Online Instruction versus Hands-On Coaching

 FaceTime is fun! Look, there's a cute cat!

FaceTime is fun! Look, there's a cute cat!

We live in era of Skype and FaceTime. The availability of these kinds of video conferencing platforms has offered the possibility of “online coaching” in the fitness and training communities. How does it compare to in-person coaching? 

Let's start with the obvious allure of remote/online training: it gives a coach and student, who otherwise are geographically separate, access to having training sessions together where they can see and hear each other. For folks in remote areas, this can be a tempting opportunity to get training guidance from an expert who lives in another region.

There's a glaring element of coaching that goes missing when sessions are moved online though, and that's what I want to unpack a bit here: It is hands-on cuing that can account for a significant part of a body's learning process.

If we were to say that bodies have a language, it would be kinesthetic experience. This is to say: when bodies feel external feedback, they respond to it very specifically.  We know a sleepy body wakes up to an abrupt slap and an agitated body calms down when feeling a comforting touch, but more important here: a lazy muscle activates when prodded by a coach, a joint learns how to isolate when guided by a coach. This is an invaluable tool in the context of training, especially training that is intended to introduce NEW concepts to a body. 

Online Functional Range Conditioning (FRC)?

First off, two definitions: Functional Range Conditioning® is a comprehensive joint training system based in scientific principals and research. Functional Mobility, as defined by the Functional Range systems, is "the extent of controllable flexibility across articulations (flexibility plus strength), refers to the amount of USABLE motion that one possesses. In any particular articulation there exists both a passive, as well as an active range of motion."

I am a certified FRC mobility specialist, which means I apply the FRC system when I work with clients and students who need to build healthier joint ranges of motion.  I have gone back and forth on whether or not to offer online FRC coaching to circus students around the country who may not have access to an FRC mobility specialist in their area, but who could benefit from it in their circus endeavors. To get opinions on this idea, I went to some of my most trusted colleagues in the field: trainers, coaches, and physical therapists. I told them, “when I work with people one-on-one in person, I am very hands on: cuing where to hold a position in space, encouraging a lazy stabilizing muscle to work, isolating a sticky joint etc." then came the big question: "How could I translate this kind of work to a video context?” The response was clear: those kinds of essential teaching tools are not possible over video. I wondered: can I teach people to use props to create external feedback for themselves?? Yes, eventually, once they know how to interpret that feedback, which is something that can best be understood through conversation and practice with their instructor first. Also no, it would be incredibly difficult to successfully create external feedback for themselves if the goal of coaching is to teach new, nuanced ways of moving intelligently and responsibly that they don't yet know how to identify.

One of the colleagues I had asked recently showed me an Instagram post by FRC star Hunter Cook. Hunter is a very skilled yogi, world-class strength coach, and one of the most advanced coaches in the Functional Anatomy systems approaches. Here is the post, read the caption too: 

One of my favorite things about working with Ryan is his brutal honesty and willing to share his struggle during the process. He knows he's taking on a journey and isn't going to wait until he has a "finished product" (there's no such thing and he knows that too) to share what's going on. P.s. Suptabaddhacadabra made me laugh out loud. P.p.s. This is how I coach. I'm hands on. I use manual biofeedback. I touch. I prod. I poke. I call things "stuff" and ask for resistance in the direction where you feel me touch. This is how I understand it and how I teach it. So until I figure out another way, online coaching is still not an option. For now. #HunterFitness #Repost @ryanorrico ・・・ Can you see how insane it would be for me to think I'm even close to being ready for a handstand? I have basically ZERO control whatsoever of my shoulder when it's near its end-range... which is where it has to be when you're doing handstands. ⠀ Oh! I know! I'll use a wall! At least then I can lie to myself until something *really* breaks! 🕺🏼🤸🏻‍♂️ In fact, I recommend starting your handstand training there... go to a wall, don't even bother making sure your wrists and shoulders have what they need. It'll all work out... the wall will just magically create the range you need. ⠀ Trust me. I'm a yoga teacher. Suptabaddhacadabra!💫 see? ⠀ (Couple things... my elbow should be straight. My lack of big toe extension is making this way more awful than it needed to be. Plus a whole lot of other bad things... but this was the first time I did this. I'll post another after I've done it a few times.)

A post shared by Hunter Cook (@hunterfitness) on


His conclusion is simple: “Online coaching is still not an option. For now.” 

I similarly struggle to find a good conscience for online coaching when I know my skills as instructor are largely in my hands-on cuing. The best option I can come up with, for now, is to offer online sessions as a supplement to in-person coaching if geography becomes a temporary hindering factor. After we’ve worked together in person 2-3 times and developed feedback approaches specific to your needs, I can help you keep up a consistent practice through online coaching until we meet again. BUT. I wouldn't call that online coaching, I would called that online instructing, and that's a nerdy semantic way of making it clear that the online approach has a limit in what it can offer. 

The reason I have chosen only to offer online supplements to students I've worked with already in person is simply because, in my opinion, learning new material in the FRC approach requires hands on cuing. Why? Well, if your body doesn’t know what the subtle cues feel like, you won’t learn how to interpret them physically through verbal and video instruction alone.

I realize that for folks who live far away from the coach/trainer of their choice, that online training offers a miracle of new possibility for you. Depending on what kind of training you're working on, your online coach might have developed great ways of teaching you without kinesthetic feedback. If so, fabulous! Unfortunately, knowing what we know about how bodies learn, if you are a living in a remote area and eager to work with an FRC coach specifically, I recommend investing in the trip to work with a coach elsewhere, or see if one might be willing to come to you. It’s not impossible- coaches travel to offer workshops all the time! Round up a dozen friends, partner with a local gym and see if that instructor can offer some lessons for a weekend. Trust me, schedules permitting, if it's financially worth their while and the impact they will make is significant, coaches will travel to you for a workshop weekend. The in person one-on-one training will give you an imperative baseline from which to work on your own until you are ready to progress further.  

Of course, not all physical learning needs kinesthetic guidance, and in some disciplines it is downright impossible. In general though, for injury prevention/rehab/mobility-improvement work my advice is: If you are a student considering online coaching, I encourage you to keep your goals for it specific and your expectations realistic. If your goal is to do a movement “right” but it doesn’t feel “right,” then it probably isn’t. Your body is smart. If it tells you it needs help understanding something, you should ask a qualified coach to communicate the missing link to your body in the language it understands best: touch.

Special thanks to fellow FRC mobility specialists Chris Ruffolo of Post Competitive Insight, Emily Rubin SPT, and Neil Roberts of Vajra Body Fitness for your insights on this subject that helped inform this post!

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NEXT WEDNESDAY: Pros and Cons to using Momentum versus Muscular Control for Movement