Is Online Personal Training a Good Idea?

online trainingEarlier this week, I was (sort of) watching "Dragons' Den" on the TV. It's a Canadian show--precursor to "Shark Tank" but much more pleasant. One of the many perks of living here is getting to see Canadian shows like this, "Hockey Night in Canada" and "Rick Mercer Report". In case you're not familiar, "Dragons' Den" features budding entrepreneurs pitching their businesses to a wealthy panel (the "Dragons") to try to get them to invest in their venture.

On this episode, all the pitchers were students. A six-year-old girl (who got money) was followed by a couple of twenty-something guys who were pitching their online personal training website (and did not get money). I honestly don't remember the name of the site, but it's not important. The show brought up some of the things that stink about this business.

First of all, did they really need to come out sans shirts? I think they said they're competitive bodybuilders but this is a business pitch, not a meet (or a beach). OK, that may be a minor point, but hey, it's my blog.

dragonThey then proceeded to ask the Dragons if they wanted to get six-packs like them. Never mind that these guys are in their 20s and the Dragons all north of 50. (Age may just be a number but so is 6.) David Chilton, of "The Wealthy Barber" fame, came down for some "training." How was he going to get those six-packs? Doing bicycles (supine opposite knee to elbow) and...wait for it...planks. The show is edited so maybe the guys mentioned that changes in diet are almost always the biggest factor in abs definition. But planks in particular will not get you six-pack abs. As degree-toting professionals, these guys had to know it. I do give Chilton credit for doing what appeared to be a good plank: no elevated butt that is so common.

bad plankBut suppose his plank hadn't been good. How would they know? And how would they help him fix it? Poor form can completely defeat the purpose of doing an exercise, wasting time and potentially leading to compensations (bad) or injuries (worse). Just ask The Form Cop. (Where's he been lately?) Trainers can ask people to send videos of themselves and try to analyze that, but

  1. It's asking a lot to get good quality video from the best angle(s).
  2. They still can't see/hear everything that's going on; for example, breath holding.

And then what? Do they just tell them what they're doing wrong and hope they'll be able to fix it? Show them a video of it being done correctly and hope they'll be able to mimic it? There's just no substitute for in-person coaching.

Now, once your form is good it's possible to provide variations on the exercise to make it harder ("progressions") or just a little different without in-person coaching. But initially, coaching counts, and movements should be periodically checked to make sure the form is still good.

You could try to get a live video hookup to coach in real time, but

  1. The trainer can only see you from one angle.
  2. It's still easy to miss subtle things like breathing.
  3. It's difficult to set up.
  4. It should cost as much as an in-person session since it takes just as much of the trainer's time.
  5. The trainer can't use any "hands on" methods to help with technique.

Anyway, none of this is ever going to happen because these guys wanted to ramp up to 10,000 (I think) online clients. Even if it was only 1,000, how can you coach that many people? It's not easier because it's remote! On the contrary, it's harder.

online training profitsBut online "personal training" is a volume business. That's why it's so appealing to trainers and why so many sites offer it. (As a trainer, I get business pitches about this regularly from people wanting me to buy their insights or systems.) There's no way to do the volume required to make it profitable (sometimes ludicrously profitable, as in the trainer does pretty much nothing) while also doing real coaching.

Similarly, when one of the Dragons asked how they assessed the users' (they're not "clients") needs and abilities, they didn't really say but implied that it was a matter of the user filling out detailed online forms. Again, there's no way they can do a proper screen or assessment remotely (although I've seen some online training systems that have users video themselves doing the FMS--still not the same as in-person and also not very common). While forms are useful tools for getting background information and more, it's ridiculous to expect people to accurately and impartially evaluate their own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Heck, I'm a personal trainer and I get coaching!

bad push-upPretty much every guy I know thinks he knows how to do a push-up, but very few will do them with good form. (The most common problem is incomplete range of motion, followed closely by core instability.) And that's about as basic as an exercise gets. About the only exercise I can think of that I'd prescribe sans coaching is walking. And don't be surprised if The Form Cop even nails you on that! (This all reminds me about that report: Average Male 4,000% Less Effective In Fights Than They Imagine.)

Yes, all that from one segment of one episode of Dragons' Den...while being distracted by cats.

I'm certainly not averse to using online tools as part of training; I'm also a software engineer, after all. And we use plenty of it in our Blended Fitness programs. But exclusively online? No thanks.

(Nutrition coaching is another story, but I'll have more to say on that in the near future.)

So if you're considering an online "personal training" option, caveat emptor. You heard it here last.

Be seeing you.

-gary

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