Personal training in a pandemic: how trainers survived when the fitness industry went virtual

When the personal got taken out of personal training, fitness instructors in Wales had to adapt their business models with lockdown restrictions

Alt Cardiff
The fitness industry has been forced to go virtual because of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Unsplash

It has been nearly a year since gyms first closed their doors in Wales, and, with no sign of their reopening, many have turned to online or at-home workouts to keep fit.

This major shift in exercise habits drove a 300% increase in sales of sportswear and equipment in the UK, and, according to a survey by Runner’s World, 47% more people have hired personal trainers and nutritionists since this time last year.

But personal trainers in Wales, whose business relies on close contact in one-to-one sessions, have been forced to adapt how they work and, after the Welsh government announced a major U-turn on the reopening of gyms last month, they have little indication of when they will return to normal.

So, how have personal trainers in Wales adapted their business models in lockdown and what are their thoughts on the future of the fitness industry?

The great outdoors

Phillip Sheen has been a personal trainer for 16 years after deciding to start his qualifications at 24. He used to carry out training sessions in a rented room at a gym in Greenfield, North Wales. But in December last year, he decided to open his own.

Alt Cardiff
Phillip left his desk job to become a personal trainer to improve his confidence. Photo courtesy of Phillip Sheen

So, when gyms were forced to close, Phillip had to adapt pretty quickly. He is not a fan of online workouts, so started to take his training sessions outdoors.

Phillip is lucky because his house has its own private forest and grounds where he now carries out most of his workouts.

“Once the government said you could exercise outside with somebody else last year, my phone went off the hook,” he said, “we do Muay Thai, pad work or, we go up in the mountains and the woods and flip logs or drag tires. Everybody loves it.”

Apart from some older people, who had to shield, most of Phillip’s clients stayed with him when the gym closed, and he found they were still eager to train.

He typically trains 15-20 people throughout the week and charges around £30 for an hour-long session. With the move outdoors, he could continue working with the same number of clients, and with the same quality of teaching without dropping his charges.

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

Phillip was given the income support grant for self-employed people and has just started getting the discretionary grant. But, because he previously rented a room in a gym for his training sessions, he could not claim the business grant because he was not classed as a ‘reasonable business’.

“I’ve now created my own gym, which is a reasonable business, but it has only been running since December,” he said, “the grant says you have to have been a reasonable business from September.”

There is a market for both face-to-face and online workouts. One does not replace the other”

Also, the Winter months lead to a significant drop in business because people were less keen to train outdoors, and Phillip is now mostly relying on the money he made in the Summer to get him through.

Phillip also expressed he was concerned about the direction of the fitness industry and the shift to online workouts on his income. However, he said he believed his profession would survive in the long term.

“There is a market for both face-to-face and online workouts,” he said, “one does not replace the other.”

A balancing act

Demi-Louise Brown is 26 and a part-time personal trainer in Penarth, Cardiff. She is one of the many trainers who had to move online and now coaches her clients in one-to-one and group sessions virtually over Facetime, WhatsApp and Zoom.

Alt Cardiff
Demi said she loved being a personal trainer because of relationships she forms with clients. Photo courtesy of Rachel O’Keefe

During these sessions, Demi will pay close attention to her clients, giving them tips on avoiding injury and keeping them motivated, just as she would if they were together.

Demi is self-employed but usually uses her local gym to train clients. Before it closed, she was working 30 hours a week and charging around £25 per session. But, since lockdown began, her working hours have dropped significantly.

“I do about 10 phone calls a week now and keep them to 30 minutes in length because a lot of people don’t tend to have heavy weights at home,” she said, “as a result, I don’t do as many strength-based workouts but focus more on cardio, and doing that for more than 30 minutes increases the risk of injury.”

For her online workouts, Demi dropped her price to £20 per session because she believed she couldn’t give her clients the same quality of teaching as she could in person.

On top of this, Demi has a young child, and her partner works shifts so, in the day, she has to balance her training sessions with childcare.

“My little girl is usually running about somewhere, and I sometimes have to pause the workout because I have to see to her. It can be quite chaotic.”

Demi has received some government grants to help her keep on top of the bills, but she hasn’t been eligible for many of the Welsh business grants because she is self-employed.

“You need certain requirements which, as a small business, I don’t have, such as a work place under my name or employed members of staff,” she said, “I was eligible for one business grant, but I had Covid and missed the deadline and they were unwilling to accept my application.”

“I’m still grateful because what I did get has helped me hugely and I wouldn’t have survived without it.”

I think personal training is one of the few jobs, like hairdressing, that just can’t be replaced by a robot”

She also said the shift to online workouts has meant she lost clients because she had to compete with the army of social media ‘influencers’ who pump out free workouts via Instagram and Facebook.

But, like Phillip, she believed this wouldn’t affect her business in the long run.

“I’ve got people already messaging me about sessions in the summer when, hopefully, the gyms will be open,” she said, “I think personal training is one of the few jobs, like hairdressing, that just can’t be replaced by a robot.”

A different ball game

Joe Perry, who at 29 years old, owns a personal training studio in Newport and is not only responsible for his own income but that of the 9 personal trainers who rent his space.

Joe has been running his own personal training studio for almost five years. Photo courtesy of Joe Perry

When lockdown hit, his business plan largely went out the window and he had to adapt, as most people have, by moving online. However, he allowed members of his gym to take home some equipment like kettlebells and resistance bands, so they could continue to work out from home in the same way.

Now, he mostly runs group training sessions online which people can pay for monthly and only offers one to one sessions for those who have specific injuries and need tailored workouts.

“I used to do about 40 to 50 personal training sessions a week at £35 per session” he said, “but now I’m down to around 8.”

Joe said he had been getting funding from Sports Wales and from the council under their coronavirus support grant, but said the Welsh government’s planning of these funds was not good enough.

“It took weeks and weeks for the applications to even open, and once you applied, you were waiting even longer for the money to come in, but bills were still going out in the meantime,” he said.

“I definitely think the Welsh Government should be doing more. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going.”

On top of this, Joe said he felt the fitness industry was misunderstood because it runs differently to other businesses as personal trainers get their income in instalments, not on a weekly basis.

I definitely think the Welsh Government should be doing more. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going”

“I think the government has to understand that it’s not a case that you get back into the gym on day one and walk out with a pocket of money,” he said, “you might not get paid properly for another six weeks and that’s the way it is in personal training.”

Despite these setbacks, Joe said he believed face to face training would continue to be popular and the pandemic has shown the need for social interaction.

“I think people will probably appreciate the opportunity to go to a gym more than they did previously,” he said.

The final word

It appears most trainers are relying on their ability to adapt in order to sustain their business, rather than relying on help from grants or funding.

Despite the huge shift to online workouts over the past year, for most trainers this is not a long-term solution and many are itching to get back to face to face training as soon as possible.

Online workouts, albeit now more popular, have always been around and what is apparent from talking to these personal trainers is, in-person sessions are something that cannot be replicated.

The effects of lockdown

Alt Cardiff

The personal training industry has been growing steadily over the past decade, but it has been predicted to fall by almost £60 million between 2020 and 2021.

On top of this, 37% of gym goers have not renewed or have cancelled their gym membership because of reasons such as feeling unsafe in a gym, preferring to exercise at home, or being unable to afford a membership.