Update 7/26/19. “How can I be a personal trainer?” is one of the most frequent questions I am asked and see being asked online. I've thought a lot about this and even wondered what I would have done differently if I had to do it over again. With that in mind, let me try not only to answer your questions but go also attempt to give you a step-by-step guideline of what I feel you should do to get started as a personal trainer. I'm going to assume that you are starting your journey with no background, other than your desire to get into the fitness business. I'll also cover the steps to take to help you get to that goal. If you have any questions, leave your comments at the end and I will answer them for you.
After you are done reading this, also see these reviews for more insights:
What's The Best Personal Trainer Cert?
Once people decide they want to get into this business, they want to be the best personal trainer they can be. So the search begins, for what's the best cert ―and it usually starts online. Very soon after, people run into a problem: they can't get a straight answer about what the best is. You know you have to be certified ―but by who?
In the US, there are over 100 different organizations that certify personal trainers. Which is the best? I know you've heard people say stuff like NSCA, WITS , ISSA, NASM and ACE is “the best cert” but if you don't know the difference between them, how do you really know?
The first step is to take a deep breath and remember there is no “best” personal trainer cert.
There, I said it!
This is the dirty little secret most organizations don’t want you to know.
I know I'm right because I have one of those certs that people say is “The Best,” and I'm the first to tell you that it is not perfect.
Most people will say “this is the best cert” because that's who they are certified by. To say anything other than this is to admit that maybe they made a mistake with the organization they were certified through.
Also, if they only have one cert, how do they know it's better than others? In other words, what are they comparing their fitness certification to? Some certifications may open some doors for you, but I think that's more about marketing than the certification being better.
How To Pick a Fitness Certification
Now let's narrow down the organizations you will choose from. Because many new personal trainers will begin their career working in a gym, The first step in your quest is to go to a local gym (several is better ) and ask the fitness director, general manager or owner if they have a list of personal training certs that they accept.
Most big-box gyms will have a list of accepted certifications. The list will likely contain the names of organizations you have probably heard of like ACE, NASM, NSCA, etc. as well as others.
The gym manager / owner may try to say to you “this is the best” cert but, take their words with a big gain of salt. Thank him/her for the list and take it home with you (or write down the names if they won't give you the list).
When you get home, I want you to open a spreadsheet program like Excel or google docs (or use paper if you like) and make a chart, like this:
Compare the cost of each certification. This is smart because certifications will vary in price. Some may be under $100 and others may be over $1000! Most personal trainer certification organizations teach basically the same stuff and that's why looking at cost is good to do.
I feel your goal is to be certified by an organization that
- Is accepted at local gyms
- Doesn't put you in credit card debt
Your certification chart should also have these columns too:
|How long the cert lasts||How to get recertified||Recertification fee||CPR/AED|
Some certs may last 3 years before you will need to get recertified, while others only last a year. Also, the cost to renew the cert (get recertified) can vary also. All fitness certifications have an expiration date also so you know when they expire. Many organizations require you to be CPR /AED certified before you take their test. It's good to get that out of the way before you take the test.
Another thing to consider is if the certification exam can be taken close to your location. Many organizations (but not all) use testing centers where the exam is given on a computer. While most organizations usually offer tests all over the US, it would be nice to know if the exam can be taken close to you or not. For some, this may be a deal breaker on which organization you go with.
So, when you have your list of accepted certs, call all the different organizations on the phone and ask them these questions – and fill in your chart with that information.
Speaking of certs, in case you were wondering whats better NSCA or NASM, check out my post on this for more information.
Currently, in many gyms in the US and elsewhere, people only need a personal trainer certification to be a fitness trainer. Certification is not a personal training license. Certifications are issued by fitness certification organizations. There are many such organizations that certify personal trainers. Just a few include:
Each fitness organization will differ in how complex their test is, what their study materials are and whether they require additional steps to be taken prior to taking the test. For example, many organizations require CPR/AED certification to be obtained before you are allowed to take the personal trainer test.
See this review of gym emergency procedures for more information on this topic.
Also, Consider This
Something else to ask about is whether you can jump right into the personal trainer cert or if you have to take “lower-level” certs first. Some organizations – but not all – may make you take other certifications before you are allowed to take the personal trainer test.
Many organizations have more than just a personal trainer cert. Several organizations offer advanced certifications in nutrition and “special populations” (those with health problems like diabetes, arthritis, etc.) for those who want additional education.
Two resources I recommend to help get that knowledge are:
These are good to have because most of the people who hire personal trainers won't be healthy.” They will have some type of health problem. There are exercise guidelines for how to work with these individuals safely and effectively.
Tip. My resource page has a LOT of other informatgion you may want to take a look at.
