Are you a fitness professional who loves to train clients, but feel like you’ve hit the iron ceiling in your career? You’re working as many hours as possible, and charging as much as you can, and yet you have no sense of personal or financial security.
I know how you feel because I’ve been there.
The solution, for many, is to become an online personal trainer. Some transition to full-time online training, while others do a combination of online and in-person training. You can get started by following these eight steps:
But before I explain each of them, let me tell you how I got here.
Evolution of a personal trainer
My personal training career was, by all accounts, successful.
I landed a job at a top boutique gym in Toronto before the ink was dry on my kinesiology degree. The starting pay was $25 an hour—a fortune for a 21-year-old in 2006.
Within a year I had a raise and a full client roster. I was flush with cash while most of my friends were still in school. And I was just getting started.
Soon I was a running a bootcamp that started at 6:30 a.m. I then trained clients in their homes, went to the gym at noon, and trained clients there until 8:30 p.m. By the end of a 14-hour day I’d made more than $700.
But I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was scared. I wasn’t yet old enough to rent a car, and my earning potential was effectively maxed out. Moreover, I was working such long hours that I had no energy for friends or family. A serious relationship was out of the question.
My Wednesday night hockey game was the only personal passion I still pursued. Like any red-blooded Canadian, I grew up strapping knives to my feet, stepping onto the frozen tundra, and barbarically slapping a frozen piece of rubber toward a net.
One night a goon tripped me. It was a cheap move. On the way down my skate caught a rut in the ice and my leg jerked, tearing my hamstring.
For most people, a hamstring injury is an inconvenience. They take it easy for a day or two, hobble back to the office, and pick up where they left off. But for a trainer, it’s a catastrophe. You can’t train clients from your couch, which means you can’t make a living.
It was a catalytic moment for me, my tipping point. If a single injury could wipe out two weeks’ worth of income, that meant training wasn’t a secure way to make a living. And without a secure living, I couldn’t support a family.
Was this what I wanted for the rest of my life? Training clients one-on-one is rewarding, but there’s a reason the industry has such a large turnover rate. For most people, the long hours and financial uncertainty just aren’t sustainable.
Online personal training, on the other hand, is more than sustainable. It’s efficient. It allows you to systematize and scale your business, training more clients, in less time, while potentially making more money.
So let’s talk about how to get started as an online personal trainer.
Step 1: Decide what types of clients you want to work with online
An in-person trainer will work with a wide range of clients. There’s a limited number of prospects in your vicinity and price range, and you’re happy to have anyone who wants to train with you.
Once you go online, and location is no longer a factor, your potential customer base is nearly unlimited. But so is your competition. You’re up against everyone with single-digit body fat who’s ever posed next to a waterfall on Instagram.
Intimidated? Don’t be.
Look at it this way: If you can get 30 clients to pay you $200 a month, that’s $72,000 a year. You don’t need tens of thousands of followers or a massive marketing budget to land 30 clients. What you need is to find your 1 Percent Uniqueness Factor—a niche where you have a clear advantage.
Think carefully about where you have success, confidence, and genuine expertise. What kind of client would your colleagues send to you? Someone struggling with fat loss? A new mom? A competitive athlete?
Now go deeper.
Instead of billing yourself as a fat-loss expert, you’re someone who helps men in their 40s and 50s who used to play sports at a high level but let themselves go and want to feel good about themselves again.
You’re not just a postnatal specialist. You focus on older mothers who’re simultaneously coping with recovery from childbirth and the onset of menopause.
You don’t just train athletes. You help female hockey players in high school and college who aspire to make the national team and play professionally.
Will you limit your market? Sure. But with your 1 Percent Uniqueness Factor you’ll also become the obvious choice for everyone in your market.
And in limiting your market, you also narrow down your marketing options. You don’t have to be everywhere. You just have to be where your potential clients can see you and get to know and trust you.
Step 2: Create a template with three or four training phases for each type of client
You may think templated workouts are a disservice to your clients. But if you do them correctly, the opposite is true.
The reality is, most clients fit pretty well into categories. In any setting, the workout you write for a 40-year-old man who wants to lose belly fat will be pretty similar to the last one you wrote for that type of client.
The fact it’s a template doesn’t mean you won’t individualize it. Of course you will, following your onboarding process and initial assessment. And then you’ll continue to modify it over time as you see what does or doesn’t work for this client, and as you develop a deeper understanding of your client’s goals and desires.
What likely won’t change from client to client:
· Programming considerations – Things like sets, reps, rest, and tempo will likely stay constant.
· Order of movement patterns – Your first exercise may not always be a squat or deadlift, but it’ll probably be some sort of multijoint lower-body movement.
· Workout split over the week – How many times the client trains and how the programs are split over the course of the week likely won’t change much.
