Alex Phillips, a self-employed Pilates instructor in Zurich, Switzerland, had to quickly change her business plan when she realized in early March that COVID-19 would likely force her to temporarily close her small studio.
She told BuzzFeed News she spent a “brutal few weeks” setting up a virtual studio in her small one-bedroom apartment. She spent 12-hour days "figuring out music rights for video classes- which is an entire issue on its own- learning how to film, updating my accounting software, dealing with tech issues, etc,” she said over email. “I had to get something online and fast.”
When Switzerland finally went into lockdown, Phillips reached out to some of her regular clients and offered to train them virtually. “The response was, well, crickets, which really surprised me,” she said. Since then, she's struggled to fill a few online Zoom classes a day.
Phillips isn’t sure what went wrong. It's possible people don’t understand or are hesitant to try online workouts. But she, and many other trainers with modest online followings, is also suspicious that free workout and training classes — promoted by popular influencers on Instagram with massive followings — are siphoning clients from mom-and-pop fitness operations like hers.
“Free classes hurt my business because they set up an unrealistic expectation that fitness professionals should work for free,” Phillips, who runs her own fitness company called ALPS Movement and Training, told BuzzFeed News. “The marketing is so saturated with free classes right now and I’ve even had clients tell me I should do free classes to promote myself."
She's also started speaking out about the free classes online.
The current crop of free workouts inspired by social distancing has taken off on Instagram, and especially on Instagram Live, which has become the trendy way for bored influencers and celebrities to engage with their audience during the pandemic.
Some professional trainers with decent-sized followings have been fortunate enough to pair with influencers who are sharing their workouts and encouraging their followers to join them in the moment.
Danielle Bernstein, a fashion blogger with 2.1 million followers and a fashion line at Macy’s, has been working out live with trainers like Pilates instructor Lia Bartha (about 29.5K followers) many days on her Instagram account, and thousands are following along. Olivia Culpo, who has 4.7 million followers, and her quarantine buddies are working out in their backyard with trainer Peter Mollo (about 17K followers) on Live. Fashion blogger Aimee Song invites her 5.5 million followers to join Live workouts with a variety of instructors like Danny Saltos (aka Train With Danny, who had roughly 59,500 followers) and Amanda Kloots, who has about 158,000 followers.
Even Olympian Shawn Johnson has been posting her workouts with her husband (in their enviable home gym) on Live, and posting instructions for her 2.6 million followers to join them.
For both the influencers and the trainers this seems like a win-win: The influencer gets content and a workout, and the trainer gets exposure to a bigger audience. But Phillips — whose studio has less than 600 followers — and others say that studios or trainers offering classes for free are hurting small businesses and trainers like herself, and creating such high market saturation that it is devaluing the product she deserves to be paid for.
Currently, Phillips says her business is only surviving thanks to her ongoing memberships. Without them, "I would have given up my studio space at the end of March out of financial necessity,” she said.
The ethics of posting free classes online during the pandemic has started a discussion in the fitness industry. Boutique studios are laying off or furloughing staff en masse as they struggle to stay afloat, and even giant gym chain 24 Hour Fitness is reportedly considering bankruptcy.
In an open letter posted to Medium last month, the CEO of ClassPass, Fritz Lanman, implored government officials to “save the health and wellness industry” by offering financial relief to studios and staff. He said ClassPass had lost 96% of its revenue since the pandemic began and the company has since laid off or furloughed half its staff.
Amid all the turmoil, both trainers and studios have been scrambling to somehow survive and keep their customer base. Some, like Phillips, have taken to social media.
Audrey Del Prete has been teaching group fitness for seven years and currently teaches at a gym in San Jose, California. She also does training for corporate clients and is a health and wellness coach.
Since the pandemic hit, Del Prete pivoted to online training. She also has been frustrated by what she sees as a glut of free workouts popping up online.
"Almost everyone is offering something for free during this time to a point where there is an oversaturated market and it creates overwhelmed consumers," she told BuzzFeed News.
Adding to the stress, she said, are people who previously didn't offer fitness content jumping into the fray.
"I think it's great that people want to be helpful and support the health and well-being of others, but when major companies or celebrities, especially those without a fitness background, offer free live workouts, it can hinder those smaller or independent fitness professionals from getting any paying clients," she said.
Some trainers are also concerned that there's a higher possibility of injury in online classes, because the instructor can't see the clients.
"If that person can't see or hear you on the other side, they can't correct your form like in a traditional fitness class or personal training session," Del Prete said.
