The decision to pursue a career as a personal trainer is a highly personal one. Maybe you already spend so much time in the gym each week that you’ve had the thought, “Hey, I should get paid for this.” Perhaps you’ve had a lifelong fascination with sports, health, and wellness. Maybe you’re a people person seeking to turn what’s currently a hobby into a rewarding career. Whatever your exact reasoning, you’ve decided to take the plunge. Now you’re wondering how to become a certified personal trainer.
You’re not the only one: fitness training is becoming an increasingly popular career choice. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the job outlook will grow by 13% between 2018 and 2028.sup 1 To put this into perspective, the average growth rate for all occupations is 5%.
The demand for qualified personal trainers is growing by the day, with thousands of roles opening up across the country. The opportunity is undoubtedly there — but before you can seize it you’ll need to get the proper accreditation to practice as a fitness professional. After all, clients will want to know you have the background necessary to do a great job and keep them safe.
Here’s more information on the steps you can take to become a certified personal trainer.
Know the Prerequisite Requirements
Kickstarting any new career can be daunting. The key is breaking the process down into manageable steps.
First, you’ll need to work on building a solid foundation. Start by learning which prerequisites you’ll need to enroll in most certification programs.
Start with these questions:
- Are you at least 18 years old?
- Do you have a high school diploma or an equivalent GED?
- Are you currently certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)?
- Are you currently certified to use an automated external defibrillator (AED)?
- Do you have a current, government-issued ID?
If you can confidently answer yes to all of these questions, you may be ready to pursue your certification. If you answered no to any of them, you’ll need to work on meeting these requirements before you enroll in your chosen certification program.
You’ll encounter certain risks as a personal trainer. If one of your clients experiences a health issue — like becoming unresponsive during an appointment — you’ll want to know how to act confidently. If your CPR and/or AED certifications have lapsed, or you have yet to earn them, look into taking a training course at a nearby American Red Cross location. Having a strong background in performing CPR and operating a defibrillation device will help you respond properly in the moment and according to industry standards. Reputable personal training certification courses also require you to meet these conditions before you can enroll.
Get your personal trainer certification
Next, it’s time to explore your options for certification courses. There’s a huge difference between knowing how to work out safely and efficiently and meeting the requirements to become a certified personal trainer. While you don’t necessarily need a college degree, you do need certification from an accredited organization.
Not all personal trainer certification programs offer quality education or have a strong reputation within the industry. The last thing you want is to spend time and money pursuing a certification only to find out it fails to even get you in the door at the gym at which you want to train.
The broad rule of thumb here is to choose a program recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). While many employers allow some flexibility in exactly which program you complete, picking an NCCA program will help you ensure your course of study meets the required standards.
Within the field of NCCA-approved personal training programs, there are still many choices. Here’s a selection of certification bodies from which you can choose:
- National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) – The Academy has been certifying personal trainers for over 30 years. The program offers a 100% online curriculum where you’ll learn professional development, client relations, nutrition and behavioral coaching along with exercise technique and training instruction. Premium packages include gym internships and guaranteed job placement.
- American Council of Exercise (ACE) – ACE also offers 100% online certification, but they also let you dive into a specific niche with their various specialty programs. If you’re looking to provide a more specialized service, ACE has certifications for Fitness Nutrition, Weight Management, Sports Performance, Senior Fitness and Cancer exercise.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) – The NSCA has been active since 1978 and contains a vast community of trainers, educators and researchers. As their name implies, their focus is more around strength and conditioning training, so if that ‘s your focus, this would be a good option to look into. For their certified personal trainer course, you’ll be provided with ample study material before scheduling your exam at one of over a hundred on-site locations.
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) – One of ACSM’s selling points is that they offer their certified personal trainer exam at a lower cost than any of the other major certification bodies. That doesn’t make them a cheap knockoff. They have over 50,000 members from 90 countries across the globe. Their focus is integrating the latest scientific research into their learning programs to advance the industry.
