I’m gonna go deep today, and give you some insight into online fitness coaching. Not just how it works, but how it started, and what it means.
Like, the REAL shit. All of it.
This is especially important if you’re a coach yourself (either online or considering bringing your business online). If you’ve ever wanted to work with an online coach, you should definitely read this.
So, let’s start with establishing a frame.
Online coaching is absolutely ubiquitous. Just about every trainer in the world offers an online coaching service, and tons of people who have never trained clients in person do the same. This was true years before the COVID-19 pandemic closed gyms and forced even more trainers to adopt online coaching.
Now in 2020, more or less everyone in the fitness industry is an online coach. If not, they’re not more than one or two steps from being able to call themselves one.
If we’re talking exclusively about fitness coaching, the online side of things generates close to a billion dollars annually. We’re talking about a lot of coaches sending out a lot of programs.
Until there were.
Everything starts somewhere.
Near as I can tell, coaches began working remotely with clients in the late 90’s, just as the nascent online communities began to spring up in the forums attached to various bodybuilding websites.
Long-distance coaching likely began as long-distance contest prep.
At the time, fitness/figure/physique competitions were much fewer and further between than they are now. Just finding a show to compete in could be difficult; finding someone to help you get ready for that show was even harder.
Today it seems impossible to open Instagram without seeing someone offering to help get you for everything from a photoshoot to a wedding to a competition of some sort.
I assure you: this was not the case 20 years ago.
Two decades ago, if you wanted help getting ready for your competition, you needed to look elsewhere. Scouring the various forums and message boards for information about getting stage-ready naturally led to conversations with other readers about how to prepare for a show, and those conversations became extensive dialogues leading down what now seems a predictable road.
Eventually (I assume), somebody said, “I actually help people get ready for shows all the time, it’s really popular where I live in (I dunno, Jersey, probably).”
Then someone else said, “That’s cool, man, but I’m all the way up here in (Toronto, maybe?).”
I want to take a second to acknowledge what a HUGE moment this was for the fitness industry. It changed everything.
You have to understand, in 1998, the internet was a strange and wild place. Social media didn’t exist. There were no accounts attached to anyone’s real identity. Anonymity was the default.
People didn’t post under their real names, like, ever. On message boards, you’d post under a clever handle like “BuffGuy73.”
Interacting with a veritable stranger over the internet in a contained environment like a message board was kind of odd.
Interacting with a veritable stranger outside of that contained environment was really, really, really weird.
The stigma attached to it was immense. Connecting with someone online and forming a relationship of any kind was about as far outside of the social norm as it got.
It was the stuff of jokes, the de facto punchline being that some hapless loser living in a basement was convinced his girlfriend from the Internet was a Brazilian model when in fact he was chatting with another hapless loser in another basement somewhere else.
Think about that for a second. It was automatically assumed that anyone you spoke to was at best lying to you but more likely trying to swindle you or kill you.
Put another way, the general culture of the internet was so suspicious of strangers that catfishing was the default expectation—before catfishing was even an actual thing yet.
He was going to send this person pictures of himself in his underwear. And then he was going to pay this person.
Notwithstanding that entering into this arrangement at all was strange beyond all mortal ken, it required a monumental leap of faith towards not one, but two premises: firstly, that this person was actually even qualified to do this job; and secondly that he would not simply abscond with the money.
One is unprovable, the other unenforceable.
All this to get instruction on training and nutrition to get ready for a bodybuilding contest.
Jonathan Swift once said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”
Bolder still was the first person to put their trust in a fitness expert from the internet and paid for the right to send that coach underwear pictures.
Bless you, dear (probably) Steve from (possibly) Toronto. I hope you won your bodybuilding show, you brave, brave man.
I am completely convinced it played out more or less like that.
We got from Steve to where we are now, but it was a long journey.
Fast forward a few years to Long Island in May of 2005, where some dude named Roman trained clients, ate grilled chicken out of Tupperware, and churned out the occasional fitness article.
Although writing wasn’t my main focus at that time, I was getting published often enough to have some name recognition in the industry. Enough to receive emails with fitness questions and the occasional proposition for sex.
So it was that I got an email from a guy named Eric, who spent days as a lawyer in Sacramento, and his nights reading the T-Nation forums and making sweet, sweet love to the squat rack.
Eric wasn’t the first to email me asking for fitness advice, but he was the first to send an email asking me to be his online coach. He had read my work on a few sites, done a few of the workouts and loved them, and liked my writing style. Based on that, he wanted me to design him a custom program…and wanted to pay me to do it.
Hell yes, I will. I’d never done that before. I didn’t know what information to collect, how to gauge his fitness levels, or really how to present the program visually.
Naturally, I went overboard and we exchanged something like 15 emails, each with me asking him an insane number of questions. Once I had all that I got to work.
Dude said he liked my articles, so I wrote him an article: 3500 words of exposition laying out my rationale for the programming, and the workouts at the bottom.
Like I said, I overdid it.
But, he loved it and said it was 10X better than his previous coaches packet. I learned a valuable lesson: overdeliver.
It wasn’t until AFTER I’d sent him the program that we both realized we’d never discussed payment. Because, you know, I was such a phenomenal businessman.
Eric was an honest guy and a great client. He asked how much I charged—which was a really great question, and one I should’ve known the answer to. What DO I charge?
