Monday 25 September 2017

Can online personal training really work?

Personal trainer and bodybuilder Ann Marie Last
Personal trainer and bodybuilder Ann Marie Last
Joe Wicks has made a career out of online personal training
Personal trainer and bodybuilder Ann Marie Last has hired an online fitness coach
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

If like many people you're struggling to stay on track with diet and fitness goals, you might be looking for an extra helping hand in the form of a personal trainer. Someone who can tell you what to eat, how to train safely, which exercises will suit you personally, and someone who'll give out to you when you don't turn up for sessions.

However, with prices ranging from around €25-€90 per session, not everyone can afford the private services of a fitness professional. If you have the spare cash, PT is difficult to beat - a trainer whose as invested in your progress and goals as you are, and who can keep you on the straight and narrow in terms of safety and nutrition.

A new trend is emerging though, one that might make availing of PT that little bit more affordable for the masses - the rise of the online coach. As more and more people to turn to the internet, it's becoming de rigeur to communicate with your trainer via the internet, and thus pay a much lower price for their services - who says they need to be there in person in order for it to be personal?

"I think the attraction with online workouts is the ease of being able to train from home or whatever location you want," says sport and exercise psychology consultant, David Mullins.

"Can it work? Sure, as long as it's a valid workout. But it still requires the individual to actually go and do it. The problem with these things is that the underlying causes of not exercising before is often not addressed. Where does the motivation for the individual to actually get up and do it come from?"

Social media means that individual trainers can advertise their services easily and for free, and buzz is built easily as more and more people follow and share their updates.

Personal trainer and bodybuilder Ann Marie Last
Personal trainer and bodybuilder Ann Marie Last
Joe Wicks has made a career out of online personal training
Personal trainer and bodybuilder Ann Marie Last has hired an online fitness coach

I came across one such individual last year on Instagram. I'd heard of The Body Coach on Twitter, and started following his social media accounts to check out the recipe videos he posts - 15 second clips entitled #LeanIn15, showing that healthy cooking doesn't have to be arduous.

After following him for a while, I noticed that he posted some of his clientele's 'before and after' transformations, and the results spoke for themselves visually. I'd often stop short at the pictures while scrolling through my Instagram feed, wowed by the inch loss. I was intrigued.

The man behind it all, Joe Wicks, had world domination in sight when he set up his online 90 Day Shift, Shape and Sustain plan. He worked as an offline personal trainer for three years before spotting the potential of social media. Still, what made him think it was a good idea to go down the online route from a professional point of view?

"I kept getting emails constantly from very unhappy people on very unhappy diets and I wanted to create a long-term, enjoyable and sustainable approach to fat loss. I also wanted to share my message and knowledge with people all over the world, and doing an online plan was the best way to do this.

"I had been giving free content for over two years online, so when I launched my SSS plan I had already built trust with my followers."

Joe now has 5,000 clients worldwide. "The ratio is about 70pc women and 30pc men ranging from 18-60 years old. I would say 80pc come from social media and 20pc from friend and family referrals."

Pretty impressive statistics when you look at it like that. Joe's programme is all online, and consists of three cycles, complete with nutrition and exercise advice. The first stage is Shift, and focuses entirely on fat burning. You fill out an extensive survey, telling him all about your lifestyle, and he comes back with a tailored plan that's based on the macronutrients required for your specific training. Then, you eat only what he tells you to, and do a 25-minute HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout four to five times per week.

It all sounds great, but in theory, it's a little less easy than it looks. You have to send in your measurements and photos every four weeks so he can track your progress, which is daunting. And the delicious recipes Joe posts online? Not allowed in cycle one, which I found slightly misleading.

The diet is super strict to begin with, which many might find off-putting, and it's only in cycle two that it gets a little bit less restrictive. However, if you go for it gung-ho, there's no doubt you'll see results - eating less, moving more and fueling your body will work.

David's advice before signing up for training online? "Have realistic expectations going in, and an understanding of the programme, and realistic goals that can be achieved.

"This involves taking a step back and finding a balance that is sustainable, because there's absolutely no point going all in at the start, and then dwindling."

In other words, because there's nobody there in real life to push you, it's all on you.

Wicks isn't the only person offering this kind of service; in fact, it's quite popular in the UK. From a celebrity point of view, former The Only Way Is Essex star turned fitness maven, Lucy Mecklenburgh, has turned her own healthy lifestyle into a business empire. Her online programme Results With Lucy offers hundreds of workouts, nutritional advice and several different trainers. So far, it's been hugely successful, so much so that she recently penned a fitness and wellbeing manual that's selling like hotcakes.

And closer to home, Galway-based trainer, Pat Divilly, is offering specific online plans for men and women at a cost of €75 per month for three months. Similar to Joe and Lucy, Pat offers support as well as five video workouts per week and nutritional planning and advice. The online programme allows him a broader reach around the country.

