12 ways to improve your remote coaching and virtual workouts

Remember the good old days when your clients showed up to your personal training session or group exercise class ready to attack a workout? You doled out high fives, laughed, made inside jokes, and, of course, got your movement on. Don’t worry, those days aren’t gone forever. But in the meantime, you might be wondering how to be the best coach you can be from a distance.

Even after shelter-in-place orders are lifted and fitness centers begin to reopen, learning how to lead the best virtual workout possible can help you both retain and attract new clients who travel often or tend to feel intimidated by gyms. It may even help you grow your social media presence. In the future, you might start to offer a hybrid of in-person and virtual training opportunities.

First things first, you gotta pick your platform. Zoom classes are a popular choice (and what we use on exosathome.com), but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. You can use Facebook messenger video calls for groups or individuals. Instagram Live might be more your speed. Ultimately, it depends on your clientele. Experiment. See what sticks. From there, think about the session from beginning to end.

Here’s what we’ve learned while ramping up remote coaching during this pandemic (fails and all).

1. Don’t underestimate the value of a whiteboard.

Once the camera starts rolling and you’re live, it can be easy to get caught up in the flow of the workout, skip a step, or forget an important coaching cue. So EXOS coaches have been listing out the movements with sets and reps on a whiteboard that they can see off camera and using different colored makers to list cues and modifications next to each movement. It’s a little detail that you may or may not need, but it helps the session go as smoothly as possible.

2. Laugh it off and learn when things go wrong.

This experience from EXOS performance specialist Jair Lee says it all: “I had everything ready to go, livestream starting in 5,4,3... and the wind knocked over my whiteboard with the workout on it, which fell and closed my laptop's lid.” Pets also like to make guest appearances. Just ask EXOS performance specialist Gigi Payne whose cat decided to take over the coaching and sit on her laptop for a minute or so. We’re all human. Laugh about it and move on.

3. Nail your demos.

You’re not in the same room to watch how clients are moving or see where they’re struggling. You can’t see viewers; they can only see you. So demonstrating proper position and alignment is even more important. Think about the movements in your circuits and the best angles to demonstrate each. Position yourself so they see your alignment and demonstrate from multiple angles if you need to.

4. Scale up and down.

You can specify ahead of time that a certain class is beginner, intermediate, or advanced. But there will likely be times you’re trying to coach clients with a variety of skill levels at once. To make the workout successful for everyone, coach at an intermediate level but call out and demonstrate progressions and regressions for each major movement.

5. Set the scene. 

It’s sort of like preparing to sell your house. Limit clutter and the number of personal belongings that are in the shot. Your space should be clean, simple, maybe include a plant in the corner or dumbbells off to the side. Think about the details that set the scene without overcomplicating it. Lighting is also key; natural is best if you can be near a window or get outside. Just make sure the light source hits you from the front. If you're backlit, it can wash you out and diminish quality.

6. Establish a connection.

Plan to spend the first couple of minutes chatting with users and organizing your equipment just as you would in-person. If using a platform like Instagram Live, say hello to people as they join, calling out usernames. Ask them where they’re from, if they have any requests or injuries you need to coach around, things of that nature. If using Zoom, open the chat box so you can connect and gauge the mood. All EXOS coaches have called this out as a helpful way to overcome the lack of connection they miss from their in-person classes.

7. Accept that you might feel weird at first.

In coach Jair’s words, “I felt like a crazy guy talking to myself.” One of his tricks was to pretend he was coaching from a stage to help get in the moment. EXOS performance specialist and assistant performance manager Michelle Rogerson made a great point that connecting before class over chat helped her remember she was helping people, not just alone talking in her backyard. Coach Gigi agreed, saying that it has brought a sense of normalcy back into her coaching practice.

8. Nail your intro and outro.

When you’re ready to kick off the class, there are three things to remember: Formally introduce yourself, remind viewers of the equipment they’ll need, if any, and frame up the workout. Thirty minutes of metabolic training, three circuits that will work their lower body — whatever it is, let them know what they’re in for and get them excited about it. Use this information to close out your session, too, reminding them of your name, restating the workout they just did, and thanking them for joining.

9. Go for a “do it with me” coaching style.

During in-person coaching, we often give all instructions up front with cues and demos. But we also have the full attention of the group or individual client. During digital workouts, the client can get distracted on the other side of the screen. So dive right in and do the workout with participants instead. Give cues and technique reminders as they’re doing the movement instead of going into too much detail before they start their movement.

10. Be a source of information.

When the workout is wrapped, take the opportunity to give users a tip heading into the rest of their day. For example, remind them to hydrate or to recover with a good night’s rest. Suggest a few midday stretches that target the muscles they just worked. You can even suggest a new favorite post-workout snack you’ve been into or talk about the benefits of a contrast shower to help them recover.

11. Turn your energy dial way up.

Your personality and presence can make or break any session. And it can be hard in a digital setting. The screen dampens your energy, which requires you to take it up a notch. As EXOS performance manager Rachael Duncan says, “I think the most challenging part for me was finding my flow while being alone in my house and trying to bring the intensity and energy across the screen.” Many coaches can relate.

Plus, without music in the background (because it can be flagged for copyright over many of these platforms), silence will feel heavier. So you’ve gotta work harder to get the momentum going. A few ways you can do this:

  • Announce when each new circuit starts.
  • Provide external cues for each major movement.
  • Count reps.
  • Let viewers know how much time is left (“10 more seconds, you’ve got this.”)
  • Keep motivating them.

12. Just be yourself.

At the end of the day, just be you. Your personality is a huge part of why people decide to show up. In Duncan’s words: “Each coach has their own style, so don't be afraid to let that come through.”

And if you want more practice, one of the best ways to learn is to watch other coaches. Check out our weekly livestreaming schedule, and sign up to get in a workout while watching EXOS coaches in action.

About the Author

Joel Sanders

Joel Sanders is a performance specialist and the director of adult training at EXOS in Phoenix, Arizona. He has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and exercise science, and he contributes to Men's Health, Women's Health, Men's Fitness, and Outside magazines.

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