Will Virtual Training Replace Fitness Facilities?

by Ryan Halvorson on Aug 18, 2017

Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix . . . Over the past several years, tech companies have changed the game, causing “old school” competitors to scramble to stay relevant and prosperous, or to concede defeat and close up shop. As the internet provides customers with access to “personal” training, often at a cheaper rate than they would pay to work with a qualified professional in person, the fitness industry is not immune to such disruption.

While the online space is a boon for trainers looking to expand their reach and offer services with minimal overhead—a bit of tech savvy and internet access may be all that’s required—fitness facilitiesand personal training staff could feel the pinch. Gym owners and managers have noticed an uptick in members working out with tablets instead of trainers, raising concerns about safety, quality control and financial health.

In this article, experts from brick-and-mortar spaces and the virtual world share their experiences and insights on this emerging trend.

Safety and Quality Assurance

Peg Hamlett, PhD, director of fitness and wellness at the University of Idaho, has witnessed exercisers engaging in virtual training on the gym floor.

“It is obvious when someone is using Skype, FaceTime or another internet conferencing tool,” she says. “The tablet or phone is set so the user can view and be viewed, and the interaction is different from a phone call or someone just watching or reading something.”

She says this type of training is often disruptive to others—especially if it’s conducted live—because such exercisers tend to speak loudly so the online trainer can hear them. While this is a nuisance, it’s not her primary worry.

“Our biggest concern is safety,” Hamlett says. “We do not know the trainer’s qualifications or if the training is appropriate for [the member’s] health history or current fitness state.”

All of Hamlett’s training staff must possess current certifications and participate regularly in continuing education opportunities to maintain the highest level of skill and expertise. In a way, she feels the use of virtual trainers dilutes the quality of service she aims to maintain within her facility.

Albert Isordia, owner of the “home-based” training company Cyber Gym, agrees that there are safety concerns, but he believes it’s not just online training that’s to blame.

“For every person out there trying to follow a HIIT workout on an iPad, there are at least a hundred more trying to decipher a ‘guts and butts’-style article from Women’s Health or some other magazine,” says the trainer, located in San Carlos, California. “I see people in the gym trying to duplicate YouTube fitness routines from some CrossFit® box.”

But a risk is still a risk, and Hamlett’s concerns for her members’ safety are valid. Many highly qualified trainers work successfully with clients from a distance, but hordes of others try to do it with minimal education and experience. Hamlett and Isordia—as well as the other experts interviewed for this piece—agree that online training will continue to spread through the industry. So the question remains: Can anything be done to improve the safety levels of individuals who opt to take advantage of virtual training?

Justin Powell, fitness manager and personal trainer at the La Jolla Sports Club in La Jolla, California, suggests that management should beef up the orientation process to help new members better understand the risks involved in online training.

“To me, there’s nothing we can currently do to help provide quality control for our members other than provide them information so that they can differentiate between what’s good and what’s bad,” he says.

“Make sure they receive a full fitness assessment and training session when they become members,” says Nicco Zenere, personal trainer and owner of the online and mobile training company BRAVE Lifestyle.

Zenere, who used to work at The Biggest Loser Resort fitness center in Chicago, believes this gives fitness facilities and personal trainers ample opportunity to help members understand the many benefits of in-person guidance.


Working with an online trainer generally costs less than training in person, which can make the online route far more attractive for budget-conscious customers. But it can take a toll on a gym’s ability to provide top-level services and amenities.

“We strive to pay our trainers a competitive wage,” Hamlett says. “We also inspect our equipment daily and replace or repair it continually to provide a safe, clean and up-to-date facility—which costs money. When participants ‘bring in’ other trainers, we lose out and need to find other ways to keep our facility top-notch.”

Most fitness facilities prevent nonstaff trainers from working with clients, or they require that these individuals pay a fee to use the space. Perhaps a similar tack can be taken with online training, Hamlett wonders.

For more information on finances and how to handle online training in fitness facilities, please see “Is Tech Killing Personal Training?” in the online IDEA Library (January 2017 IDEA Fitness Manager). If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.