The global COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for gyms, which were one of the first businesses to shut their doors amid lockdown regulations.

“But the pandemic has also driven positive trends around exercise as more people are now aware of the importance of health and fitness,” explains Paul Mills, Managing Director at the Health & Fitness Professionals Academy (HFPA).

As a consequence, more people are looking to start and maintain exercise programmes. This new paradigm has created an interesting situation for fitness professionals, especially as many gyms and training facilities have struggled to survive due to the lockdown’s economic impact on their business.

With less physical capacity to train clients in person, growing financial constraints among consumers, and a hesitance by many members to rush back to gym due to concerns regarding infection risks, personal trainers need to embrace an augmented model to maintain their relevance and sustain their business.

The COVID catalyst

The transition to online training and coaching was already on the rise before the pandemic altered the way we live and exercise. Adapting to the lockdown has merely accelerated the shift to the digital engagement model as the COVID-19-related lockdown forced gyms, studios and fit pros to pivot to an online service delivery model.

“The lockdown was really challenging for fitness professionals. With no physical space, everyone needed to become digitally savvy overnight and shift their offering online to sustain their business and generate an income,” continues Mills.

The COVID-19 Fitness Industry Impact Report, compiled by Fitness Australia, showed that 81% of exercise professionals and industry players lost their job or main source of income due to gym closures and social distancing restrictions.

However, the survey findings, which are based on responses from 1,177 exercise professionals and sole traders, and 282 boutique and multi-service facility gyms, found that just under half of respondents were able to generate new sources of income by moving online or adopting one-on-one outdoor PT sessions.

The online pivot

This pivot to digital engagement took many forms, as personal trainers and fitness instructors found themselves at varying points on their digital transformation journeys.

“While some had embraced bespoke or white-label apps before the pandemic, the majority simply leveraged video conferencing platforms to keep booked sessions with clients through the lockdown.”

A survey of over 700 Mindbody app users affirmed that wellness routines during and post COVID-19 lockdowns changed in a positive way, with respondents reporting that they worked out more while at home, rather than less.

Specifically, a mere 7% of app users live streamed workouts in 2019, but that increased to over 80% during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, 85% of survey respondents reported live streaming a workout on a weekly basis, with yoga and HIIT-style workouts like Tabatas or bootcamps the most popular modalities.

A New Workout culture

But now that gyms have reopened, Mills expects members to make a gradual return to training in brick-and-mortar facilities.

“People will return to gym, there is no doubt about that. The gregarious nature of people means that the more we work online and remain isolated from others, the more we want human contact. As such, people will return to gyms when they feel ready. And gyms across the globe have also seen an increase in new members as people prioritise their health.”

However, fit pros should maintain their online focus with a mixed business model because it is unlikely that gyms will see an immediate return to the attendance figures experienced before the pandemic. For instance, 43% of respondents in the Mindbody app survey expect to blend their previous routines and virtual content or live streaming, even when the pandemic is over.

“It has become clear that contemporary fitness professionals will require an augmented model going forward, offering some in-person and some online instruction,” elaborates Mills. That means fitness professionals will need to adapt their offering to meet the demand for contactless or low-touch physical workout experiences, while delivering convenience and affordable online training options in response to the financial crunch clients are experiencing.

Potential benefits

But rather than posing a threat to their business, this shift represents a massive opportunity for fitness professionals moving forward. According to Mills, the move to digital proved that clients are willing to pay for virtual workouts, and the digital marketplace opens up significant opportunities for fitness pros to reach a global marketplace, which broadens their potential customer base, and allows them to bill in a foreign currency.

“Trainers can also use online sessions to reach clients at times when gyms are traditionally quiet, which effectively increases their billable hours,” he explains. However, trainers will need to create innovative programmes that leverage what clients have at their disposal at home. “But this also creates opportunities to start selling at-home workout equipment and up-sell programmes as clients advance,” adds Mills. In this context, the aftermath of the pandemic offers a significant opportunity for fitness business growth.

Making the switch

“To succeed in this market, personal trainers and instructors need to understand the need for auxiliary online services and support, and determine how to effectively use both models,” explains Mills.

In this regard, Mills suggests that fit pros reconsider their offering to include options that target individuals and groups, with structured packages for clients that augment physical and online sessions and offer variable pricing. “It is vital to develop a business plan that covers every facet of this model and clearly defines the services a trainer will offer online versus in the gym. Spotting a gap and finding a niche will also determine a fit pro’s success given that industry professionals are transitioning to this model en mass.”

Consider the threats

Fit pros should also remain cognisant of the potential threats posed by this switch to digital as it opens up the industry to greater competition. “The digital marketplace lowers the barrier to entry, while the abundance of standardised ‘cookie cutter’ programmes can dilute a fit pro’s offering. As such, trainers who engage via low-touch digital channels will need to market and sell the importance of individualised programming and constantly add value by tracking progress and adapting programmes based on regular testing to ensure their clients continue making progress,” asserts Mills.

