Knowing what to look for in a Personal Trainer is hard enough in the real world, with even greater challenges to finding the right PT online. There are so many online coaches to choose from, and it can be hard to tell the credible experts from the charlatans. Unfortunately the fitness/wellness industry is poorly regulated, with massive variability in the education, experience and quality of personal trainers, wellness coaches and nutritionists. Good marketing can mislead people into working with unscrupulous operators, and amateur marketing can make excellent coaches appear low quality.
Whilst there's no definitive description for the "best" online personal trainer - that's subjective - there are some common characteristics you can look for in an online PT. Read on to discover the ten qualities I believe all good online coaches share...
Look For A PT Who Consciously Decides To Work With You
Well-established personal trainers with thriving businesses will have learned over time that they can't help everybody. All coaches and clients have their own personalities, communication styles and beliefs, and some people collaborate better together than others. For example, some people want the tough "drill sergeant" approach, which isn't my style at all. In cases like that, I'll refer that person out to someone in my network I know is a better fit.
When I take consultations (they're free by the way) with potential clients, it's an opportunity for both of us to assess whether we'd like to work together. I'm on the lookout for clues that they're physically and emotionally ready for changes to their body, mind, routines and lifestyle, and are able to commit a reasonable amount of time and energy to achieving their goals. That might involve setting aside time each week to exercise, prepare meals, or meditate.
That decision around time commitment goes the other way, too. Professional coaches cap the number of clients they can take at any one time in order to ensure that they're able to continue providing a quality service without experiencing burnout. PT's often work very long, physically demanding hours and ironically it can be a challenge to prioritise wellbeing. I believe it's important for coaches to be good role models for their clients, including when it comes to setting healthy boundaries.
Top Online Personal Trainers Take Detailed Notes
In order to give a truly personal service, your PT should conduct a proper consultation before training you. This allows them to gather essential information about you that they'll need to tailor your programme, including goals, injury history and your personal preferences. This information also allows for progress tracking over time, and your personal trainer should check in with you periodically not only to monitor physical progress (ie by tracking metrics like bodyweight, strength etc) but also to ensure the process is working for you and that you remain aligned with your goals.
Ideally your coach should remember the most important details about you, including injuries to take into account, but remembering that volume and detail of information about many clients can be challenging, even for those with excellent memories. Your coach should keep detailed, up-to-date notes about you and your training progress.
Look For A PT With A Scientific, Holistic Approach
Your training programme should be structured according to the latest science and fitness/wellness industry standards. I believe the best approach is holistic, accounting not only for exercise but also nutrition, sleep, and other factors to earn you great results with less time and effort. Unfortunately it can be hard for those without a deep knowledge of fitness, nutrition and wellness to tell whether a programme is based in science or guesswork, or whether a plan is generalised/individually tailored. There are some clues to look out for, though:
- The programme contains mostly "tried and trusted," conventional exercises such as squats, lunges and push-ups;
- The programme includes movements and skills (eg endurance/explosiveness) that are relevant and appropriate to your goals and needs;
- Training plans are somewhat repetitive in nature: in order to progress, you'll need to practise more or less the same set of exercises at gradually increasing difficulty (this is known as progressive overload) over time;
- "Accessory" movements are incorporated to supplement the key movements, meet your needs, and help you push through personal obstacles;
- Sets, reps and rest periods are clearly specified, and your online PT is able to explain their decision to use any given training system;
- Your exercise regime works as part of your lifestyle, considering in particular the amount of time and energy you have available for training and recovery;
- If the service includes nutrition support, your trainer has calculated your nutrition requirements and provided guidance on any changes you could make to help achieve your goals. Nutrition should be a largely collaborative process, and you should be the main decision-maker;
- Set meal plans are okay, but they don't work well for most people for a range of reasons. It's best if your coach is helping you to learn what you need to know and supporting you to change your habits over time;
- A range of other factors are accounted for in programming. These will be personally relevant to you, but may include current & past injuries, existing health conditions, sleep, menstrual health, mindset, mood, and recreational drug use. Note that it's out of scope for your online personal trainer to help you quit smoking, for example, but they can make recommendations and should account for the side effects of smoking when planning your workouts.
