Virtual Fitness Is Here to Stay. Here’s How to Adapt as a Personal Trainer.


The pandemic has forced the world online. Meetings, lectures, church services, and even lifecycle events—like weddings and funerals—have gone virtual. In fact, for many individuals, a typical day right now could play out entirely in the digital world.

So, why should the way they exercise differ? Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. Like nearly all aspects of life, fitness is increasingly a virtual activity.

People now break a sweat with YouTube videos right in the comfort of their living room, tune into live yoga lessons from their basement (e.g., Alo Moves), and “explore nature” via their indoor cycling bikes or treadmills (e.g., Peloton). Even AI-powered mirror home gyms (e.g., Mirror) exist!

But as people globally transition into a “post-pandemic” life, one question hangs heavy in the air (and particularly in the minds of full-time fitness professionals like yourself): “Is the online fitness industry here to stay?” Let’s explore.

 

Do People Even Like Virtual Fitness and Online Personal Training?

While we can’t peer through a crystal ball to predict the future, we can glean valuable insights from consumer sentiments.

According to a survey by The New Consumer and Coefficient Capital published in December 2020, 76% of consumers have switched to exercising at home during the pandemic, and 66% say they prefer it. Plus, a TD Ameritrade survey found that 59% of Americans don’t plan to renew their gym memberships once the pandemic is over. 

The statistics paint a clear picture.

People have not only discovered that they’re able to use technology to replicate the gym experience at home but have also realized that it could be an even more enjoyable experience altogether. But why?

Benefits of Virtual Fitness and Online Personal Training

It’s a combination of factors. First, there’s the convenience.

With nearly everything a user needs to work out now available online (i.e., workout programs and technique guidance), it becomes easier than ever for someone to work out anytime, anywhere, whenever they have the time for it. No more time-wasting commutes to-and-from the gym.

This is particularly beneficial for time-starved individuals—like those constantly juggling parental duties, work responsibilities, and social obligations.

Beyond convenience, online fitness has also proven capable of meeting the deep human need for social connection. Users can have a virtual experience of exercising alongside others, fostering an incredible sense of community while physically located at home.

Take Hydrow, a smart rowing machine, for instance. Its immersive experience of sights and sounds helps a user unlock the virtual experience of a rowing crew—and move in sync with the company’s athletes in real-time on the water.

And, of course, another reason why the pendulum has swung toward the online realm? It’s the affordability of it all.

Follow-along YouTube videos cost next to nothing (excluding things like electricity and Internet bills). Likewise, paid online fitness classes are way cheaper than in-person sessions. Plus, let’s not forget about the savings owing to the elimination of membership fees and transportation costs.

Finally, a benefit relating specifically to online personal training: It truly opens a “whole new world of possibilities” for clients and trainers.

Think about it. When sourcing for a personal trainer, a client used to be constrained by their geographical location. For example, suppose they live in New York. In that case, it wouldn’t make sense to hire a personal trainer hailing from Ohio—even if the latter has an impressive track record for producing results for others with the same, unique fitness goals (e.g., postpartum clients looking to address their diastasis recti). 

And vice versa; a personal trainer located in Texas wouldn’t be able to work with a client living in Minnesota even if they have the specific, specialized skill sets aligned with the latter’s needs.

But that changes when things move online.

Connectivity online has crumbled geographical boundaries. A trainer’s physical location may no longer be a client’s primary hiring consideration (so long as both parties have access to a stable Internet connection).

Drawbacks of Virtual Fitness and Online Personal Training

Of course, those benefits are not to say that virtual fitness and online personal training are without their cons.

Let’s take free, follow-along YouTube videos, for instance. Anyone could put together a list of random exercises and film themselves performing the workout. But this sequence may neither be the most effective workout method nor the safest.

And speaking of safety, the truth is that it’s incredibly challenging for someone to master the intricacies of proper exercise execution through imitation alone. Many individuals could thus be performing exercises with the wrong form, putting them at increased risk of injuries.

Compare that to an in-person training session, where a coach can “physically” cue for better (and safer) movement by lightly tapping a target muscle group and saying, “Concentrate on squeezing this part on the way down.”

The same drawback applies to various “smart-tech” home fitness technologies.

These AI-enabled workout equipment are relatively “smart” for sure; thanks to advanced camera technology, some of them can even deliver in-workout adjustments based on a user’s exercise form.

The only problem? They can only tell a user what’s wrong (e.g., “You’re not squatting deep enough”) but not why, and, more importantly, what they could do to address the issue (e.g., “Your ankle mobility is preventing you from achieving good squat technique. Stretches like the banded joint mobilizations and the goblet squat stretch may help.”)

Also, when left to their own devices, many individuals tend to “cherry-pick” specific exercises or workout routines based on their individual preferences.

