Working out solutions to personal training during a pandemic

1 October 2020

For the past seven years, the UQ School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences (HMNS) has run the highly-popular Personal Training Service.

The service aims to help sedentary people become active with weekly face-to-face training sessions in the HMNS gym.

Students in the Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Sciences (Honours) provide personalised one-on-one exercise programs with their client for 10 weeks, and also run weekly group training sessions.

However, the social isolation requirements of COVID-19 meant the service had to transition entirely online in the same year that the number of students in the program almost doubled.

We spoke to Course Co-Coordinator Emily Smith about the challenges that needed to be overcome in order to transition from a face-to-face delivery to an online service.

“In 2020 the HMNS Personal Training Service moved from being part of a third year subject to a second year subject,” she explains.

“This was part of a restructure to accommodate more practical placements in third and fourth year, and to give students hands-on experience earlier in their degree so they gain the skills and confidence of working with clients prior to their placement. 

“We have 130 students this year, which is nearly twice as many students than we have had in any year 2014-19.

“Course Co-Coordinator Gisela Deriard and I already had a massive task ahead of us to enlist more participants than in previous years, and this was before COVID threw us a curveball.”

Not only did the team manage to recruit 130 individual personal training clients — one for each student — they also enrolled 48 group training participants this semester.

“Every one of those 130 clients gets two sessions per week, rather than one session in previous years, so that’s 260 personal training sessions every week, approximately 2600 sessions for the semester,” Ms Smith said.

“And we also have ten group training sessions per week for eight weeks, so that’s 80 of those as well.”

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome has been access to equipment and how to adapt exercise sessions accordingly.

“The students had to prepare to conduct assessments and exercise sessions without any conventional equipment; some clients had equipment they were able to use, but most have very minimal equipment,” Ms Smith said.

“For example, exercises were adapted to use items that clients have lying around their home, such as filling a bag with water bottles or cans to use as weights. 

“It was definitely challenging for the students to adapt from a controlled clinic environment to online over Zoom, but it gives clients the tools to monitor their progress beyond the program as they are conducting assessments in their own home and can continue to do this beyond the program.

“The exercise sessions have also been a great way for students to develop their communication skills as they cannot be hands on, this means a lot of forward thinking of how to instruct the client to set up the exercise, where the camera should be set up to get the best view of technique and how to correct technique when it goes wrong. 

“We have had a lot of students that have adapted really well and are able to understand where the client is struggling with technique and ensure the camera is set up appropriately to monitor this and cue accordingly.”

One of the benefits to moving online was not being restricted by location when it came to recruiting participants.

“We have people from Brisbane as well as rural Queensland, Tasmania, New South Wales and the Northern Territory taking part this year, aged from 18 to 72,” Ms Smith said.

“People all around the country are learning how to be physically active in their home and community environments and that includes a lot of rural and remote people as well.

“Clients have told us they really enjoy being able to do the exercises at home, whether it is due to parental commitments, location restrictions, or having family members that are higher risk and therefore not wanting to go to higher risk locations such as gyms.  

“As the program is aimed at facilitating self-managed exercise, doing the home program has actually been a great way to give clients the tools to hopefully continue the program after the 10 weeks. 

“In previous semesters it has been quite hard to transition clients from exercising in the gym to exercising at home, so we are hoping this year there will be more exercise participation beyond the end of the program.”

Another benefit from moving the program online is that students are developing critical skills regarding online delivery of exercise instruction and monitoring, which Ms Smith said are likely to be fundamental requirements in the future.

“Telehealth is going to be an important part of future practice, and usually students are not exposed to this during their degree,” she said.

“As the program has now gone online, students are developing the capability to be able to deliver assessments and exercises over telehealth and this is giving them a great skill that they will be able to take into the workforce come graduation.”  

Media: Dani Nash, UQ Communications,, +61 7 3346 3035.