Also, even though most personal trainers are not registered dietitians, they are often field nutrition questions. As such, they need to know how to answer questions about nutrition correctly also.
What's Your Niche?
Your niche of fitness is the area (or areas) you know the most about. For example, do you want to be a personal trainer who only works with pregnant women? How about a trainer who helps people prepare for marathons? If you have a passion for a specific area of fitness, then devote yourself to learning all you can about that area (or areas). There are two big reasons to consider doing this:
1. You get known as “the trainer who only works with…” – which is good for your marketing.
2. It means you don't have to know a lot about the stuff that falls outside your areas of expertise.
Just as doctors may specialize in certain areas – the heart, for example – personal trainers can choose to specialize in certain areas too.
If you are just starting out, you may not have any idea what areas of fitness you want to focus your efforts on, and that's ok. After you get certified, spend the first 6-8 months working with everybody – women, older adults, kids, etc. Then, later, sit down and ask yourself if there are any specific areas or groups of people you most enjoy. If the answer is yes, then devote all your efforts to becoming an expert in those areas.
For example, with me, I enjoy working wit:
- Special populations like diabetes
- Older adults
- People with rhabdomyolysis
- Sports nutrition and dietary supplements
These areas the areas I learn the most about. See my site SupplementClarity.com for more about dietary supplements
Do Personal Trainers Need A College Degree?
No, but a college degree in exercise science can be an asset. Many personal trainers at big box gyms have no experience and only a high school diploma.
But a college degree is not needed. One option to a 4-year degree taking classes at community colleges. Community colleges cost a LOT less than universities. You could take just the classes that are most relevant to fitness, such as anatomy, biology, nutrition, etc.
Essential Fitness Trainer Skills
Many people think they need a cert to be a trainer but I must tell you, that if you want to be successful, you'll need more than this. To be a personal trainer, you have to enjoy working with people. At its core, a career in personal training is a life of service to others.
Those who become personal trainers just because they “like to work out” may not be as successful in the long run as those who like to work out ―and like help others.
Other, not often talked about traits, that make for a good personal trainer include:
- Speaking skills
- Teaching skills
- Dedication to learning
To this list, I'd also add how to sell yourself too.
Studying To Be a Fitness Trainer
To be a personal trainer, you must know some science. There's no getting around this. You'll need to know about:
- Basic human anatomy and physiology
- Bioenergetics (how we make energy)
- How muscles work (muscle physiology)
- How the heart and blood vessels work (cardiovascular physiology)
- Exercise technique (how to lift weights the right way)
- Basic nutrition
- How to create safe and effective exercise programs
- How to monitor how hard people are working out
Each organization has its own textbooks and study materials. Here is a shortlist of study books from some of the main fitness organizations:
Each textbook of the different fitness organizations will cover the same groups of knowledge topics such as mentioned above. In other words, exercise science is exercise science. It doesn't change from one organization to another.
Where the textbooks can differ from each other is how deep they go into particular topics. For example, the NASM textbook contains a lot of information on muscles and how to lift weights correctly.
While textbooks from other organizations also contain this information, they may not discuss it to the degree that the NASM does. The ACSM textbooks tend to cover more information on clinical issues that other texts might not cover in as much depth.
What I'm getting at is that even though “exercise science is exercise science,” it's usually not recommended that people use textbooks from one organization to prepare for another organization's certification test ―unless that person has advanced knowledge (like a college degree). In general, it's best to use the books of the organization you are interested in getting certified by.
See my resources page for more information.
Use Social Media
Ok, so by now you have your list of fitness organizations you are interested in. After comparing prices and other things that are important to you, you should whittle the list down to about 2 – 3 different organizations. Suppose you want to know more about the organization but you want to hear from people who don’t work for the organization? This is where social media can come in.
For example, most major fitness organizations have Facebook pages. You can post questions you have on the organization's Facebook page to see what other certified members have to say.
In addition, from your own facebook page, you can also search for information using the hashtag (#). For example, searching for “#NASM” will turn up anything on facebook/twitter Linkedin, etc. that mentions the NASM. You can then reach out to those people privately and ask them questions.
When Do I Take The Test?
With many fitness organizations, you will probably register ahead of time to take the certification exam. Sometimes you will register many months before you take the actual certification test. During that time, your job is to study for the test.
Some organizations may also have classes to help people prepare (these classes often cost extra).
If, as the testing date approaches, you don't feel confident that you can pass the test, you can call the organization and attempt to reschedule. Most organizations will be glad to accommodate you however some organizations will charge you a fee to reschedule.
For example, I have heard that NASM charges a rescheduling fee if you want to move your testing date to another time.
Other organizations may not charge you to reschedule the testing date. I feel this should be something people should consider when choosing a fitness certification, especially if they are on a budget.
What About Online Fitness Certs?
There are websites where you basically plunk down about $50-$100 and take a test to be a personal trainer. The big problem with some online personal trainer certs is gyms may not accept them. The reason is that it's too easy to cheat on the tests.
Think about it, who can't pass a test you take it privacy of your home when you have access to the whole internet to help you? Who can guarantee you even took the test yourself?
Also, consider how you would explain to your clients how easy it was for you to become a personal trainer. How would they feel if they knew you took a test on the internet for a few dollars. Remember, your clients need to have faith in your abilities.
I know, I just made some people angry, and it was not my intention, but I really want people to think about this. I want your future clients to have total faith in you and your abilities and see you as the “expert”.
On the flip side, one advantage of an online cert is for people who do not live close to any testing locations. For these individuals, as well as those on a budget and who want to take a fitness test for their personal education ― I can understand the benefits of an online trainer cert.
The ISSA is probably on the shortlist of many people who like to study on their own or have limited time (because of work, family, etc). People need to know this test is not easy. In fact, in my interview with boot camp trainer Martin McLouglin, he mentions his ISSA test was almost 80 typed pages long! That's a LOT harder than most fitness certs I've seen.
See my review of Online Personal Training Certs for much more info on this topic.
My Gym Has a Cert. Is It Good?
I know that some gyms will – for a fee – train people to be personal trainers. While I am sure people will learn some good, hands-on information, the issue is that whatever “certification” you get from this gym will likely not be accepted anywhere else ―except at that gym. Also, what if that gym does not hire you after you go through their program?
I wrote about this in more detail in my post about Fake Personal Trainer Certs so see that for more information.
If your goal is to just learn, hands-on stuff, then I have no problem with it provided you don’t go into debt. That said, I do not recommend that you pay a lot of money to a gym to “certify” you as a personal trainer because eventually, you will have to pay more money for a certification from a recognized organization in the future if you plan on working in any other fitness facilities.
Should You Go Into Debt?
Some organizations are VERY expensive. I know money is tight for a lot of people and that I say resist the temptation of pulling out a credit card to pay for them. I DO NOT recommend you to into debt to be a personal trainer!
For example, NPTI – National Personal Training Institute – costs about $6000 for their program. It’s a fine organization but if you can't pay for it ―right now―I don’t recommend it. Here's my review of NPTI program.
If you currently have a job, start saving for the test and study materials.
My rule is to save “1/2 of your age.” So, if you are 20 years old, save 10% of everything you make. If you do this, you should have the money for the cert in a few months or less.
I don't want you to go into credit card debt to pay for a certification because you may not be making money right away as a personal trainer. After getting certified, you will have to get a job ―and clients too! Also, many big box gyms don’t pay a lot to personal trainers, who are just starting out.
Some box gyms pay trainers as little as $6 per 30 minute personal trainer session!
If you were to go into debt for $1000 for a certification, think about how long it would take you to pay that back to the credit card company. It would take a long time if you only made $6/ personal trainer session. Do not go into debt. Be patient and save. Please trust me.
Do You Need a CPR Cert?
Before you are a personal trainer, most organizations will require you to have a current CPR and AED certification before you take the test. The CPR and AED cert is often combined in the same class so you don't have to take two different classes. Whether the organization requires it or not, I HIGHLY recommend you get a CRP/AED certification.
AED stands for Automatic External Defibrillator. It's the gizmo that can zap a heart back to life after it has stopped beating (as in the case of a heart attack).
When you enter the testing facility on exam day you will be asked for your driver's license (or some other form of ID) AND your CPR/AED cert. Since they are likely going to ask for it, it's best to get it out of the way now. As I pointed out in my review of gym emergency procedures, you may need that CPR cert one day…
The CPR/AED test is not hard and it only takes about 2 hours to get. CPR /AED classes are held at many locations including hospitals, fire stations, local colleges, and YMCAs. On this page of the American Heart Association website, you can put in your zip code and find all the locations in your area.
Remember, people do die in health clubs. Read this post for more information.
What If You Fall The Test?
If somebody fails the personal trainer exam, the organization should have a policy on retesting. The retesting policy is different for different organizations. One major difference is whether you will have to pay to retest. Many organizations will require you to pay either the whole amount again or a percent of the price of the certification test. Some organizations allow people to retest for free. Ask the organization you are considering about their re-testing policies.
Where Can You Get a Job?
While it's obvious to most that personal trainers are employed at all big box gyms such as:
- LA Fitness
- Golds Gym
- Planet Fitness
- Retro Fitness
I usually advise personal trainers to seek employment at YMCAs and JCCs (Jewish Community Centers). I recommend this because personal training is a profit center for health clubs (some clubs generate over 1 million dollars a month in personal training revenue!). As such, big-box gyms sometimes put stress on trainers to make money―and those who do not produce may even be fired. It’s stress I just don’t feel people need to deal with. As a rule, stuff like this doesn’t happen at YMCAs and JCCs.
It's been my experience that YMCAs and JCCs are more about education and helping people than how much money you can generate. As an added bonus, they may also pay a bit more than many big box gyms.
Before you train clients, I suggest you “shadow” other personal trainers in the gym for a few weeks. This will give valuable experience. This will help you avoid mistakes –such as this mistake I witnessed myself one day at the gym
For women, I often recommend Curves or other women-only fitness centers for the same reason. Because Curves is more of a group exercise program that uses various machines in a strength training/cardio circuit, they don't usually offer “personal training” specifically. But the atmosphere is more about helping people than “how much money can you make. ” Curves may also pay a tad better than big box gyms and maybe more flexible to working moms who are personal trainers.
Tip. Also, read my post on getting a mentor.
The Fitness Job Interview
While at some big box gyms, getting a job is pretty easy, at other health clubs, you may need to go through an interview process. Here is a quick checklist on items to help you do well during the interview:
- Review the gym's website to see what they are about
- Write down questions to ask the gym manager/owner
- Have current CPR/AED cert
- Dress appropriately for the interview
For more info here is my post about the fitness job interview.
What About Trainer Insurance?
If you work at a big box gym, then you will usually be covered by the gym's liability insurance policy (always ask the owner or general manager about this to make sure). If you are self-employed or work at a smaller mom & pop gym, then you may need your own insurance.
Fortunately, personal trainer liability insurance is not expensive. Most policies are about $150 or so a year. Two companies that offer insurance to personal trainers include Geico and the Philadelphia Insurance Company (also called Fitness and Wellness Insurance).
Do You Have to Work At a Gym?
While most personal trainers work at health clubs, those who are self-employed can make more money. As a self-employed personal trainer, the most likely way you might work with clients includes:
- Train people in their home (you travel to them)
- Train people in your own home (they travel to you)
- Train people independently at a local gym
Yes, some gyms do allow outside / independent personal trainers who are not employees of the gym, to train their clients at the facility. The big-box gyms often will not do this, but smaller, privately owned gyms might. To do this, seek out those gyms and ask the owner /general manager ” Do you allow outside independent contractors to train clients at your facility?” If they do, they will require a copy of:
- Your personal trainer certification
- Your personal trainer liability insurance
- Your CPR/AED certification
In this situation, the gym will either charge you a monthly fee or a set amount per client you bring into the gym. Usually, your client does not have to be a member of that gym either.
If you want to be self-employed, then read through my interviews with personal trainers. I ask those people specific questions so they can help others be as successful as they are.
Summary of What To Do
1. Get a list of accepted certifications from local gyms.
2. Make a chart of the organizations. Compare the cost and other factors that are important to you.
3. Ask questions on social media to get honest answers to your questions.
4. Pick a cert. Study. Get certified. Retest if needed.
5. Consider specializing in a niche.
6. Keep learning after you are certified. Learning never stops.
What if you are certified but have not trained anyone yet. See my review on that for more information.
Certified or Qualified?
There are a LOT of certified personal trainers in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of them only care about “getting certified.” As such, after they attain the cert, they never do anything (until the last minute to re-certify) to educate themselves further. People need to remember that personal trainer certifications ―all of them ―only demonstrate that the person has passed the minimum requirements.
To be a qualified personal trainer means knowing more than the minimum. Being a personal trainer means dedicating yourself to a life of education. In some ways, it really is like being a doctor, who also has to constantly stay on top of the latest medical procedures. I'm not kidding when I make this comparison.
Personal trainers are members of the health care system, just like doctors, nurses, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc. Doctors only see people about once per year ―when people are really sick. Personal trainers will see people 1-3 times per week for 30-60 minutes per day! Personal trainers ―more than ANY other health care professionals ―can make a positive impact on people's health.
Personal trainers prescribe the most powerful medication in the world ―exercise. Exercise alone is the ONLY “drug” that has been proven to reduce the risk of biggest killers of everybody including:
- Heart disease
No other drug will reduce the risk of all of these conditions at the same time! I say this because I want people to take their career path to be a personal trainer seriously.
Exercise has even been shown to help people live longer!
This is not a career to do on a whim just because it comes with a free gym membership. Only by getting certified, and staying educated -after the certification – can personal trainers truly attain that title of “fitness professional.” If you remember this, you will be OK.
Tip. My Resource Page has textbooks and study materials for all major fitness organizations.