Tonal Coaches on the Rise of the Virtual Workout Influencer

By Gabrielle Whelan

Throughout the isolating pandemic, people have been attempting to make the most of their new home-centric lives. They’ve developed new habits, skills, schedules, and ways of connecting with others. Forming in-person connections has been one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic, as many of our primary social hubs, gyms included, closed down around the world. Forming genuine virtual connections can be tricky, and requires time, commitment, and positive virtual environments. For many people, connected fitness became an all-in-one solution during this time, as it enabled users to stay fit within a welcoming and supportive virtual community.

Companies like Tonal have accordingly experienced astronomical growth as a result of the world’s massive shift towards virtual home workouts. Countless people were drawn to the Whipsaw-designed Tonal Strength Training System for its elegant form that hangs on the wall like a flatscreen TV, its advanced machine learning capabilities, and the authentic community it offers its users.

Many connected fitness coaches thus found themselves thrust into the spotlight in 2020. These virtual workout influencers saw, perhaps better than anyone, the ability that connected fitness designs have to help people achieve both physical and mental well being in a group setting. Here’s a look at how several Tonal coaches navigated their newfound popularity during the pandemic, and where they believe designs like Tonal are headed.

Tonal Coach Spotlight

Frances Flores is a former professional dancer, celebrity trainer, and a sought-after yoga, fitness, and health professional.

Brett Hoebel
is founder of Hoebel Fitness, a trainer on Season 11 of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, author, and fitness expert.

Venus Lau
is creator of VENUSFIT LLC, Oxygen Magazine‘s official OC7 Coach and cover model, celebrity trainer, former collegiate D1 golfer, and a certified coach specializing in movement and flow who teaches other coaches and students internationally.

Dr. Liz Letchford, PhD, is an athletic trainer, coach, and injury prevention specialist. 

Nikki Metzger is founder of BODI, a Nike master trainer, a Mike Boyle certified strength coach, and a nutrition specialist.

Jared Rodriguez is a former collegiate baseball player, owner and creator of Inspired Method Inc., a fitness entrepreneur, and a mobility specialist.

Paul Wright is a founding Tonal coach and Viouri brand ambassador with an extensive background in football as well as personal and large group training.

5 Questions with the Coaches Behind Tonal

1. I understand several of you began your fitness journeys as children. Can you take us through how you eventually found your way to virtual strength training?

Rodriguez: Sure. I was a timid kid, but I was always gifted around movement, so sports was the main thing that gave me confidence. I ended up pivoting what I wanted to do in regards to fitness when I realized I was thriving during my routine workouts in the offseason of baseball. When Tonal reached out to me to create a HIIT format program, I immediately knew it would allow me to be myself while virtually teaching a modality I was already passionate about.

Flores: Like Jared, I started moving to express myself as a child as well. For me, it was actually a way to be closer to my mom since she was into aerobics back then. We took step aerobics classes together, and that led me to dance. I traveled the world as a dancer after college, but moved to LA without a plan once my contract ended. After a lot of trial and error, I earned my personal training certification. Fitness became my way of communicating and building my confidence, and Tonal blended my love of fitness, being on camera, and connecting with others.

Lau: I’m also a big believer in expression through movement. My parents passed away when I was fairly young, which led me to start channeling my emotions through primal movement, breathwork, and yoga. Eventually, strength training became my focus. The first time I saw a Tonal was at a fitness booth at Fit Fest. I thought it was such a beautiful piece of machinery and liked the idea of it being brought into people’s homes. I was also drawn to Tonal’s strength training which blends the flowing energy of a more spiritual practice.

Metzger: I was also active in dance throughout my life, as well as sports. I worked as a trainer for 12 years where I taught a little bit of everything, but my goal was always to own a studio. I eventually opened a gym in Scottsdale…and then the pandemic hit! Tonal enabled me to keep my fitness career going and allowed me to reach so many more people with one location.

Wright: People always referred to me as the “athlete guy” while I was growing up, and then I eventually pursued football professionally. After pivoting and becoming a trainer, I finally decided to move to Los Angeles to join Tonal because I’m a huge believer that strength training is the basis of all health.

