8 Steps to Become a Personal Trainer

10 steps to becoming a personal trainer
Mike Harrington Collection/Taxi/Getty Images

If you're a fitness enthusiast, there's a good chance you've already done some unofficial personal training over the years. As soon as people realize how fit you are, they want to know the secret.

If you're into fitness, parlaying that into a career as a personal trainer is a natural move and it can be a great fit, depending on your situation.

Before you take the leap, however, it's a good idea to know just what you're getting into.

The Pros and Cons of Personal Training

From the outside, personal training looks like a slam dunk career. 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 a number of great things about personal training, but it's important to look at every angle before taking the plunge.

The Pros

Some of the best things about personal training are:

  • Working one on one  - 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.
  • Rewarding - There's nothing better than that 'a-ha' moment a client has when they finally see and feel the difference in their bodies.
  • Flexibility - In many cases you can set your own schedule, working certain hours or certain days. You may even be able to set your own fees if you work for yourself.
  • 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. 

The Cons

  • It's tough to make a living - Personal trainers can make anywhere from $15 and hour to more than $100 depending on where you live and work. That sounds great, but training full-time is tough for anyone, even if you're young and energetic. That may limit the number of hours you can work and the money you make.
  • Uncertain income - Cancellations happen all the time in personal training, just like any other profession...maybe even more. Paying for a session doesn't necessarily motivate people to show up. One day you may have a full schedule and everyone shows up and, the next, everyone cancels.
  • Last minute schedule changes - Because people cancel at the last minute, you never know if your schedule will change. Not only that, most people want to train either before work or after, so your busy hours will often be very early or late at night. Not always the ideal schedule.
  • Having 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.
  • 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.

You know some of the advantages and disadvantages. Now learn about the basic steps to become a personal trainer.

1. Learn the Characteristics of a Good Personal Trainer

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

  • Analytical
  • Patient
  • Nurturing
  • Persistent
  • Organized
  • An effective motivator
  • A good listener.

You should enjoy working with different kinds of people and be a self-motivator. You don't have to look like a body builder to be a fitness trainer, but you should definitely 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 really like to train clients day in and day out. That's something you can learn when you get certified, but 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:

  • Have injuries or other conditions.
  • May blame you if they don't reach their weight loss goals.
  • Cancel with little or no notice.
  • Are afraid to push too hard or, on the other hand, want to push harder than they should.
  • Are not compliant with the workouts you give them.
  • Have never exercised and need good cueing for even the most basic of exercise.s
  • Show up with workout shoes or other necessary gear.
  • Have all kinds of excuses for why they can't or don't exercise.

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

2. Get Certified 

If you've decided personal training is for you, your next step is to get certified.

The most important factor is whether the organization has been accredited. The accreditation process requires that certifying organizations have their certification procedures and protocols accredited by an independent third party, such as the NCCA. Aside from that, other questions to consider include:

  1. Is it a national/international certification? Is it universally recognized?
  2. What are the prerequisites for the exam? Most require, at minimum, a high school diploma, a CPR certification and that you're at least 18 years of age.
  3. Does the exam require attendance at a workshop or seminar? Is it offered in your city or nearby? If seminars aren't an option for you, do they offer a home study program?
  4. How much does it cost?
  5. What are the continuing education requirements to renew the certificate? Completing a certain number of continuing education hours is a requirement of most certifications and will be an extra expense to consider.
  6. Is there a specific club you want to work for? If so, find out what certifications they require or recognize before taking the test.

How do you find this information? Most organizations have websites that detail the different certifications they offer, along with exam locations and dates, prices, home study options and other crucial information.

Below is a list of accredited and well-known certification organizations along with their website addresses and basic certification requirements.

  • ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
    Home study available? Yes, the exam is taken on location.
    Cost: $279 to $349 for exam, workshops and study materials are extra.
    Accredited by NCCA
  • ACE (American Council on Exercise)
    Home study available? Yes, the exam is taken on location or online (cost is extra).
    Cost: $699 to $899 - This includes all study materials and the exam.
    Accredited by NCCA
  • AFPA (American Fitness Professionals and Associates)
    Home study available? Yes, the exam is taken online.
    Cost: $499, includes all study materials
    Accredited by Vital Research
  • IFPA (International Fitness Professionals Association)
    Home study available? Yes, the exam is taken on location.
    Cost: $349 to $1049 depending on the package you choose.
    Accredited by NCCA
  • ISSA (International Sports & Sciences Association)
    Home study available? Yes, weekend seminar also available.
    Cost: $599
    Accredited by DEAC.
  • NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)
    Home study available? Yes, the exam is taken on location.
    Cost: $699 to $1999 depending on the package you choose.
    Accredited by NCCA
  • NCSF (National Council on Strength and Fitness)
    Home study available? Yes, the exam is taken on location.
    Cost: $299 to $767.95 depending on the package you choose.
    Accredited by NCCA
  • NFPT (National Federation of Professional Trainers)
    Home study available? Yes, different exam options.
    Cost: $199 to $399 depending on the package you choose.
    Accredited by NCCA

There are many other accredited organizations and you can find an excellent comparison tool at Personal Training Certification School Comparison.

