March 06, 2024 15 min read

One of the first times I saw Naomi, I was too scared to go up to her because she honestly reminded me of a kind of Grecian Goddess. She’s tall, has fantastic, muscular arms and is just stunning. I felt like a gremlin in the shadows! But after a mutual friend introduced us, it was impossible to stay nervous. She is so kind and calm but with just the right amount of enthusiasm that makes you sign up to things without thinking twice. By the end of our conversation for this profile, I was saying I would be going to her classes, wellness festivals and future retreats. Seems I may have drunk the Naomi Kool-Aid!  But it’s not surprising given that Naomi is an instructor at Barry’s, one of the best boutique fitness studios in the UK and notorious for their hard work outs. I met up with Naomi in Central London to discuss how she became a prominent name within the fitness and wellness industry.

Naomi Heffernan | Nicely Done Journal

So, if we start at the beginning, what was life like as a child?

I absolutely loved acting, dancing and singing. When I was at primary school I was in all of the school plays. I remember in year six I was Dick Whittington which was the lead part, and that just spurred me on to really excel at the drama stuff. I loved embodying characters and it was an opportunity to live a different life and express myself.

Is school where you got into Sport too?

I wasn’t really part of the school teams because when the choice was to stay behind and do netball practice or do the drama rehearsal, I chose that (drama) route. And I did it outside of school too. So, I did theatre clubs and that’s how I would spend my weekends. But although I wasn’t in the teams, I was very sporty, I did triathlons (running swimming and cycling) and I would go swimming six times a week when I was really young. And then I would enter races at the weekend.

How old were you?

Around the age of 12 to 16. And then it was which way do I want to go? Drama or Sport. Plus, I had started going out with my friends and getting drunk and I just thought the drama side was way more fun than the sports.

After school, the next 5-10 (or more) years differ so much for people. And tends to be a real time of growth whether we want it to be or not! What did they look like for you?

So I moved to London and went to RADA for the foundation course in acting and then I went to Central School of Speech and Drama. I couldn’t wait to leave home, there wasn’t the opportunity of living in halls, so I had to find my own place. I got a job and I had been working from the age of 12 anyway, so I always had it in me that if I wanted to do something, having a job meant freedom. My first ever job was working in a hairdresser and sweeping up hair, not even washing hair. And then I was eventually allowed to wash hair, but I massively messed up all the time and I would be getting water down the backs of these old ladies! So after the hairdressers I got a job in catering, I was working in pubs and clubs and that’s what I did in London. I used to work in Camden Proud every weekend until 2am and then do Uni, and I was loving the party life.

On my course it was a small group of us, it started with about 20 of us and I think there were about 16 of us by the end. If the head of year thinks you’re not going to make it you kind of get kicked off. There’s still a little crew of us that have stayed friends over the years, which is really nice.

And who did you look up to during this time?

I would look at other actors or young women exiting drama school, and I would look to see what agents they were with and what jobs they were getting. I remember sending so many agent emails, but I would definitely copy what other women were doing.

During that time, were you keeping on top of fitness?

Yes, so I continued to do fitness and it was mainly for an aesthetic reason, I personally felt pressured to be a certain size as an actor, which is ridiculous really because characters are all different shapes and sizes. But I think that came from a deep-rooted insecurity, that I needed to be a certain size.

Do you think the tutors at Uni were also putting pressure on you?

I don’t think so at drama school, but certainly growing up doing ballet and when I did my junior stuff, I definitely felt the pressure. And it did lead to an eating disorder as a teenager, which lingered for quite a long time. So I continued to train and did aerobics classes and all the cardio, I would always go running just to keep my weight down. I did enjoy it but I felt like I needed to earn my dinner, and that’s an awful place to be. I’m so glad that I managed to get over that. I feel really sad for my younger self actually, thinking that I wasn’t good enough, or pretty enough or thin enough.

