So You Want to Be an Online Trainer — Three Steps to Getting Started

TAGS: starting an online business, Practical experience, formal education, trainer credibility, online trainer, certified personal trainer, Alycia Israel, nsca, personal training


First off, let me preface the context of this article by saying that I do not intend to bash online trainers or online training/coaching in general. It is part of how I make a living, so clearly I think it is an awesome service to provide. I’ve written articles designed to help people choose an online trainer wisely, but I have never actually written an advice-style article directed toward the new upcoming online trainer. I feel even more inclined to provide my insight because, frankly, I wouldn’t be where I am without help from others as well. I also wanted to write this article because, sadly, a lot of online training has become extremely superficial and phony. It is hard to weed through actual trainer credibility and knowledge in all the filters and highlight reels of social media. Looking the best doesn’t always translate to being the best, that’s for sure.

With that being said, if you are looking to develop a credible reputation and provide a quality product to your clients with integrity, this article is for you! I want to give you the advice I got when I decided to grow my business — specifically the advice I received from Dave Tate and John Meadows about a year ago. A lot has changed since then for me and my business, and I have to give them a lot of credit for pointing me in the right direction and being transparent. So within part one of this article series, I want to pass on the basics, the startup, and the initial thoughts before starting an online training business. In the second article of the series, I will dive into strategies, marketing, mistakes I’ve made, and realistic expectations.

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First, let me give you some background about myself and where I am at with online training. I became a certified personal trainer (almost 10 years ago) in undergrad and started training one-on-one clients with a full client load for years. In graduate school, I began my competitive career, entered my first NPC Figure competition, and got my ass handed to me. My genetics are far from elite and I was a big baby about dieting, to be honest. It just kind of sucked all around.

dave trainer

After that experience, I got my shit together and competed again the next year and took second place. From that point on, for each competition, I have come in with a better physique than the last. After graduating and entering my full-time career at Ohio State, I decided to play around with online training for competitors and body composition change clients as a side hustle. It was always something I enjoyed but I was never fully sure if I wanted to do it full time.

A few years go by and my client load started increasing gradually (by referral mostly), and organically it got to the point where I really wanted to take it to the next level. That moment occurred for me a year ago when I sat down with Dave and John at the S4 Compound to pick their brains. Ever since that meeting, my client load has more than tripled and my quality of service has actually gone up as well. I’ve also kept my full-time job at OSU, expanded to two more side hustle jobs in the process, and took on a volunteer position weekly. This is not to toot my own horn, but just a testament to having awesome mentors that push you to get shit done and bust your ass. But like I said, I have learned a lot through this process of growing my business and definitely still have a lot to learn. So enough babbling about my background, you now have context so let’s get into my advice for you!

1. Gain the “Proper” Education and Experience

This first point may sound silly and obvious, but formal education and experience are highly subjective and fluid in this industry. A college degree does not automatically deem someone qualified to train someone. On the flip side, competing successfully for years doesn’t automatically turn you into an effective coach. A question I get a lot is, “Should I have an exercise science degree to become an online trainer?” My answer to that is actually no. That is not to say a formal education isn’t valuable in this field because it definitely is.

I personally have my Master of Exercise Physiology, but I can honestly tell you I learned most of what I apply in my business from experience and educating myself outside of the classroom. There is no bodybuilding or powerlifting degree out there. Sure, there is exercise physiology, dietetics, kinesiology, etc., but nothing specific to the sports we participate in or coach. Practical experience truly plays a huge part in trainer credibility, as well as educating yourself outside of a classroom setting. Luckily, organizations such as the NSCA and ISSN incorporate research and assessment within the bodybuilding and powerlifting setting, which is a huge asset to us now. Online trainers truly have access to great science-based information from reputable sources.

