Personal training is dead…and the internet killed it.
Or more accurately—We killed it.
Of course, this is an exaggeration. There will always be a niche market for a select group of individuals who can eat the uncompetitive costs, navigate the scheduling inflexibility, and overlook the geographical limitations that come with in-person training.
But this isn’t most people.
The vast majority of those looking for guidance are going to be restricted by their budget, have specific (and often variable) windows of time that they can train, don’t want someone looking over their shoulder the whole time, would prefer to not have 2 hours worth of volume condensed into 30 minutes, and are attracted by the idea of working with the best coaches rather than just the ones within a 5 mile radius.
And the internet has opened-up an ocean of possibilities to match producers with consumers.
E-commerce is the most tip-of-the-tongue example of a business model that was previously impossible but now dominates B2C sales. Amazon, eBay, and Etsy allow independent artisans and creators to make a very comfortable living by catering to a global audience. Someone who sells paw-print shaped, dog-breath scented candles would find it pretty challenging to build up a regional clientele when maybe only one person out of a million is into dogs that much (I would consider myself a dog lover but this is too far for even me). However, one-in-a-million odds means that ~8000 people in the world would be willing to pay for this product. And that is more than enough to make a livable income from; something that wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago.
Obviously, we have the explosion of computing abilities, smartphones, software, and apps-for-everything that make the world seem much smaller than it once did. I can FaceTime a colleague in Europe to discuss a business proposal while riding my Peloton bike that instantaneously syncs my heart rate and calories burned to my Health App. I can host a virtual Zoom workout for 50 people, all in different parts of the country, while my team of chatbot assistants handle any emails, texts, or questions that happen to come in while I’m distracted. While it might sound like science fiction, we’re not even that far from ubiquitous, holographic renderings of personal trainers who can be conjured up on-demand, motivate us, give form critiques, and store/track/analyze every type of data we could ever wish for.
The effects of globalization, reduced local parasitism, increases in competitiveness, technological advancements, and collapsing costs of said technology have led to products and services that were previously restricted to the uber-wealthy to be accessible to pretty much everyone. As it relates to personal training, these trends couldn’t be more apparent or stark. And this is coming from someone who made a living (granted, a very modest living) by coaching people in person. I can’t tell you how many people had to turn away because they could only train at 6am and I already had that time booked. Or how how many times I had to shamefully turn someone away because they couldn’t afford $100/hour. Or how frequently I would get inquiries only to find out later that they lived an hour away.
It’s these barriers that the internet has effectively knocked down. Remote coaching isn’t just an option now; it’s often a much BETTER option.
And still…I can already hear the objections from the back:
“What about those who need more motivation and accountability?!”
“But my clients don’t know proper form! They NEED me there to keep them safe!”
“Some people have specific goals that require specific training! Having a coach there with them is beneficial!”
I admit that, for some people, at certain times, under granular circumstances, there can be valid reasons why working with a coach in person would be the best route to go even considering the aforementioned drawbacks. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees here. What we’re really talking about is commoditizing a luxury service. And this has implications for the many rather than the few. And what this really means is that more people now have the ability to enjoy longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
Of course we should be excited about this. But I can’t help but focus on all that we can still do better.
Online coaching still hasn’t felt the flattening effects that have lowered the barrier to entry in just about every other industry.
Poor children in Somalia have iPhones. Computers used to be the size of houses and demand millions in government subsidies to build, maintain, and operate—Now they can fit on our wrist. Content creators no longer have to kiss the asses of entrenched media corporations and spend years “paying their dues”—instead, they can make more money and experience more fame than they could’ve ever dreamt of via YouTube. We’re a simple and free Google search away from the writings and teachings and thoughts of pretty much anyone who has ever lived (at least since the advent of written language). And now, we’re hurtling at warp speed into the AI age, which will surely accelerate the already rapidly collapsing costs of energy and intelligence to practically zero.
