When Sharron Ferriell McAdams, owner and president of FITLife Personal Training in Louisville, KY, started developing her personal training Web site, www.cyberfitusa.com, she wasn't sure what kind of response she'd get. It didn't take long for her to find out.

One evening she decided to link her main site, www.fitlife.biz, to her online personal training site, which was nearing completion. Thinking that no one would respond right away, she was surprised to see that almost immediately one person had logged on and joined.

“I thought, ‘I have a client! I'm not ready for this!’” McAdams remembered.

She spent the next four hours finishing the site, so her first client had everything he needed. Two years later, McAdams has grown that Web site into an extensive online personal training program with 150 online clients. While McAdams staffs her 2,000-square-foot personal training-only studio with 14 trainers, she does the majority of the online training herself. Looking to grow her business, McAdams is targeting large local businesses.

“I could do thousands [of clients],” she said. “I could handle that easily the way it's set up.”

McAdams isn't alone in her online training pursuits. According to preliminary results of IDEA Health and Fitness Association's 2006 Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey, 5 percent of fitness facilities responding said they offer some form of online personal training. Forty percent of the respondents said this type of training was growing and they would offer it in the future, said Bernie Schroeder, senior vice president of marketing at IDEA.

“Online training just showed up on our radar this year, so we're just watching it,” he said. “However, it doesn't look like a passing fad.”

The online personal training business is good — very good according to industry experts. When done correctly, online training can be a simple and inexpensive way to earn a big return on not only money invested, but also on time spent on adherence and retention, said Gregory Florez, CEO of First Fitness Inc. and FitAdvisor Health Coaching Services, which offers online coaching for corporations.

While many personal training studios, outside companies specializing in online fitness and boutique clubs are testing the online training market, few health clubs are getting involved.

Some clubs may be wary that online personal training will keep members from coming in the club. Rue Walther, executive director of the Springfield YMCA in Springfield, MA, has talked with her employees about online training, but she is hesitant to implement it.

“You risk the [possibility] that when a person never has an opportunity to have a face-to-face relationship that's outside of a computer, you may not be able to retain them as a paying member,” Walther said. “That's probably the biggest piece.”

However, clubs should keep their eye on this trend or they could miss out.

“This is absolutely a trend that will continue,” Florez said. “The technology is not going away. It's only going to be used more frequently by all of us.”

Past Technologies

While there is no official definition of exactly what online training entails — it can range from e-mailing a workout to a stand-alone Web site such as McAdams' — many agree online training evolved as a natural progression between trainer and client.

“The scope of online training is and has been becoming broader all the time,” Florez said. “As the world of Blackberries and mobile online communication becomes more ubiquitous, the consumer is ever more time starved and over programmed in his or her regular life.”

Consumers need a technology-driven solution to personal training because technology is what they're use to and what they know, Florez said.

While online training may have started as simply an extension to e-mail or a client's request for a workout to complete while out of town, the concept isn't exactly new. In fact, the first online training companies began popping up about seven years ago. Generally well funded and backed by investors, the first Web sites were beautiful, robust and chock full of tools and programming that were excellent — in theory.

“We stupidly assumed that people would flock to it,” Florez said. “We'd forgotten that exercise was all about motivation and continued communication.”

The majority of those first sites lost money and either readjusted programming or sold off their assets. Today's trainers learned from those mistakes and added interactivity with real life personal trainers, Florez said.

While McAdams does have many clients who are strictly online and long distance, many of her trainers use a mix of online and one-on-one training.

“It's as close to being personal trained without being personal trained,” McAdams said. “We can check each morning to see [what the clients] are doing and send them a quick e-mail. I find it extremely valuable. Clients seem to like it, too. They can let me know if they work out and if they are having any challenges.”

Doug Murphy, a personal trainer and fitness consultant in Washington, DC, is creating an online personal training site because of demand for it from his clients. Many of Murphy's 25-35 clients travel for months at a time yet want to keep up their workout regimen. To feed that need, Murphy is testing a number of features and online tools to see what works best for his clientele.

“I had people ask about [online training], and once I started mentioning it on my Web site, I received a lot of interest,” he said. “Here's the challenge: how do you duplicate that in-person effect when a client is 3,000 miles away? It's better to take the time in developing [a program] so that it's something that's most beneficial.”

Murphy said another challenge is finding ways to motivate everyone and adapting the training to individual clients. He hopes to have the site up in about a year.

Netting Results

Of course, online training doesn't come without issues.

While the market is there (see Populations Most Interested in Online Training on p. 19), building a highly customized Web site can get expensive in a hurry. McAdams invested $3,000 for her individualized site. Her staff created the graphics and McAdams did most of the manipulating. She also added an online store that links to both her main site and her online training site, an addition that was expensive yet popular.

