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The Business of Online Training

What personal trainers need to know to succeed in an online career.

Online personal training (oPT) is not a new concept in the fitness business, but it has certainly caught the attention of many fitness professionals over the last year. The 2009 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Trends survey reported that 17% of personal trainers offer online training programs to clients. While this percentage is small compared with face-to-face programs that offer traditional one-on-one (98%), pair (85%) or small-group (58%) training, the American Council on Exercise predicted (2009) that “the use of tracking and online training and scheduling tools will increase” in 2010.

As many as 52% of Internet users search online for information regarding exercise and fitness. Of these users two-thirds fall between ages 18 and 49, the age group most likely to participate in social technologies related to health (Pew Internet 2009). The availability of user-friendly, Web-based personal training software, coupled with the marketing resources of the Internet, is lowering the barriers to entry into the online training business. Certified personal trainers with DSL (digital subscriber line) hookup can expand their role online.

This article details the tools needed to transition a personal training career seamlessly into the online arena. Read on to learn how to select the best oPT software, build new clientele and gain the edge over online competitors.

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Selecting the right oPT software is much like choosing the right training gym. It is where most client-trainer interaction takes place, so you should choose software that is user-friendly and has high functionality. All oPT software includes similar basic features: client assessment and tracking functions, exercise and food databases, customizable fitness programs and nutrition plans, and various messaging tools. What differentiates oPT software programs from each other are the unique features and user interface. The following tips can help you determine if an oPT platform is compatible with your training philosophy and business demands.

Select Software That Highlights Your Specialties. When assessing platform features, find those that showcase training techniques and equipment preferences. Are you known for small-group training sessions? Do you like creating competitions between clients on a specific apparatus? Then make sure to look for software that can create group goals or team challenges. Are you a trainer who uses multimedia in your sessions, such as video demonstrations or audio podcasts? Check whether the oPT software allows the upload of multimedia files within the exercise database. (Note: Trainers with international clients should check settings for metric units.)

Anticipate All Operational Costs Both Within and Independent of the Software. Most oPT software works on a subscription basis. Fees vary based on the number of monthly active clients and the access to more or fewer software features. Setup fees and third-party expenses may also add to the overall costs. Client billing usually is not included in software packages. However, most software can integrate independent merchant accounts (e.g., PayPal) to facilitate payments. Setting up a merchant account is free, but you may incur extra processing charges for financial transactions. Also, trainers who want to have a uniform online aesthetic may consider budgeting for Web design and hosting services. Although most oPT software includes a “profile page” for trainers to customize with photos, logos and bio, integrating the software with your professional website is recommended for building brand consistency.

Sample the Software Before Purchasing. This may seem like a “no-brainer,” but virtual tours or webinar demonstrations of the software may not highlight all features or give you a chance to navigate at your own pace. Since much of the online training experience is based on the client-trainer interaction, you should take advantage of free trials and guest accounts. Simulate a training experience by creating dummy client accounts and designing sample training programs. How many “clicks” does it take to perform various tasks? Was it easy to modify workouts and drag and drop programs into a client’s calendar? Also explore the software in client mode to view the interface from a client’s point of view. What do clients see when they log into the software, when you send them a program via e-mail or when they view an exercise inside a mobile device?

Ultimately, select software that is intuitive in navigation, appealing in aesthetics and effective in function. If you do not like the look and feel of the platform, chances are that neither will your clients (see the sidebar “At-a-Glance: Online Training Platforms”).

Building Your Online Clientele Offline

When you offer your services online, building a client base becomes more challenging. Unlike a brick-and-mortar fitness center, there are no facilities to tour, no new members to prospect and no fitness directors to schedule “first workouts.” Without an established online business presence or a recognizable name or industry brand, it is more challenging for an oPT to find and retain new clients simply through Internet marketing.

The most effective way to build an online clientele is to do it in person. This may seem counterintuitive, but even the most Internet-savvy individuals can benefit from having face-time with a trainer. It gives you the opportunity to establish a real connection and ease any legitimate concerns that come with online training.

Your current client roster is an obvious place to start, since clients are already familiar with your exercises and programming style. Clients ready to be more independent with their workouts or looking to have a hybrid experience (combining online sessions with face-to-face ones) have a better chance of succeeding within an online training platform. On the other hand, clients who enjoy face-to-face training may end up being the most resistant.

