If you’re considering a career as a freelance self-employed personal trainer in London, read this article very carefully. There are a few things you need to consider before taking the plunge. If you think being self-employed is easier than being an employee with a boss breathing down your neck, you’re in for a very big shock.
But if you’re passionate about fitness and nutrition, ambitious to build your own personal training business, and have a burning desire to succeed in the face of multiple obstacles and stiff competition from the thousands of other personal trainers in London, and possess all the qualities you’ll need to succeed, you’re in for the best ride of your life.
An increasing number of personal trainers in London have a degree in Sports Science. But you don’t need this degree to become a personal trainer, you can simply do a Diploma course, such as YMCA or Premier Training, to name two of the biggest. These courses are not cheap, and they’re not a walk in the park. Work harder than you’ve ever worked before to get the most out of your course, and pass with flying colours.
Becoming qualified is not sufficient on its own to be a good personal trainer, and certainly no guarantee you’ll earn a decent living. It’s just one small piece of a very large jigsaw.
You need a whole range of people skills, character traits and basic business skills if you want to succeed in this highly competitive market.
You need to be patient. Many clients will be unfamiliar with exercise technique, so you have to be able to demonstrate and explain the same thing several times over without becoming impatient or irritable. If you’re not a people-person, then personal training is absolutely not for you. Before I became a personal trainer myself, I remember a personal trainer I hired in a gym in central London who became very irritated when I failed to master a particular exercise first time round. Not great client-service!
You need good communication skills. Explain to your clients what it takes for them to reach their goals, and explain it in words they can understand. Don’t bombard them with the stuff you’ve learnt in your degree or diploma, unless they’re really interested in the technical details. Most are not, they just want to lose weight or build muscle.
You need to have a real passion for fitness and nutrition. Any job you don’t have passion for will grind you down.
You need to be assertive, both in the personal training session itself and on the business side. You’re in charge of the session: don’t let the client get distracted or they’ll get a substandard workout. If you train a client in their own home there are dozens of potential distractions. Are you assertive enough to ask the client to put the dog in the next room so you can both focus on the workout? Or to stop playing with the baby or the kids in the middle of a session? A key feature of a good workout is intensity, and distractions kill intensity. Explain this to the client.
On the business side, are you assertive enough to tell the client that they need to pay the cancellation fee if they cancel at the last minute, and not give in to their pleas and excuses to be let off “just this once”? Are you assertive enough to stick strictly to the allotted hour? You’ll be cheating yourself out of valuable time and income if you lack assertiveness skills. But you need to combine assertiveness with tact, or the client will fall out with you. Lay down the rules of engagement very clearly before you take on each new client, and get their explicit agreement to your terms and conditions. Most personal trainers in London have a ’24 hours notice or full fee due’ cancellation policy.
You need to be tactful. If a client has a crazy misconception about exercise or nutrition, and many will, you need to help rid them of their false beliefs without making them feel stupid. Exercise and nutrition are very emotive subjects for obese people, so tact is vital.
You need to be flexible. Every client is different in their psychological and physical restrictions. Have at your disposal a wide range of tools to deal with a wide range of people.
You need to be mentally tough. Freelance personal training can be isolating, as you’re on your own. If you’re the kind of person who needs plenty of encouragement and support at work, be clear that personal training is not an easy career option. You’ll be the one giving the encouragement to your clients, there will be nobody giving it to you. Can you handle that?
You need physical and mental stamina. In order to make a decent living, you’ll have to put in the hours, often starting very early in the morning and finishing late. Most personal trainers in London get up around 5:00am to be ready for their first client at 7:00am. Think what effect this will have on your social life during the week, if you’re to get enough sleep to be fresh and ready for the next day. Many personal trainers work Saturdays too, some also have clients on Sunday morning. This will eat into what most people consider their free time.
You need to be friendly, but not too friendly. You’re a professional, not their friend. Beware of falling into the trap of chatting too much, or allowing the client to chat too much. This kills the intensity of the PT session, and your client will not make progress. If the relationship becomes too informal, you’ll find it very hard to enforce the cancellation policy.
You could be a fantastic personal trainer, but still struggle to make ends meet if you have poor business skills.
When I started out as a personal trainer in London, I had a two-pronged strategy. One was high-risk, and one was very labour-intensive.
The high-risk one was a £400.00 advert in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, as I started out my personal training career in North London. Advertising is notoriously hit and miss, and I could easily have got zero clients from this ad. Luckily I got one response from a client who wanted to train three times a week. I can still remember that phone-call all these years later, and the relief which flooded over me. That client stayed with me for several years, and recommended me to his friends, which produced two more clients.
The labour-intensive strategy I used, and most new personal trainers in London do this, was to have 5,000 promotional postcards designed and printed. That was the easy part, and cost just £150.00. The hard part was delivering these 5,000 flyers door-to-door. Try it yourself, it’s hard work. I delivered my personal training flyers around Highgate, Hampstead, and Highbury, and it produced two clients. My strike rate over the years was around two clients per 5,000 flyers. Very time-consuming, very low strike rate. These flyers are viewed as junk-mail and probably 50% are binned without even being read.
Again I was lucky. One of those two clients who responded to my flyer has been training with me for over 10 years. His wife picked up the flyer when it dropped through the letterbox, and she bought her husband 5 sessions for his birthday. I’ve lost count of the number of personal training sessions he’s done since. He’s now the fittest man in his fifties I’ve ever met.
Beware of advertising in those free magazines which are delivered to expensive apartment blocks in London. I tried this and got zero clients, not even a single enquiry. The problem is that these magazines often sit in a big pile in reception and not many people read them.
Another warning about advertising generally: you will be flooded with cold-calls from other advertisers pitching you to advertise in their local paper, magazine, brochure, website, you name it. You’ll also get cold-calls from nutritional supplement companies wanting you to become an affiliate or salesman for their pills and powders. It can be very disheartening to place an expensive ad, and receive call after call from people you hope will be a new client, but turn out to be an aggressive sales pitch. As a freelance personal trainer in London, you need to be mentally tough and resilient.
One marketing method I tried, which was expensive and time-consuming, but generated a couple of good clients, was direct mail. I won’t give away too many secrets, but if you create a good letter, get 1,000 printed, stuff them into envelopes, pop a second-class stamp on them, and send them to target addresses in London, you should get some clients. My strike-rate was around 2 clients per 1,000 letters, which is five times better then flyers delivered by hand, but still a lot lower than I expected. The time-consuming bit is selecting 1,000 addresses, and then addressing 1,000 envelopes (if you write the addresses in your own handwriting rather than using printed address-labels, your chances of arousing sufficient interest for the envelope to be opened are massively increased). I addressed my personal training letters to houses and flats in Chelsea, and one of the people who responded has been my client for three years.
As the years progressed, and I saw more personal trainers appearing all over London at an incredible rate, I realized that flyers and ads and direct marketing were not going to be enough. I needed a website. And I needed to get on page 1 of the Google rankings for a range of relevant search terms. But I’ll break off here, and talk about websites in Part 2. Those personal trainers in London who have a good website, and master the art of SEO (search engine optimization) are the ones who have a fighting chance of turning their passion for fitness into a viable business.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over a decade of experience.