How to start a personal trainer business

Not just for bodybuilders or yoga enthusiasts, the fitness market is exploding and that means big business; here's our guide to becoming a personal trainer

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Despite the turbulence of the economic downturn, the health industry has remained relatively stable; in fact, market research firm TGI claims the number of gym members in Britain has increased by one million since 2000. Yet the gym culture is being transformed, as more and more people turn to tailored, one-on-one support from a personal trainer.

According to renowned trainer Vicky Mahony, “personal training in now the norm in most health clubs and gyms. More and more people are using trainers to get fit and healthy compared to 10-15 years ago. With more focus on health and well being than ever before, people are willing to invest in their health by getting a personal trainer.”

Britain’s leading gyms are rushing to cash in on this trend. According to fitness industry leader FitPro, David Lloyd reaches 5% of its membership through personal training and delivered approximately 400,000 personal training sessions in 2013 – that’s 7,600 a month. At Virgin Active, the figures are even higher and the industry continues to grow every year.

There is also an ever-increasing number of people looking to make it on their own, by creating their own personal training business. Many are specialising in outdoor training, following the lead of British Military Fitness, the park-based exercise club which now boasts 130 venues across the UK.

Andy Brown, editor of FitPro Network magazine, says you simply need to “look around your local park, or witness the popularity of shows like The Biggest Loser” to see the new-found popularity of outdoor exercise, which plays into the hands of independent personal trainers.” Furthermore, many people now believe that getting fit outdoors offers more flexibility, and satisfaction, than the sweaty, harshly lit confines of a gymnasium.

A report in the Daily Telegraph found that exercising outdoors provided greater physical and mental health benefits, and greater enjoyment, than a conventional gym workout. This can only be good news for personal trainers, who have the freedom to hold their classes in parks and other public spaces.

There’s no doubt that as the government gears itself up for the battle against obesity that sporting activity is only going to increase – so the rise of the personal trainer is perfectly timed.

What is a personal training business?

As FitPro’s Andy Brown says, personal training is all about specialism – you need to identify an area suited to your skill and expertise and stick with it. Once you have decided which area you want to specialise in, (helping people lose weight, working with pre-natal women or even training elite athletes), you need to find a suitable course which will give you the training and qualifications you need. While there’s no singular qualification for fitness instructors, some are more respected than others.

Other than the cost of training, which can be anything from £300 to £6,000, depending on your specialty and prior knowledge, other overheads are limited. Insurance is a must, and will usually cost at least £100 per year, and transport is also vital, but other costs depend on you.

Investment in the necessary equipment, such as free weights or a blood pressure machine, is usually an early outgoing, with equipment being replaced or updated perhaps every couple of years. You also need to be clear on what devices and instruments you need, because the choices are endless. Jane Walker, co-founder of FitPro, says that “the equipment we used in the early 90s was limited to bands, weights and steps, but now there is a plethora of tools to train with in classes or with clients.”

In terms of marketing yourself, most trainers agree word of mouth is the most effective – and cheapest – way of raising awareness. Roger Bradley, a fitness trainer based in Witney, Oxfordshire whose clients include famous writers and even an indie rock star, claims that one client will often lead to another. “I have a number of fairly affluent clients and I started off by going to their houses and working with them. I once secured work with both the head chef and the nanny of one client purely as a result of my work with their boss.”

To build his business, publicise his services and give his business a more professional look, Bradley spent in the region of £7,000 on a van that would accommodate all his equipment and an additional £450 on having his name and logo painted on the side – a cheap way of getting his name known wherever he travels.

Many personal fitness trainers have also set up a website to give themselves a broader reach, but generally find it isn’t as effective as it can be for selling other products and services, because the nature of the job traditionally requires close geographical proximity. But there does appear to be a growing market for training people virtually. You can also use the internet to market your business; social media is a great way for any business to reach potential customers, and you can make some fitness videos to show of your skill – plus followers can then easily recommend you via social networks.

“I have about ten clients who I deal with mainly by email, sending them workouts, receiving their feedback and adapting the programme accordingly,” comments Bradley, who spent £500 setting up his site. “I then meet up with them once every two months.” This often suits busy but motivated people who require the expertise to achieve a particular goal but are happy to carry out the training themselves.

