Permanent weight loss is usually impossible without exercise, but — where to start? Weights? Cardio? How many days a week? For how long?

Permanent weight loss is usually impossible without exercise, but — where to start? Weights? Cardio? How many days a week? For how long?

That's typically where a personal trainer enters the scene, designing fitness routines, making sure exercises are done correctly and offering motivation. Now there's training via Internet and the phone. Such coaching has become enormously popular in the past few years, spawning a mini-industry of tailored but flexible workouts. Some programs offer customized, downloadable regimens based on an online questionnaire, with little or no trainer interaction; others provide extensive one-on-one phone coaching.

Many online sites allow people to plug in information and track their workout and diet progress.

One of the more common coaching methods begins with one or two in-person sessions that include a fitness and health assessment, a discussion of goals and some training on proper form and technique.

After that, check-ins are done via e-mail and phone, with the trainer tweaking routines, monitoring progress toward goals and providing motivation. Some clients even send footage of their workouts to be tweaked, and trainers in turn send new video routines to follow.

In-person meetings can follow every few months.

A gym isn't even necessary, since a great workout can be done at home, at the beach or at a park.

Another option is small-group training, in which two to five people work with a trainer at once. It's less expensive than one-on-one workouts and a good way to learn how to strength train properly.

When choosing a program, the key is to know thyself, says Margaret Moore, chief executive of the online coaching site Wellcoaches: "Some people want more of a relationship, while others are more into technology."

Ken Alan, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise and a lecturer in kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton, offers a few other tips for making this hybrid form of training work.

Is the trainer certified?

Make sure the trainer has current certification from a reputable organization such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, the National Academy of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association, even if you're referred by a friend or relative you trust. Besides referrals, trainers can be found in gyms and online, and certifications can be confirmed through the various organizations.

Some trainers specialize in working with the disabled or chronically ill, pregnant women and new mothers, or elderly people.

Cheating gets you nowhere

Remember that you don't have license to cheat just because your trainer can't see you. You'll only be wasting your time if you don't give the process your all. Be fully committed to your fitness program, and be open to trying different things, such as cycling, dancing or hiking. "A trainer needs to find out what's necessary to get the client moving so that they'll enjoy exercising and it doesn't feel like work," Alan says.

Make sure you click

Make sure you're comfortable with the trainer during the initial one-on-one sessions. A strained or uncomfortable relationship won't get better, even online. It might take a few tries before a good match is made. "You might start getting e-mails," Alan says, "and discover the trainer is a drill sergeant, when you really wanted someone more compassionate."

Set parameters

Establish how often you want to interact with your trainer and by what means — e-mail, text messages, phone, snail mail, etc. Ask how progress will be measured, beyond shedding pounds. "If someone's goal is to lose 10 pounds and they only lost two, their trainer can show them other areas where they've had success and made improvements," Alan says. This ultimately will make it easier to stick to a plan.

And check some more

When selecting an Internet-based training program (one that doesn't offer one-on-one training), check it out thoroughly to see if it meets your needs, is within your budget and has a qualified staff behind it.

Here are a few established places to start that offer a variety of services, with prices starting at $16 a month:

Workoutsforyou.com: One appealing feature of this site is the varying levels of training programs, from the bare-bones "Access for You" plan with non-customized workouts and the exercise demo library, to the "Extras for You" program, with custom cardio and strength-training workouts and weekly trainer e-mails. Wellcoaches: Clients are matched to coaches who will best meet their needs, and counseling via phone and Internet is done with a holistic approach, tackling other issues such as stress and goal planning. It has a partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine. Global Health & Fitness: Members are assigned to their own trainer, plus get personalized training and nutrition programs, fitness videos, podcasts and 24-hour access to the site's experts. Plus One Active: The site offers workout plans, goal tracking and access to trainers. Trainer bios are online, allowing potential members to see their backgrounds and qualifications.