- National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) – Advertised as a “back-to-basics” and “trend-free” training program, the NFPT focuses on teaching first-time trainers the fundamentals. As they say, you have to learn to walk before you can learn to run. If you’re looking to be a one-on-one personal trainer or work solely with small groups, NFPT could be a good affordable option for you.
It’s important to note that some programs offer instruction primarily online, while others include options to prepare for exams and attend workshops in person. As you consider accreditation options, think about which learning style works best for you. Finding a course that fits your schedule will make your chances of success that much better.
Additionally, all of the following factors can vary from program to program:
- Price of program
- Frequency of renewal
- Exam length
- Exam pass rate
- Exam retake cost
- Exam preparation resources
- Continuing education requirements
At this point, it’s a smart idea to sit down and consider your career goals. Does your dream job require certification from a particular organization? Or are you free to choose based on factors like cost and program structure? Comparing the pros and cons of each program will help you choose the best option for your wants and needs.
Maintain recertification requirements
As is the case in many health and wellness-related fields, you’ll be expected to meet certain recertification requirements even after passing your exam the first time around.
Depending on the program you choose, you will need to complete a certain number of Continuing Education Credits (CEC) or Continuing Education Units (CEU) within a given time period to keep your certification current. Programs typically require certified personal trainers to achieve a certain number of credits every two to three years.
Examples of CECs that may count toward your recertification include:
- Attending industry conventions
- Attending classroom workshops
- Taking online home study courses
- Taking live courses
- Achieving further certifications
- Passing annual quizzes
Continuing education is meant to grow your current skill set and keep you up to date on new techniques and developments in the fast-paced world of personal training. The goal is to help you provide the best level of service to your clients. It’s also an opportunity to show that you’re serious about putting in the work over the course of your career as a personal trainer.
Here’s one example of how this looks in action: The NFPT requires certificate holders to earn 2.0 CECs each year, where one learning hour equals 0.2 CECs. In other words, this program mandates 10 hours of learning activity annually. Similarly, the NASM and the ACE require 2.0 CEUs every two years, and consider each educational hour to be .01 CEU.
Expect to put in at least 10 hours annually, or 20 hours every two years, to remain in good standing. You worked hard for your certification the first time around and achieving your CECs over time is an important step in keeping it.
Explore your career options
The last step to becoming a certified personal trainer is exploring your career options. You’ve laid the groundwork by fulfilling prerequisites, choosing a program, studying up, and passing the exam. You’ve got the paperwork to prove that you’re qualified to help clients exercise safely and meet their health goals. Now it’s time to put your training into action.
The good news is that you have a number of options depending on your career aspirations. Perhaps the most obvious is working in a gym — training one-on-one with private clients, serving as a fitness instructor for group classes, or both. But there are many other ways to put your certification to good use.
Some personal trainers visit clients’ homes. Others work for hotels, country clubs, corporations, or community centers. Some even work directly with sports teams at the high school, collegiate, or professional level. You may even decide at some point to open your own facility.
Depending on the shape your career takes, you may need to carry personal trainer insurance to protect yourself in case a client sustains an injury or property damage as a result of your operations. Unfortunately, there have been cases in which personal trainers have been sued for one reason or another — and carrying adequate insurance is part of creating a savvy business plan as a fitness expert.
As a personal trainer, you can help your clients achieve their fitness results safely and under the supervision of a trained professional. You’ll get to share the joy when your clients reach their goals, and help them find that drive and motivation to break through plateaus and setbacks. You’ll get to keep learning about the human body and share that knowledge with others. This career path can be very gratifying indeed.
Understanding how to become a certified personal trainer will help you work toward making those dreams a reality. Compare various NCCA-approved programs carefully so you’ll know what to expect and can make an informed decision. Stay current on your CPR/AED certifications, and make sure you clearly understand the recertification requirements so you can continue your education. These steps will put you on the right path toward getting a job in the ever-expanding field of fitness.