So to be honest, there is no reason why any coach should be creating guru pseudo-science bullshit when you literally have current research at your fingertips with a click of a button. However, that being said, from a professional lens, I do recommend getting nationally recognized certifications under your belt at the very least. So even if you don’t have a degree related to training, you can establish a platform to be “official”, if you will. Below are some certifications I recommend if you are interested in running an online training business.

alycia coaching 2

Personal Training

  • National Strength and Conditioning Association: Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and/or Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)

I recommend the certifications above specifically through the NSCA because, like I mentioned earlier, the NSCA as an organization is recognizing more aspects of training from a bodybuilding and powerlifting perspective. I attended the NSCA National Conference last year and there were a lot of research-based sessions about nutrient timing, fat loss, hypertrophy, supplementation, etc. The NSCA is very athlete-specific, as well as general population, so you kind of kill two birds with one stone here. Other certifications don’t incorporate new research specific to athletes as well as the NSCA does in my opinion.


  • International Society of Sports Nutrition: Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN)

I am actually taking my exam here shortly, so I can speak from experience that the material is straight out of current research publications. The study materials for this exam are literally just stacks of research articles. This nutrition certification is probably the highest you can achieve other than being a registered dietitian. I also recommend Precision Nutrition’s certification as well. The ISSN is more highly recognized, but PN is a good starting point for beginners, especially if you do not have a formal nutrition degree or background. Now let’s talk experience. This part of being a good trainer can be a bit more grey in my opinion, but not for the reason you may think. One thing I know for sure is that you should actually be a trainer before you become an online trainer. What I mean by that is that the best online trainers actually train people in-person or at least have in the past. I know it sounds loopy, but having practical experience training someone is probably a necessity to develop a training business where you train people remotely.

I really hope that sounded as condescending as possible because, out of all things, that right there probably irks me the most, mainly because it is insulting to our industry. But I digress. In terms of training competitors, this one always ruffles some feathers. I personally do not think you have to be a pro to train others effectively in bodybuilding or powerlifting. However, I also think only doing one competition and then training people is ridiculous. You should at least have a few solid years of competing before offering your services.

2. Create Original Content

If you want to be a reputable, respected, and successful online trainer in the long-term, I do not recommend doing the following:

  1. Becoming a Beachbody coach or the like.
  2. Outsourcing your content from other trainers and calling it your own.

From a professional lens, working for a MLM company in the fitness industry that requires zero experience is a huge no-no. It may seem appealing at first, but for the long-term it is not only unsustainable but also super cheesy and unprofessional. It looks desperate, as if you aren’t qualified enough to create your own work so you have to sell someone else’s. If you want to be taken seriously and actually be successful down the road, steer clear of MLM fitness and nutrition companies.

chris duffin trainer

Outsourcing content is something that I see quite a bit as well. You see this a lot with celebrities who “create” workout programs and what not. They actually don’t create anything, they are just the face of the brand. A trainer behind the scenes does all the work. Online trainers have been known to do this as well. For example, I personally know some online trainers who pay actual trainers to make their programming. They may pay another trainer $300 to make them a 12-week program to sell as their own. They then turn around and sell this program to their clients and make far more than $300 in the end. So really, the trainer who created the program gets ripped off pretty badly, even if they don’t realize it.

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I highly recommend not going this route even though, again, it may seem tempting. Not only does it create a bad reputation that eventually everyone will know, but you also cannot service your clients appropriately. How are you supposed to answer questions or manipulate a program you didn’t even create? This is terrible business practice. Just create your own work.

3. Do It For Free…At First

No one ever likes this one! But truthfully, I think it is important. I will be honest and tell you when I first started online training I did it for free (and a lot of big name coaches will say the same, so stay humble here, folks). This may seem like an odd concept but I did it for free because, until I started doing it, I actually didn’t have any experience to stand on. You can have all the degrees and one-on-one experience you want, but online training is a whole other beast.

We will talk more about this in part two, but communication and the changes to it is a big piece, as well as developing strategy. You don’t really learn how to give good service or provide a quality product until you practice. So that is what I suggest for you to do: practice. At least in the beginning. Once you develop a good system and product, you can start thinking about the cost of your time. I could truthfully go on forever regarding this topic. But in short, if starting an online training business is something you are passionate about, obtain the appropriate education and experience, create unique content, and practice your skills. If you at least focus on those main areas to start, you are heading in the right direction. Stay tuned for part two!


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