Can I ask, because you’re earning your own money, how old were you when doing spinning classes?

I was a member of the leisure centre which was opposite Uni and affordable, and I would go to spin classes there. Also, back then, there weren’t any cool studios.

So how did you change from the world of drama to the fitness?

I was doing fitness for the aesthetics but I really loved going to classes and I really got into spinning. I loved the music and I loved the choreography, because it was kind of like dancing and I loved the buzz. It was the only thing that really made me sweat. So after drama school I was making money, paying my rent and then I saw this thing pop up, not sure where because I don’t think Instagram was even a thing then. It was called Urban Tri, a triathlon that involved a yoga class, running to a spin studio and then doing a spin class. And the spin class was at a studio called Boom Cycle. I went, did it and absolutely loved it. I had never been to a spin studio like that, where it was boutique and I think it was the first of its kind in London. I spoke to the owner who was teaching the class, an American woman with so much energy, and I was like I want to be just like this woman. She was called Hillary and I asked ‘how do I get a job as spinning instructor?’, because I also saw this person as a performer on stage and I thought that was an amazing combination of what I love doing, performing on stage but also fitness. She comped me for a few weeks and said ‘get down to as many classes as you can and I want you to do a 3 minute audition, for one (song) track, get up and get on the stage and get on the mic’. So I did it and she said ‘I think you have great energy, I would love to bring you on and train you’. I remember it being over Christmas and I was getting all my family to help me with playlists, she trained me up and I did my first big class, I invited my friends and family down and she said ‘you have the job’. It was really nerve-racking but nice having family and friends there. 

And did you stop acting there and then?

I started at Boom Cycle in 2014 and I ended up doing that full time and then a few auditions here and there. Doing spinning was good pay but exhausting! You’re doing every class with each group. I did still do acting, but my final acting gig was a 6 month tour and I had the worst time.  It was already in production, and I was replacing someone. I didn’t enjoy the cast and we just didn’t click.  After that I said to my agent no more jobs that will take me out of London for a long period of time.  I became ‘Master Trainer’ at Boom Cycle and I was getting more of a following from my classes. Also, I got onto Class Pass and was a client at Barry’s, 1Rebel, I was doing yoga and really enjoying the boutique side of fitness.  But at  Barry’s I thought ‘oh my god, that is the pinnacle of boutique fitness in London’, if I could ever be a Barry’s trainer, in my mind, I had made it. So I finished the acting and was focusing on spinning but then thought ‘what am I doing with my life?’.

I guess you had spent so much of your life working towards being an actor, it would have felt like such a curve ball to be working full time in the fitness industry?

Yeah, I had always wanted to be an actor, so I started thinking ‘is this (fitness) what I want to do?’ I decided to take some time away from teaching, spinning and acting and I got a job at Lulu Lemon. It was the first job I had ever had with sick pay and holiday pay, the same amount of money coming in every month. And I just needed that stability because I had always been self-employed with the spinning. My job was a store community lead at the Kings Road store, I was doing a couple of days on the shop floor and then I was going to classes and building connections with other trainers with the goal to create a community in the industry and around the local area.

So how did you get back into teaching fitness?

In the first year of being at lululemon I ended up getting promoted to the flagship store and I hated it. I was really down and not enjoying it. But at one of the community projects at the store, Barry’s had a pop-up. They had all the treadmills outside the store and I was helping to man it and got chatting to one of the girls from Barry’s, I kind of knew her because I was going to Barry’s classes in my spare time and she told me they were doing auditions for trainers, so I auditioned and my boyfriend, Ben, auditioned too and we both got into the training and I‘ve been working at Barry’s ever since. It will have been 5 years in September and I still love it.

Naomi Heffernan | Nicely Done Cards Journal

Wow, pretty incredible that you reached your dream of being part of the Barry’s team in a relatively short space of time!  And on top of that you’re a Nike trainer, how did that happen?

