Online workout subscriptions: how to get the most out of your money

Just 10 years ago, the idea of an online personal trainer seemed pretty ridiculous. But as smart-phone technology made incredible innovations in communication with texting, photos, and real-time video, the idea of a virtual coach became more reasonable. The industry appears to be exploding as well. The United States Department of Labor estimates that there are over 350,000 personal trainers in the US, and that number is expected to increase dramatically over the next decade.

At first blush, the idea of an absentee personal trainer sounds insane. You’re going to coach me over email? The fact is, personal trainers are sought out for two reasons: to share knowledge and provide accountability. Both of these can be accomplished remotely. In fact, for some people, an online trainer is much more desirable than a hands-on trainer.

The number one reason to hire an online personal trainer is affordability. Most online coaches who will craft a personalized program and track your progress will charge in the neighborhood of $150 a month. (This price can vary wildly, depending on the service and the fame of the trainer.) That money will get you about two workouts with a flesh-and-blood trainer. If you have some fluency in the weight room, and you don’t need or want a guy to count your reps, then an online trainer makes perfect economical sense.

The world of online trainers is relatively unregulated. There is no governing body or widely-used reviewing website, like a Yelp for trainers. So choosing a coach comes with a hefty warning of Buyer Beware. We spoke to several trainers and came up with a few ideas that will help you navigate the world of choosing a trainer. After all, finding a knowledgeable and committed trainer that is affordable and inspirational, can be an absolute game-changer for your fitness journey.        

Set Expectations: In your first correspondence with a potential trainer, you need to get some important questions answered: What can you expect from that person? What will they expect of you? How often do you check in? Is your communication over text, email, or phone?

Each trainer can have their own method, but some factors are constant. There should be a minimum of one check-in a week. During that check-in, there should be some dialogue. (A weekly robo-email is not a check-in.) If the trainer has specifically been hired for a goal such as weight-loss, weekly progress pictures should be sent. If the trainer is coaching you for a strength sport such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting, videos should be a prerequisite.

Expectations work both ways. For $150 a month, a trainer cannot spend hours on the phone with you. They undoubtedly expect you to be able to Google basic questions for yourself.  

Look for Red Flags: The biggest red flag is hiring a coach who has never worked in a gym. Ideally, your new coach will have spent some years cutting their teeth in a brick-and-mortar facility. This provides a level of experience (in exercise science and human nature) that is invaluable and should be a prerequisite for online trainers.  

Social media is a bit of a gray area. It’s an occupational necessity for online trainers, but you want a trainer that has found a balance. Their Instagram account should be feeding their training business, and not the other way around. Aesthetics is a similar pitfall. Judging a trainer on looks is a terrible idea. No one wants to hire an out-of-shape trainer, but just because a guy has kick-ass abs on Instagram doesn’t mean he is an expert on how to get them. 

Pricing: The economics of online training are all over the place. Some trainers will shoot you a cookie-cutter program for 10 or 20 bucks a month. A coach in the range of $150-$200 a month will write you a personalized program, check in at least weekly, and be available to answer your questions. If you are looking for very specific expertise, such as contest preparation, or want a coach with a big name and internet following you can expect to pay close to $500 a month.