This is apparent from popular but misleading YouTube workout videos titled, “Grow your glutes, not your legs,” and “Build a thicker back, instead of a wider one.” Focusing on one muscle group—at the expense of others—is a recipe for injuries.

To illustrate this, think about what happens when someone prioritizes developing their chest over the back musculature. 

Over time, an overdeveloped chest can overpower its opposing muscle groups (e.g., rear delts and the upper back)—manifesting in a hunchback posture.

Of course, users aren’t at fault here. They don’t know what they don’t know, after all.

Well, this is where well-educated personal trainers come into the picture. A comprehensive, in-person initial consultation and fitness assessment are crucial for developing a well-rounded training program suited for a client’s fitness capabilities and goals. 

It’s also important to touch on affordability. Sure, YouTube videos are (definitely) cheaper than in-person lessons.

But intelligent tech workout equipment? Not necessarily so. In addition to the upfront cost of the machine itself, which often runs up to thousands of dollars, there’s also the “in-demand” nature of lessons, where users need to pay for individual workouts. As a result, the cost can snowball rather quickly.

Is One Necessarily Better than the Other?

Right. Despite having contrasted the pros and cons of virtual fitness and personal training, it’d appear that we’re no closer to finding out which triumphs over the other: the online or in-person option.

But let’s take a step back.

Is it truly an “either-or” choice? It doesn’t have to be. A more realistic view of the fitness industry would be to see the two options as complements.

On occasions when attending an in-person class is impossible, there’s always online fitness available. On the other hand, if someone is looking for a little more “hands-on” (couldn’t resist the pun) guidance, there’s always the option of a real-life experience.

At its core, this presents a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario where individuals can better integrate exercise into their daily lives. There’s Plan A (in person), then there’s Plan B (online).

Both can be good exercise. What does this signify? Well, this makes one thing clear: Virtual fitness and online personal training are here to stay. For good.

How to Adapt to This “New Reality” as a Coach

So, what does that mean for you, as a certified personal trainer?

It just means that, if you haven’t already, it’s high time you considered adding online offerings to your services. Before you hastily add “online personal training” to your biography, though, there are a few things you need to be mindful of.

Setting Up Your Virtual Training Space

When a digital screen separates you from your client, you’ll have to put in more thought about the setup of your virtual training space.

At the minimum, you’ll need to have access to a laptop or tablet that allows you to observe your client during the session—and demonstrate exercises whenever necessary. And the training space you pick will have to meet the following requirements:

  • Gives you enough room to demonstrate exercises (both vertically and horizontally)
  • Big enough to house your workout equipment (e.g., dumbbells, kettlebells, and weight plates)
  • Professional, clean, and free from distractions; so, that means your living room—where family members could potentially come into view—isn’t the best idea
  • Well-lit; you don’t want your clients struggling to make out your face

Beyond that, you also want to make sure that all the equipment you’d need for a particular session is at the reach of your hands. You shouldn’t have to leave your training space. Your client’s time is as precious (and paid for) in the virtual world as in real life.

Accountability Is More Key than Ever

Trying to help your clients keep their motivation going when you see them in person is often hard enough.

Imaginably, keeping your client on track with their workout routine can be a lot trickier when your interactions are limited to the online world. But trickier doesn’t mean impossible. You’ll need to come up with more creative ways of keeping your client engaged and challenged—virtually.

Here are a few ideas that may help inspire you:

  • Look into client fitness tracker apps: These make it easy for you to stay in communication with your client—putting a holistic view of your client’s training progress right at your fingertips and allowing them to reach out to you whenever they need help.
  • Conduct online group personal training: Who said online personal training had to be done 1-on-1? You could pair up clients of similar fitness levels and goals into groups and train them together. Doing so fosters a sense of camaraderie. And, besides, watching others work out can serve as a huge source of inspiration.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch it up: Notice that your client is looking a little disenchanted with doing the same things over and over? Think of alternative exercises or training methods that could still help them achieve the same results.

Ultimately, the underlying idea of it all is for you to keep an active eye out for your client.

In-person personal training is a two-way street, where you need to conduct regular check-in sessions, evaluate clients’ progress, and ask them areas they think you could improve on.

The same principles apply to online personal training.

Takeaway

Can’t wait to hop on the latest trend in coaching? Go for it! Just be sure to make an honest assessment of your availability and capacity.

It could be tempting to take on more than you can handle since online coaching seems more flexible. But that isn’t the case; you do still need to put in plenty of work to manage your online clients as well.

As with many things in life, it’s always a good idea to start small. Experience it for yourself, so you can decide whether online personal training is something you’d enjoy doing long term. You’re the only one who can say for sure.

 

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