I let Eric know, and eight days later I got a personal check from Eric, delivered to me via the good ol’ US Postal Service.
BOOM. We’re in business, baby.
Eric was the first of several thousand people who would work with me for online fitness coaching.
Fifteen years later, things are quite different. Not just for me, but for the industry overall.
In terms of technology, there are so many tools to help you. PayPal and Stripe for payment processing, various software for client management, and the social media sphere to help you get clients.
And that is really, really problematic for the industry as a whole.
The intense proliferation of online coaches should be a good thing. After all, the only force in the universe that simultaneously increases quality and decreases cost is competition. And there is PLENTY of competition.
But, here’s the issue.
Competition only really works if the playing field is level. In some respects it is, but in others, it is wildly skewed.
When there’s no real quality control or way to limit entry into the field, expanding base loses integrity, even as the higher quality products and services increase in value and stand above the rest.
In a vacuum, market forces would prevail and things would sort themselves out pretty quickly.
But when it’s a service-based industry fueled by personality-driven marketing, those forces can be stymied pretty easily, and good marketing can outpace and outsell quality service.
For a while, at least.
Over the long term, things tend to equalize. Marketplace sophistication becomes a larger factor, and as potential customers/clients become savvier, you have to have the steak to back up that sizzle.
Whether or not online coaching is a bubble was open to debate for a while. But, the aftereffects of gyms closing for weeks will only skew more and more trainers and gyms towards and online model. And that means an industry which has already reached critical mass is going to keep growing.
When that happens, it requires an industry-wide level up. And THAT means you’ve gotta take your skills and your ability to provide your service to the next level.
Let me break it down for you.
Clients know what to look for, and most coaches are at least partially aware that they need to market.
But that’s in the general sense.
In the individual sense, the average customer STILL needs help recognizing the good coaches from the bad. And the average coach STILL needs a way to stand out in the marketplace.
This, naturally, brings me to my point.
(And if you’re a coach, please do not shoot yourself in the foot and ignore this.)
I have transitioned away from fitness (I’m finally out of it, and if you ask me about intermittent fasting one more time, I will hate you). Now I work on helping coaches and entrepreneurs grow their brand and business through writing.
We’ve got members from all industries, but given my origins, many of my clients are in some way connected to the fitness industry. And that means I work with a LOT of online fitness coaches.
That is the MOST important thing. It’s what helps people find you, connect with you, and ultimately want to work with you.
Now, there are A LOT of ways to do this. Sometimes, it’s taking something personal and building on it. I’ve got one client who Quadrupled his business by talking about lasagna.
There are ways to stand out in terms of your professionalism, as well. Ways you can send a signal to the marketplace that you’ve done extra work, gone the extra mile, and aren’t just another kid with a six-pack and an Instagram account.
Seminars, certifications, letters behind your name…all of it helps.
Does it supersede good marketing? Not really. But it helps you stand out.
THAT SAID, there is a way to get both.
A way to become a better coach and a more successful coach, all at once.
Created by my friend Jonathan Goodman, the OTA is basically a bundle of everything you need to know to become an effective and successful online coach.
A few years back, Jon realized that there wasn’t a ton of quality control for online training. So he set about creating OTA.
Originally conceptualized as a certification, the OTA was intended to be a signifier of quality: it would let prospective clients know that an OTA certified trainer had a higher level of experience and education than the average.
* creating systems
* writing programming
* communicating with clients
* marketing through email and social media
* setting up your program to fit your life
All told, OTA shows you how to effectively increase quality, efficiency, influence, and profitability.
(Or: how to make more money at doing what you love without being an idiot who lets quality drop and hurts people or loses clients.)
Everything in the course is useful, whether you’re already running an online coaching program or you’re thinking about getting started.
Yeah. That’s it. Just buy it.
Just. Fucking. Buy it.
It’s a thousand bucks (or 12 payments of $87) GASP!
Oh, no! A thousand dollar investment in a business that should be earning you 10X that every month? Egads, who could commit to such a thing!?
Literally, anyone who isn’t an idiot.
Not only do I make all the fitness coaches who I work with go through it, but I’ve also gone through it.
One of my favorite aspects of the program is that it comes with a physical textbook. One I can highlight, add sticky notes, smell the freshly printed pages of. Here’s my copy (with lots of sticky notes of course). The OTA team with their ever-improving latest edition of the course just created a new version of the textbook.
Now, for the fun part: scarcity! urgency!
* FACT 1: They are currently experiencing more enrollments than ever, because, you know, gyms are closed due to the global pandemic and whatnot.
* FACT 2: Once they fill their enrollment slots, the program may not open up again until the fall.
Yeah, yeah, I’m not giving you a ton of time, and I should have emailed you about this like three months ago. But I was busy working on about eight different projects and writing about writing and whatnot.
Also I spent the first few weeks of quarantine trying to perfect my Russel Brand impression. (S’goin all right, luv. Bit rough ‘round the “o” sounds, innit, but we’ll make due, d’ya know’mean?)
If you’re not willing to take a “risk” and invest in yourself to maximize your chance of being a successful part of that industry, I honestly don’t know what to say.
Are you really going to dishonor Steve like that? ARE YOU?
Now, as much as I believe this will undeniably bring you a fantastic return on your investment, I also understand not everybody has the capital to make such investments. And the team at OTA understands that too.
So, they’re also giving away free books that cover the basics so you can learn more about training online.