Phillips said there is a litany of potential issues that could arise from online classes.
"The lack of supervision, the fact that teachers are still liable if there is no waiver, the missing modifications for people with injuries and conditions, the music rights. It's a long list," she said.
Other trainers, though, see online classes differently. Bartha, who has been hosting the Instagram Live workouts with Bernstein and others, told BuzzFeed News she decided to start offering the complimentary classes because she saw a need.
"My IG lives started purely out of my clients wanting to continue to work out but not having the means to do so during this time," she said. "I realized quickly that it could be a great way to help alleviate people’s stress and get people moving while stuck inside."
Bartha has been teaching in the fitness industry for more than a decade and has developed her own Pilates-based mat technique called "B The Method." Usually, she teaches at a studio in Manhattan and does private sessions in clients' homes. All of that has stopped due to the coronavirus, she said, except for teaching some of her private clients virtually, one of whom is Bernstein.
Not only does she feel like she's helping her community by teaching free classes, but Bartha said she had been developing her own app prior to the pandemic. She said the "positive feedback and outpouring of love I’ve received from a wider audience taking my IG Live sessions has certainly been encouraging" for her continued growth of her business.
"Like the coronavirus, this free service will not last forever, but in a time when over 20 million people are unemployed, I don’t mind offering an hour of my day for free," Bartha said.
Devon Lévesque, a fitness influencer with more than 350,000 followers and a partner at NYC’s Performix House, thinks the debate over paid versus free online classes is much more gray than black and white.
Since the pandemic began, Lévesque created a 30-day Instagram Live training program and is charging $20 to join the daily workouts. He is donating the proceeds to Performix House employees and other trainers affected by COVID-19 closures.
Lévesque argues that while some trainers are adept at promoting their business on social media, others, while great in person, are not. Adaptability is key to survival in these uncertain times, he said, and those who are struggling need to get creative.
“They have to pivot in this certain circumstance,” he told BuzzFeed News. “You can not be set on some mindset like, this is the only way to make money, then you definitely will get hurt... If you’re a trainer who's making all your money in person, you have to take a step back, take a look at the market, and be like, this is what’s gonna work, and you let the market set your price, and you move forward.”
Lévesque disagrees that it is inherently wrong for fitness professionals to offer workouts for free, saying he thinks it is much more nuanced than that. For example, he said, some trainers may not have a big enough fanbase to be able to charge for online workouts. By offering workouts for free, they may be able to build up a fanbase to eventually be able to charge.
“I do think that we are in such an early stage of this that you can’t make a judgement on trainers of what they’re doing,” he said.
With so much back and forth on social media, it can be hard for trainers to decide how to maintain their fitness profession in an ethical way. Lindsay McClelland, a yoga teacher and fitness blogger from North Carolina, told BuzzFeed News she thinks the backlash against free workouts is “coming from a place of fear” and it’s not inherently a bad thing to share them.
“I don’t think it’s unethical — there’s always a time and a place for free content,” she said. “As a marketer I totally understand the importance of free content to get your brand out there, but it has gotten really saturated recently and it makes it really hard for small studios who are struggling.”
McClelland said she also believes that it is the responsibility of the trainers and studios to adapt to the changing circumstances. She has adapted herself, switching from Facebook Live to Zoom for a better user experience in her online classes and eventually deciding to make them donation based.
“I decided to go to donation 'pay what you can' model because my time is worth something, but I also understand that discretionary spending is tight for people so I’d rather have them choose what they can contribute,” she said. “Virtual classes aren’t the same either so I don’t feel comfortable charging a regular class fee.”
In fact, McClelland said the quarantine could even be an opportunity for savvy trainers to expand their clientele, since they are “no longer confined by geography.”
“So if you have a teacher or studio you love that isn’t in your city — take their classes and share their content with your network,” she said.
There is one thing all the trainers we spoke to agreed on: If you have the means, you should try and support the trainers you are following as much as you can. It is critical to their survival.
“I think free content is a great way to trial a new class, studio, or teacher, but ultimately if we want these small businesses to survive we need to support them with our wallets,” McClelland said.
Phillips agreed, saying, “it is important to support movement teachers because we want to ensure they have the same safety, structure, and support that they give us as clients.”
“Paying for group fitness during the pandemic is exactly the same as deciding to order in from your favorite restaurant or buying online from your favorite independent shop," she said, adding, "it supports small business and helps keep them afloat during the crisis."