We tried an online personal trainer for 12 weeks, here’s how it went

Gym closures wreaked havoc with fitness goals over lockdown, putting the kibosh on many a mission for washboard abs, peachy glutes and the pecs of a Hemsworth brother. For myself, the onset of lockdown 1.0 saw me trial high-intensity fitness apps and embrace the bodyweight warrior within, but it got old pretty fast. By lockdown 2.0 I was polishing off a couple of tubs of Jude’s a week – workouts limited to one or two, at best – and by the third I’d pretty much come to terms with Netflix binging my way to normality.

That was until I discovered a more targeted approach to online workouts. With gym equipment lying dormant and the expertise of their trainers going to waste, many followed in the footsteps of the office and took their business to Zoom and one of those enterprising gyms was Six3Nine. From its two outposts in Covent Garden and Spitalfields Market, the newcomer to London’s fitness-scape specialises in personal training, albeit usually with the help of the state-of-the-art equipment in its studios.

As with any business in its infancy, closing its doors was hardly optimal. But, determined to keep up momentum, Six3Nine adapted to the new digital norm and began seeing its client base on Zoom. Tired of YouTube HIIT classes and starting to experience a little extra cushioning around my midriff, it seemed as though an online one-on-one could well be my only chance of exiting the lockdowns somewhat resembling the man who entered them.  

The consultation

Rising to the challenge of putting together a workout routine that would keep me engaged for 12 weeks (longer than any of my own efforts had lasted), work around the precious little space and equipment at my disposal and get me some tangible results (in my case, shed a couple of kilos and a bit of body fat in the process) was Dan Price, a senior trainer and Six3Nine’s head of nutrition.

On our first call, Price quizzed me on information, from my body composition (I’m 6ft and, 12 weeks ago, approaching 80kg) to my past fitness experience (I’ve attempted pretty much every fitness discipline, with some notable stretches of CrossFit and StrongLifts along the way). Of course, I wouldn’t have quite the same resource at my fingertips as in those times, instead relying on three sets of dumbbells at increments of 8kg, 15kg and 20kg, the latter two of which were kindly lent to me by Six3Nine. 

While he was happy to hear I had a half-decent base to work from on the exercise front, a cause for a bit more concern was the eating and drinking habits I’d developed during housebound life. My three meals a day had been pretty much fine on the calorie front, bar the odd weekend takeaway that threw things out of whack, but I’d become extremely prone to sugary snacking after an indulgent Christmas break and I just couldn’t seem to snap out of it.

The call lasted around an hour and Price was able to get a good feel for everything he needed to go away and formulate an initial programme, which would be adapted along the way, reactive to my progress and his perception of ease/difficulty. A couple of days later, we had a plan…

The plan

Price soon came back to me with a workout programme that looked significantly more disciplined than what I’d become accustomed to. To meet my targets of shedding a few pounds and rebuild muscle, we’d undergo three one-hour sessions per week, plus one that I’d conduct myself on weekends. This last session would be programmed by Price into the Trainerize app, which logs progress along the way, though the app was also used to log weights and sets over the entire 12 weeks.

The sessions were to make use of the three dumbbell sets I had, a pared-back approach given both he and I were used to being able to achieve progress by more gradual weight increments. Stripped of this luxury, we would aim to make things more challenging over a 12-week period via a three-pronged approach involving adding reps, moving up weights in different movements and tweaking the form and range of motion of said movements to make them more difficult. For the latter point, we’d also be making use of a few props I had around the house, including dining chairs for single-arm rows and a coffee-table book to wedge under my back in order to improve my range on floor-bound chest presses.

The four weekly sessions would rotate between chest/back/arms and legs/shoulders/core and that would remain a constant over the course of 12 weeks. That way, we could allow one set of muscles to rest while the others worked, usually with a day in between workouts. We agreed upon after-work slots on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, at 6pm, with my solo workout on Sundays whenever suited.

Price being a nutrition whizz, there was also the small matter of how I’d be curbing my snacking over the period. We wouldn’t be doing any strict calorie counting per se, but we’d be aiming for a daily total of under 2,000 calories (a lot less than I’d become used to) and upwards of 125g protein to fuel muscle growth. These were the headlines of a 32-page food plan PDF that broke down breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options complying with that count, plus plenty of recipe inspiration to boot.

The process

It all looks so simple mapped out like that, in hindsight… The theory was that we’d start out relatively light and gauge the level with the three sets of weights I had, using those as the blueprint to then progress from. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy, as Price will attest.

“It was quite disconcerting, actually,” he said when we caught up after the programme. “In that first session, you hit 12 floor presses at 20 kilos… I mean, that was the biggest weight we had. So we started out and I really thought load was going to be a problem. But we changed the parameters: it wasn’t just about increasing weight but also form and method too.”

By shifting focus from simply working our way up the dumbbell rack, the intent felt very different, both to any programme I’d followed at the gym and to any faster-paced home workout I’d attempted myself. Like Price, I was a little dubious of quite how much progress we could make without a heftier barbell to throw into the equation, but I soon found out otherwise. 

Price wasn’t just on hand to correct me at every wrong joint placement, but to be reactive to how I perform exercises and perceive the difficulty that went into them too. It’s something I wouldn’t have picked up on myself and I’m quite sure that without his guidance I’d likely have plodded along at the same weights and rep ranges for 12 weeks straight. Of course, as the saying goes, “No pain, no gain” and there was plenty of that too. Whether I was lifting 8kg or 20kg, the fruits of my labour were known in the period thereafter, which is something no amount of home discipline had hitherto afforded me.

