PT on the Net Research

Virtual Training – What Makes a Good Program


1. Design a virtual conditioning program for a fitness client.
2. Implement videos and teaching cues into a virtual conditioning program. 

Article Synopsis 

In the current situation, Fitness Professionals need to find new ways to train their client's, with virtual training becoming the new normal. I work as the strength and conditioning coach for the USA Men’s Deaflympic ice hockey team and have done virtual training with the players since 1999.  I've learned a lot through the years about things that were successful when implementing virtual training and others that were not as successful. This article will review what some of those successful techniques are and what didn't work as well that may be helpful for you when training client's virtually. 

Deaflympic Ice Hockey Team

Since 1999, I have worked as the strength and conditioning coach for the USA Men’s Deaflympic Ice Hockey Team.  It is a non-centralized team, with the players living, training, and playing in different parts of the United States.  The Deaflympic team has open try-outs for any American hockey player who has a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in the better ear.  
In the last 20 years, the Deaflympics have been in 1999 (Switzerland), 2003 (Sweden), 2007 (Salt Lake City), 2011 (supposed to be Slovakia, but were cancelled), 2015 (Russia), and 2019 (Italy).  
Try-outs for the teams take place in the spring or summer prior to the games.  The teams are selected from the players who attend the try-outs, after which we begin the process of virtual training in preparation for the games.  The conditioning programs are sent by e-mail.  

Early Years: Lessons to be Learned

The first virtual training program, in preparation for the 1999 Deaflympics, was challenging for me and the players.  Even though I had worked with most of the players at the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association summer hockey camp and taught them the majority of the lifts, jump training, and interval training we would use when training, there was a disconnect between the in-person training and the conditioning program I sent by e-mail.  

One of the things I learned about virtual training was that the written words on the training program were not well understood, and the players were not accustomed to reading a training program rather than seeing exercises demonstrated by me. Barone (2017) indicates there are seven different styles of learners: visual, physical, hearing, verbal, logical, social, and solitary. Faubert (2013) suggests elite athletes have a very good ability to learn how to process dynamic visual information, meaning they are good visual learners.  As such, most likely, the best way for virtual clients to learn is to see an exercise, then practice it, which means using videos as much as possible. The Deaflympic players were used to me showing them what to do, with the help of a sign language interpreter. As such, the first year we did virtual conditioning was not well received because the conditioning programs I sent had too many written descriptions and not enough pictures. In addition, in 1998/1999, YouTube was not invented, therefore I could not provide links to videos of exercises. And I could not upload videos for the players to watch as there was no platform for videos at that time. Testimony to the players not understanding the program was that most of them arrived at training camp with low levels of fitness.     

As such, the primary lessons learned from the early days of virtual training was: 1) keep words to a minimum – bullet points are best, 2) provide pictures of the exercises, and 3) keep the program as simple as possible without complicated training protocols. In preparation for the 2003 Deaflympics, I implemented what I learned from my experience in 1999. However, myself and the players still struggled with virtual training going into the 2003 Deaflympics. This may have been part of the reason the team did poorly in the tournament.

Successful Virtual Training

The team did very well in preparation for the 2007 Deaflympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I learned my lessons from the previous two Deaflympics in regards to the type of conditioning program I sent to the players.  In preparation for the 2007 Deaflympics, I started by sending short e-mails of what the players can expect in terms of their conditioning program. I explained, with bullet points, what we would be doing.  I then started sending the program(s), which changed the training focus each month. There was also a stronger mandate from the coaches for the players to communicate with me to give training updates.  For the first time, the players did a good job of keeping me up-to-date with their training status.  And, I came to understand that, generally speaking, the players who did not communicate, were not training hard.  As such, I spent extra time communicating with the players who were not communicating with me.  
Most of the players arrived for training camp with high levels of fitness.  In addition to the fact that the on-ice coaches did a good job of preparing the players, the US team won the Gold Medal in spectacular fashion, as it was obvious our team was out playing the other teams because of the superior level of conditioning of the players.  

Lessons Learned and Moving Forward

Halvorson (2020) indicates one of the advantages of virtual training with videos is that clients can select their workout, press play, and exercise with the instructor on screen. Starting in 2015, I started to use videos of myself, shot with a camcorder, to show the players some of the exercises. The videos were a challenge because many of the players communicate with sign language. I used the limited sign language I know and also made written signs for teaching cues. Making signs and/or using specific teaching cues is something virtual trainers could consider doing to direct attention (of the virtual client) to important parts of an exercise.  

2019 Deaflympic Gold

With 20 years experience working with the USA Deaf Ice Hockey team, it came together again for success at the Italy 2019 Deaflympics with another Gold medal.  The conditioning programs for the 2019 team were dramatically different with succinct bullet point information, videos from YouTube of myself, utilizing the benefit that Halvorson (2019) suggests of being able to press play and watch a video, and reminders from me each week.  I use the application ‘Coaches Eye’ to shoot videos of myself, upload them to YouTube, then provide a link on the training program for the players.  

Making videos for virtual clients is an important element for trainers.  The videos emphasize the important parts of an exercise or the program.  It also engages the client better than the written word.  It can help the client and trainer make a better connection when the client sees the trainer.  

Assessment – Reassessment 

An important assessment tool was the communication I received from the players.  This is something that can be used with fitness clients.  I assessed the success of my communication by how the players reported back to me about their training.  The players who reported their training status regularly were the ones who were training hard and had higher levels of fitness when they reported for training camp.  An important part of a virtual training program is that the trainer must take the time to communicate with clients by asking questions such as: 1) if the client continues to understand the program, 2) how the client is feeling physically and mentally, 3) what benefits the client is seeing and feeling, and 4) does the client have questions.   

In the early years of the Deaflympic program, the team were tested with the 20-meter shuttle run or Beep Test.  The test was administered during try-outs and again during training camp.  The players were told they must achieve a certain stage in order to make the team, but this was unrealistic because running to a maximum effort does not correlate with hockey performance.  Fitness testing for virtual clients is also difficult.  However, some easier tests to administer could be: 1) maximum push-ups in 1-minute, 2) hold a front plank for as long as possible up to three - four minutes, 3) hip and waist circumferences, and 4) perform a high intensity interval work-out and ask for the clients Rating of Perceived Exertion.

Communication strategies

Most people are visual learners, therefore, videos are best for learning and understanding exercises and training.  With so many applications to shoot videos and having the ability to either send directly or upload to YouTube, it is essential that trainers use this platform.   

When sending written training programs, remember to do the following: 1) keep words to a minimum – bullet points are best, 2) use teaching cues to direct the attention to specific parts of the exercise, and 3) keep the program as simple as possible without complicated training protocols.  

As a virtual trainer, one of the most important aspects for success is continually communicating with clients by: 1) asking questions, 2) sending reminders for training, 3) asking for feedback, 4) asking how the client feels, and 5) asking for feedback about successes with the program. 

Another communication strategy particuarly for clients who indicate they do not have as much time to train, is to continually modify the training programs by providing the client with “shorty” workouts, and always changing the program to keep it and the client fresh.

Barone, A. 2017, Technology is changing the way athletes learn, Just Play, Retrieved February, 14, 2020.

Faubert, J. (2013) Professional athletes have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes.  Scientific Reports.  3:1154. doi: 10.1038/srep01154. Epub Jan 31, 2013.

Halvorson, R.  2019, The rise of virtual Classes.  IDEA Fitness Journal, 16(10): 36 – 41.