza. "I thought back to the beginning of our training; I used to carry Alex out of the gym by locking his elbows for assistance, or often he would use his walker."

Alex, who has cerebral palsy, arrived at Curl Fitness with his dad, who wanted a trainer to help his son gain strength.

"That's where I came in," says Mendoza.

Challenges. Alex has pushed his trainer to stretch and grow. Mendoza has a significant fitness background and studied special populations in college, but those courses didn't cover cerebral palsy, and before Alex, he hadn't trained anyone with the condition. He immersed himself in research and attended several of Alex's physical therapy sessions in order to understand cerebral palsy and determine how to approach program design.

As with most clients, Mendoza had to test Alex to know his unique capabilities. "At the start of our training, there was a lot of troubleshooting and assessing," he recalls.

Mindset. One primary concern was that although Alex was prone to falling and could hurt himself, Mendoza didn't want to coddle the boy. "Knowing how much to help him took time. Alex knew that I could help if absolutely necessary, but in this setting it was time to push past these roadblocks."

Mendoza believed that it was vitally important to address mental limitations as well. "Alex is training his body but also training his mind to know that the effort he puts in at the gym will help him overcome the mental obstacles of being disabled out in the real world."

Training. Mendoza noticed that aside from gait instability Alex presented with hypertonia (high muscle tone and tightness) in his lower body and hypotonia (low muscle tone and weakness) in his upper body and core. Mendoza has carved out time in the sessions to address each area. For example, he's had Alex walk on the treadmill while steadying himself with the handrails; used strength machines or suspension equipment to strengthen Alex's core and upper body; and increased hip flexor mobility with one-on-one stretching.

The sessions aren't always all about work; sometimes the two play games like modified dodgeball to bring some levity to the training.

Limitations. Alex's spirit and efforts are often high, but Mendoza recalls a time when his young client became overwhelmed while attempting a new, challenging exercise.

"I said to him, 'Come on; if I were you, I would try harder and do it!' He looked up at me as he was lying on the ground and said, 'Do you want to trade bodies for a day?' My eyes started to fill with tears. I bent down, gave him a hug and said, 'You're doing great, buddy, and I'm sorry if I push you too hard.' From that point, I knew how hard I could push him physically and mentally, and that sometimes I needed to put myself in his shoes."

Appreciation. "In my 7 years of personal training, I've never had a client impact my life as much as he has," Mendoza says. "Alex's fitness journey thus far has been a huge success, yet there is always much more work to be done."

Recently, the young client mentioned to his trainer that he has a new goal he'd like to work toward.

"He told me Little League tryouts are 7 months away, and he wants to play catcher."

Mendoza has learned much about gratitude for his own unimpaired physical capacity. "Don't take the fully functioning body you were fortunate to be born with for granted, because there are millions of people out there, like Alex, who would use your body to the fullest," he says.

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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