This article will help you avoid mistakes that could cost you your reputation as you expand from in-person training to online training.
Along the way I’ll answer two key questions:
1) What are the two types of clients you should never accept for online training?
2) Should you accept true beginners for online training?
Expert coaches working in-person with clients can make real-time adjustments to form and technique. This optimizes performance and reduces injury risk.
You can asses technique by asking clients to send videos of everything from basic overhead squat to the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) or a few compound lifts.
But you can’t make the real-time adjustments to technique. And you can lose your edge as a coach if you give up training in-person entirely to coach only online, something we recommend our hybrid business coaching clients avoid.
Beyond that, there are…
Two Types of Clients You Should Never Train Online
Client #1: The Elite/High Level Athlete
Listen, you can train elite/high level athletes online. It can work. But in many cases, the margin of error is razor thin for optimizing performance. Without seeing the day to day fluctuations in performance it’s damn near impossible to make the tweaks necessary for world- class performance.
Client #2: The Injured Client
Technique is always important, but technique becomes 100% crucial when refining movement patterns with injured or recently injured clients. From a liability perspective, you’re still at risk if a client gets hurt using your online program.. From a performance perspective, subtle changes in technique can be the difference between an exercise being the perfect rehabilitation tool or a first class ticket to pain and dysfunction.
But What About Training Beginners Online?
It’s complicated. What follows is my own perspective, supplemented by the views of some top coaches.
Think back to the first time you lifted. Or the 30th. Chances are, you felt foolish and wish you had a little guidance. Personally, I remember trying to bench press in my basement without a spotter AND clips on the bar. The bar came down like a speeding bullet, taking away my lungs and sending my legs kicking in terror. Thankfully… I was able to roll the bar down my body and not die…but this could have ended ugly.
Bottom line: Beginners need in-person coaching to lift safely and effectively.
Where Do You Draw The Line?
If you accept the premise that beginners shouldn’t be training online, the question then becomes how you define a beginner.
A few weeks ago during a call, one of our business coaching clients asked a deceptively simple question: “What do you do about training beginners online?”
For a moment I was stumped.
Then I thought back to my own experience. I do occasionally accept a near-beginner client. In this case, I do the same screening process and request the same video demos and background information as I do with more advanced clients. I start simple with basic movement patterns to groove technique and gradually accommodate to training and build from there.
But for the most part my clients are well-versed in the gym and often ex-athletes. They move decent weight and have sound technique. My job is to provide assistance with expert programming, accountability, and creating a practical, effective routine.
That’s my perspective. But I wondered how other coaches with other types of clients thought. So I asked them to contribute to this article.
How To Read The Coaches’ Comments
If you’re an online trainer, use this as a guide to check your perspective on working with beginners as clients. This article will also help you find your ideal personal training clients.
If you work with clients in-person but want to add online training to your business, use this as a framework for finding your ideal client. Also, consider joining our Hybrid Fitness Business Coaching Program. We’ll help you build an ethical online and in-person fitness business. Find out more here.
If you’re not a coach but want to be well informed to train safely and make progress, use the answers as guidelines for finding a coach.
I asked each coach:
“How do you go about taking beginners as online clients? Do you do it? If so, what assessments do you use to ensure safety?”
The Coaches Weigh In
I do work with beginners, but I don’t love it.
I begin immediately by getting video of their basic movements: Squat, hinge, overhead press, and some pulling motion. This way we can at least begin highlighting what sort of major issues and movement imbalances they might have that need to be addressed along with their goals. Obviously, their goals take precedence over damn near everything else, but reaching those goals as safely as possible is the big goal here. We’ll typically keep frequency and intensity relatively low for a few weeks, focusing on big compound movements.
From there we tend to keep nutrition as simple as possible. Focusing on whole, nutrient dense foods with an emphasis on protein and plenty of colors. In fact, the more colors we can get in, the better. We also immediately begin using a food log so we get in the habit of tracking food, but don’t worry about calories just yet. As time goes on we’ll start including tracking calories and ramping up training intensity and frequency.
Dr. John Rusin PT, DPT, CSCS, ART, FMS1-2, SFMA, FDN
While I truly don’t believe that a true novice is an ideal fit into an online based fitness program, I do believe that there are precautions that need to be taken if and when novices register in these types of programs. First and foremost, an in- depth movement evaluation must be completed. The last thing you want to be doing is virtually injuring people, that’s a no-no.
