How to work with a virtual trainer (and what to watch out for)

The online fitness world is booming like never before but there’s one problem; there are zero regulations. You’ve probably heard this before and maybe it didn’t mean much to you as you grabbed yet another free workout but here’s why it should:

Getting a workout from someone who hasn’t bothered to get certified as a fitness professional is like drinking snake oil instead of going to the doctor; you might think it’s working but the science says otherwise.

Why learning from people who are just fit but not fitness professionals is a problem

There’s a thing in the fitness industry that we call holistic training. It means that you train the entire body in multiple ways so that you get stronger, perform better and do it all with the least risk of injury. Holistic training involves a delicate system of balance where you’re continually shortening and then lengthening muscles through carefully chosen exercises and stretches. This takes education to learn and LOTS of experience to get right.

The problem is that many fit people only do the superficial stuff – the cardio, the weights or the plyo (plyometrics – jumping exercises.) They skip or skimp on the softer side of fitness, thinking it’s a waste of time.

Even worse, many people just repeat what they’ve seen online or from others in the gym without understanding WHY these exercises were chosen.

It’s like repeating sentences in a foreign language without knowing what you’re saying or why you’re saying it.  Sure, by superficial standards you “speak” the language but are you really fluent? 

As a result, someone can look healthy and ‘toned’ but you have no idea what underlying issues they’ve matured from improper or incomplete training.

I know marathon runners that can’t touch their toes, crossfitters that think a dodgy knee is just part of being fit and many yogis who are constantly getting shoulder and back injuries.

It’s not normal to be inflexible. It’s not normal to have constant back, shoulder or neck aches. These are all results of improper movement patterns or lack of flexibility and balance training. 

If a person isn’t doing holistic training for themselves, how are they going to pass it on to you? 

Instead, what they’ll likely pass on are incomplete movement patterns, shortened muscles and weary joints that are one exercise away from injury. 

So just because someone looks good and knows how to throw a workout together doesn’t mean they actually understand the science or the system behind the exercises they do. 

Why is a fitness professional necessary

Before I became a fitness professional, I trained as a runner and in the gym for ten years. I knew thousands of exercises and I was in great shape. I understood how to put together a workout. So I didn’t think one little certification test would teach me anything extra.

I was completely wrong.

The certification tests we do as fitness professionals are the entry point to a ridiculous amount of experience and knowledge that NO ONE COULD GET OTHERWISE. 

Of course, certification alone is not enough. It doesn’t automatically make us good personal trainers or instructors.  Instead, it’s the experience that comes with the ability to train hundreds of people, with different ability levels, different genetics and different wellness goals over the course of years.  

The value is in learning how people move, what their limits are and what to do to make sure they don’t get hurt. What we learn as fitness professionals is how to train others, which is very different from just training yourself. 

Working with a fitness professional versus someone who is just fit is the equivalent of working with someone who studied medicine for fun versus a doctor who studied medicine and has been applying it in work with hundreds of patients for years. 

Who would you rather get your medical advice from? 

How to choose the right fitness professional

Not all personal trainers and fitness instructors are equal. Usually, those with more years of experience will have more knowledge, but not always.

Beyond our certification and continuing education credits, there are no obligations for what we have to do in order to practice. This is why there is such a range of quality within the fitness industry.

To complicate things further, we all have different areas we chose to specialize in, types of people we work with and not all of us have experience working online (which is a very different world to in-person training.)

That means you’ll want to select a trainer or instructor very carefully.

The top 5 things to look for in a virtual personal trainer or fitness instructor

These are the top five things to look for in deciding on the best virtual trainer or online fitness instructor?

1. Do they have a certification?

There are several certifying bodies for each fitness discipline. There will be separate ones for personal training, Pilates, Yoga etc. Make sure your chosen coach has a formal certification for the specific area they are teaching. 

As an example, I am certified as a personal trainer, a nutrition specialist and a Mat Pilates instructor but I am not certified in Yoga. I may include some yoga movements in my workouts but only to the extent of my knowledge and experience as a Personal Trainer. I would not be the right coach to develop someone’s Yoga practice and it would be unethical for me to claim otherwise. 

Now, certain fitness disciplines do not require a certification so in those cases you’d want to default to an instructor who has a personal training certification or to an instructor who has been teaching that discipline for many years (dance is a classic example.)

2. How many years of experience do they have and with what kind of clients?

A coach could have ten years of experience as a personal trainer but only worked with a handful of people, in limited ways; it’s not just about how much experience but also quality and extent of experience. 

Find out how long someone has been certified and practising as a coach. What kind of clients have they had? Are they familiar with your specific issues or limitations? 

For example, I work primarily with women who want to increase muscular definition, lose weight and get healthier. While I have worked with men before, most of my experience is not with them so I would refer a potential male client to another coach. 

3. Do they teach holistic wellness?

The value of going to a fitness professional is in getting well-rounded coaching. Their approach should go beyond just getting you fit or slim to getting you healthy through a careful selection of stretches, balance training and well-planned recovery days. 

Any good fitness instructor or personal trainer will insist on including softer skills and bodyweight training exercises as part of your exercise program. Be sure to ask about this before working with anyone or, at the very least, look through their videos and social media to see if they talk about holistic training.

4. Have they coached online?

Coaching online is very different from coaching in person. You have to anticipate form issues, avoid overly risky/complicated movements and cue corrections as you demonstrate moves much faster. It requires a lot more multi-tasking and a good deal of experience.

It’s taken many years of online coaching experience to get to the point I am at now where I know which exercises are safe to choose, which corrections to give (even if I can’t see someone) and how to carefully balance showing with explaining. 

I don’t believe online coaching experience is the most important factor in choosing a virtual personal trainer or fitness instructor but it is one to keep in mind. If you do choose to work with someone who doesn’t have much online experience make sure they can SEE you. The best way for a coach to learn is by seeing clients and how they move. I also highly recommend that you try workouts with a coach who does have online experience so that you can compare experience and results.

5. Do they insist on speaking with you or doing an assessment before training?

This is most important when working with a personal trainer. Every good personal trainer will insist on speaking with you by phone or having you perform a virtual/email assessment BEFORE they agree to coach you. 

For example, I have an online fitness transformation program called The Rio Project, it’s four weeks of fitness and nutrition coaching. I insist on speaking with every single client that wants to book this program. I’ve have turned people away because I didn’t believe that the program was a fit or that I was the best coach for them.

Look for a coach that gets to know more about you before agreeing to train you. That’s the kind of coach prioritizes clients. You deserve this and shouldn’t accept anything less.

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The bottom line is to do your research when looking for a virtual trainer or fitness instructor to follow. Just because a workout is free, convenient or fun does not mean it’s the best one to give you results (or to keep you safe.) Take control of your health and fitness by putting these tips to use!

Chardét Durbin

Chardét Durbin
Verified Coach
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Chardét is an online personal trainer & nutrition specialist who’ll help you master wellness – from anywhere. Email oi@corpaofitness.com or book a coffee chat with Chardét or visit her website to find out more.

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