Letchford: I actually got my start a little later when I was in sports medicine. I’d been an athletic trainer for the GSW dance team, so I created a niche hybrid model of rehabilitation and fitness. I used my rehabilitation principles to help people reach their goals faster and with better results. I ended up wanting to marry my sports background with Tonal’s at-home fitness model, so I wound up being part of their research and innovation team.

Hoebel: My beginning was a total fluke. When I was a premed, I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so I used guest passes instead. I finally applied to be an instructor at a company just to get a membership! I found that teaching came really naturally to me. When I was finally accepted to medical school, I admitted to my dad that I didn’t know if I wanted to go anymore. His father had always told him to do something he truly loves, so he likewise encouraged me to follow my heart, and I never looked back. Martial arts is my favorite medium because it’s fluid, fun, and works with any music. Tonal is interested in workouts that flow, so they asked me to lead both martial arts and yoga workouts for them.

2. What’s been your experience as a virtual workout influencer during the pandemic? Did you notice a spike in your followings?

Lau: I joined Tonal right after the pandemic hit. I definitely saw a spike around that time, so I began tailoring my platform towards helpful tips for working out at home. I showed my followers how to fill up a backpack for use as weights, and demonstrated a suspension training system with bedsheets. I always emphasized using the tools at your current disposal.

Letchford: I also noticed a huge leap at the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone began gravitating towards digital platforms that spring. Tonal really helped us to create content from our own homes, and we all adopted a “show must go on” mentality. I think my following also increased because I was offering the opportunity to feel both strong and calm at a time of such uncertainty.

Wright: I began flexing more of my brain during the pandemic and expressing what was going on internally on my social media. So, I’d say my following increased both because of Tonal, and also because I was super vocal about social issues on my platforms. Talking about the social unrest that was unfolding helped people to see me in a different light. I noticed a burst in followers whenever I showed my vulnerability. 

Rodriguez: My following definitely jumped during the pandemic. I’m a private guy, so it was a struggle to showcase my life for everyone to see. I know that’s part of the deal though. The big thing you must figure out as an influencer is how to deliver a message that resonates with others while staying in alignment with who you are.

Throughout the pandemic, the two things that kept being reinforced to me as a virtual workout influencer were community and accountability.

Flores: Yeah, social media is a mixed bag. I’ve been working on my strategy and branding for a while now, but if I could live without Instagram, I would. I really started to take it more seriously when Tonal came into view. I definitely saw growth as I built my Tonal platform, but I actually noticed that I lost some followers as I focused my content. I’m totally cool with that though because I want my followers to be the people who truly need my energy and content. Those are the ones I’m focused on now.

Metzger: Going through the pandemic with a gym was a different ballgame. My focus was all about keeping my doors open at that time. I tried giving my gym members as many safe options as possible: Zoom, workouts in the park, and in-person sessions with masks. I finally began thinking about connected fitness. Tonal brought a new opportunity to expose my passion to a wider audience. Teaching in person is very different from being on camera though, so I had to adapt fast.

Hoebel: Throughout the pandemic, the two things that kept being reinforced to me as a virtual workout influencer were community and accountability. I think the fact that we were offering people a real connection, face-to-face, is what caused all of our followings to grow dramatically.

3. Countless people developed mental health issues during the pandemic from long term isolation. Can any of you speak to your experiences navigating that as Tonal influencers?

Flores: My family is all on the East Coast, so the isolation PTSD hit me pretty hard. Tonal sent us lights and mics and supported us as we kept going though. I started doing Instagram Lives during the pandemic as well. I really wanted to take extra steps to connect with my followers, keep them physically active, and talk to people across the world for our collective mental well being.

The pandemic took a serious toll in terms of the isolation and all the negativity floating around. The one bright spot for me was that, pre-pandemic, I was working nonstop and my adrenal fatigue was no joke. The quarantine forced me to pause and realize how exhausted I actually was. When it comes to mental health, people need to stop overvaluing things that don’t matter.

There was so much fear and panic in the air during the Spring of 2020. For me, the antidote was nourishing my physical health, mental health, and spiritual health.