Back in early 2020 or late 2019, Nike invited a load of trainers in the industry to a sort of ambassador audition day, it was actually Ben who got invited and he had been sent a questionnaire, he said ‘why don’t you fill it out too and send it off and see if they invite you’. And so I did and I got an email straight away saying ‘thanks so much here’s the address for the day’! I turned up and they didn’t say it was an audition, but that’s what it was, a community day and they were scouting.  We did a workout together and I knew a few people there and we had a really cool day just training and doing workshops and we had to present some things. So, off the back of that, they then selected about 20 ambassadors, and I think  this was the first time they had done this in the UK. Then they turned up at one of my classes and I thought this could be an audition to be a trainer.

So your drama background would have really prepped you for this moment

Yes, and I really think that in my line of work, you’re only as good as how well you can communicate the knowledge you have. Someone can be a great trainer but not a people person, and it just won’t really work.  So, they liked my class and said they wanted to take me on as a Nike trainer, which means it’s paid, you’re part of a team and work on projects throughout the year

It sounds like female after female (and Ben) has given you the encouragement and boost to get you to where you are today. But I’ve always thought it’s a male dominated industry. What’s your take?

Yeah, I have been inspired by women and the opportunities have come about through other women. And it’s interesting because I haven’t been given many chances through men. I think it is better now, and we are finally waking up to having more representation across all areas and the people in power are actively trying to put women or people of colour and variety of body types in those positions. I also definitely see a shift in how women like to train, there are a lot more women training with weights and heavy lifting. These days, I think it's more about what their body can do and not what their body looks like.

Looking back, what would you say to your younger self?

I wish I’d gotten into strength training earlier! I always want to be stronger and it takes years to build up strength, but there just weren’t the opportunities to do it. I used to think CrossFit was only for ‘military men’ doing pull-ups, now there’s a Box on every street corner. But even now I have imposter syndrome and think ‘oohh I’m not good enough’ but I think I would say don’t be scared of failing.


Naomi Heffernan | Nicely Done Cards Journal

What do you hope for your future?

A goal of mine is to build my own thing that isn’t reliant on someone else, but even now, I am scared of failing at it. I want to help other women, who are maybe feeling stuck.  During lockdown, I was really militant with my own programme. Now, I would love to be back in that place and I’m struggling to get back there but I know I have it in me. And once I get back there I want to help others to be at the top of their game. This could be through doing retreats or coaching but I want it to be my own thing and to build my own community. 

Ben, your partner, was hit by a car whilst he was cycling in August 2022, he acquired a brain injury and overnight you became his carer, and had to support him and sacrifice a lot in more ways that you could have ever possibly anticipated. This is definitely too broad a question, but how did you put one foot in front of the other when your world was collapsing?

At the very beginning it was just living my life hour to hour. And breaking it down into chunks and that turned into trying to just get through the day and then getting through the week. But it was so micro, because the thought of ‘what will life be in 6 months time?’, it was unbearable to even think about the future. But I’ve been doing that for so long and it’s only been the last 6 months, since Ben has been back home, that I have actually realised I have my own life too and what should I do?

And it’s been a relatively short amount of time for a massive rollercoaster of events.

Yeah, you say short but it also feels like a lifetime and it feels like I’ve put my life on hold. Back when he was in ICU all I wanted was for him to squeeze my hand or sit up in a chair and that’s all I was focused on. I became a carer and that’s all I could do because, it’s sad to say, but in the NHS, they’re so busy it is kind of who shouts the loudest will be seen and I had to advocate for him, and that was the fuel that kept me going.


Naomi Heffernan | Nicely Done Journal

Naomi and her partner Ben


And how did you strive for balance? Because obviously Ben takes priority and family, friends and work take a backseat but for you also take care of yourself.

