If you’re a trainer, you have a training business. Moving some or all of that business online can be a smart move.
Becoming an online fitness coach offers three huge benefits:
- Help more people
- Make more money
- Have more freedom
For many trainers, it means no more waking up at 4:30 a.m., eating lunch from a Tupperware container, or dealing with your gym’s toilet-overflow incidents. (No guarantee the toilet won’t back up at home, but at least it’s your own mess.)
But before you make the leap, there are a few things you should know—14 things, to be exact.
They’re the 14 game-changing lessons I learned during my own transition from in-person to online fitness coach. I hope they help you as much as they helped me.
READ ALSO: How to Be an Online Personal Trainer
1. Create content for your audience, not your peers
It’s tempting to target your posts and videos to your fellow fitness professionals. That’s how you learned when you were starting out, and now you want to add your own ideas and opinions to the mix.
But if your goal is to help Ricky from accounting lose fat, you need to stop debating people online about CrossFit or fasted cardio.
Because Ricky doesn’t care. Ricky just wants abs.
What will he see when he looks at your content? Will he see evidence you understand his challenges, and want to help him achieve his goals? Or will he see a trainer trying to impress his peers or score points against people he disagrees with?
Everything you write should cater to the people you want to help. Choose the subject, format, and voice with that audience in mind.
2. Seek mentorship and guidance
“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than 10 years mere study of books.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Several years ago, I booked a same-day, one-way plane ticket to New York City for an internship with John Romaniello, and I’ve never looked back. Roman had the career I wanted, and I set out to learn everything I could from him.
I know that’s an extreme example, but there are simpler ways to connect and learn from potential mentors.
The first step is to identify someone whose career you admire. Then you need to learn what you can before you approach them. Have they written articles or posts about how they got started? Do they have a book or product offering a step-by-step plan to achieve success?
Once you know as much as possible about their history and process, you need to figure out how to gain access. Do they offer coaching services, or run a mastermind group? If so, they’ll expect you to join.
If not, or if personal coaching is out of your price range, consider how you can be useful to the person without being a pest, a sycophant, or a weirdo. Is there a new product you can amplify with a detailed, enthusiastic review? Can you volunteer to help with a seminar, bootcamp, or some other live event? Is there a skill you can offer that complements what they do?
The worst approach is to ask for help without any history with the person. Even if the person is well-known for helping trainers on the way up in the industry, you can’t build a relationship based on your need to receive something, with no consideration of the other person’s needs or motivations.
Focus on giving, and you’ll be surprised by how much you receive.
3. Practice what you preach
All trainers, online and off, are judged by their looks. It sucks, and it’s not fair. Lots of perfectly qualified coaches don’t quite look the part. And lots of complete morons are shredded out of their (empty) minds.
But there’s a logic to it. When the majority of your clients have appearance-based goals, it’s natural to assume a trainer with the physique they aspire to knows how to help them achieve it.
An online trainer can win people over with charisma and empathy, and of course nothing speaks more forcefully than impressive client transformations. But it’s hard to get clients to give you a chance when there’s a disconnect between your appearance and your expertise.
Clients who want to be lean and muscular aren’t likely to hire a coach who isn’t lean and muscular. Weight loss clients won’t expect you to be shredded (and might be intimidated if you are), but they do expect you to look healthy and represent their goals.
Put in the work, and get in the best shape you can.
READ ALSO: The Busy Trainer’s Guide to Staying in Shape
4. Clear your social calendar
Be prepared to work extremely hard at the beginning of your transition from gym to internet.
Writing, shooting videos, and posting on social media takes time. And if you’re trying to build an online presence while still maintaining a full client load in the gym, you must adopt a hustler’s mindset. Other parts of your life have to become a lower priority for a while.
You can still have it all, but not yet.
5. Bet on your strengths (part one)
Trainers ask me which social platform they should focus on, or whether they should build a video library, or if they should launch a podcast.
My answer: Let your personal strengths guide your platform of choice.
If you write well, write.
If you’re good on camera, get on YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. If you’re a great conversationalist and a good interviewer, consider starting a podcast, or becoming a regular guest on an established show.
Do whatever allows you to present your ideas, your personality, and your value to your target audience.
6. Coach the influencers
An influencer is anyone with a following, and if you’re the person they turn to for online coaching, you have instant validation.
Think about it from the potential client’s point of view: If she sees an advertisement for your coaching, or a promoted post on social media, she probably scrolls right past it.
But if someone she knows and respects talks about you, and shows off the fantastic results from your plan, she’s immediately more interested.
But how do you find a celebrity to train?
Obviously, you aren’t likely to snag the next Brad Pitt and lean him out for Fight Club 2: More Adventures in Nihilism with Tyler and Marla.
