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What Is Online Coaching?

Most people aren't even able to distinguish between 'fitness trainer' and 'personal trainer', now there's a third category popping up all over social media - the online coach - so what is it?


It's probably useful to define the first two categories above, which from personal experience, I know that many gym users across the world aren't able to distinguish between. Ignoring the experience required, roles and purpose for a second, let's first separate them on the simplest grounds. They are in fact, different qualifications. In the UK, a fitness instructor is what's known as a Level 2, with personal training being Level 3. There's no benefit to discussing these qualifications in depth. It's just worth knowing that not all fitness instructors are personal trainers.


From my own experience, completing my personal training qualification put me back in knowledge, overall. That's not intended to sound arrogant, and won't be the case for someone else simply because they've trained for 10 or 15 years. It was my personal experience because I had made this industry my career long before I consciously made that decision. I had read articles, researched and tested theories, personally trialled nutrition strategies for years, 16 to be exact, before finally quitting finance and going into personal training. Before becoming a personal trainer, I'd 'prepped' myself to 8% body fat for a holiday. Prepped being the term given to the process which precedes a bodybuilding competition. Although 8% was not nearly good enough to go on stage, it was plenty good enough for a holiday. And I guided myself through the process, from research and various consultations with those that had competed previously.


I digress. The point of this first section is to highlight the differences between personal trainers and fitness instructors.


Personal trainers, are, at least on paper, trained to guide you through nutrition, lifestyle changes, strategic programming, and should in some way be able to help you with mindset and other mental health aspects.


Fitness instructors are typically the over-energetic types you see bouncing around the gym, who almost exclusively run classes and shout their mouths off. That's not a dig. That's their job. They are there to force you to work, and the 'buzz' they create around a gym by shouting and jumping around is purposefully designed to attract those who lack motivation.


So who needs who, and who is best for you?


Here's the non-bullshit version of what the sales rep on the front desk will tell you. If you're obese, lazy, have no motivation to train, can't control what you eat, or simply want to use exercise as a method of reaching that 'endorphin high' with no end goal, then go to a class and talk to a fitness instructor. Do not waste the time of a personal trainer in the same way you wouldn't waste a driving lesson from Daniel Riccardo if you can't drive a manual, or a cooking lesson from Gordon Ramsay if you can't microwave a pot of fucking noodles.


In reality though, so many do. And in all honesty, it's how many low-end, or newly qualified personal trainers make a lot of their income, by preying on these types of clients who they know they can get easy money from by simply running 'personal classes', instead of personal training. The ones you see 'thrashing' their clients with a lot of shouting and jumpy, hand-clappy exercises designed to achieve nothing more than a high calorie burn. They get their clients hooked on the 'high', and have them coming back every week, or several times a week, cash-in-hand, smiles on their faces because they think they're getting value for money. But in reality, with no strategy in place, no workout programming, no lifestyle changes, no 'training' whatsoever, after a year these clients look exactly the same. Some are even fatter. These people are better off paying for a class at a fraction of the price. However, in central London, some people have too much money; more than they know how to handle. So they simply don't care.


Now we've established the difference between a fitness instructor and personal trainer, we can dive into exactly what an online coach is.


In short, the industry has evolved as a shortcut, and a cheap one at that; there are pros and cons to this in equal measure. Before social media, people would stop me in the street whilst on holiday, or sometimes even just in a supermarket, to ask me how long I'd been training for, what's the best way to build muscle etc. And there would have been plenty of males and females in far better condition than I, year round, who would have had this a great deal more. If not in the street, the next place would have been the gym. Here I would often get asked for training tips, as would many others who were visibly representing the goals of others. Personal trainers (that were in shape) would also have been asked, or paid to deliver this information.


But now it's free. Anyone from 15 to 95 is now getting the majority of their 'fitness information' from social media. More than they'd previously have gotten from the likes of Google, even. I remember searching for information in the early 2000s and find only a handful of credible blogs to answer these questions, bodybuilding.com being the main one. People hardly do this now; it's all on social media, particularly Instagram. And there's nothing wrong with this, apart from of course, when this information is false. And unfortunately, as the wealth of information grows, so too does the percentage of people overwhelmed and unable to decipher the useful information from the useless.


Step up, the online coach. I'm not sure who the first ones were, but I can almost guarantee the first programs sold on Instagram were by celebrity bodybuilders and fitness models, who themselves may have been qualified as personal trainers, but were almost certainly not practicing as coaches at the time, but merely leading by example in their industry - that is not online coaching.