I took six months off work so I had no income, but we really didn’t know what was going to happen. Ben’s family were always very hands on, I never worried that there wasn’t someone with him and that made it easier to take some time for myself. But I did feel guilty for going out and occasionally having a laugh, there was this feeling inside that was saying I shouldn’t be having fun right now. I had to be really disciplined with self-care and block it out in the diary. Go have a massage or go and have dinner with a friend.

What did you find helpful?

I often write in my ‘notes’ on my phone or I’ll do voice notes to myself, not to listen back to or anything, but just to get it out. And then cold-water swimming is something I got into more after the accident and I found that really helped and I still do them. I’ll go to a community sauna and ice baths and I love it, three or four saunas at different temperatures and same for the ice baths. In the morning I’ll finish on cold and in the evenings I’ll finish on warm.

And how is your life as a couple now?

After visiting Ben in hospital nearly every day for 9 months, he moved home with me in May last year. We had to move out of our garden flat we loved to a new accessible apartment and I now realise how not everywhere is accessible, we need handle rails on all steps and we have to check if restaurants have a ground floor toilet. Ben has defied so many odds and he’s working on all types of therapies plus we have support workers who stay with Ben when I’m not around. But being a carer and also wanting to maintain a romantic relationship is really hard and some days I do feel so exhausted. Especially alongside trying to work and look after my own mental health. But we just have to accept this new version of our lives. I am really looking forward to our first proper holiday in nearly two years, it will be a chance for us to relax together just us two.

What does a typical working day look like for you?

I teach every morning Monday to Saturday. I’m up at 5am Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s. Up at 6am on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s. I teach my morning classes starting at either 6am or 7:15am and then on Saturday I do three classes starting at 10am, so a bit of a lie in. Those are my Barry’s classes and the rest of the day is PT (Personal Training) clients and training for myself. I either jump into a Barry’s class, or a CrossFit class or a friend’s class. Sometimes I might have an evening class or a late client, but it’s not often. I always try and do massage or physio once a week. I need something once a week that is self-care and that’s something I have continued to do since Ben’s accident, so a massage or getting my hair done. Or I’ll go to the sauna/ice bath, And I am in my pyjamas and in bed at 8pm, asleep by 9pm.

Why can’t you just do the same thing as your clients instead of taking a separate class?

When I’m instructing, I’m not actually taking part in the class, just a few demos and then it’s all coaching. Going to a class or the gym is an hour where I’m around people, I don’t have to look at my phone, I’m being told what to do and I don’t have to think at all. Compared to the rest of my day, it’s a bit of me-time.

So it feels you work more than you socialise?

Well no, I finish my days quite early, it’s not often I work in the evenings. For fun, I still love going to the theatre. I used to go out dancing and raving a lot but I don’t do that anymore because I don’t drink. I haven’t drunk alcohol for 3 and a half years now and it’s one of the best things I chose to do. I love getting up and going on a hike and being outside in nature, and trying to do that on a hangover is not the one.

What nuggets of information would you tell someone wanting to work in fitness?

Find a really good PT course, not just an online one that you can do from home. A good course will really educate you. And upskill, I have my Level 3 PT, Pre and post-natal, British weightlifting Level 1 and 2, my CrossFit level 1 as well as 200 hours Yoga Teacher training and although I’m not technically using all of them right now, it’s really important to be constantly learning and understanding as much as possible. And if you want to get into boutique fitness, get down to as many classes as you can and figure out what you enjoy doing. Because if you don’t enjoy doing it, you won’t enjoy teaching it. So find something that you really love, not because it’s on trend. The job I do, I love so much and it just does not feel like work. 

And who have you chosen to send a card to for International Women’s Day?

I’m sending a card to my friend Liv who Ben and I both met through the London Fitness community. She’s an ICU nurse at The Brompton (Hospital). When Ben was in hospital, she was just incredible. She would do her own long shifts at her hospital and then regularly travel all the way to The Royal London (hospital) to check in on us and on Ben. She went above and beyond for us and was such a supportive woman in my life during that time.