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Should You Try Online Fitness Coaching?

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Photo: Tatomirov / Shutterstock

By the time my spray tan wore off after my first bodybuilding show, I had a list of ways I could improve for next time—including a more structured training plan, for starters. (I'd used a hodgepodge of programming to prepare for my first show.)

I'd always enjoyed group fitness classes, but they weren't tailored to my specific needs. I tried planning workouts for myself, but I quickly realized I wasn't apt to ever do Bulgarian split squats unless someone was telling me to. And a personal trainer five days a week was definitely out of the question from a financial perspective.

So I tried something new: remote coaching. This style of training has been blowing up in recent years, thanks to new technology (hi, smartphone!) that makes it easier than ever. While some coaches deliver workouts via email and text, many trainers are taking advantage of apps (like Trainiac and Fitbot) that allow them to track workouts, embed videos of exercises, and communicate in one central location. (Related: How the Latest Tech Is Changing At-Home Workouts)

All the perks of a personal trainer, minus the hefty price tag and time commitment—is remote coaching a fitness godsend or too good to be true?

For Serious Athletes and Average Gym-Goers

Remote fitness coaching has long been used by serious athletes seeking out the expertise of top coaches who might not be nearby geographically—but now it's expanded to the general population. At Central Athlete in Austin, TX, co-owner and coach Amanda O'Brien estimates that 80 percent of their remote clients are people "who want to live long and prosper, feel good, get out of pain, or look good naked," she says—not necessarily win a competition.

Ashlie Arnold, 28, is one of those everyday athletes who just wanted a little guidance in her workouts. She'd tried CrossFit but wanted to work out on her own time. "I'd look at workouts online, and I was seeing some progress but didn't really have an end goal—I was just trying to get in there and sweat," she says. "I teach pre-K, so my specialty is education; I figured someone else probably knows a lot more about this than I do."

She found a coach to work with, and over the past two and a half years, she's cycled through three main goals: improving body composition, gaining strength, and now just staying healthy through some major life transitions (like getting married and moving).

"My coach works with me, and wants to set me up for success," says Arnold. "I can message her and say I'm not going to get any of my workouts done this week, and she's very understanding."

The Downsides to Consider

Although remote coaching can work for all levels, it does help to have a basic working knowledge of various movements. "Remote coaching can work for anyone from beginner to advanced, but it favors someone who has some prior experience in the gym or experience with personal training but is looking for some outside perspective," says Kyle Clechenko, a coach with Strength Ratio in Asheville, NC. If you're interested in remote coaching but are new to working out, it can be helpful to have a few hands-on training sessions first before transitioning to the remote format. (See: 10 Reasons You Should Hire a Personal Trainer)

While many apps allow users to take videos of themselves doing the exercises so that their trainer can provide pointers, the feedback isn't usually in real time. If you've been working out for years and just need subtle form corrections, it's easy enough to incorporate that feedback into your next workout—but if there are multiple things you should clean up because you're new to the exercise, that's more of a challenge.

From a cost perspective, it's generally cheaper than personal training but is still an added expense above and beyond a gym membership. (I paid about $120/month, Trainiac runs $50/month, and Fitbot costs vary by trainer.) And while the coaches provide accountability, you should be pretty self-motivated. There won't be anyone in person cheering you on or making sure you get your workouts in. (Here's how to motivate yourself to work out even when you don't want to.)

How to Choose an Online Trainer

When it comes to finding a remote coach, the options are abundant. Central Athlete estimates that about a quarter of the 250,000 personal trainers in the United States offer remote services, giving you thousands of potential trainers to choose from. Look for someone whose specialty matches your goal—if you want to improve your gymnastics skills or enter a powerlifting competition, for example, you need someone who knows how to program for that.

As I searched for a coach, I wanted someone with experience rehabbing an injury, after going through physical therapy for my shoulder. That's one of Clechenko's specialties. "The main reason people usually come is for some sort of chronic injury like low back, knee, or shoulder," he says. "We help them slowly rehab back from that, and from there, they continue with some sort of performance goals."

For ideas on where to look, I asked a friend who'd also been injured—and getting a referral from a trainer you know in person or a gym buddy with similar goals is a good place to start. You can also get inspiration from Instagram, do a Google search, or look for coaches through an app like Trainiac. Read through bios and blog posts written by the prospective coach, if available. Look for certifications appropriate for your area of fitness—if you're training for strength, for example, you might want someone who's a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) or who has an equivalent credential. At the very least, they should be a certified personal trainer (CPT). (Start by checking out these Instagram trainers who are actually legit.) Most coaches will start each training relationship with a call to make sure it's a good fit, so this is the time to ask any questions you have and assess whether the person you're speaking with feels like the right coach for you.

O'Brien recommends finding a coach who will provide you with a 100 percent personalized program and not a template that can be applied to anyone. While these have their place, if you're paying for remote coaching, you should be getting a plan that's tailored to your goals, strengths, and weaknesses and that is adjusted along the way.

As with any relationship, it helps to find someone who understands you and is easy to communicate with. "Sometimes being in the gym and being consistent can take an emotional toll," says Arnold. "For women, our body changes all the time, and we have to deal with the fluctuations. To have someone who's your partner along the way, telling you things you didn't really know about yourself, and who understands your body is super helpful to keep you motivated."

What It's Really Like to Work with an Online Trainer

For five months, I worked with my remote coach on building my general strength base and moving closer to my bodybuilding goals. I received my plan each week through the Fitbot app, and I would often take videos of myself doing the exercises each day so I could get feedback. This was difficult sometimes, depending on where I was working out—getting my cell phone set just right so that you could see what I was doing required a creative balancing act with dumbbells, business card holders, and whatever else I could find to use as a prop. This part was worth it, as the feedback on my movement was really valuable—I was able to make small tweaks that made a big difference. My back squat's never been so pretty.

We discussed workouts through the app and occasionally touched base via text. Once a month, we'd have a call to talk about the past four weeks and the plan for the coming weeks. If something wasn't working for me or I wanted to add an element, my coach was responsive to that, and I appreciated how communicative he was.

As the weeks progressed, though, I realized I was lonely.

"Some people miss working alongside like-minded individuals who are all striving to get from point A to point B," says O'Brien.

That was definitely the case for me. I had plenty of motivation, but I found myself going to the gym later and later every day. Without a scheduled time to work out, I'd let other things get in the way. I got bored between sets and longed for a little camaraderie. (See: Should You Work Out Alone or with a Group?)

I told a friend, and she laughed. "Working out alone is my favorite thing because I don't have to talk to people," she said.

For now, I've gone back to a group exercise format, but I won't rule out remote coaching in the future, particularly if I'm working on something very specific. The personalized training advice, accountability, and attention to detail on form make it a great deal for those who don't mind having a coach hundreds of miles away.

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