Furthermore, anyone with some understanding of fitness and training can also commercialise their experience via digital channels, even if they don’t have a valid qualification. The lack of regulation for online service providers, coupled with access to international fitness celebs and personalities, makes education and qualifications more important than ever.

Qualifications matter

“In this context, qualifications will remain the foundation on which fitness professionals build successful businesses. Expertise, experience and client success will differentiate fit pros from the rest in the increasingly cluttered online marketplace,” states Mills. HFPA has catered to this need amid the pandemic by adapting their teaching approach to embrace a hybrid model.

“We’ve also updated our course material to effectively blend face-to-face and distance learning,” explains Mills. “We invested in expensive video equipment and white screens to deliver engaging and relevant content online, which students have enjoyed. This also means students who want to stay at home haven’t had to rush back, and that we can accommodate smaller classes.”

For returning contact students, HFPA continues to run its curriculum using the high-touch model to provide engagement with tutors. “This includes running live practicals with students nationally, adhering to COVID protocols.” Mills believes that students have learnt important lessons from this model because it demonstrates what is possible and helps them understand the value of offering options to clients.

The soft skills

Additional considerations when setting up a digital offering include selecting the best digital platform and engagement methods based on client preferences.

“There are so many platforms out there, which all come with different packages and cost structures. Functionality and content also differ, which means there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Mills. More importantly, fit pros must ensure that they can still fulfil one of their most important roles – offering clients support and motivation – when engaging online.

“Much of what a trainer does is about motivation. They must find ways to be there to encourage and maintain client accountability, even if they’re not physically present at a session during the week,” adds Mills.

In this regard, Mills says there are various ways to hold clients accountable, be it instant messaging, tracking uploaded workouts via an app, or encouraging clients during live virtual sessions. “No matter what platform the trainer uses, they must still come across in a professional manner and deliver an engaging and effective session.”

The bottom line

According to Mills, operating in this new normal is all about agility and adaptability. “Success will hinge on a fit pro’s ability to provide their product or service in the way clients want, across multiple environments.”

So, for those trainers who have patiently bided their time, waiting for gyms to reopen, Mills suggests that it’s time to craft a comprehensive offering and build an online profile.

Actress, adventurer, athlete and goodwill ambassador Hlubi Mboya-Arnold does it all. Driven by a desire for self-mastery and constant improvement, Hlubi actively seeks opportunities to challenge herself and step out of her comfort zone.

Whether that’s stepping onto the competitive Bikini stage, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or riding the world’s toughest mountain bike stage race, the Absa Cape Epic, Hlubi revels in the thrill of venturing into the unknown – constantly taking on new adventures and challenges is what gets her through her training every day.

But it’s more than just her drive and commitment that makes Hlubi a fitness role model of the highest calibre. She achieves all this despite her hectic schedule, where she juggles her career in the deadline-driven media industry, while still finding time to pursue her passion for social entrepreneurship and community upliftment.

It’s a demanding lifestyle that Hlubi masters with rigorous physical and mental preparation. And when there’s an opportunity to combine the two, Hlubi doesn’t hesitate to exploit it. That’s why she has aligned her personal brand with South Africa’s premier provider of fitness education – the HFPA Fitness Academy

Developing Body and Mind

“I got involved with HFPA because I wanted to be something more than just a sports and fitness lover. I’ve always been serious about the things I love most in life, which is why I wanted to take my passion for health and fitness to a new level. I wanted to dig deeper and discover more, and education creates opportunities to do that.”

Beyond simply satisfying her curiosity and quenching her desire for personal growth, Hlubi also felt it was important to formalise her education as a brand ambassador and fitfluencer.

“I work hard to be a credible role model, particularly to young black girls. I want to show them that they can break the mould and do things differently. And by broadening my competencies through on-going education, I can empower others with the information I share. There is so much poor, unqualified advice out there on social media, which is why I want to make sure I can cut through the clutter and add value in others’ lives.”

Aligning values

Hlubi says her decision to align with HFPA was an easy one based on the brand’s reputation and the recommendations she received from her friends and colleagues in the health and fitness industry.

“HFPA offers diversity in their subject matter and courses, and are also inclusive, catering to every sector of the industry and society. These are values that resonate with me.”

And the HFPA team also recognised the similarities, which prompted the them to sign up Hlubi as a brand ambassador.

“HFPA lets me be authentic about my passion for sport and fitness, which is important because going by the book bores me. I’m all about energy, which aligns with HFPA’s culture. The brand also embodies the values of balance and constant progress, which is what I strive for every day.”

Lean, mean learning machine

This association has given Hlubi unfettered access to HFPA’s rich resources, which she plans to utilise to its full potential.

“I love HFPA’s learning environment – it’s open and dynamic. It’s also innovative, offering full-time and distance learning options with workshop study modes available, which makes it accessible nationwide. The lecturers always advance their knowledge to stay with the times, while the course work keeps step with new industry trends and developments. And their qualifications are also internationally recognised!”

This dynamic caters to everyone, from the mom and entrepreneur to the passionate fitness fanatic and someone who is looking to build a career in the industry. It’s also a great platform to grow your network, believes Hlubi.