"I had moved back from Dublin, and was working in a restaurant in Galway," explains Pat. "I set up a Facebook page with free online plans, and it got popular. Eventually, I set up a studio here in Galway. But it occurred to me that there are only so many people you can get into a gym or a class, and that I could mimic my programme fairly easily online, with a community aspect.

"Now, I have about 150 clients in the physical gym, and about 800 online around the world using the Facebook forums. I follow the paleo method of nutrition, and send out weekly meal planners and guidelines. It's not really about eating at a specific time, more general nutrition education. We do a daily Q&A online with our clients, so they're getting PT without me actually being there. It means I can be in London, France, New York, and work from anywhere."

Online coaching is not just for those of us that need the shove of a personal trainer to kick us up the bum though - even fitness professionals are turning to the web to access services that aren't available in Ireland.

Ann Marie Last, 33, is a personal trainer herself, working at Strength and Fitness Westside in Blanchardstown. After several bodybuilding competitions, she's decided to compete in a fitness modeling competition in the UK and thought that, in order to have the best shot at winning, she has to work with a specific trainer based in England.

"I'm going to compete in the Diva Fitness category in the WBF Federation. There are two rounds, a bikini round and a theme-wear round. For that one, I'm going for the Victoria's Secret Model look - Ive always wanted to wear those wings!

"I signed up with a guy called Thomas Brazier, who I am currently working with online, because I felt I could get the best results specifically for this kind of competition with him. I'm obviously knowledgeable when it comes to nutrition and training, however, this is a totally different type of competition and I feel there is no one as qualified or knowledgeable as Tom in Ireland when it comes to the WBFF. The standard in the UK is huge and I obviously want to do well!"

"One of the key things for me with athletes from a psychological point of view is self awareness," says David. "They will ask themselves 'Where am I now? Where do I want to be? What do I need to do to get there?' and then look at training as a chance to improve. The idea of having to work with a trainer in the UK for me is a question of why? Are there skills they have that no one else knows?"

Thomas has designed a nutritional programme for Ann Marie that focuses on balancing her macronutrients for her training plan. She's in training five days a week to achieve her goal - the competition wants her to be lean and defined, but more feminine than a traditional bodybuilding look.

"I eat five meals a day, every three hours to keep my energy levels consistent. They're small meals, so for example, I'll have salmon and asparagus for breakfast, with powdered greens, fish oils and multivitamins. Then three hours later, I'll have chicken breast, vegetables and sweet potato. I'll have the same in the afternoon, but swap the sweet potato for avocado. Then I'll have my post work-out shake which is two scoops of plant protein powder, amino acids, 40g oats and 300ml almond milk.

"My last meal is usually something like steak and beetroot."

Ann Marie keeps in touch with Thomas over Skype, Whatsapp and email, and he's her point man on all things competition related. It's all business for her, but she still allows herself to rest and cheat.

"I have a cheat meal on a Sunday, which is normally a dessert! And I'd have the odd vodka soda and lime; I don't go out drinking much because I can't train with a hangover and it's just not good for my progress."

One thing many people are sceptical of when it comes to online training is preventing injury - if there's nobody physically there to make sure you're doing the moves right, lifting the right weights or even eating and drinking correctly, how can you be sure you won't harm yourself?

For Joe, his initial cycle is fairly straightforward - no weight at all to let the client get used to working out. He uses HIIT, a form of interval training you can do at home, or at the gym on a cardio machine.

"I haven't had any clients get injured as a result of my plan," he says. "It's always very important to perform the exercises correctly, so I have video links to each one online. If someone is unsure of anything I always recommend they ask a coach or trainer in the gym to demonstrate the technique."

For Ann Marie, it's all about improving on her own fitness goals with a specialist, seeing as she already knows what she's doing in terms of safety and technique.

"I train on my own and have done the past two years. I've never had any training-related injuries. I don't believe in lifting too heavy!

"It's my first time working with an online trainer; I am pretty knowledgeable but I'm learning so much from Tom. It's well worth the investment and I feel like I'm being educated at the same time."

What to look for in an online trainer

• Client testimonials. Follow the trainer you’re interested in on social media for a month or two to see what their clients really think of them, and if they have any proof to back up their promises.

• Qualifications. Make sure the person you’re considering has all the real life personal training and nutrition qualifications necessary — do they work as a personal trainer outside of the internet, in a real gym or with their own business?

• Realistic goals. You should be wary of anyone promising a certain amount of pound or inch loss. Everyone’s fitness journey is different, and your goal shouldn’t be numerical. Improved ability and wellbeing is what you should be aiming for.

• A doable plan. Make sure you’re able for what’s being offered, time and commitment wise. If it feels too daunting or you’re worried you’ll be hungry or unhappy, you won’t want to start.

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