Become a Personal Trainer in 8 Steps

Steps to becoming a personal trainer

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Becoming a personal trainer can be a good career choice if you love fitness and helping others achieve their goals. As a fitness enthusiast, you've probably already done unofficial personal training over the years, but there are more steps to take to get certified as a personal trainer, find employment, or set up your independent business. Learn more about this career to decide if it is the right one for you.

The Pros and Cons of Personal Training

From the outside, personal training looks like a satisfying career, and it can be. You get to help people in a field you love, it's flexible, and you have lots of options for where you can work. There are some great things about personal training, but it's important to look at every angle before taking the plunge.

Pros of Becoming a Personal Trainer

Some of the best things about personal training include:

  • It's flexible. In many cases, you can set your schedule for which hours and days you work. You may even be able to set your fees if you work for yourself.
  • It's rewarding. There's nothing better than that moment when a client can finally see and feel the difference in their body.
  • There is room for growth and variety. Personal training can often be a jumping-off point for other things like being a fitness instructor, a health writer, or going further in your education. 
  • You get to build relationships. If you're good with people, personal training gives you a chance to delve into each client's situation, get to know them, and then use your knowledge and creativity to create workouts that fit them.

Cons of a Personal Training Career

If you decide to become a personal trainer, you should also be prepared for these challenges:

  • Peak hours are those most convenient for the client. Clients may need to cancel or reschedule without much notice. And most will want to train either before or after work, so your busy hours will often be very early or late at night.
  • You'll have to learn to sell your services. Most people don't get in the business because they love selling, but that is a part of your job, especially if you work at a commercial gym.
  • There is a wide range in pay. Personal trainers can make anywhere from $15 per hour to more than $100 per hour, depending on where you live and work. In addition to your hourly rate, your income will also be tied to how many hours you work and can fill each week.
  • Income may not be stable. Cancellations happen all the time in personal training. One day you may have a full schedule and the next, no one to work with—which means you're not getting paid.
  • There is increased risk of burnout. Personal training takes a lot of energy, both physically and mentally. It's easy to get burned out, especially if you're training all the time.

Characteristics of a Good Trainer

Personal trainers need to have a multitude of skills. Just some of the characteristics that will help you include being:

  • Analytical
  • Motivational
  • Nurturing
  • Organized
  • Patient
  • Persistent

To be an effective trainer, you should enjoy working with different kinds of people, be self-motivated, and a good listener.

You don't have to look like a bodybuilder to be a fitness trainer, but you should lead a healthy lifestyle to be a good role model for your clients.

All of those are helpful, but it's also helpful to know what it's like to train clients day in and day out. That's something you can learn when you get certified, but the experience is always the best teacher. Training may seem like a breeze, but it's tougher than you may realize.

You'll work with clients who:

Each person is different, and you need to be able to determine how hard you can push that client, what that client needs, and what they want. You also have to be very flexible and be ready to change on a dime if a workout isn't going well.

Get Certified as a Personal Trainer

If you've decided personal training is for you, your next step is to get certified. The most important factor in the decision of where to obtain your certification is whether the certifying organization has been accredited.

Certifying organizations have their certification procedures and protocols accredited by an independent third party, such as the NCCA. If there a specific employer you want to work for, find out what certifications they require or recognize.

Research these questions at the websites for certifying organizations:

  • Can the exam be taken online, or must you attend an on-site examination? If on-site, where and when are the exams offered?
  • Does the exam require attendance at a workshop or seminar, and where are these offered? Is it a home study program?
  • How much does it cost? The costs vary from about $300 to more than $1000, and may not include the study materials and workshops.
  • Is it a national/international certification? Is it universally recognized?
  • What are the continuing education requirements to renew the certificate? Completing a certain number of continuing education (CE) hours is a requirement of most certifications and will be an extra expense to consider.
  • What are the prerequisites for the exam? Most require, at a minimum, a high school diploma, a CPR certification, and that you're at least 18 years of age.

