One of America's Top Trainers Weighed His Options & Picked Aspen
By Kent Smith Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
When Jean-Robert Barbette's father carved wooden dumbbells for his son, he didn't know the 5-year-old would lift himself to the pinnacle of personal training, attracting big-name clients and national acclaim to his Aspen gym. Twenty-eight years later, the Belgian fitness phenom is notching accolades from New York to Aspen, where he runs a personal-training center. They include recently being named one of the top 50 trainers in America by Vogue magazine,and appearing with student Johnny Depp in an article in the New York Daily News. His passion for exercise started in his father's gymnasium in Liege, Belgium, one that bore little resemblance to Jean-Robert's glass-and-mirror sanctuary at Hyman Avenue and Original Street. Jean-Robert first felt the spiritual exhilaration of exhaustion in his father's gym, a spirit that carries him today.
I wanted to follow in his footsteps, Jean-Robert 33, said quietly. I could be much more of a success in New York, in real estate, you see, but I want to help them. I care about my students. He began serious training summers as a teenager in St. Tropez, France, where he moonlighted as a 160-pound bouncer in a joint that averaged two fights a night. A former strength trainer for the French junior ski team, he hit the winter slopes at Courchevel. Jean-Robert landed on America's East Coast at age 26 with $400 in my pocket. He said he heard about a place called Aspen that, like New York, was a wonderful place, but a tough place. If you could make it here, you could make it anywhere. That's what I wanted.
When the landlord wanted to raise his rent from $2,000 a month to $2,800 four years ago, Barbette again dug his heels in: He opened the state-of-the-art facility featuring dozens of new, complete training machines and panoramic views that stretch from Smuggler to Ajax. For personal training sessions, students hear music they selected for their workout when they walk in. Air and water supplies are filtered, and the gym is cleaned top to bottom several times a week; students must leave their shoes at the door. Jean-Robert's approach to body building varies significantly from most conventional trainers. For one, he stresses conditioning of back muscles using a simple wooden staff. The back is the center of much of your strength, for men and women. It's overlooked, he said.
Oh yes, there's the skiing. Jean-Robert prefers working in Aspen because the lifestyle is perfect here. I can train people in the morning, ski at lunch and train in the afternoon or evening. Shortly after coming to Aspen he and a colleague introduced the monoski to Ajax Mountain. Jean-Robert doesn't care much that it hasn't caught on in the U.S. It reflects his drive for progress and innovation. He worked in a local gym training clients for two years until the owner refused to give him a raise above his $10 -per-hour salary. He opened his own gym in the Brand Building, a place with no windows, no frills except for the trainer, who says he made $120,000 his second year in his own gym.
His client list is impressive. Jean-Robert maintains the confidentiality of his clients, but suffice to say it's one Robin Leach could use for his scripts. Not that all of them are triathletes, Barbette revels in raising students to their potential, not trying to reach someone else's. He also works to prevent pain for students, and to make them feel good after workouts, not drained or sore. I try to find the athlete in everybody, he said of his techniques. You have to make some people believe in themselves.