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What to Know Before Working with a Trainer or Fitness Coach from Instagram

fitness-coach-instagram.jpgPhoto: bymuratdeniz / Getty Images

Dallas-based fitness influencer Brittany Dawn came under fire this week following reports she'd scammed thousands of women who purchased her online personal coaching plans. Dawn, whose legal name is Brittany Davis, sold services like fitness coaching and macro consultations through her website, which she marketed heavily through Instagram to more than half a million followers.

More than 4,500 women have joined a Facebook group called Brittany Dawn Fitness Complaints to share their personal stories about how they bought—and never received—personalized coaching plans from Davis. In an apology video she posted to her YouTube channel, Davis chalks up her mistakes to simply biting off more than she could chew.

"When you're given an opportunity like this, you'd be stupid not to take it and run with it," said Davis in the video, referring to her massive following. "Unfortunately," she concluded, "I ran too fast for one person."

While it might seem simple to point fingers at the women who fell for Davis' alleged scam (#FyreFestival, anyone?), the truth is that Davis—and many other influencers—can be pretty dang convincing. Thanks to the explosion of people offering online fitness coaching in the last few years, it's getting harder and harder to spot who's legit and who's not.

"The internet is a very easy place to scam and be scammed," says Alex Silver-Fagan, an American Council on Exercise–certified personal trainer and certified functional strength coach. "The people who bought into [Davis'] programs bought into it because it was easy to believe." (Silver-Fagan is also on our list of legit, certified trainers you should follow on Instagram.)

The Brittany Dawn story may soon become a catalyst for change in the fitness industry in general. "I have a feeling that our business is going to have a massive fallout—and it needs to," says Denver-based trainer Natalie Uhling, who's certified through NASM and several other organizations.

Trainers like Kayla Itsines (founder of BBG), who is a certified personal trainer, made training clients online appear easy when she launched her Bikini Body Guides five years ago. While many programs, like hers, are legit, her success helped pave the way for many (uncertified) fitness influencers to dupe her business plan—essentially throwing workouts into PDFs and selling them online in mass quantities regardless of whether they possessed relevant qualifications. (Related: How the Latest Tech Is Changing At-Home Workouts)

That's not to say all trainers you find via Instagram or other online platforms fall into this category. Working with someone in this way can totally make sense when it comes to convenience and affordability. (After all, that's part of why it's so enticing.)

With that in mind, here are the major questions to ask before committing to a trainer's program—or forking over any payment.

1. What are their certifications?

At a minimum, they should be a certified personal trainer, says Silver-Fagan. Check their Instagram profile and website to see if they're accredited from organizations like the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), or the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). 

"At this point in fitness, I definitely think you want someone who has multiple letters behind their name," she says. "You wouldn't just go to a 'doctor' who'd read a book on the body; you'd want someone who'd gone to school."

Yet, it's also worth noting that certifications don't always tell the whole story. "It's not just certs; it's experience," says Uhling, pointing to the fact that time as a trainer and in the gym matters, and can't be revealed by letters behind someone's name. Have they trained clients at any well-known or local gyms—or did they just take a test?

2. What do references say?

It goes without saying that you can't trust everything you read, so it's important to check references. If a trainer has a client testimonial page on their website, that's a great place to start, yet those can also be carefully curated. (Consider it a red flag if everything is overwhelmingly positive.)

Don't hesitate to ask for personal references from the trainer and contact them yourself. And remember, the barrier for entry as a fitness influencer is low: “I couldn’t even teach [at an athletic club] without having tryouts and certs to back me up, but there is no vetting online," says Uhling.

3. How accessible are they?

If you're getting a personalized program, there are certain things your trainer should want to know about you, like what your goals are and what your current fitness level is. If they're not accessible via phone or even a video call to discuss these things with you, reconsider working with them. "Our technology is so advanced now that you should be able to quickly FaceTime with anyone who's training you," says Silver-Fagan. 

4. Are they overdoing the before-and-after photos?

An Instagram feed or story loaded with amazing client transformation stories may appear positive, but you have no way of knowing if those are legit, or how they were accomplished. “The problem is that it’s all perception versus reality,” says Uhling. Plus, before-and-after photos could come about through very unhealthy means that the posters certainly aren't telling you. (Read about the number-one thing people get wrong about transformation photos, straight from Kayla Itsines.) Again, it goes back to referrals and talking to real people who've worked with that trainer.

5. Do they also sell nutrition plans?

Unless they're a nutritionist, be wary of trusting anyone who's selling both workout plans and nutrition plans. "To be prescribing diets when that's not your specialty is irresponsible," says Uhling. (And, in some cases, it may actually be illegal. Check to see what your state's rules are for providing dietetics advice.) "If you don't know [a client's] blood work or history, how are you supposed to recommend what they should eat?" she says. When it comes to eating, talk to a doctor or a registered dietitian instead.

Vetting aside, just because you can work out with a trainer you find online doesn't necessarily mean you should, and it's definitely not for everyone. Instagram can be an excellent place to seek motivation and workout ideas, yet it can also stir up some heavy feelings: One study called it the worst social media platform for body image, anxiety, and depression.

There's also something—okay, a lot—to be said for working out with a trainer in person, who can see how you move, adjust your form, get your complete health history, and move forward based on your goals. (Related: Trainers Share What They'd Tell Their Younger Selves About Fitness)

"I think it's awesome to get inspiration from people," says Uhling, "but there's a lost art in the personal touch." 

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