Fast-forward to 2020, and there are literally thousands claiming to be online coaches. And there are some truly shockingly bad ones who have unfortunately made millions of dollars selling dreams and bullshit. This article it not about bringing down anyone else on a personal level, so I will leave out names. That said, I will do my best to cover the elements which I believe should be considered using an online coach.


 

Online coaching has literally exploded, and people now have what seems like a limitless choice. Let's review the basic categories in which most online coaches will fall into:

The Prep Coach

These are the hardest working of all online coaches, because their end-product is simply the hardest to achieve; that being ridiculous levels of body fat for men and women, and creating stage-ready physiques. This is not Men’s Health, or Women’s Best front-cover level. It’s way beyond. This is many months, sometimes year-round coaching and dieting. As much as these coaches deserve respect, it must be understood that this form of coaching is not for 99.9% of the population. And if these coaches almost exclusively work with contest athletes, and don’t have a full set-up for general population, or openly advertise for general population clients, then you will be wasting your time pursuing one. These coaches charge huge amounts because they are the elite. These are the Daniel Riccardo’s of the industry. They also expect the highest level of discipline and motivation, which I’m sorry to say, will simply not be present, again, in 99.9% of the population. These coaches are not going to turn down your money, but it’s likely you’re just not going to be able to keep up and will therefore be wasting your money.


Prep coaches are almost always ex-competitors themselves, but NOT always qualified PTs. They don’t have to be. It’s likely they’ve been around a while and know almost everything there is to know about competing, training and the kind of nutrition which will put someone on a stage. This is all that’s required because it’s such a niche industry. The clients they will work with already have the lifestyle and habitual discipline which normally has to be coached. A prep coach’s profile/page will usually be filled with stage photos of their clients, and some training videos which are usually just there to showcase themselves training and give an idea of the kind of training intensity it takes to reach the stage. There’ll be the odd lifestyle shot to show they have a life outside the gym.


At as estimate, probably 1-3% of online coaches are prep coaches.


The Lifestyle Coach


Me. Alice. We’re in the middle. We are the ones who take regular guys and girls, and with enough time and hard-work, we can put you on the cover of Men’s Health or Women’s Best.

We are almost always ex or current personal trainers, who have expanded online to cater for those that don’t need the hand-holding in the gym, or to reach people globally rather than just in our city. Our profiles/pages on social media are designed to motivate, and will include workout videos, tutorials, food posts, with a few lifestyle photos here and there to show people we have a life outside of training, too. Our Instagram stories are usually lit up 24/7. Because we know that people like to watch them as a form of ‘fitness reality TV’ which they find motivating, and because it’s our main source of marketing for our business.

The Show Coach

And lastly, the show coach. In short, these are individuals who get themselves into shape, usually by employing one of the aforementioned coaches, and then simply boast it online to lure others into thinking they can get them into the same shape.

These ‘coaches’ are normally not qualified PTs, let alone possess any form of coaching experience, be it from life or previous careers etc.

They are typically ‘fitness models’ who masquerade as online coaches, and some do so very, very successfully. Almost every ex-Love Island, ex-Bachelorette, ex-any reality TV personality is a show coach.

Their pages are almost exclusively lifestyle photos, with a few training photos mixed in. Their training videos will focus on trying to emphasise weight lifted, or intensity of training, rather than provide any real guidance.

They will claim to customise training and meal plans, but will not ask you for input in anything. The less successful ones will simply sell ‘train how I train’ or ‘eat how I eat’ .pdfs to make you think you too will reach the same results.

The more successful ones pay for expensive software platforms which automate the entire coaching process. From producing workouts, to customising meal plans, even down to automatically delaying message responses within their Apps to ‘simulate human behaviour’. These platforms also enable them to charge $7/week for ‘coaching’ because they literally don’t have to push a single button in the entire process. From onboarding a client, producing a workout program, producing a meal plan, and any subsequent updates on a weekly or monthly basis. It’s all automated, and occurs in the background while said ‘coach’ is out buying new trainers, or in a showroom somewhere choosing their next luxury car.

I spend all day on Instagram, and I would estimate 60-70% of online coaches are show coaches, including most of the biggest names, and seemingly successful coaches. They will typically have claimed to have ‘helped’ thousands. But unfortunately, the vast majority of those will have given up in the first week through lack of genuine support and guidance. And only the few that stuck with the process long-enough, simply because they idolise the show coach, end up with any real result. Unfortunately, this small percentage still equates to a large number when you consider thousands try. Which is the reason even the worst example of a show coach can still have dozens and dozens of fairly decent transformation photos.