Online coaching takes away your eyes, ears and real-time common sense of training as a coach, so you better do your due diligence to objectify movement capacity before prescribing exercise. For my clients, we go through the exact movement screening and pattern evaluation as I do in my physical location. Yes, it may take a ton more time, but the results speak for itself. If you are trying to make a safe and effective impact in the lives of your clients, this is a non-negotiable aspect of online training.
I love helping beginner clients, but I typically work with only those who are looking to lose fat. My clients fill out a detailed questionnaire for screening purposes (I won’t take folks with certain health issues) and we focus mainly on nutritional habits and increasing overall activity rather than solely focusing on resistance training.
A huge part of this type of coaching involves the development and sustainment of habits and strategies that will support the creation of long-term energy deficits needed for fat loss: goal orientation, self-tracking, environmental optimization, and social strategies, just to name a few. I’ve had a lot of success with these types of clients and it’s certainly possible and incredibly fulfilling to see the changes they’re able to make.
If I have anyone who is 100% new, we start slow and conservative. As a starter, I look for videos of a bodyweight squat, plank, as well as some baseline overhead mobility movements. I include a Par-Q and thorough health history form. In general, I limit my coaching of beginners. I won’t take people who have a long list of injuries or health issues that are out of my scope of practice.
Simply put, I don’t train beginners online. I’ve set up my content and site so that people who come into my world have familiarity with training. The couple times I’ve taken on rookies, all hell broke loose.
That being said, if we have a chat and they can prove to me that they’re willing to take it slow, go step-by-step, and the have realistic expectations for progress, I can be swayed into making an exception. Still, safety and ensuring optimal technique is my first priority.
If I were to take a beginner client, I would first move forward with simple program design, I coach them through the basic movements and have them send them to me. Once all is good enough with technique to prevent injury, we’ll move along.
Eric’s side note: Joey Percia trained me for three months. He’s an excellent coach with an epic beard.
I have great results with beginner clients in the gym, but my coaching style and philosophy makes it hard to mesh online. I’m a huge proponent of…
- Making movements look pretty as hell
- Being able to get as strong as possible while staying out of pain
- Looking sexy as hell
Most beginners that I come across need to work on #1, so they can do #2, which in turn is going to make #3 Much more effective.
And who doesn’t want more #3?
For that reason, I typically don’t accept online coaching clients starting from complete scratch with no training experience. If it’s just nutrition related, I’m definitely more lenient.
That being said, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside to help people who are willing to ask for help so I make some exceptions if they can prove a few qualities to me.
In this case, I use simple video demonstrations of a few bodyweight movements: walking gait, squat, walking lunge, vertical jump, pushup, pullup or row, 10-yard sprint, back to wall shoulder flexion, and others that are goal dependent. We hit safety first, then optimize movement patterns for optimal performance and looking sexy as hell.
Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Although working with beginner level on-line clients comes with its fair share of obvious challenges, the protocols I use for accepting clients is nearly the same. I’m less worried about their current or pre-existing levels of training, fitness, or training experience and more concerned with how mentally engaged and committed they are to the process.
I try to gain as much insight as possible as to how well they’ve tried to educate themselves on training and fitness, regardless of their level of training. This indirectly informs me how mentally engaged and focused they are on their goals.
In essence, I’m less concerned with their levels of fitness and training experience and more interested in their psychological mindset and level of mental engagement.
Regardless of their level of training experience, it’s my job as a coach to teach a lifter how to properly move and control their body. This is the same whether they are an online client (where I train them via Skype or FaceTime) or whether I train them in person.
If they’re lacking these attributes and are mentally lazy, then their ability to learn and apply the information I teach them will be limited at best…especially online.
The Takeaway: The Four Laws of Online Training
You can train beginners online. But the devil is in the details.
1) Put safety first.
2) Do a thorough movement screen. If all is solid, start with basic movement patterns.
3)Keep it simple and provide gradual overload.
4) Selling online training for the sake of money is a poor business model. Work only with those you can help.
Use long-term, habit- based approach to keep clients engaged and focused on their goals.
But remember, there are no absolutes. You shouldn’t take every online client that comes your way. Respect your scope of practice.
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