You can find a comparison tool at Personal Training Certification School Comparison.

Certifying Organizations

While there are others, these are some of the well-known certification organizations and their accreditations:

    • ACE (American Council on Exercise), accredited by NCCA
    • ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), accredited by NCCA
    • AFPA (American Fitness Professionals and Associates), not accredited
    • IFPA (International Fitness Professionals Association), accredited by NCCA
    • ISSA (International Sports & Sciences Association), accredited by DEAC
    • NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), accredited by NCCA
    • NCSA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), accredited by NCCA
    • NCSF (National Council on Strength and Fitness), accredited by NCCA
    • NFPT (National Federation of Professional Trainers), accredited by NCCA

Find a Personal Trainer Job

One of the great things about personal training is that there are a variety of places you can work, not just at a health club. You may be an employee of a business or work as an independent contractor for them. You may also train clients as your own business.

If you're just starting out, however, you might want to work for a larger club to get experience while not having to worry about running your own business. Some ideas for employment opportunities include:

  • Commercial gyms: Working at a popular gym is a great way to get experience and many of those clubs, such as XSport, 24 Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym, and Planet Fitness, hire new trainers all the time. The drawback can be lower pay, working on commission, lots of selling, and having to work long hours doing new member orientations to get new clients.
  • Corporate fitness: You can work for a company that offers corporate wellness packages for companies wishing to improve their employees' health.
  • Cruise ships: Many cruises now offer personal training for guests. Cruise Ship Job Finders allows you to search for a variety of cruise lines for different jobs.
  • Hospitals or wellness centers: Many hospitals employ personal trainers to help patients recover from illnesses and conditions. These places may require a higher degree or a specialty for working with clients who may have health challenges.
  • In-home training: You can train clients in their homes. Another option is to set up a training studio in your home, as long as you meet the zoning and business requirements for your location.
  • Local community centers: Check with your local community centers or park district to find out about local clubs that hire personal trainers. Almost all fitness clubs have personal training available, which may be a great place to start.
  • Personal training studios: Studios focus almost entirely on personal training and small group training. Because they're so specialized, they may require more experience or education, but as a result, they will also typically pay more.
  • Spas and resorts: All-inclusive resorts sometimes hire personal trainers or fitness instructors to teach exercise classes. Cool Works and ResortJobs.com are websites that provide job listings for parks, resorts, and spas.
  • Working for yourself: Once you have gained experience and business acumen, you may set up your own studio.

Consider a Specialty

Over time and with experience, you will develop a sense of which types of clients you most enjoy training. You can then invest in further education and get a specialty certification. With a specialty, you will have more to offer these clients, and you can usually charge a little more for your services.

Options include:

  • Athletics and sports: You can help athletes improve their balance, speed, agility, and performance.
  • Lifestyle and weight management: You can work with clients on behavior change to turn around bad habits and develop healthier ones.
  • Medical: With a Medical Exercise Specialist certification, such as offered through ACE, you can work with post-rehabilitation clients who are recovering from conditions such as heart problems, muscle sprains, or orthopedic surgery.
  • Nutrition: With this add-on certification, you can help clients with the diet portion of their fitness goals, giving them specific advice on how they can eat healthily and lose weight.
  • Orthopedics: You can work with clients who have knee pain, arthritis, or other conditions.
  • Special populations: With this kind of certification, you can work with older adults to help them improve quality of life and maintain muscle mass, or you can work with younger kids to build fitness programs that fit their age and goals.

Most certifying organizations offer several specialty certifications, and you may get a discount if you already have a basic certification.

Improve Your Skills and Education

Continuing education is a requirement for keeping your certification current, but it also keeps you up to date on the latest in fitness, weight management, and health.

