Today, I want to help you decide whether a personal trainer in the gym or an online personal trainer is the right choice for you.
I will outline some of the key differences between both and explain why:
- Having a personal trainer is essential for most people (at least until you get some good results and experience to get the ball rolling).
- Hiring an online personal trainer can provide much more value at a fraction of the cost, however it’s much more high-risk in terms of what you get.
I’ve done both, but mostly online personal training therefore keep in mind I’m biased towards online.
I started training clients 6 years ago (around 2014), shortly after starting SKINNY-FAT TRANSFORMATION.
Around the same time I became a certified personal trainer from the International Sports Sciences Association with a 94% rating in my exams where I had to develop training and nutrition plans for potential clients.
The vast majority of my +300 skinny-fat clients I’ve trained exclusively online, however I’ve also had some of my clients fly out to meet me in Denmark or Thailand and trained them there.
After doing both I can conclude that there’s only one major difference between an online personal trainer and a personal trainer in a gym setting: Exercise feedback.
When you train at a gym, your trainer will look at you performing the exercises then give you feedback.
This is very important because in order to get the most out of your training, execution matters.
By getting better at performing each rep of each exercise, you will target the right muscles and thereby grow them.
By performing exercises incorrectly, you will get almost 0 benefit in terms of muscle growth and thereby your training efforts will be wasted.
Your risk of injury also skyrockets with incorrect form.
This is important, because I’ve found through personal observation that +90% of people execute exercises incorrectly.
I’m not just talking about complete beginners who have never touched a pull up bar or barbell, but even those who consider themselves somewhat experienced in a gym setting.
Keep in mind that most of my clients already have YEARS of experience training at the gym without results before coming to me, yet most of them start out with incorrect form on exercises.
Also, when I go to a gym, it’s RARE for me to see someone execute basic exercises like pull ups, push ups and squats correctly.
Everyone is either using limited range of motion, incorrect rep tempo, momentum and bouncing out of the bottom or forced reps with a spotter.
The worst is when I see personal trainers at the gym assisting their clients on exercises such as the bench press and lat pulldowns and taking them beyond failure by doing forced reps with the personal trainer lifting half the weight for them.
This is a recipe for getting a serious injury.
They could take off 2/3 of the weight or do 1/3 of the reps and get twice the result!
When you train, it’s imperative that you train with the intensity that matches your training experience and use correct form.
Therefore, for years I’ve given my clients VERY detailed training programs that are typically 40-60 pages in length.
These programs outline exactly what intensity to train at and how to perform each rep and set of each exercise.
I believe that the perfect execution of each rep is one of the most important factors in your body-transformation.
Simply doing an exercise doesn’t cut it when you’re a skinny-fat hardgainer with a naturally low response to training.
You need to perfect your form to get those weak body-parts such as deltoids, upper chest, arms and lats responding.
This is why I urge my starting clients to take their smartphone, record videos of themselves performing each exercise in their program from different angles, upload the video to Google Drive and then I look through them and give them very specific instructions on how to perfect their technique.
The result? Way better muscle gains from training and much lower risk of injury.
In nearly 6 years of training people online, none of my clients have gotten a serious injury.
I believe that the way most online personal trainers just send you videos of them performing each exercise and then you follow along is WRONG.
Most people cannot perform an exercise correctly just by looking at a video.
With the exception of naturally gifted athletes, most people have a poor kinesthetic sense.
This means that your ability to accurately know the positions and movements of your skeletal joints are not optimal.
I’ve seen many instances where a client is convinced that they’re performing an exercise correctly (even after years of training), however after looking at videos, I see massive flaws in technique that leads to lackluster results from training.
In addition, everyone has a different body-structure therefore there’s not only one correct way to perform each exercise.
For example, when you learn about doing squats you will always hear that you must keep your heels planted on the floor and while this works for most people, it doesn’t work well for everyone.
After many years of performing squats this way I started having knee pain (even when doing bodyweight).
I fixed my knee pain by doing squats in a way that feels more natural to me: By keeping my heels off the floor.
This way I feel a deep stretch in my knees and my thighs and glutes are firing.
After making this tweak, my knee pain went away and I started gaining a lot of mass on my glutes and thighs.
Keep in mind that I had previously done squats with 315 LBS ass to grass, yet performing bodyweight squats this way gave me more mass on the lower body and felt much more natural for me.
This is why you need to have someone experienced look at your technique and feedback of how the exercise feels then assess you and give you specific feedback.