Rodriguez: There was so much fear and panic in the air during the Spring of 2020. For me, the antidote was nourishing my physical health, mental health, and spiritual health. I also relied on my platform to maintain a strong sense of community. Tonal’s interactive coaching model also allowed me to feel connected to them in real time.

Metzger: I agree. Reality settled in that spring after everyone finished that initial wave of eating and drinking too much, and we realized we needed to develop some sort of routine. I believe mental health revolves around routines, kindness, and consistency.

: Since stress adversely impacts your nervous system, I encourage my followers to practice coming back to their bodies in the present moment. Once we locate where the stress is held in our bodies and remove that negative energy, we return to a baseline of calm. I like to investigate all parts of what strength means for both the body and mind.

Hoebel: People needed physical outlets for their emotional stress during the pandemic. I would get funny comments from followers joking that I was their ‘virtual boyfriend’ during lockdown. The isolation changed people, so my followers felt cared for when I gave them virtual support during my coaching sessions. Everyone needs a sense of community and human connection.

4. Did any of you adjust your coaching style and messaging during the pandemic to better reflect your personal philosophies around well being?

Letchford: My background inspired me to marry biomechanics with movement. I wanted to ensure I was incorporating emotional components into my fitness routines. I believe that if people address their emotions in their movements, they will see an increase in their strength and power. During that time, I encouraged my followers to express themselves in our virtual sessions, and I also tried to weave those philosophies into my messaging on social media.

I started infusing my philosophies around nutrition and the importance of life balance into my “Shaped By Frances” brand, especially as it gained momentum in the pandemic. I seek to inspire clients to live their best lives. To that end, my philosophy has always been to ensure every category in your life is full. I believe in balance.

: I think influencers can use their messaging to create a welcoming and supportive platform that gives people a sense of belonging, so that’s what my focus became. I also tried to incorporate mindful eating into my overall fitness practice as well as my brand. Eating healthy, for example, has more to do with our psychology than anything else.

Tonal caused me to recalibrate how I could use my position to elevate the health and fitness world and expand my own skills.

Wright: I agree that changing your body is all about changing your mind. We need to examine our relationships with food, our contributions to our community, and the other ways we get self-empowered. The spike in my platform enabled me to bring that message to a larger audience. Tonal caused me to recalibrate how I could use my position to elevate the health and fitness world and expand my own skills.

In such a dark time, it was also just really nice to spend time on positive platforms. I aimed to tailor both my content and my clothing line towards positivity, which resonated with my audience.

5. Would any of you like to comment on where you think connected fitness and the role of the virtual workout influencer is headed?

Rodriguez: Connected fitness is like the channel everyone has access to. I believe this trend of digitally monitoring your progress through sleek designs tailored towards home environments has changed things in a permanent and significant way.

Lau: Yes, and we’ve all changed as individuals as well. I’m not as social as I once was, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. People will always crave that in-person connection aspect though, so maybe there will be a hybrid paradigm where you’re in-person once a week, and an online community the rest of the time. It’s almost odd if you’re not part of an online community these days. I have friends in the fitness industry who work in AI, and it’s interesting to speculate on where it’s all headed. These designs are definitely here to stay.

Metzger: I agree that it will be a hybrid model that includes IRL classes with streaming ones. Connected fitness was designed to have a convenience factor, so there will always be influencers in this space. When I took my first Tonal class, I could feel the community and energy of the class throughout the screen. You really feel like you’re right in the room with that trainer. Connected fitness will only be getting smarter, and I can’t wait to see how smart these machines actually get. Even if the pandemic lifts, things have shifted forever.

Everyone in the fitness industry has jumped onto the connected fitness train, but only the strong will survive.

Wright: The world is definitely moving towards designs that allow you to workout from the comfort of your own dwelling. To me, Tonal is a strength machine in all capacities. We’re already getting to the point where connected fitness is widely recognized, and I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rise of virtual workout influencers. 

Flores: Exactly. Connected fitness has skyrocketed because it’s efficient, designed for convenience, and offers a sense of human connection through a digital platform. Everyone in the fitness industry has jumped onto the connected fitness train, but only the strong will survive.

The online fitness market is now predicted to reach $59 billion by 2027.