The most difficult of the components were the back exercises and not only because I was particularly prone to some lateral DOMS. Stripped of gym equipment such as barbells and a pull-up bar, there’s not a whole lot of choice other than various states of rowing a dumbbell up and down. Acutely aware of this, Price was able to get creative and, down the line, we mixed things up with the addition of props: two chairs replicating a bench rather than that tedious bent-over stance and, eventually, a dip bar to hoist myself up with.

As I know to be the case with many a gym-goer, sessions that incorporated leg components were looked forward to notably less – that doesn’t change whether you’re in the most state-of-the-art gym or your living room. Thankfully, the programme Price put together for me was relatively upper-body heavy, but that didn’t make that string of leg movements on a Thursday and Sunday any easier. What I found most difficult about these squats, split squats, deadlifts, lunges et al were that they seemed to exhaust me in a much more respiratory way than any other muscle group, with the added element of torching my hamstrings and glutes.

Unsurprisingly, however, it was these exercises that came with the most noticeable physical change. I can vividly remember one morning after a session when, on a rare day not spent in lockdown loungewear, I struggled to squeeze my thighs into a pair of chinos, which once slipped on with room to spare. Given my top-heavy physique (read: chicken legs) is one of my more pronounced insecurities, I was overjoyed to see progress in a muscle group I’d struggled to grow even in my most dedicated CrossFit-going days and all from the comfort of my own living room.

But mirror muscle aside, having a trainer in front of you – be they on a webcam or otherwise – proved most invaluable when it came to motivation. With Price on my screen, I strived all the harder to go that extra step. Perhaps I’m simply too eager to please, but there were times at the end of a final set of hammer curls when I truly thought my arms were going to fall clean off in pursuit of a full rep range. Price is so much more than a virtual cheerleader, but having him spurring me on in those shakiest moments no doubt eked more out of my workouts than the meek voice in my head ever could and the post-workout pump did not go unnoticed by my lockdown bubble.

Other nuggets of gold I picked up along the way was that I’d been training my core all wrong. Abdominals being one of the easiest muscles to work out at home, sans equipment, I was struck by the effects of switching from mindless sit-ups and planks to treating the abdominals much the same as any other body part. Price coached me through crunches and jackknives with the same attention to form as he did a deadlift and it was remarkable how such subtle tweaks in movement across only a select few exercises didn’t just affect the ache the next day (must avoid laughing at all costs) but also some pronounced segmenting of the ol’ belly.

That, of course, was compounded by the fact that Price would check in on my eating habits each and every session and, thanks to his comprehensive diet guidance and recipe inspiration, I’d managed to curb my snacking to a minimum. Over the course of the programme, I managed to strip away nearly five kilos, down to a leaner 75kg, and knock off a couple of digits from my body fat percentage in the process, which I monitored along the way via a smart scale.

And there were far more tangible results than what the scales read. As any trainer worth their salt will tell you, it’s what your body can do that really drives the change. Over the course of 12 weeks, I’d pretty much exceeded all weight increment expectations Price had set for me, moving from shoulder presses of 8kg in week one to the same rep range at 20kg by week 12. A push-up challenge in phase one that resulted in little more than 30 consecutive strict reps exceeded 50 by the last, while smaller movements, such as biceps curls, went from a struggle at 12 reps of 8kg to a comfortable 12 reps of 15kg.

None of that would have been possible without the expertise I had at my disposal. Without someone there to push you, it’s all too easy to become comfortable with what you know you can do and fall into a rather monotonous fitness funk. Whether that person is there spotting you on a chest press or counting you down to your final rep on a Zoom call quite frankly doesn’t matter.

The verdict

On the announcement of a third UK lockdown, I was very much on the cusp of throwing in my workout towel and embracing the inevitability of a more permanent paunch. Six3Nine’s online personal trainer service provided precisely what I needed not to let the many obstacles of this crazy year get between me and just a few hours a week of goal-driven activity.

An online trainer is also more than just a lockdown fix, though. In fact, the virtual element actually reemphasises the very “personal” nature of personal training. For one thing, over Zoom, you’re uninterrupted by the distractions elsewhere in a gym: you and your trainer have each other’s undivided attention. For another, there’s no need to travel to your trainer and, if you’re out of town – as with the time I visited my newly vaccinated in-laws eight weeks into our programme – your sessions needn’t suffer. Unlike a gym, a laptop or phone is easily transported.

So with gyms back open and studios soon to follow, has the epiphany that you don’t actually need the physical presence of a trainer to make progress come all too late? It’s an interesting one… For me, it’s certainly lessened the impulse to hurry back to a busy free weights floor, but 12 weeks on I also feel very well placed to hit the ground running with progressions of Price’s programme with the heavier weights and equipment I don’t have in my home set-up.

For Price and the Six3Nine team, it’s a bit of a larger discussion. Online training barely existed before a certain global pandemic took hold and taking their expertise online has been eye-opening for learning what their clients actually want and need. 

“There’s a lot of back and forth, now that we’re allowed to function again as a physical gym, as to whether we need the virtual offering as a product or not or if we’re better off encouraging clients to come back in,” says Price. 

“I’ve got all these clients now who like working out from home,” he continues. “One thing that’s for sure is that we know this works online and that there no longer needs to be that barrier when someone’s away for a weekend and still wants to train. It’s sure to stick around in some form – not to replace, but at least to supplement.”

As with the office, the gain that has come from a year of pained lockdowns seems to be that many of us will soon have the opportunity to build routines that work all the better around our busy lifestyles. Now, to find some new excuses for missing leg day…

Enquire about Six3Nine’s one-to-one personal training sessions at six3nine.com

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