Interview conducted and edited by Benjamin Rhatigan
For this week’s post, we had a chat with personal trainer Nicki Empson, who recently made the move from London to Spain, to talk about what initially began as a side project and has now evolved into an entrepreneurial vocation. Nicki studied philosophy at the University of Nottingham, initially thinking that she would go into law, not knowing that her interest in fitness would lead her down a completely different path.
Have you always been involved in fitness? What sparked the interest in transitioning from participant to trainer?
Not always. While I was at university I started spending a lot of time at the gym to relieve stress from studying, and became quite competent at it, until a friend actually asked me to start training her. It worked out very well, so I started training other people. While I was at university it never occurred to me that I could make money from doing what I enjoyed doing for fun. I also realized that I really love training other women, and have focused almost exclusively on that.
Separately, while I was at university I was officially diagnosed with OCD, which was a real revelation for me, obviously. Exercising became a way for me to help literally fix my mind, and I saw how its benefits could help other people, too.
How did you get educated in fitness training? Is there any particular method you follow?
I realized I wanted to be a trainer but had already finished university and didn’t want to go back full-time, so I did a 6-week intensive course, which was fine because I’d already studied a lot about fitness on my own. Philosophy-wise, I’m a big proponent of balance, meaning don’t deny yourself things you really want. If you want a chocolate bar, it’s ok, have one, but don’t have ten. My philosophy is that if my body is craving something, be it pizza or exercise, it’s ok to follow it, but in moderation, with balance.
You recently moved to Barcelona from London. What was the catalyst for the change? Have you noticed any differences about how people exercise/eat/view fitness between the two locations?
The catalyst for the move was that I was craving something radically different from my London life, a change. I wasn’t progressing anymore in London the way I wanted to, and I knew I needed to do something substantial, to just move countries.
Exercise differences between Barcelona and London- huge! People don’t train in the same way here. For example, in Barcelona I see lots of natural outdoor training- people running, swimming, hiking, playing padel, and they do it for the sake of enjoying it and exercising. People in London seem to train much more for aesthetic, sculpting a body. Barcelona doesn’t yet have anything like the boutique-y fitness movement in London that can be quite cult-like.
Food-wise, unfortunately Barcelona doesn’t yet have the same type of quick-health-food-on-the-go culture, like pick up a salad and green juice and go. In some ways it’s wonderful, because people still sit down to eat and share a table, but in other ways it’s frustrating because I actually find it more difficult to eat healthy on-the-go when I have a busy schedule.
You're really into beach training and outdoor bootcamps and similar exercise. How's that different from what you would normally do in the gym?
I would never have done that type of stuff in London, but I love it here. In London I strictly weight-trained, but in Barcelona the weather is amazing and you can train outside almost the whole year. Another difference with London is that there’s kind of a micro-segmentation of gyms, lots of different ranges and styles and concentrations, and they`re popping up everywhere, so there’s almost too much choice.
Have you ever had any absurd experiences with someone you were training?
Oh definitely. I would have to train people in their dressing gowns in their homes. They wouldn’t want to even put on trainers or anything, just stay in their dressing gown and exercise. Also, some clients would tell me quite bizarre stuff about their lives, because you become kind of a therapist, but it was good because it helped us build a more intimate relationship.
How do you tend to find your clients? Do you view training as a business and treat it seriously, with time dedicated to sales, marketing, growth, etc.?
I’ve done a lot of client prospecting, but I’ve never really called it that or thought of it that way. It was all very organic. I would do lots of cold walk-ins to gyms and just ask if they would take me as a freelance trainer. I had lots of client referrals from word-of-mouth, and then later on as my reputation developed, more serious gym referrals started happening. For example, I had a great collaboration with a modelling agency that would send me their models that they needed to train, many of whom ended up being long-term clients. I loathe promoting myself on social media, though understand its value. Fortunately I haven’t had to do it too much. Just being out there and available helps.
What do you look for in workout clothes?
I look for aesthetic- I need it to look good, especially because I usually wear sports bras and leggings! I like black also because I sweat a lot! Has to be a good material. I actually spend a lot of money on workout clothes. Out of principal I wouldn’t spend anything less than €50 (~90 CAD). I need good quality.