“I would say that I haven't [broken] even yet [on the Web site], but because I'm using it as a supplement for one-on-one training, too, I'm way ahead on it,” she said. “It enhances what I do.”

Trainers and clubs don't have to be Web masters to start online training. Some companies sell pre-made exercise libraries with illustrations and/or video and other logging portals (see Online Fitness Products for Clubs on p. 20).

When building a site, safety and liability should be a top priority, as those concerns tend to be higher in the online world than within the club environment. Florez recommends using best practices for assessment and program design. Online personal trainers must have a client's health history form, informed health consent waiver, physician's release and anything else they would use in a club setting when training a client one-on-one.

Pricing services can be tricky, but experts agree online training should be priced considerably less than a one-on-one session. Murphy hopes to offer an a la carte menu along with bundles of services to best serve his clients. One bundle may include a set number of phone coaching sessions and access to online forms, while another might be a product package including a tangible logbook, heart rate monitor and resistance bands.

“I'm trying to tailor as much as possible, so clients have a lot of choices,” Murphy said.

Once these issues are worked out, online personal training can yield significant results in regards to increased profitability, retention and referrals.

While personal training studios are leading the charge, clubs should watch the trend closely and have a strong Web presence, said Florez.

“Not every club in America should have [online training], but every club should have some sort of Web presence to have contact with their clients whether it's a newsletter or exercise tips,” Florez said. “You're missing the boat if you're not doing it.”

He suggests clubs meet with their personal trainers and clients to find out what would be most valuable to them in the online arena. Some personal trainers might feel that technology is their enemy and that online personal training will take clients away, Florez said.

“You need to communicate how it will make them more profitable,” Florez said.

And, most agree that online training will never fully replace traditional one-on-one training. Murphy said that seeing facial expressions and body language conveys much more than you can ever get over the phone. Also, correcting a client's form is nearly impossible over the Web.

McAdams also has a few words to the wise for personal trainers and club owners who are interested in offering this type of training:

“If you put [online personal training] on your site, people actually join. Build it, and they will come. Make sure you're ready for them.”

Personal Training Technology

From online personal training Web sites to downloadable iPod workouts to “virtual” personal trainers guiding exercisers on strength equipment, new technology is changing the way some personal trainers and health clubs do business.

Virtual Trainer

Personal trainer Geri McGurk, owner of Fitness Goals in Riverdale, NJ, has used a virtual personal training technology for the past six months to work with clients while out of town. By keeping in touch with clients remotely, McGurk helps them to achieve better results by making them more accountable and encouraging them to work harder. As the clients lift weights, they can watch a video to learn the proper form and positioning for the routine, which is preselected by McGurk.

“If I'm going out of town, they just have to e-mail me, connect to the system and I can adapt their workout,” McGurk said. “You don't have to be right there all the time. So many people get bored when they stop seeing results, and this eliminates boredom and keeps them more motivated because they know you're watching them.”

Since a lot of clients can't afford a personal trainer two or three times a week, McGurk can see them in person once a week, and then the other two days a week, they can use the virtual training technology, which includes a library of 120 exercises. By using the virtual training equipment, McGurk can see more clients.

“As a trainer, you're limited to how many people you can see in a day,” McGurk said. “This helps to increase your income.”

Fusing Technology and Fitness

Because technology is so integrated into people's lives, the Springfield YMCA looked for time-efficient fitness equipment with technology that would keep their members on target for their exercise goals. Members can select from one of several programs such as getting in shape for a wedding or improving their game on a golf course. The program can also help Baby Boomers and older adults increase strength for everyday activities like picking up grandkids.

While some fitness facilities may be hesitant to invest in personal training technology, it's possible to blend technology and the one-on-one relationship of personal training in a successful marriage, said Rue Walther, executive director of the Springfield YMCA in Springfield, MA. The fitness center bought three machines that track users' performance and create a fitness program based on the person's age and weight. An integrated screen features a tutorial on how to do each exercise.

”Consumers are very tech savvy, and they like and want [this technology],” Walther said. “I don't think it will replace the human element in a fitness center, but I definitely think that the people leading the industry need to look and see that this is the way that things are evolving in technology. If they want to stay ahead of the curve, they need to give people what interests them.”

Populations Most Interested in Online Training

  • Busy people who have trouble scheduling a time with a trainer
  • People in rural areas without access to a gym
  • De-conditioned people who want the accountability of a trainer but don't feel confident in the health club environment
  • Clients/members who want extra accountability
  • Corporations interested in wellness programs
  • Those who would like the personal attention of a trainer but don't have the disposable income

Online Fitness Products for Clubs

Online Fitness Products for Consumers