I used to say you had to have a year of experience training clients in person before you should consider taking your business online, but I’ve backed off on that.
The fact is, I’ve seen too many people become great online coaches without ever having worked with someone in a gym.
There are also practical reasons why you may not be able to gain in-person training experience. Maybe:
- The gyms around you are still closed, have gone out of business, or aren’t hiring trainers now.
- You’re newly certified but you don’t live anywhere near a gym.
- You want to start training online as a side hustle on top of your day job, so you can’t put in the kinds of hours that a beginning personal trainer typically does.
Whatever the case, you’re at a slight disadvantage starting an online business without having trained clients face-to-face.
It’s going to be more challenging to keep a client engaged, measure and track their progress, and troubleshoot problems (exercise form, diet, etc.) from a distance when you’re not experienced doing it in person.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t start crushing it right out of the gate. YOU CAN compensate for a lack of experience so your clients can hardly tell—or don’t care.
Is it vital to have face-to-face clients before starting as an online coach? Not if you follow these four steps …
Step #1: Only work with people like you.
Most of us who want to become trainers follow the same path:
- You discover fitness.
- You transform our body.
- You find you have a passion for helping others make the same changes.
I call it the Passion Purpose Continuum.
My journey started in high school. I was 15, 105 pounds soaking wet, and I got picked on.
I liked to play sports and I was fast in hockey, but if I got bodychecked, I’d fall right on my butt.
I started working out to put on muscle, got a girlfriend, and when she complimented me on my progress, I knew I was hooked for life.
When I started training people, I really wanted to help young guys bulk up the way I had, and, unsurprisingly, that was all I really knew how to do.
But it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a very knowledgeable or experienced trainer yet, because I understood my clients.
Maybe you started out in fitness because you had a lot of fat to lose. Great. Take on clients who want to drop 50 pounds.
Or maybe you got into lifting to get fast and agile enough to play a sport better. In that case, train athletes.
You know these people well already. You know their insecurities, their inner dialogue, the specific challenges they face in achieving their goal, and the kind of training they need to reach that goal.
Share your story with them and bond over it.
These may not be the kinds of clients you want to ultimately work with, but they’ll help you become successful and experienced enough to take the next step that will lead you there.
Which brings me to …
Step #2. Take on one person who’s outside your core competency.
Once you’ve worked with a few clients who are in your wheelhouse, you can begin to expand your client pool by taking on one new person who has a very dissimilar background and different goals.
If your specialty is helping young guys muscle up, you can now look to sign up an older lady who wants to slim down, or a middle-aged guy with bad knees who’s never lifted a weight in his life.
When you find this client, be completely transparent. Explain that you’ve never worked with someone in their position before, and that the two of you will learn as you go.
To make the client feel more comfortable, offer a discount for your services.
You might think that admitting your inexperience would frighten the person away, but chances are that their reaction will be just the opposite.
Think of it from their perspective. They’re interested in training with you because they know you and like you already, or you’ve already helped someone they know, and that person has vouched for you.
They appreciate your honesty, because when was the last time someone tried to sell you something and admitted they didn’t know everything about their product or service?
They’ll also feel invested in the process, and your mutual success. The two of you are conducting an experiment together. The person is a partner as much as a client.
Now you just have to live up to your end of the bargain by educating yourself on what this client needs.
Find coaches who have been successful working with this type of person and learn from them. Study their programs. Interview them directly if you can.
Before long, you’ll be qualified to accept two kinds of clients—the type you started out with, and the one you just signed up. Over time, you’ll repeat the process to add more clients until you’re a full-fledged online training encyclopedia with a huge roster of clients to show for it.
Step #3: Admit what you don’t know.
This is a part of step 2, but it bears repeating, so I’m making it a step by itself.
You don’t have to act like you know everything about fitness to attract clients and win their trust. Doing so can actually set you back farther.
Faking it by giving advice on things you don’t understand (be it training around injuries, following a particular diet, using a type of programming that you’ve never actually tried, etc.) can get your client injured or sick.
And claiming expertise that you don’t actually have—i.e., lying—can ruin your career before it even starts.
Honesty is not only the best policy, it’s the best marketing strategy too. You can actually turn your inexperience into a selling point.
As I alluded to in the last point, here’s how you recruit new clients when you’re just starting out:
- Announce to friends, family, and social media followers that you’re experimenting with a new training program, and you need a few people to help you test it. It starts in two weeks (or whenever), so they need to hurry.
- In return for their participation, they’ll get a discount—a great deal that no one else will get.
Now you have the most powerful marketing promotion possible: a compelling offer with a limited number of spots and a fixed expiration date.
By offering the discount, you give yourself permission in your clients’ eyes to make mistakes—the mistakes you’re bound to make anyway getting a new business off the ground.
You may assign exercises that turn out to be not such great choices, or have someone eat more calories than they should to lose weight, but it will be okay.
Your client will understand that you’re both figuring it out as you go. (And you WILL figure it out eventually; trust me.)
Your clients will also feel a sense of ownership of the program, and when it’s over, they’ll end up being your biggest supporters and most vocal ambassadors.
They’ll want to tell everyone they know that they were a part of your project in the same way they tell friends and family about a new TV show, podcast, or band they like.
Step #4: Develop your business acumen along with your training.
There are two golden rules that every trainer should live by:
- Do a good job.
- Make sure everybody knows about it.
While you’re taking on new clients and learning how to train them on the fly, make sure you’re also taking the time to learn how to run a business and market yourself.
In the beginning of your career, about 30 percent of the time you spend working should be devoted to business, and the other 70 percent to your own fitness education. (If you don’t know where to start in business, the Online Trainer Academy Level 1 should be your next stop.)
After a year or two, the split should be about 50-50.
And after two to four years, you should be spending around 70 percent of your time on the business end and 30 percent on training.
You may never be as passionate about building a brand as you are about sets, reps, and exercises, but remember this:
Trainers who failed to develop their business acumen found themselves unemployed when the pandemic hit.
The greatest advantage of having an online business is the ability to have an income when in-person training is impossible.
Learn more: Get answers to more online trainer questions.