Today everyone has a smartphone and a camera and it’s easy to upload videos online to Google Drive, therefore my opinion is that every online personal trainer should assess their clients’ technique through videos instead of just sending instructional videos.
By doing online personal training this way, gym personal training becomes obsolete.
The only added benefit I can see of a gym trainer for someone who does not train for sports specific skills is the motivational aspect.
If you are not a self-driven individual who needs someone to shout at you to train hard, then a gym trainer may be the right investment.
However, you have to factor in the cost and dependability there too.
If you can’t motivate yourself to train hard, you won’t be able to stick to your routine once you complete the personal training program.
Also, to get high quality, in the gym training, you pay a much higher price.
When I was a personal trainer in Denmark, I remember that most of the personal trainers I knew in studios charged 75 USD per 1 hour session.
In order to see results, you need at least 3 sessions per week which adds up to 900 USD a month or 10,800 USD a year.
Now keep in mind that these are trainers in their early 20s or mid 20s with limited experience.
Older, successful trainers usually charged more than that.
With in the gym personal trainers you usually get what you pay for.
No high end trainer with lots of success stories and lots of positive word of mouth reputation will train at a chain gym for 10-30 USD/session.
Even if you live in a poor country, the vast majority of top trainers would have made the move online to increase their income and reach.
Therefore, if you want a high quality trainer in a gym that consistently produces amazing results with their clients, it’s very unlikely you will find that for less than 75-150 USD/hour depending on their experience levels.
Now let’s look at the pricing online…
Most trainers online charge much less.
I’ve seen fitness influencers that charge as little as 7 USD/week for a supposedly customized training program and nutrition plan.
The overall verdict is that trainers online charge far less and usually also provide a nutrition plan (which many gym trainers don’t), have a much bigger reach and way more success stories than trainers in a gym.
I can tell you that hiring an online personal trainer is a double edged sword because the industry isn’t well regulated.
First, most online personal trainers have never been certified as personal trainers and provide dangerous advice.
Most of my clients come to me after years of training with heavy barbell training, lots of cardio and following ketogenic diets or very high protein, low carb, low fat diets.
Their metabolism and natural testosterone production are damaged from years of following dangerous advice.
Then I have to spend anywhere from 2 months to an entire year on undoing the damage.
Some of these fitness influencers are putting completely untrained beginners who can’t even do full range of motion bodyweight squats and pull ups to do heavily loaded squats, deadlifts, bench presses and rows.
It’s a recipe for injury and still baffles my mind to this day.
Second, a lot of online personal trainers advertise online personal training, when in fact they just provide online training.
They have staff working for them.
Their staff are usually paid a minimal wage and create the training programs, diet plans and provide support through email.
An example is the instagram influencer Devin Physique who was caught in the past for fraud.
He advertised online personal training but after a while one of his assistants came out and explained how she was the one creating all the programs for his clients and providing support. (The reason she came out was because he would not pay her the money they agreed on).
Alternatively, some of them have systems set up that automatically pump out training programs and diet plans based on some simple inputs like height, weight, body-fat percentage, nutritional preferences and training goals.
Overall, if the trainer charges the price of an eBook or slightly above and has a massive social media following, you can be almost certain that you are not getting online PERSONAL training, but instead you’re simply getting online training.
You’re getting a cookie cutter program that’s sent to everyone else in similar shoes to you and a bunch of instructional videos that may or may not apply to your body-structure.
So what are the advantages of online personal training when it’s done in an ethical way?
When properly systematized, an online personal trainer can coach way more people than in person at a fraction of the price.
For example, if you pay 75 USD per gym session for a decent gym trainer and do 3 sessions per week, you pay 900 USD per month or 10,800 USD per year.
Alternatively, if you train online and pay the same trainer 150 USD/month or 1800 USD/year, you can typically get the exact same value while paying a fraction of the price.
When done correctly, online personal training includes a comprehensive training program, nutrition plan, feedback on your exercises, on-going adjustments to your training and diet based on response and personal answers from the trainer to any questions that come up.
These are just examples, but show that online personal training is much more efficient when done correctly.
Overall, the client get’s the same value (or sometimes even more) at a fraction of the cost while the online personal trainer is able to train more clients, make more money and have ultimate freedom to live and work where they want.
Therefore, online personal training can be a win-win for both parties when done correctly.
However, in order to do it correctly, the online personal trainer usually needs to spend a lot of time upfront to develop the right systems.
If you are not experienced or willing to make the sacrifice this can be difficult.
I can tell you from my own personal experience that the first several years of doing online personal training for me were a huge opportunity cost.