Find an Online Personal Trainers With A Positive Attitude
Intention is everything, and it's imperative your online coach is invested and genuinely cares about your progress. At the very least they should be pleasant or neutral company, and ideally someone who is dynamic and motivating to be around: a person who educates, encourages and inspires you. Additionally, they should be able to provide feedback/coaching and tackle challenging situations with kindness and professionalism.
It's also important that your online PT requests feedback from time to time as this shows their dedication to providing you a quality service. Further still, they should be able to maturely accept constructive criticism and make changes where necessary.
Do remember that your coach is only human and it's not always possible to show up as our best self, although living a fit and healthy lifestyle certainly helps with that!
Look For An Online Personal Trainer With Strong Values
Look for integrity when hiring an online personal trainer. That means they should behave ethically, practise what they preach, and follow through on their promises. Importantly, they believe strongly in their profession and work to maintain the highest possible standard of coaching.
Part of integrity involves being honest. The best online PT's don't just tell you the truth and provide hard facts, but also are able to say "I don't know," when necessary. Even coaches with vast knowledge and years of experience acknowledge that they don't know everything. All good coaches research topics and consult their network to give you the right advice, rather than letting their ego do the talking with an answer for everything.
Personally, I believe in kindness. That's not the same as being "nice," which is more about appeasement... Kindness involves operating in a way that takes into account the experiences of others, and endeavouring to make those experiences as positive as reasonably possible. An example of this could be explaining things in different ways to help a client understand, instead of becoming impatient or irritable with them.
Look For An Online PT With Great Communication
Communication is key when it comes to online coaching. Your online PT should be able to present you with information in a palatable way, at a pace you can manage. Effective communication is imperative for a healthy working relationship. This involves asking the "right" questions. Very often, clients aren't aware of what information is useful or relevant to share with their online PT, or they forget. It's up to the professional to request the information they need through forms, questionnaires, and conversation. Furthermore, good questions help you to introspect and discover answers you never knew you had, such as the intrinsic motivation behind your goals. Knowledge like this will help you to stick to the plan when things get tough, or drop goals that aren't realistic, helpful or meaningful.
Aside from providing education, feedback and advice, your trainer should display excellent listening skills. As such, "active listening" is paramount. This involves listening without interrupting, and endeavouring to fully understand what the speaker is saying, as well as the motivations and meaning behind their words. The key to successfully getting a client to their goals lies in understanding the client. That's not just about a thorough initial consultation, but also in an overarching tendency towards curiosity... Every time you communicate, your online coach receives clues about your current state of being.
In my experience as a coach and trainer, even brief interactions with my clients provide me with information I can use for programming... verbally, a client might let me know that they're having a busy period at work, indicating a lower capacity for exercise or a temporary preference for weekend workouts. Physiological signals in the posture or skin might indicate pain or dehydration for example, and non-verbal gestures expand the meaning of people's words.
Hire An Online Personal Trainer Who Reliably Gets Results
Good personal trainers can demonstrate the results they've achieved with previous clients. It's worth seeking trainers who've worked with people who are similar to you, eg in terms of body type or goals. Remember that not all results relate to weight. Fat loss and strength increases are fantastic, and so are improvements in posture, movement quality, flexibility, attitude and confidence, which can be a little harder to measure.
Here are some forms of evidence online coaches use to demonstrate their skills:
- Progress photos;
- Weight loss data;
- Strength increase metrics, eg. one rep max data;
- Fitness metrics, eg. VO2 Max or endurance/speed tests;
- Measures of flexibility, eg. sit & reach test;
- Client testimonials and reviews about their experiences;
- Evidence of progress in the coach's own training & development.
The best PT's will be able to give you an estimation of results you'll see. I calculate rough timescales for weight loss for my clients, and help them understand how quickly they can expect to progress in any measurable quality or skill, eg flexibility or strength.