“I’ve aways said your network is your net worth. Studying at HFPA has helped me build relationships and gain access to an international network of potential opportunities. It’s the type of platform that tears down the barriers many South Africans face when trying to gain access to people and places.”


Get paid for following your passion

Since obtaining her qualifications – with more to come – Hlubi believes she can now walk the talk.

“I now know what it means to love something and be a professional and expert in it at the same time. I believe my qualifications as a personal fitness trainer, and a kids development, sports conditioning and a life coach enable me to apply core skills to various areas of my life. I now view these certifications as assets I can use to make myself a better human being and benefit society.”

In the context of her life, Hlubi plans to expand her knowledge base for her own benefit by obtaining additional qualifications, like a pre and post natal exercise course.

“I believe this provides invaluable knowledge to women who should always feel empowered, not afraid of a natural process like child birth and motherhood due to a lack of understanding or knowledge – gaining knowledge is the most powerful form of empowerment.”

And adding to her list of qualifications also creates new opportunities for Hlubi to pursue divergent career paths.

“I firmly believe that to truly be successful, your career should reflect your greatest passions in life, and that if you’re passionate about something you should pursue every opportunity to get paid for it. When it comes to the health and fitness industry, institutions like HFPA offer the best starting point to realise that ambition.”

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

While a relevant certificate, diploma or degree is a mandatory requirement for a career in the fitness industry, a resume filled with qualifications is no guarantee of success.

There are a number of factors beyond a fitness professional’s acumen and understanding of exercise science that will determine their success in this services-based industry, with their so-called ‘soft’ or social skills playing a very important role.

A people’s person

While a personal trainer or fitness instructor doesn’t need to be the most outgoing individual, it is important to understand that fit pros work directly with people every day.

You therefore need to be comfortable engaging with people on a daily basis. Your ability to interact with clients and potential clients will ultimately determine your long-term success, often more so than the type of services you offer or your understanding of exercise and nutrition.

You also need to be agile in your approach. Not every client responds well to a drill Sergeant, while others thrive in that environment. If you’re able to switch between a softer approach and a more regimented style, you’ll have broader market appeal.

Even if your business is run exclusively online, there are still specific social skills that are needed to engage and interact with clients in a professional manner. That’s because online training is about more than just firing off a gym programme once every month. You still need to stay in contact with clients, be it via messaging apps, email or regular calls to assess their progress and make suitable recommendations.

Scheduling regular one-on-one sessions with online clients (where possible) is also a great way to boost their training and maintain a strong interpersonal relationship.

Be a motivator

Every successful fitness professional must have the ability to motivate and inspire their clients. This requires a true passion for their craft, a drive to constantly improve, learn and grow, and a deep-seated desire to help people transform their lives and achieve their goals.

This also entails dealing with clients who may be struggling, which often requires patience and perseverance. You’ll need to encourage clients on their bad days, with the EQ to know when to push and when to back off to get the most from their time with you.

Competent communicator

The ability to effectively communicate is another critical skill that fitness professionals need to master if they hope to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with their clients. This not only requires the ability to effectively convey instructions and share your knowledge with clients, but also entails being a good listener.

Pay attention to how they describe their experience of your sessions with them and when they express their views on how they feel the programme is going. If you fail to listen to and understand your clients then you’ll fail to meet their expectations and deliver on their desired objectives.

And in a country that boasts such a diversity of cultures and personalities, it is also essential that fitness professionals are adaptable in their communication styles, tailoring their approach to the different individuals they work with.

The same principle applies to digital communication and social media engagement, which requires a multi-channel, often always-on (within reason) approach to client communication.

Polish your bench-side manner

No matter how many clients you see during the day, each one deserves your full attention and the same level of positive energy. This can be difficult in an industry where long hours are common, but it’s imperative that you’re mindful of your attitude and demeanour at every session.

Your undivided attention during every minute of a paid-for session is another non-negotiable in terms of your bench-side manner. Not only is playing on your phone or chatting to other gym-goers during a client session disrespectful, it also erodes the value the client is paying for. Make your client your priority for the entire session by giving them your full attention. And never, ever be late for a session.

Similar principles apply to online trainers. While it can be tempting to scale up and take on hundreds of clients to boost your earning potential, you must be mindful of keeping client numbers at manageable levels. Every client pays for and deserves the same level of service, which cannot be met when trainers are overburdened.

Offer individualised services

While a generic exercise program will work for most people, at least initially, to continue making progress a trainer will need to individualise their approach. Those fitness professionals who choose to follow a cookie-cutter approach, because it’s more convenient and saves time, are doing their clients a disservice.

The fitness industry has also become a creative industry – fit pros must be creative with their programming and activities to avoid boredom and keep it interesting, both for them and their clients. This is more easily achieved when the fitness professional has a broad base of expertise from which to draw.

It’s also important to put in the extra effort to delve into the unique needs, requirements and circumstances of every client to structure specific plans for them. In doing so their rate of success will skyrocket, as will your business!