 

Now we’ve covered the main three types, it’s worth expanding on what should be expected from a lifestyle online coach and what, at least in my opinion constitutes a great lifestyle coach.

From the numbers above, lifestyle coaches account for approximately one third of all online coaches, which is still a huge number! And it means the odds of finding one are still relatively good. However, there are elements to look for, even once you’ve narrowed down your selection of lifestyle coaches. Instead of focusing on what to avoid, I’m going to focus on what to look for superficially to make the process easier.

AGE. No one under the age of 23/24 has any business being any form of online coach whatsoever. The only exception being someone who has competed in bodybuilding competitions AND is now qualified as a PT, or someone who previously held some form of real coaching job, like a sports coach (for adults) or young military Officer. Anyone below this age, without that experience, will simply lack the interpersonal skills, life experience and a whole host of other experiences required to help and guide a single father of two, a woman working 80-hour weeks or someone with chronic mental health issues, to their goals. It’s as simple, and as brutal as that.

GYM EXPERIENCE. Avoid individuals who have gone straight from an online PT course to online coaching. It’s easy to spot, because those who have done so will have no record of dealing with clients in person. Look for this evidence, because you cannot coach online if you cannot coach in person. Conversely, if you can coach online, you can definitely coach in person. Coaching online is much harder.

WEBSITE. Look for a website. It’s a sure-fire way to separate the coaches who treat online coaching as a serious business, from those who are doing it to make money from their popularity on Instagram. Trust me on this one. Websites also cost money, and any coach who does not invest their own money in their business, aside from doing so for free on Instagram, is not worthy of yours.

APP. Again, another expense which only the best, and most serious, online coaches will provide to their clients.

CONTENT. Pay particular attention to the content they publish on social media. Are they seemingly publishing a lot of useful content for free? This is another indicator that their priorities actually lie in helping people rather than simply making money. Look carefully at what may appear to be dozens of ‘success stories’ in the form of transformation photos. The classic tricks include zooming in/out to make people look smaller/bigger, lighting, getting clients to relax in the first photo and tense in the final photo, fake tans, heavy make-up etc. All used to mislead and enhance a result which is in fact nothing. Look at the numbers claimed. If it seems like too much weight lost, it probably is. If it looks like they took steroids, they probably did. The online availability of steroids now, has meant coaches can distribute them to clients without actually having to distribute them at all. Trust me, many of the best transformation photos you will have seen over 12 weeks (the most common timeframe) will be fake, or from using steroids or illegal fat-burners. Why? Because in reality the results most people achieve in 12-weeks are very unimpressive by ‘Instagram’ standards. For most individuals; most average men and women who use an online coach, it will take 9-18 months to actually achieve the physique they think, or have been led to believe, they can achieve in 12 weeks. It’s a very sad reality, and the reason many people quit, because they think they’re failing. They’re only failing against their own expectations, which the coach has failed to set realistically in the first place.

 

In conclusion then, are there advantages to online coaching over personal training, and who is online coaching best suited to?

I charge the same for a month online coaching as I charged for an hour of personal training. So yes, there’s your main advantage. Other advantages include availability and support. I’m available to my clients 7 days a week, whereas a personal trainer may only see them once a week. The question of advantage is better addressed by considering who online coaching is for, and who it’s not for.

If you have a decent grasp of exercise form, an understanding of the principles of things like time under tension, and mind-muscle connection but most importantly, are self-motivated, then you don’t need a PT and can save a great deal of money with an online coach, and achieve the same results in the same amount of time.

If you are not confident with exercises, or you don’t understand the principles I mentioned above, then those are elements which cannot be coached online. And you would benefit from a few months with a PT to bring up that confidence and understanding.

Do not get an online coach to motivate you. Do not even get a PT for this. If you need motivation, you need to circle back to your reasons why and spend some time there. Motivation itself is a myth. No one is continually motivated. It’s a fleeting emotion we experience for a few seconds. It does not carry us through the months and months of sacrifices required to achieved the results we desire. It comes down to self-discipline, and hard work. Focus on those two elements, and you will find you begin to ‘motivate’ yourself.

Online coaching is here to stay. My hope is that it does not completely wipe out the PT industry, because PT still plays a vital role in those early years of an individual’s training. I also hope that the lifestyle online coach category expands, and that those coaches remain true to the cause as they grow in size and following, and don’t themselves slip into the role of a show coach. That is certainly my goal, and the promise I have made to both my clients and myself.

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