Recruit individuals who tend to be self-motivated, are comfortable with their workout environment and/or have irregular schedules (e.g., they’re always traveling). Prospective clients do not have to be tech-savvy, but they should be comfortable with using the Internet.

Staying One “Click” Ahead of the Competition

Your biggest competitors are the free fitness and nutrition social-networking sites such as DailyBurn.com, SparkPeople.com, FitDay.com and TrainingPeaks.com. These are highly interactive platforms that offer virtually all the features included in oPT software, except the personal trainer! In order to compete with these online resources, you need to provide client services that are comparable with or different from these websites. Trainers who create personal and unique client experiences (experiences that cannot be automated or duplicated by software) will gain the competitive advantage.

Create Opportunities to Sync Up. Online training does not always assume that training is asynchronous. Find out when clients are scheduling their sessions, and be available via webcam, chat or phone to answer questions “live” during their workouts.

Subscribe to Local News and Weather Feeds to Stay Current. Imagine re-routing an outdoor walking workout to avoid marathon-related closures or changing a session to an indoor routine on account of the weather—all for a client in a different state! Clients will appreciate your knowing the happenings in their world.

Respond Often and Immediately to Client Messages. The Internet has spoiled users by making correspondence effortless, immediate and dynamic. Trainers who are slow to respond to Web messages risk lowering the level of client engagement.

Online personal training offers fitness professionals one more way to expand their services. It is not meant to compete with or replace face-to-face training, simply to provide another option for clients who prefer it. Despite having the proper software and reliable Internet connections, becoming a successful online trainer has less to do with the fact that the training occurs online and more to do with how you ultimately engage your clients. So get online and start engaging!

At-a-Glance: oPT Platforms

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HiTech Trainer












$19.99 to $54.99/ month + setup; unlimited clients

$19.95 to $99.95/month + setup; unlimited clients

$29.99 to $59.95/month; unlimited clients

$37/month; unlimited clients

$35 to $119/month; based on number of active clients

$5.99 to $89.95; based on number of total clients


Starter, Pro, Premium
(webinar demos)

Enterprise (guest account trial)

(15-day trial)

(30-day trial)

Trainer, Club (14-day, 30-day trials, webinar demos)

Pro, Web-only Subscription
(Demo download)


Allows trainer to group clients and create team; newsletter feature comes with additional reader stats

Trainers can tier membership levels to show or hide certain software features. E-commerce features allow for more revenue opportunities

Exercise database has both male and female models; custom programs available for VORTEX equipment

In-depth client assessment forms; ability to buy/swap programs with other FitGen trainers

Client set-up and workout add/edit/duplicate features are very user-friendly; software customer service is fast

Desktop application allows programs to be designed offline


The trainer and client platforms have different aesthetics, as if there are 2 separate websites in one software program

It is unclear what features come standard with business vs. enterprise accounts

Software has an “old school” tech design, may not align with the aesthetic that internet users are accustomed to

Creating new exercises requires company assistance;
Customer service response time is slow

The hyperstrike consumer version allows clients to get the similar experience without the costs of trainer

Exercise videos not available, trainers may write additional descriptions.

Requires clients to set up own user-accounts then add trainers, instead of other way around

American Council on Exercise. 2009. Time- and cost-conscious workouts are among the most popular fitness trends in 2010. www.acefitness.org/pressroom/443/time-and-cost-conscious-workouts-are-among-the/; retrieved Mar. 8, 2010.
Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2009. The Social Life of Health Information. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information; retrieved Mar. 8, 2010.
Schroeder, J. 2009. Personal trainers meet the needs of savvy, cost-conscious consumers. IDEA Fitness Journal, 6 (8), 48-55.

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HiTech Trainer



American Council on Exercise. 2009. Time- and cost-conscious workouts are among the most popular fitness trends in 2010. www.acefitness.org/pressroom/443/time-and-cost-conscious-workouts-are-among-the/; retrieved Mar. 8, 2010.
Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2009. The Social Life of Health Information. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information; retrieved Mar. 8, 2010.
Schroeder, J. 2009. Personal trainers meet the needs of savvy, cost-conscious consumers. IDEA Fitness Journal, 6 (8), 48-55.

Biray Alsac, MS

Biray Alsac, MS, is the owner of FITTmaxx Institute, a consulting company for health organizations and fitness/wellness professionals interested in learning how to integrate Web-based tools and interactive technologies (exergames) into their programming. She holds a masterÔÇÖs degree in exercise and wellness.
Certification: ACE
Education provider for: ACE

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