And look at us over here charging $300…$500…$1000 per month for coaching. (And I use the term “coaching” veryliberally here to encompass every flavor of fuckery that gets sold as “coaching” these days.)
Something isn’t adding up here.
The disconnect, in my opinion, comes down to market inefficiencies and lack of innovation.
First, market inefficiencies often come about by having a disparity in access to information and/or lack of reliable communication between buyers and sellers. In our case, buyers are the clients and sellers are the coaches. Online fitness coaching and personal training don’t get traded on the New York Stock Exchange. We’re not audited by the SEC or the CFTC or the BBB. The industry is nefariously unregulated and lacks a sufficient system of checks-and-balances. And to top it off, the results that clients are paying for are often vague and abstract, with the payment coming before a verification of validity is even possible. Because the sellers occupy a position of power over the buyers, there exist opportunities to arbitrage this latency and knowledge gap by plugging in their services to patch these lucrative holes. There isn’t anything intrinsically unethical, immoral, or illegal about this, but the net effect is that the coaches (collectively) end up on the winning side of this exchange.
Next, we have the lack of innovation…and boy, what a blackhole it is. I say this as someone who has been in the industry for going on 10 years now and, embarrassingly, contributed to this stasis. Nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary has come out or been pushed to market in years, if not decades. We’ve all gotten comfortable with the status quo because the status quo has lined our pockets with money and allowed us to work from home in our PJs.
But what have our clients gotten from it? What about the masses that are still priced out? What about everyone who has been left behind by our unwillingness to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of those we’re supposed to be helping? What about our deafening silence when it comes to the scammers and fakes and liars that we allow to leech onto the industry and who continue to take advantage of the vulnerable?
We’ve been successful in moving from Excel to PDFs; and from email responses to Looms.; and from meal plans and 3x10 to flexible dieting and DUP. Let’s give ourselves a big pat on the back. But we’ve dropped the ball so fuckin hard when it comes to thinking outside-the-box and taking advantage of the opportunities that have been served to us on a stainless-steel platter.
Talented and capable coaches are distributed far and wide, choosing to do things on their own rather than work together to create something truly special for their clients. There is a reason why companies like Apple and Google and Tesla (at least, in their early days) have been able to push the world forward and add meaningful value to our lives—they incubate ideas and encourage risk taking; they run their businesses like actual businesses rather than a play-thing-side-hobby; they collect the best and brightest in their fields under one roof because they understand the power of a collective brain and the wastefulness of a fractured one; they lean into and capitalize on our natural instinct to be competitive, prideful, and glory-seeking creatures; and most importantly, they aren’t complacent.
Real progress can only be seen when viewed from above. And from that vantage point, it’s clear just how far we still have to go.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been the beneficiary of everything I’m lamenting against. My business was able to grow, in large part, due to being in the right place, at the right time, and around the right people who just so happened to place a premium on my one and only above-average skill. I was able to take advantage of the circumstances and somehow stumbled into a reasonably successful company. But then we got comfortable and stopped operating with the sense of urgency and desperation that we once had. We allowed ourselves to ossify from the underdog into the incumbent, and with it, the desire to innovate and push the boundaries was replaced by a culture of boredom, infighting, and inertial protectionism.
We can, should and will do better.
I can, should and will do better.
When I sat down to write this, my intentions were to spell out and show all of the areas in the fitness industry that were ripe for improvement and disruption. I planned to segue that into talking about how our new service/App, P2 OnDemand, is meant to narrow some of these voids and provide clients with a cheaper and more enjoyable experience that leads to greater long-term success. None of those points have changed—I’m proud of what we’re doing on that front and am excited to release it into the wild.
But as I conclude this, I can’t help but think that we can do so much more. I’m not content with just “killing” personal training or shipping a cool App with a better UX. The tangible and lasting impact is going to come from innovations that are presently unexplored and unexpected. It’s just waiting to be discovered, polished, and distributed.
So why shouldn’t we be the ones to do it?
Maybe this was the wake-up call to myself that I didn’t know I needed.