When I started SKINNY-FAT TRANSFORMATION back in 2013 it quickly blew up to 100,000 visitors a month and my inbox blew up with people asking me for personal training.
Despite having massive traffic to my blog and hundreds of people each month applying for my online training, I didn’t have the systems in place to train so many people and do it in a time-efficient way.
As a result, the first several years I worked with less clients while creating better systems for the online personal training and learning how to do it right.
It was only around 2018 (after 5 years) that I started feeling satisfied with the systems I had in place and that I was finally able to work a reasonable amount of hours.
Prior to 2018 I often worked the entire day and evening (from waking up until late night with the only break being the gym or going out for 3-4 hours in the evening 3-4 times per week).
I invested this time upfront because I wanted to make sure that once my clients join, they will be satisfied with their service and stay for as long as it takes to achieve their goal physique.
In business school at age 16 I learned about the metric “customer life time value” and my goal has always been to focus my business around this metric and maximize it.
You increase this metric by having your clients use your service for a longer time or by repeatedly buying more services from you.
It is the most important metric for long-term business success and every successful business man I met who runs an ethical business focuses on this metric.
Most of my online personal training packages are paid monthly and have a 28-day-money-back-guarantee, therefore the only way I have been able to stay in business for 6 years is by consistently providing coaching that my clients are satisfied with.
This is why you’ll see on my success stories page that I have many clients that stay with me for several years.
So how did I systematize my business to be able to service more clients while providing a higher quality service?
The systems I set up involved the following things:
- Much more detailed training programs and diet plans that explain almost anything I can think my client may need to know at first. (my clients usually receive a total of over 90 pages of detailed instructions in their training and diet plans). My goal was to find that sweet spot where I create just the right amount of content for each program without overwhelming the client.
- A huge file of detailed answers to almost any training and diet questions you can imagine, therefore when I get the same questions again, I can use my previous answers and tweak them a bit to fit the client’s situation.
It took a lot of time, sweat and effort to develop these systems, but now that I have them, I continuously build on them, therefore each year my coaching becomes much better value-for-money for my clients.
In addition to the systems, I’ve become very fast at looking at someone’s changes in body-measurements, bodyweight and strength.
I can look at a google sheet of my clients 4-8 week data in just a few seconds and know exactly what to do based on all the numbers I see.
Here’s an example of a client’s progress sheet:
When I started out, it took me MUCH longer to understand the data and make adjustments based on it.
After implementing these systems, I’ve been able to serve a lot more clients in a much shorter time frame.
To give you some perspective, at first I would often spend hours each week on one client because I’d have to spend a long time thinking and reflecting on what I answer and what to do for their unique situation.
Now I can quickly look at each client situation and immediately give them clear, actionable feedback all in just 10-15 min per week (or sometimes even less).
Around 2018, after many requests from readers (especially from India), I was able to develop a cheaper starter package where I have my clients email me their questions once per week (every Sunday) and then I reply by Wednesday.
(Note: Indian people have some of the worst genetics for training and dieting with most being skinny-fat because of a high carb, high fat diet since they were kids however they’re some of the hardest workers out there. You’ll see many of my best client transformations are Indian!)
Here are 2 by Harshit Godha and Rikesh Murali:
It’s very difficult to do online personal training correctly because it requires a lot of time invested upfront by the trainer to learn the ins and outs of it and create the right systems.
I would never have been able to develop the starter package when I started training clients around 6 years ago, because the systems weren’t in place.
Many fitness influencers skip the process of going through the gauntlet, learning the ins and outs of training clients and becoming a master of their craft.
They advertise online personal training but instead provide cookie cutter plans to all their clients — all which are based on what works for themselves.
If intermittent fasting works for them, then all clients are put on an intermittent fasting schedule.
If heavy incline presses work for them, then all clients are ordered to do heavy incline presses.
If eating a diet high in red meat works for them, then all clients (even those with high cholesterol and high blood pressure) are put on a diet high in red meat.
In my opinion, this is highly unethical and I would love to see more regulation and transparency in the fitness industry.
The bottom line is that by hiring an online personal trainer, you can get much more value-for-money by hiring the right one (often 6x the value or more), however due to the lack of regulation and transparency with online personal training, there’s a high risk that you get a cookie cutter plan and low quality service by someone who is much better at marketing than training clients.
Be proud but stay hungry!
Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Personal Trainer
PS: You can learn about the real value of online personal training in this post: The Real Value of Online Coaching (It’s Not the Training Program or Diet)