Online PT Results: Some Caveats
Athletes don't always make the best coaches, and so it's best not to rely solely on results the coach has achieved for themselves as evidence of competence. I'd recommend seeking a combination of the above, with an emphasis on qualitative info from previous clients, as well as the more measurable stuff.
Progress photos are an excellent way to assess an online PT's competence, but they can also be misleading, therefore I'd recommend not relying exclusively on these as evidence. Remember when you check out progress pics and other metrics, you're seeing the best of what that coach can manage. Coaches with large audiences are easily able to accumulate a lot of progress pictures even if their programme doesn't work well for most people. Unfortunately, the size of an online fitness coach's social media following doesn't correlate strongly with their ability or expertise.
Look For An Online Personal Trainer Who Studies
As in any profession, it's imperative to stay on top of current knowledge, science and industry standards in order to work effectively and provide a quality service. Good trainers regularly take courses, read, and engage in discussion/debate with their peers in order to stretch their knowledge and deepen their understanding. The best online trainers consult their network when they don't have enough information in order to better support their client. They also demonstrate their knowledge when they write your training plan, explain concepts to you, and create educational or informational content such as written articles, videos or podcasts.
In addition to accumulating knowledge and experience, great online PT's use information in creative ways to solve problems or engineer specific outcomes with greater accuracy. Rather than doing things by the book, they think critically and apply what they know in a conscious, intentional way. There's often a small trial-and-error element in programming (this should never form a large percent of your programme though), which helps establish the exact strategies and techniques that work for you as an individual. Unfortunately, exercise isn't an exact science and so mindful, informed experimentation is a powerful strategy to explore different options and learn more about you as an individual.
Look For Online PTs Who Charge Fairly For Their Expertise
How much you'll pay a personal trainer or online coach depends on a number of factors, including their expertise & experience, location (eg country/city/specific gym), and the exact service being offered. Always check what's included when purchasing a service. In general, more experienced trainers charge more, but it's not a linear correlation. For example, freelancers running small businesses are rarely able to offer the same low costs as those with larger businesses, which often charge less to attract consumers whilst giving their trainers on payroll a low hourly wage.
How Much Do The Best Personal Trainers Charge?
In the UK and London, the cheapest personal trainers typically charge around £50 per hour session, with a general going rate of around £60-£100, or more in London. At the top end, coaches can charge around £150-£500 or more for a single session. Note that you may also have to pay travel costs for home visits. Some trainers charge less for PT sessions taken via video call.
There's also an arbitrary element to pricing. Some trainers unintentionally under- or over-value themselves. Some try to undercut the market, focusing more on seeing as many clients as possible rather than delivering a quality service. Very often newer PT's charge below industry rates until they realise the full cost of the business overheads and taxes that self-employed people must pay. Any service provider should offer good value for money, and I believe it's essential that all people are paid fairly for their work, including creative and self employed people.
How Much Do The Best Online Coaches Charge?
Online coaching is more affordable than in person PT sessions, and can give more value by offering more features and support. Since I started online coaching in 2017, I've seen a wide variety of online PT packages become available on the market. These vary greatly, from as little as £100 per month up to £500+ for bespoke programming. Not to be included in this category are pre-prepared generalised programmes, which cost much less. These are usually between £5 and £100 or more as a one-off payment, depending on what’s offered. With these ready-made packages, the plan isn't tailored to you, and you usually don't get any personal coaching or support.
My most popular online coaching package is roughly the cost of 1xPT session per week. It includes unlimited workouts, nutrition support, lifestyle coaching, instant messenger support, and a monthly phone/video consultation. Working online allows me to provide much more value, close support and better results for my clients. For me, it's the perfect intersection between affordable and effective. I have more economical options available for approximately the cost of a single PT session per month, and more exclusive coaching options on request.
Look For A PT Who Meets Legal Requirements
In terms of legal requirements, PTs in the UK must be qualified to CIMSPA/REPs Level 3, and hold up-to-date public liability and professional indemnity insurance. They must work only within their scope of practise, which means that they shouldn't try to provide services they're not qualified to offer, such as therapy or massage.
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