However, while being a personal fitness trainer might sound attractive because of its limited overheads, hungry market and opportunity to earn, the job will not suit everybody.

Who is personal training business suited to?

Linda Grave, a fitness fanatic who ran a successful personal training business before recently changing careers, was surprised at the role counselling plays in the health and fitness industry. She qualified at the YMCA, and worked in a number of gyms for more than ten years before striking out on her own in 2002. “I was shocked at the number of clients who look upon you as a confidante. A bit like a doctor or dentist, people look to their trainers almost as a counsellor for problems in other areas of their life. You have to be very confidential, particularly as many clients know each other.”

Being a good listener and able to relate to a lot of different people is almost as important as your ability as a fitness trainer. Grave estimates the balance is about 50/50. This is backed up by renowned industry thought leader Robert Cappuccio, who says that, “as well as the importance of a specialism, one emerging trend is the role of the ‘wellness coach’,” whereby a trainer plays a more holistic role in their clients’ well-being. With this in mind, FitPro editor Andy Brown says that, “for anyone wanting to be a PT, I’d say – make sure you develop your ‘soft’ (customer) skills as much as your technical knowledge.”

The need to work all hours is also more pronounced as a self-employed fitness trainer than in other start-ups. While you can work as much or as little as you like because you are your own boss, the success of your business depends on your being available at times when it suits clients.

Nick Page, a self-employed fitness trainer based near Windsor, Berkshire explained, “If I decided to work 9-5 I would be out of a job. You have to be flexible. Of course you can decide to work only three days a week or whatever, but on the whole you have to be willing to work as early as 5am and as late as 8pm because that’s when people want to do their training.” Page will often do a 16-hour day, and will sometimes work seven days a week.

Your reasons for becoming a personal trainer will dictate the hours you make yourself available. If maximising your income is a priority then working hard, especially at the beginning while you build a reputation, is essential.

If you have other priorities and want to become a trainer to supplement your household income and remain flexible, being part-time is also a feasible option. During her time as a personal trainer, Grave worked four days a week and her hours were fitted around her children, who were at school. She built up a client base of women in a similar position, ensuring their hours were complementary and that she could relate to their lifestyle.

Becoming a personal trainer: Where do I start?

There is no one UK exam that qualifies somebody to be a personal fitness trainer, but there are a number of courses that are well respected within the industry. Your desire to either specialise in one area, such as weight loss, or offer a diversity of expertise will dictate what courses will suit you.

YMCA is one of the most popular names in the fitness industry, offering an Advanced Diploma in Personal Training in the form of a seven months to one year course or an intensive course that’s 35 days over seven consecutive weeks, at a cost of £2,999. It also offers Gym Instructor and Exercise to Music Instructor Awards which are the equivalent to an NVQ Level 2. These are ten-day intensive courses costing £839, but can also be carried out over a seven-week period to suit different people’s lifestyles.

The National Register of Personal Trainers (NRPT) endorses reputable trainers, supplying names and numbers to people seeking an instructor. It will assess each trainer on its merits before allowing them to join. The NRPT looks for a certain number of criteria to be fulfilled, including a combination of specific health and fitness qualifications as well as valid insurance. It costs £101.11 per year to be a registered member and is advisable as both a stamp of approval and access to new business opportunities.

You should also consider insurance for your personal trainer business. This guide has all you need to know on personal trainer insurance and the covers you’ll need.

How much is a personal trainer’s salary?

This is dependent on several factors, not least how hard you want to work, but the low overheads associated with the profession does mean it can prove quite profitable. Steven Jones, sales manager at Savage Strength, says the average hourly rate charged by fitness trainers is between £20 and £50. “It depends on several factors such as how well known you are, your location, your specialist skills etc. I know one guy in London who charges £100 per hour.” It is also dependent on whether you are using your own equipment or someone else’s and how far you have to travel.

Linda Grave, a former personal fitness trainer from Suffolk, says that, during her training days, she charged up to £30 per hour, and began charging as soon as she left the house. She adds that she always made sure she did a triangular route, avoiding the need to go back on herself and waste petrol – and enabling her to make a significant profit.