What likely will change from client to client:
· Specific exercises – While the exercise category will stay the same, the specific exercise may change as you take into account the client’s experience, skill level, and previous injuries or limitations.
· Grips or implements – Clients will have access to different types of equipment, and, as noted, different abilities and restrictions.
· Specific aesthetic aspirations – Even among fat-loss clients, you’ll find a lot of variety in how they describe the type of physique they want to achieve. For some it might focus on waist size. For another it may be about a more athletic appearance, or wider shoulders, or bigger arms.
Step 3: Compile a video library of the exercises in your online training programs
Since you’re not there to demonstrate exercises for your clients, you need videos to show them how to do each movement. If you don’t have your own—and most trainers don’t—you should compile a set of links to other trainers’ YouTube videos. It’s easy to find good examples of the form you recommend for the most well-known exercises.
If you use online personal training software (see Step 4), you’ll start out with a ready-made video library. But it’s unlikely that any platform will have videos of every exercise in your program, including all the progressions, regressions, and modifications you like to use. In those cases, you’ll still need to shoot and upload your own videos.
What makes a good exercise video?
Keep it simple, following these basic guidelines:
● No sound
● Decent lighting (don’t shoot in your basement, in other words)
● At least two full reps
● 10 to 20 seconds long
Remember, these aren’t tutorials. They’re demonstrations. They’re for instant reference in the middle of a workout. Chances are your client will be listening to her own music, and doesn’t want to shut it off to listen to you talk about the exercise. She just wants to see how to do it.
Step 4: Decide if you want to use personal training software
We have an extensive guide to online personal training software, which I recommend you read when it’s time to make a choice.
Until then, you need to understand a few basics:
Software is important, but not imperative
In my experience, personal training software works well for most trainers. But not for everyone. Some trainers find it too complex or stressful to use. And you certainly don’t need it when you’re just starting out.
Sending PDF workouts via email is fine for your first few clients. Or you can use Google Drive if you’re comfortable with it.
You can’t know what you need software to do until you build a roster of clients and spend some time training them. That’s when you’ll need to invest in software to make the process more efficient.
There’s no “best” software platform
We recommend some more than others. Trainerize, for example, is usually a great choice for trainers who work with clients both in person and online. PT Distinction is best for those who focus on lifestyle and habit change.
But every platform has benefits and drawbacks. Some have a longer learning curve. Some have more features than you’ll need when you’re starting out as an online trainer.
The best software for you is the one that meets your needs
Most personal training software platforms offer a free 30-day trial. That should be enough time for you to decide if it’s going to work for you and your clients. You need to see how for yourself how easy it is to customize workout templates; to create, upload, and organize documents; to communicate with your clients; and to manage billing and payments.
Step 5: Decide how much you want to charge for online personal training
I’ll be frank: Not putting enough thought into pricing can leave you bankrupt. For your customer, it communicates more about your business than anything else you create, from marketing materials to content.
Allow me to explain.
Price connotes value
Think about your visceral reaction when you see a price tag. If it’s cheaper than you expected, you immediately think it must be low quality. If it’s more expensive, you assume the opposite.
Obviously, some things are overpriced for reasons that have nothing to do with their objective value. They might be in short supply, or marketed to an audience focused more on status than quality. Or they might simply be a rip-off designed to take advantage of suckers and rubes. My point is, we’re all intrigued by things that seem outrageously expensive. I know I am.
To be clear, I’m not advising you to price yourself outrageously high. You’ll put yourself out of business before you begin. But I am asking you to think about what happens when a customer who’s shopping around for a trainer compares fees.
Suppose one charges twice as much as the other. The prospect’s first reaction isn’t that the higher-priced one is delusional. It’s that the more expensive one must offer a considerably better service.
That doesn’t mean the customer will pay the higher price. Some will always select the cheapest option. You have to decide if those are the clients you want, or if you should leave that niche for other trainers.
You have to find the right price for you
There is no “right” or “best” price. There’s only what’s best for you, and what makes sense within your business structure.
Some trainers can charge less because their businesses are set up for high volume, and for clients who’ll accept less personal attention in exchange for a lower price. Others can charge a lot more than the average rate because they’re positioned to deliver a high level of personal service, and they know how to reach an audience willing to pay it.
But while I can’t tell you what to charge, I can offer some principles and strategies. Start with these four considerations:
● Your income goals
● The hourly value of your time
● The services you offer, and the time it takes to create and deliver those services
● A realistic assessment of how many hours you want to work, keeping in mind that online training requires more time devoted to building and marketing your business
That brings us to the most important question of all.
How will you demonstrate value?
When a prospect understands the value in what you offer, when she decides you’re the person to help her become the person she wants to see in the mirror, price becomes irrelevant. A potential client in that frame of mind will pay almost anything within reason.