Think smaller, and think local. An influencer doesn’t have to be world-renowned. Train the chef at a popular restaurant. Train a doctor or a nutritionist who can then refer their patients to you. Or train a CEO with a huge online presence, like I did.
Whether their audience is small and local or massive and global, influencers will bring you more attention and referrals than you could get on your own.
7. Find unique or underutilized distribution channels
Creating great content is the most important thing you can do to grow your brand as an online fitness coach. But only if the content reaches your target audience.
You can do it organically, for free, by going where others aren’t.
Test new apps, and use them natively—that is, in a way that shows a genuine interest in helping others within the platform. Don’t try to push your services on people, or get them to connect with you on your own media.
Years ago, I did that on Fitocracy. I put in dozens if not hundreds of hours simply interacting in the community. It was crucial to the early growth of my online training business.
Like I said earlier: Good things happen when you help people and ask for nothing in return.
READ ALSO: How to Find the Right Fitness Niche for You
8. Get amazing results for your clients
None of this advice means anything if you can’t deliver.
You need to help your clients become leaner, or stronger, or more muscular, or pain-free, or whatever they hired you to do.
As an online fitness coach, there’s no substitute for good results.
READ ALSO: A Trainer’s Guide to Building Muscle
9. Coach friends and family for free
It doesn’t have to be friends and family, and it doesn’t have to be free. It could be steeply discounted online coaching to people you interact with online. Whoever it is, and however you know them, giving away your services provides two huge benefits:
1. You learn faster by doing
As Jonathan Goodman says, online coaching isn’t just personal training done differently. It requires different skills and practices. But you can’t develop those skills or practices without clients. Offering free or cheap coaching will give you the experience you need to accelerate your development.
2. You can showcase the results
Your clients are your portfolio. If they get great results, you’ll have visual proof. If they love working with you, they’ll be happy to share their stories. The combination will help you land future clients—the kind that pay you.
Take the financial hit now, if you can. It will pay off later.
10. Master your craft
If the proliferation of Instagram trainers annoys you, or makes you cynical about the state of online fitness, I get it. But the truth is, the cream rises to the top.
Sure, abs are an easy way to land a few short-term clients. But for building long-term brand equity, and financial security, nothing beats word-of-mouth referrals. You don’t get those unless you’re good.
Read books, attend seminars, and interact with people smarter than you. Constantly learn better ways to serve your clients and improve their results. That’s what will set you apart.
11. Bet on your strengths (part two)
Want a better snatch? Or a faster 5K?
That’s awesome! But you won’t get those things by training with me.
I get inquiries all the time from people whose goals aren’t in my wheelhouse. Sometimes I’d really like to work with the person, but I don’t take them on as a client. It would be unfair to them, and ensure future headaches for me.
No matter how tempting it is to take on anyone who applies, especially when you’re starting out, you need to be honest with yourself. Recognize who can achieve the best results under your watch, and who would be better served by a different coach.
Do it for the client’s sake, and your own.
12. Trust your gut
I once coached a woman who claimed to burn up to 1,000 additional calories a day from breastfeeding. She was sure she needed at least 2,500 calories per day.
My gut told me this was way too much food for a sedentary woman with 98 pounds of lean mass. But because I was afraid to lose her as a client, I didn’t tell her what I thought.
Can you guess how it worked out? That’s right: After four weeks with no progress, I lost her anyway.
Take it from me: When your gut tries to tell you something, listen.
READ ALSO: How to Tell a Client to Cut the Crap
13. Practice extreme empathy
Even the most perfectly designed, optimally periodized, exquisitely calibrated training program will never change a life. But you know what will? Really, truly caring about your client.
A personal or professional setback will sap a client’s focus and motivation. If you’re training in person, you’ll notice their lackluster workouts, and the scale will tell you they’re backsliding on their diet. If you ask what’s going on, the client isn’t likely to air out the problems on a crowded gym floor.
But an online client may be more comfortable opening up in texts, emails, or calls from the comfort of home.
When you pay attention and care, you might just change a life.
14. Be insanely honest
Don’t tell clients you’re giving them personal access and full support if you’re really sending them to a 1,000-person Facebook group, where their questions will be answered by your newly hired assistant coach.
It’s easy to cash-grab with dishonest marketing and empty promises. It may even work for a year or two. But sooner or later, it catches up to you, ruining your reputation and the value of your brand.
If you want to make it in the long run, you need to be honest.
Final thought: Online fitness coaching isn’t for everybody
I know dozens of trainers who coach clients online. They don’t all love it. Some prefer traditional, hands-on personal training, and that’s awesome.
My purpose isn’t to convince you that online training is better. It’s not. Just because it works for me doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you. Nor are the two types of training mutually exclusive. Lots of trainers do some of each, and get the best of both worlds.
But if you do want to make the transition to online training, these 14 lessons will help you get started the right way, and I hope they help you avoid some of the mistakes I made.