Two years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that a global health hazard would end up moving fitness out of collective settings, such as gyms and parks, and into the living rooms and terraces of individual effort. But in the wake of the pandemic, it has become the norm to click on a link and enter a virtual meeting with a few other enthusiasts and a coach or two, all working out together via a phone or a laptop.
Fitness professionals are trained to have interpersonal and motivational skills. They are also equipped with the knowledge to correct their clients’ form and make sure they get in an extra repetition or two to finally trigger the outcome of intensive training. After covid-19, however, trainers have had to learn new ways to teach, train, and, most importantly, earn. Juggling online and offline training has forced both trainers and fitness enthusiasts to adapt.
Delhi-based Priyanka Lahiri, 42, started out hiring a personal trainer in a bid to lose weight in 2018 but she is now a certified fitness and diet coach who has trained more than a hundred clients. In between this role reversal, she was working out with an online instructor during the first covid-19 wave in 2020.
“I was paying ₹10,000 a month for three days a week to work out with a personal trainer at a gym. The obvious advantage was learning form and technique but there were restrictions as well. I had to work out in the allotted slot with the trainer and had developed a dependency on him,” she says. There were other factors too. If you worked late in the office and reached the gym late, your time could overlap with another client’s session. The lack of flexibility could be bothersome.
In contrast, Lahiri says, “online training was not only cheaper, at around ₹6,500 for 12 weeks, but made me self-reliant, offered me five-six days of training a week, and the coach was with me via the phone for the full hour, with flexible timings and attention to detail”.
Lahiri currently works with the Pune, Maharashtra-based ProjectFitCo, founded by fitness coach Chirag Barjatya. His social media bio says that he is “building a team of coaches, doctors and psychologists to help people achieve their best”. Barjatya, 29, used to be an offline coach but has shifted his business entirely to the online world. “My investment to run an online-only venture is probably just the Zoom subscription for longer sessions and meetings. There is no travel to and from the gym, which means I have more time to give to my work, it saves me fuel costs, and I don’t have to pay a cut to the gym in which I was training clients. I can also offer feasible deals to customers in this way,” he says. Gyms would usually take 40-60% of a trainer’s charges.
He does, of course, miss certain aspects of training people in a physical space. “It’s absolutely certain that it’s easier to teach clients the right technique, teach them the mind-muscle connection, and support and spot them during those last few reps that make a real difference in getting results.” In his experience, beginners have a higher chance of suffering injuries during online training if they don’t do exercises the right way. “In an online training programme, I need my clients to be more accountable,” he adds.
Which brings us to the flip side of being an online trainer. “Messages at 2 in the morning asking if they can eat an extra walnut brownie, not adhering to scheduled calls, and being taken for granted that we are available 24x7 are the pitfalls. Even though clients are getting better at this kind of protocol, the lines are sometimes blurred compared to training in a gym, when the trainer and the trainee are both done after their session is complete,” says Lahiri.
She is currently training a varied group, including a 60-year-old who is shy of going to the gym, as well as professionals who have jobs that involve constant travel. This means that Lahiri is also making diet charts, calculating carb and protein percentages, and creating customised workouts. “It is surprising but I spend as much time on a desk as someone in an IT job,” says Lahiri.
Barjatya says that a relationship between a coach and client is also emotional, and that it rankles him when he is not able to reply to a text message query. His company has trained 3,800 individuals, some of whom call in to clear lifestyle doubts even a year after their subscription has ended. “If someone messages me whether they can have an extra beer at a party, at around 11pm, and if I see that message and don’t reply, and the client ends up drinking that extra beer—it would eventually bother me,” he says.
Both Lahiri and Barjatya say clients are learning the right etiquette with time, as they get used to the online training model. For them, training is a job that remains enjoyable, and the sheer thrill of helping someone transform their habits for the sake of their health keeps them going.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer