How to Become a Personal Fitness Trainer

Overview

By Dylan Jones, M.S. RD, CD, CES
Fitness trainer helping client with weight lifting

Personal trainers are experts at helping others to achieve their highest possible level of fitness and well-being. Trainers work with clients one-on-one or in small groups to help them safely meet their goals. Whether the desired result is weight loss, injury rehabilitation or management of a chronic condition like heart disease, the trainer has the knowledge and skill to keep the client moving forward.

Some common duties of personal trainers include:

  • Screen clients' health and fitness levels prior to starting exercise
  • Develop personalized training programs
  • Teach proper exercise techniques, and guide clients through exercises, including cardiovascular conditioning, strength training and stretching
  • Provide motivation to help clients keep consistent
  • Monitor individual progress and adapt the program as needed
  • Educate clients about fitness, weight loss, strength training and other fitness-related topics
  • Provide first aid in emergencies
  • Sell gym memberships, training packages and classes
  • Provide clerical and customer service support, especially at small facilities

The need for trainers is greater now than ever before. Lack of personal fitness and physical activity is thought to be a growing problem in the United States. Lacking activity is an important factor in the progression of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. In fact, these preventable conditions now account for the majority of U.S. health care spending. For these reasons, employers, schools, insurance companies and community service agencies are all taking steps to promote better all-around fitness in communities.

Personal trainers are an important force behind this change. The services they provide can help their clients eliminate problem behaviors and adopt healthier lifestyles. One of the most alluring aspects of the job is the satisfaction of helping at-risk individuals overcome challenges to live healthier and higher-quality lives.

Work Environment

The majority of personal fitness trainers - about 58 percent - work in health clubs, gyms and recreation centers. Other common work settings include health care facilities, government and community agencies and the tourist industry.

Inadequate time is the number one barrier most people say impedes their ability to be active. Thus trainers’ schedules are often highly dictated by the free gaps in their clients’ schedules. Most trainers will be required to work evening and weekend hours to accommodate clients' schedules, and may be less busy during usual working times (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).

Trainers may be employed full or part-time, depending on their demand. A growing number of personal trainers now operate as self-employed individuals who market their own services. This allows them more flexibility to set their own hours and often involves traveling to clients' homes or workplaces for training sessions.

Training is a highly social occupation that involves constant one-on-one interaction with clients. Good rapport and customer service skills are essential in order to understand clients' needs and provide motivation. In addition to people, trainers work hands-on with exercise equipment, including weights, resistance bands, exercise balls and machines.

Personal trainers are safety experts, but they still run some risk of on-the-job accidents and repetitive stress injuries. While trainers themselves are not usually exercising with clients, their daily work can be quite strenuous, making it essential they maintain good physical shape. Risks can be minimized through proper self-care and exercise technique.

Requirements

Education

There are no formal educational requirements to become a personal fitness trainer. However, trainers with an associate or bachelor's degree in a health- and exercise-related field generally have an easier time finding work. There are more clinical areas of exercise, which often require a bachelor's or graduate degree as a prerequisite.

Aspiring fitness trainers can begin preparing in high school by taking courses in biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, health and physical education. In college, many trainers choose to major in exercise science, physical education or kinesiology.

If you're not ready to commit to college, many self-study programs are available online, in career centers and through community colleges. These shorter programs are a great way to quickly learn about exercise techniques, nutrition, physiology and other topics that will prepare you for your chosen certification exam.

When choosing a certificate or associate degree program, look for ones accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). In some cases, graduation from an accredited program will streamline the credentialing process and allow you to waive some certification requirements.

Training

Some personal fitness trainers prepare for entry-level certification by learning on the job under the supervision of an experienced trainer. In addition, most certificate and degree programs involve supervised practical experience.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for example, offers a mentoring program. This is a great way for new trainers to enhance their skills, receive support and make connections as they work to establish themselves.

Licensing and/or Certification

At present, states don't regulate the practice of personal fitness trainers. However, employers will prefer candidates who hold certification through accredited organizations. Trainers with multiple or specialty certifications will be more desired too.

Over 300 organizations "certify" personal trainers, but not all of them are recognized or respected by employers. When choosing a certification program, look for ones accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The ACE (American Council on Exercise) website offers a useful comparison chart of the more common credentialing programs.

The following NCCA-accredited organizations administer an entry-level certified personal trainer (CPT) credential:

To obtain CPT certification, you'll need to pay a fee and pass a knowledge exam. Exams can usually be retaken if needed, until a passing grade is reached. Certified trainers must also adhere to a code of professional conduct and engage in regular continuing education to keep up on the latest fitness trends.

Most credentialing bodies also require trainers to maintain certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillation (AED). For more information, contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association.

Many of the above organizations offer advanced certifications. These credentials can be helpful for trainers who want to work in healthcare settings, provide athletic training, serve special populations or specialize in a clinical area like cardiac rehabilitation. The advanced credentials often require a bachelor's or graduate degree as well as work experience.

Advanced credentialing options include:

NASM offers many advanced credentials for trainers wishing to specialize in performance enhancement, nutrition, weight loss, women's health and much more.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

A trainer's job can be physically demanding, so a high level of personal fitness is a must. You don't have to have a perfect body, but you should have enough strength and stamina to spend most of your working hours on your feet demonstrating and supervising exercises.

Interpersonal skills are also essential for success as a trainer. To be effective, you'll need to listen carefully to your clients so you can tailor a program to their goals and needs. While teaching exercises, you'll need to convey information in a clear, engaging way. And because physical fitness is a challenge for many clients, you'll need patience and empathy to motivate them during hard days.

Sales skills are also essential to remain desirable in the large fitness market. Health clubs may expect trainers to be active in selling memberships. These skills also come in handy if you decide to open a private practice, which requires building and maintaining a clientele.

Finally, problem-solving skills come in handy. As a trainer, you'll need to create an appropriate fitness plans for your client's goals and skill level. An effective trainer will be able to develop programs that comfortably allow clients to push themselves to higher intensities while also working around physical or cognitive limitations. This program development will take creativity and a thorough knowledge of all exercise modalities. When equipment or facilities are not available for a client’s specific needs, trainers will need to adapt their programs and sometimes use uncommon equipment or locations to create an engaging fitness session.

Opportunities for Advancement

The fitness industry is in a state of rapid growth, due to its easy entry and desirability. There are several opportunities to advance into new work environments as the field grows and diversifies.

Experienced trainers often advance to become fitness directors, head trainers or general managers of health clubs. In this role, they supervise the work of other trainers and develop the facilities' fitness programs.

Public health is a newer source of opportunity. Experienced trainers can now transition into working with policymakers and nonprofits to develop and deliver community health programs. Common examples include chronic illness management, workplace interventions and obesity prevention. A bachelor's degree and advanced certification is essential for those pursuing this route.

Experienced trainers can also work with healthcare teams to treat patients with complex medical conditions like heart disease and COPD. Like exercise physiologists, clinical trainers are employed by hospitals, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. Advanced degrees will almost always be required for these settings. Nevertheless, these positions provide rewarding opportunities to help those most in need of the benefits of physical fitness.

More and more personal trainers own their own businesses and operate in different ways. Some will own gyms and work full time, while others will use their training as part-time or supplementary work and coordinate training from their home.

Finally, academia offers many opportunities for highly educated and experienced trainers. The field of exercise physiology is now a well-established scientific sector with medical journals and a body of researchers. Thus, experienced trainers with more education now will have opportunities to teach students and conduct research.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a personal fitness trainer, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for all fitness trainers and instructors is $39,410, or $18.95 per hour. The lowest-paid 10 percent earn roughly $18,110, and the highest-paid 10 percent earn more than $67,560.

Trainers can boost their earnings potential by obtaining a degree in an exercise-science related field plus advanced certifications or multiple certifications. Earnings generally increase with experience and even less educated trainers can reach higher salaries by being good salespeople.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of fitness trainers and instructors is expected to grow by 13 percent from 2012-2022, which is about the same as all other occupations.  

Employment of trainers is increasing as more people join health clubs. To control rising healthcare costs, employers and insurance companies are even beginning to cover the cost of gym membership. In addition, more and more businesses are providing employees with onsite workout facilities and personal training. These changes in policy are providing for rapid job growth, by decreasing the financial burdens of hiring a trainer.

There is also a growing demand for fitness trainers to work with the elderly. Many Baby Boomers are interested in healthy, active aging, and trainers can help them to exercise safely and effectively. Seniors are also more likely to need rehabilitation services to maintain function, creating additional need for trainers.

Finally, trainers are needed to combat the national crisis in lifestyle-related illness. Many government and community agencies are creating programs to manage chronic conditions and fight obesity, especially in young adults. Trainers can play an important role in developing and delivering these programs.

With this growing interest in health and with little entry-level training required, the field of personal training is becoming increasingly saturated and competitive. The variety of work environments, flexibility of schedules and opportunities to help others in a meaningful way make this one of the most sought-after jobs. Nevertheless, trainers can stand out among the crowded market by obtaining a field-related degree, gaining high-level certification or gaining experience with unique clientele (older clients, corporate fitness, overweight individuals, young adults, athletes, etc.).

ACSM and NCSA are often considered the gold standards in certification options. Both have online career resource centers that allow job candidates to post resumes, search for openings and learn about opportunities in the field.

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