Your certifying organization will offer courses, workshops, and other ways to earn credits, but there are other ways to stay informed and keep learning:

  • The American Council on Exercise (ACE) offers touring workshops with credits that count for ACE, ACSM, NFPT, and more.
  • Empower Fitness Events conferences are held in various cities throughout the year. You can get all your credits at one time while keeping up with what's new in fitness.
  • Human Kinetics offers a variety of continuing educations courses for almost every certifying organization.
  • The IDEA Health & Fitness Association offers a wide variety of courses, online and in workshops. They also have a yearly conference, the IDEA World Convention, where you can get almost all of your required credits in one weekend.

Set Up Your Own Business

Once you get certified and gain some work experience, eventually you may decide to set up your own business as a sole proprietor, limited liability company (LLC), or corporation. If you are an independent contractor for a gym rather than an employee, you should learn the advantages and disadvantages of these forms of businesses as well.

Learning How to Manage a Business

Many people get into personal training because they want to help people, but you need to know the details of business registration or incorporation, licensing, zoning, budgeting, accounting, tracking your expenses, filing taxes, and more. It is worthwhile to take a small business course at a local community college if you are not familiar with these things.

Financial Investment

At the outset, you will have to spend money to get your business off the ground. Depending on your business model, you may need:

  • Business expenses: Website, business cards, liability insurance, health insurance, and continuing education courses to maintain your certification
  • Fitness gear: Cardio equipment such as a treadmill, weights, resistance bands, mats, weight bench, step, exercise balls, BOSU, and other balance and stability equipment
  • Other: Quality workout clothes, shoes, music system, water dispenser, towels

Selling Your Services

If you work for yourself, you are the only person selling your services. If you are unfamiliar with marketing, you may want to take courses to learn the best way to sell your services to clients.

Getting Outside Experience

When you work for yourself, you don't have other trainers to turn to for advice about clients. For that reason, it's usually best to start at a gym or some other facility to get some experience before going out on your own.

Market Yourself as a Trainer

If you decide to set up your own business, marketing is probably the single most important thing you'll do to get more clients. Here are just some of the things you may need to get your name out there:

  • Business cards: It's easy to create your own business cards at home or you can use a low-cost website like Vistaprint.com.
  • Networking: Do research locally to find out if you can join the Chamber of Commerce or some other group of professionals. You can also find groups through Meetup.
  • Referrals: Your existing clients can be a great source of marketing to their social circle. Offer discounts or a free session to the people they refer, and benefits to the clients who make referrals.
  • Seminars: Offering free local or virtual seminars about exercise, health, diet, and related topics are often a great way to meet potential new clients.
  • Social media: Set up profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram so you have a way to communicate with your clients and potential clients.
  • Website: Setting up your website can be as simple as getting a domain name and signing up with a simple website company, or making your site with the help of a web designer.

Become Indispensable to Your Clients

Being successful at this job takes work, talent, skill, and experience. Getting a certification is no guarantee that you'll either get clients or, more importantly, be able to keep those clients.

How you train your clients is important, but how you treat them is even more important. That's why you should:

  • Attend conferences and workshops. It's amazing how much you learn from one weekend taking classes from experts. You also get a look at new equipment and can usually buy it at a discount. Your clients will appreciate new workouts and gear as well as your renewed enthusiasm.
  • Give regular assessments. Whether your clients want to lose weight or be stronger, set up an assessment every few weeks so they can see their progress.
  • Keep in touch. Make it a point to connect with your client outside of sessions. Send a quick email or text just to check-in.
  • Listen. This is the single most important thing you can do for a client. At the beginning of the session, make it a point to check-in and see how they feel that day. Adjust the workout accordingly.
  • Offer extras. Make and print workouts for them to follow on their own. Give them your favorite recipes or print interesting articles that pertain to them. It's little things like this that let them know you're thinking of them and their situation.

A Word From Verywell

Personal trainers have many job opportunities, with the need growing due to the rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles. The world always needs new, enthusiastic trainers to get the word out about health and fitness. Take the time to learn what's involved in becoming a trainer before choosing your career.

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