In addition to working with individuals, there is a considerable opportunity to work with businesses and teams depending on how busy you want to be. Industry business leader Michael Scott Scudder recently told industry website PTontheNet that one of the most significant developments in the personal training sector has been the rise in small group training sales; indeed larger corporates are increasingly offering gym membership or even in-house gyms as an incentive to employees, and many sports clubs and teams now hire someone to oversee their fitness.

Bradley got into working with teams because his wife plays hockey for a local club and they enlisted his services. “I now coach two local hockey clubs, and charge anything from £50 to £100 per hour for a team, depending on what work we are doing.” Bradley also runs a circuit training class in a local hall two evenings a week, attracting in the region of 30 people who each pay £5. Rent for the hall is £25 and Bradley looks to make a profit of about £60 for an hour’s work.

If you’re keen to train clients outside, you should be able to turn a healthy profit – but be warned that more and more parks are now charging personal trainers who run classes on their land.

In April 2011, Hammersmith and Fulham Council made headlines for imposing a £350 charge on personal trainers using its network of parks, they continue to do so and a number of other local authorities followed suit. Although this has yet to become a nationwide policy, the introduction of financial charges for outdoor trainers seems likely to continue.

Terms and conditions

It is wise to include a clause in your terms and conditions to protect you from people dropping out at the last minute or simply not paying. Grave says that, after the initial assessment, she asked people to pay in advance for their first session.

Thereafter, customers were charged 50% of the fee if they cancelled within 24 hours and the full fee if they cancelled within an hour. “It protected me from people letting me down and certainly helped my cash flow,” comments Grave. “It also meant that people think twice about cancelling on a whim – it helped to motivate them!”

Tapping into the growing fitness market

If you want to set up a personal training company as a sideline, or extend your company’s coverage across the company, you may want to set up an online business – receiving requests on your website and delivering tailored programmes to clients by e-mail.

North-easterner David Riley wanted to set up his own personal training business as a part-time job, around his main work in exercise referral, but he realised he wouldn’t have the time to see all his clients face-to-face. So he set up a web-based company, Dr. Exercise, at a cost of around £300.

David says that a prospective customer will register their interest on his website, and he will then send them a questionnaire and an exercise sheet to find out about their goals, their abilities, and any health problems they may have. Based on these responses, he will work out a six-week exercise programme, and e-mail it back to them.

While he strives to visit clients in the North-East in person whenever possible, David deals with a number of clients in other parts of the UK by e-mail only. All payments are made on David’s website through Paypal, which charges a small commission for the service.

David says that,”it’s a lot easier to do a programme this way. With one-on-one personal training you’ve got to dedicate an hour to the tuition, and driving to and from the client as well. But this is much more efficient.”

David’s comments are echoed by seasoned fitness instructor Keith Daniel, who set up his own online business, Full Effect, in 2001. Together with his IT literate brother, Daniel set up and designed a web site himself, spending £500 on a secure server and a credit card transaction facility. This was his only initial outlay, as he worked from home and thus didn’t have to rent office space.

“There is a massive target market out there,” said Daniel. “Anyone who has found that programmes or diets don’t work for them is a potential customer. Operating solely over the internet also means that, as well as keeping the trainer’s costs at a minimum, clients can do their training and communicate with the trainer when it suits them. Its very flexible and potentially lucrative.”

Tips and useful contacts for becoming a certified personal trainer

Tips for success

  • If possible, undergo training in a range of fitness areas to keep your options open. Doing this will give you a good understanding of what you might want to specialise in.
  • Make sure you get public liability insurance to cover you in the event of any accidents.
  • Always get some payment up front and include a clause that full payment must be made if customers drop out at short notice.
  • Hand business cards out to all customers – many will have friends who are interested.
  • Try and update your knowledge of new fitness training techniques at least twice a year by attending courses and seminars run by industry bodies.

Useful Contacts:

National Register of Personal Trainers Tel. 07971 954662

Premier Training Tel. 01225 353555

British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) Tel. 0113 289 1020

YMCA Tel. 0207 343 1850

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