How Personal Trainers Are Working In a Pandemic

The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has upended every aspect of American society—and gyms, where people are ostensibly the most concerned about their body and health, have been no exception. Fitness facility staffs got out ahead of the pandemic as much as possible, and as the messaging from authorities changed, they have adjusted to keep their clients as safe as possible given the conditions. Some large organizations, like Barry's Bootcamp, have closed their facilities, while others are staying open with adjusted schedules and cleaning procedures.

But there's much more to the fitness landscape than boutique classes and wide open chain gym floors. Personal trainers, who either operate as facility staff or as independent contractors, are also a huge part of the modern gymscape. They're affected by adjustments everyone is making, too—and due to the one-on-one nature of their sessions, the rules of social distancing have been more than a little hazy as local and regional governments react to the unfolding public health emergency.

At the start of the pandemic early March, most personal trainers were ready for business as usual. Several interviewed for this story as late as March 13 planned to continue operating with additional cleaning protocols in place and no physical contact for training sessions—"We’re depending on air fives and smiles," Detroit-based trainer and owner of Xceleration Fitness Ben Boudro, C.S.C.S. said—but those plans have shifted since President Trump declared a national emergency and states like New York and New Jersey have decided to close down gyms en masse. Now, personal trainers will have to adjust their practices even more.

"We need smiles, sweat, and positivity."

After news came that Boudro would have to close down his gym, he told Men's Health that he would be ready to shift to an online training model for personal instruction.

"At our gym and every gym, the focus is about community and letting people be seen and cared about," he said. "Online workouts are good by yourself, but the number one thing people need right now (besides a cure for coronavirus) is to be seen, to be heard, and to know that they are cared for. We need smiles, sweat, and positivity."

"My number one rule is self-sufficiency. I don’t want you to need me."

Fitness personality and gym owner Bobby Maximus, who made the decision to close his Maximus Gym in Salt Lake City ahead of word from local authorities, is approaching the pandemic like any other illness his clients might face on an individual level. His standard gym policy is clear: Stay away when you're sick. "I believe that a sick athlete is a non-productive athlete," he said on a phone interview. "We tell other people if [gym members] are ill or sick."

As such, Maximus has prepared his client base for extended periods outside of his direct instruction as part of his normal training protocols. "My number one rule is self-sufficiency. I don’t want you to need me," he said. "I’m not there to count your reps or put you plates on for you, I’m there to guide you. My goal when I train you is to have you be able to have you teach classes at my gym in six months. That makes me confident that if the gym has to shut down, they won’t skip a beat." After shutting down his gym in response to the pandemic, Maximus said that he has lent out some of its equipment to some members and has provided workout plans to each of his clients.

At major gym chains like Blink Fitness, which operate across multiple states, the policies for personal training sessions are more dependent on decisions from the corporate parent. While a representative from Blink couldn't confirm whether personal training sessions would be halted at all of Blink's locations, they did share that all content on the Blink mobile app, which was previously only available to premium members, would be unlocked for all members to use until April 30. "This allows Blink Fitness to support our members’ wherever and whenever they feel comfortable and safe practicing physical and mental health," they said.

"We have to remain malleable under rigid restrictions like this."

Men's Health Advisory Board member and New York City-based trainer David Otey, C.S.C.S. was prepared to continue one-on-one sessions in person until the state government issued an order to close all gyms. Now, he's adjusting to serve his clients remotely. He told Men's Health in a DM that he'll use video resources like FaceTime or Skype to stay in touch—but it's more important that he keeps up the contact in the first place. "Less about the modalities and more about the communication," he said. "These are times when programs like TrueCoach and OTA (the Online Trainer Academy) can be very versatile."

He's also careful to be cognizant of his clients' needs, even when that means that he's not giving them one-on-one workout guidance. "We have to continue to promote health and healthy choices and sometimes that means promoting rest and time away from the gym," he said. "The communication line has to stay open and we have to remain malleable under rigid restrictions like this."

Virtual personal trainers aren't exactly rare—it's 2020, and some professionals only work with clients remotely, after all—but trainers and clients alike will need to adjust during this period of social distancing and isolation. Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., has a few guidelines to manage the time away from physical gyms and in-person interaction for trainers and trainees alike.

"Flexibility as a trainer is important right now, and in the long term it’ll help you build a better relationship with the client," he says. "Clients need to be honest if they’re not comfortable, and trainers need to play nice. Give them a home workout." Samuel acknowledges that adjusting on the fly can be tough, so he advises that trainers follow these protocols:

1. Keep the routine to baseline moves you know your client understands. If we are working on a Bulgarian split squat and you don’t have it, I’m dialing it back to maybe a standard split squat

2. Cut the length. You’re not there to push your client across the finish line of a grinder workout.

3. Everyone over-communicate. Clients, check in with your trainer more on home workouts. Let them know what’s working and what isn’t. Trainers, try to use video if you can, both to form check your client and also to just discuss the workout. More feedback helps you build a better program.

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