But if a prospect doesn’t perceive that value, if she looks at what you offer and wonders why she should work with you, any price will be too high.
Step 6: Create an online personal training questionnaire
An online personal training questionnaire doesn’t have the luxury of meeting a client in person, shaking hands, smiling, and responding to questions. To replicate that in-person experience, it has to do more than just collect information—as important as that is. It needs to serve as a de facto application form.
Your questionnaire should help you determine if the prospect is a good match for you, or if you’re the right trainer for the client. If the client has indeed come to the right place, the form should establish rapport, which is just as important as any other type of marketing. Never forget that people buy trainers, not training.
1. The basics: Name, age, gender, email, Skype handle, phone number.
2. Health information: Just as you would with an in-person client, you need to know about any illnesses, injuries, or limitations that will affect your program and the results the client can expect.
3. Training history: Is the client currently active? Does he play sports, or has he played them in the past? Has he ever worked with a coach, online or in person? What programs has he tried, and how have they worked out?
4. Rapport builders: Favorite movie, superhero, athlete, exotic animal … You’re looking for any random interest you can bond over.
5. Script-flipping questions: Why does this person want to train with you specifically? Getting a client to prove himself to you is a powerful psychological trick that increases conversions.
6. Prequalifying questions: Is the client willing to invest $200 to $400 a month on her health and fitness goals? This strategic question establishes that money won’t be an objection, which prevents both of you from wasting your time. Another prequalifying question: “Who’s involved in the decision-making process?” The higher your price, the more likely it is that someone else will need to be convinced the investment is worth it.
Two good examples from OTA graduates:
Step 7: Choose a payment processing service
This step is simple. If you’re comfortable with PayPal, there’s no reason to look at anything else. It’s easy to implement, fees are reasonable, and you can deposit money directly into your bank account for free. Stripe is also a good option, if you prefer it.
Don’t get bogged down in trying to find the “best” option here. Identify what you need a payment processing service to do; find one that checks all the boxes, with fees you understand and think are reasonable; and go with it.
One final note:
I see some trainers try to avoid credit card processing fees by using things like Venmo, direct deposit, or email transfer. Fight this urge. You won’t be taken seriously unless you accept credit cards. Processing fees are a cost of doing business. Worried about the 3 percent fee? Charge 5 percent more.
Step 8: Become a go-to expert for the types of clients you train online
When you train clients in a gym, everyone who walks in the door knows you’re a trainer. You’re dressed like a trainer. You carry yourself like someone who’s there in a professional capacity. And, of course, you train clients. Anyone who’s looking for a trainer can observe you and decide if they like your workouts and coaching style.
No one can see you training people online, which means it’s entirely on you to make sure everybody knows what you do. That applies to potential clients as well as social contacts who can recommend you to people in their own circles who might be looking for the services you now offer.
But being present on social media is just the first step. The next and more important step is to expand your presence.
You can’t go wrong with posting fitness-related content to build authority and prove you’re an expert, especially when it comes to issues that matter to your ideal clients.
GO DEEPER: How to Start a Fitness Blog
You also want to post the kind of content that pulls back the curtain a bit, showing who you are as a human being, including your thoughts and feelings, interests, quirks, and what you do outside of work.
There’s always a risk of revealing too much, especially if it alienates potential customers or calls your expertise into doubt. But at a minimum, your clients and followers want to know enough to feel connected to you beyond your business relationship.
Highlighting both parts of yourself—your serious, professional side and your fun, nerdy side—makes it easier to become the go-to authority in your network. When people feel as if they know you on a human level, they’ll be more comfortable approaching you as a fitness expert.
Final thoughts: Quality vs. qualifications
Online training is almost entirely unregulated. There are rules about giving nutrition advice, but virtually no barriers to entry when it comes to fitness. Anyone can go into business as an online personal trainer, and they can work with anyone who’s willing to hire them.
But just because you don’t need qualifications doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them. You can’t do the job well without knowing enough about anatomy and exercise science to earn a personal training certification from an accredited organization.
And although it’s not necessary, I think you should have experience training clients in person before working with them online.
Finally, there’s a certification from the Online Trainer Academy. By embedding the certification badge on your website and within your promotional materials, a consumer sees you’ve studied online training. And, without you having to say a word about your credentials, that person will assume you’re more qualified than someone who hasn’t taken the time to study, and be more likely to hire you over someone offering the same services at the same price.
With or without that OTA certification, you should understand that online personal training is actually more difficult than working with someone who’s right in front of you. An online coach has to anticipate the problems a client is likely to have, and proactively prevent them from occurring.
That’s why the best online personal trainers often start out as the best trainers in a gym setting. But because they’re good at what they do, they’re frustrated by the limitations of in-person training.
Online training allows them to do what they enjoy most while making more money, building a more sustainable career, and helping more people reach their goals.