Posted March 8, 2020

You Should Train Clients In Person Before Even Thinking About Online Coaching

Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit down with Eric Helms and Omar Isuf for their Iron Culture Podcast, where we covered a ton of info ranging from mobility training to adapting training programs away from strictly held rigid guru type programming.

One thing we discussed what the idea of online coaches who have maybe had a good deal of success training themselves in to really good shape, being online coaches and having zero experience training real life people in real life gyms for real life goals.

Unsurprisingly, there are a TON of “influencers” offering coaching programs, who likely wouldn’t know what to do if a client says “my back/knee/shoulder hurts when I do that exercise, what should I do?”

This and many other scenarios are where having a few years of experience working with real people in real gyms can make a significant difference in how a program is administered to a client or customer.

So today I wanted to outline a few scenarios where experience with training clients in person would let you make better decisions for training clients online, and hopefully give clients looking for online coaching some food for thought in terms of who they want to guide their programming.


#1: Common Injuries and Painful Movements

Say you’re a relatively fit average office worker looking to get into better shape, but you have a history of a rotator cuff and some chronic low back issues. Can your trainer adapt a program to help you overcome these things without making them worse, or is their program a one-size fits all? If you’re paying for a one size program, there’s nothing wrong with that, but is the program adaptable to your needs? If you paid for one on one coaching and the program they sent you isn’t adaptable or doesn’t take into account your injury history, what now?

A trainer with experience with people will hopefully have the ability to say “okay we’ll limit these kinds of movements for a while and work on some different stuff that can help you get a training response while limiting the potential irritation to those spots.”

Someone who has worked with a broad enough population can put together a one-size program with some progressions and regressions that make sense for common issues or different client abilities to help it appeal to the broadest audience possible.


#2: Equipment/Space Limitations

It’s not uncommon to see a workout program set up for someone to do at home with minimal or no equipment. I’m hole-heartedly in favour of anything that helps people get active regardless of where they are or what their living situation or access to a gym capability would be. I’m not talking about those programs.

The ones I’m talking about are the ones used in the gym, with all the normal equipment a gym would have, like dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and some cable equipment.

Most gyms don’t have a dozen or more squat racks, so access to one can be a challenge in some spaces and especially so during busy times like before or after work.

If the workout centres around limited gym equipment and doesn’t have a back up plan for when some dude bro is doing his 15th set of curls with a tenner on either side in the only rack the gym has, it’s going to be a long wait and disruption to your workout without the ability to either do a lateral move or jump ahead and then come back when the rack is free.


#3: Communication

This can be a tough one, even for trainers with a ton of in person experience, but it’s especially hard through digital communication. It can be difficult enough to get a client to be open an forthcoming with what they may be struggling with or how their motivation is at any given time, but email and text takes away a lot of the non-verbal communication components that help you to “read” someone and their current emotional state or to fill in the gaps of what they’re saying and what they actually mean.

Being able to talk and ask questions in real time with someone and without a time delay for response can make a massive benefit to understanding how to take the next step in finding out how to best help someone reach their goals. I’d say that having this skillset with in-person clients is challenging enough, and nearly impossible without having the experience developed with in-person clients AND the challenges afforded with digital communication means.


#4: Daily Variations

A client has a rough nights sleep. They just finished shift work or put in a 70 hour work week. They just got off the plane from a trans-continental trip. They’re stressed from a turbulent relationship. A family member is sick. Someone just rear-ended them in traffic. They had a few too many drinks last night and are feeling it today.

These are all real things that can happen to anyone, and can have a massive effect on their training program in both the immediate and long term programming. In most situations, it may not significantly impact their training day, but on the days where it does make a difference, rolling with the punches and adapting to what they feel they can do that day with minimal risk can be a big challenge.

Even more so in the retroactive element of online coaching, where the coach usually doesn’t hear about the workout until after the workout is completed and the update comes in saying “had a rough nights sleep and have been really stressed lately but thought I’d just push through and now my right knee is not happy with me.”


#5: Actually Showing Up

This one is likely overlooked by most trainers who jump into online and avoid in-person training. Coaching a real person means being on time, ready with a program, and in a headspace to give them your best. This preparation means having new programs ready when they’re needed, organizing billing, and making sure the client is happy with the service they’re getting.

This is challenging with automation, never having a schedule to keep to, and automation of most elements of a program design and administration. If a young trainer has never had to hold a job or put themselves in front of someone who has expectations of them, it can be a challenge to learn on the fly, and some tend to fail at this, especially if they have massive followings and roll out a new program with limited support networks in place.


Online coaching can be a great addition to a coaches repetoire, but is a new challenge entirely compared to working with a person in real time. I’d definitely recommend any trainer looking to be successful spend a few years working with as many people as possible to figure out how to effectively coach before moving to a limited medium like online coaching.

For clients, hopefully this post will give some info and food for thought before shelling out cash for someone to build your programs and help teach you how to get the results you’re after in the gym. Don’t just follow the big names, find the people who can give you what you need and make adjustments as you require.