3. Get a 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.

  • Commercial Gyms - Working at a popular gym is a great way to get experience and many of those clubs - XSport, 24 Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym and Planet Fitness often 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 in order to get new clients.
  • Personal Training Studios - Studios focus almost entirely on personal training and/or small group training. Because they're so specialized, they may require more experience or education, but they will also typically pay more.
  • 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 some kind of personal training available, which may be a great place to start.
  • Hospitals or Wellness Centers - Many hospitals employ personal trainers to help patients recover from illnesses and conditions. These places may require a higher degree and more specialty, but it's worth looking into.
  • Cruise Ships. Many cruises now offer personal training for guests. Cruise Ship Job Finders allows you to search a variety of cruise lines for different jobs.
  • Spas/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.
  • Corporate Fitness. One of the fastest-growing areas of fitness and health is in the corporate sector. Many companies across the U.S. offer corporate wellness packages for companies wishing to improve their employees' health. See Corporate Wellness for information on jobs and other industry information.
  • Work for yourself. Most personal trainers work for a club as an employee or work as an independent contractor for themselves or a studio. If you're just starting out, you might want to work for a larger club to get experience while not having to worry about running your own business.
  • In-Home Training. Another option is training clients in their homes. Or, if you have the space and meet the zoning requirements of your city, training clients in your home. In-home training is growing in popularity as people get busy and enjoy the convenience of having a trainer come to them.

4. Consider a Specialty

After you start working in the business, you'll get a sense of the population you're drawn to. It may be training clients for sports, working with older adults who need to work on balance and stability or maybe people interested in losing weight. 

Whatever your interest, this is the time to hone in on that and create your own niche. This often happens naturally, it's capitalizing on it that really counts.

Getting a specialty certification means you have more to offer and, even better, you can usually charge a little more for your services.

A few options:

  • Athletics and Sports - With this type of specialty you can help athletes improve their balance, speed, agility and performance.
  • Lifestyle and Weight Management - This is often more of the behavior change area of fitness, allowing you to work with clients to change bad habits and maintain those changes.
  • Orthopedics - There are about 33% of Americans who complain of knee pain and that's just one area you can specialize in with an orthopedics certification.
  • Working with 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.
  • Medical - As a trainer, you'll work with a variety of populations and one way to stand out is by getting a Medical Exercise Specialist certification, like the one offered through ACE. With this, you can work with post-rehab clients recovering from everything from heart problems to muscle sprains and tears.
  • Nutrition - With this add-on certification, you can help clients with the diet portion of their goals, giving them specific advice on how they can eat healthy and lose weight. 

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

5. Set Up Your Own Business

Once you get certified, you can don't necessarily have to work at a gym or a studio. It's a fairly simple procedure to set up your own business, especially if you're a sole proprietor.

However, there are some important things to consider before you take that leap.

  • Financial investment - There's a certain amount of work, financial and otherwise, that goes into setting up a personal training business. At the outset, you may have to spend your own money on everything from advertising and business cards to equipment and office supplies. If you train clients in-home, yours or theirs, there's the added expense of equipment, travel and more. Just some things you may need:
    • Fitness gear - For a home gym you'll likely need some type if cardio equipment like a treadmill along with:
      • Weights - Dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, etc.
      • Resistance Bands
      • Mats
      • A weight bench or step
      • Exercise balls, a BOSU or other balance and stability equipment
    • Business expenses - This may include paying for a website, business cards, liability insurance, health insurance, taking continuing education courses to maintain your certification.
    • Other - You'll also need quality workout clothes, shoes, maybe a speaker to play music, a water dispenser, towels and other miscellaneous things.
  • Learning how to manage a business - Many of us get into personal training because we want to help people, not because we want to worry about how to get paid, paying taxes, mileage, and so on. But, when you set up your own business, those are exactly the things you have to worry about.
  • Selling - If you work for yourself, you are the only person selling your services. Selling isn't the easiest thing to do, especially if you're a trainer with no interest or education in sales. You don't have to be a used car salesperson, but you may have to invest in some courses to learn the best way to sell your services to clients.
  • Experience - When you work for yourself, you don't have other trainers to turn to for advice about clients. For that reason, you may want to start at a gym or some other facility to get some experience

For more, learn about How to Start a Personal Training Business From Home.

6. Learn How to Market Yourself

If you do 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:

  • A website - Setting up your own website can be as simple as getting a domain name, signing up for WordPress or Squarespace and making your own site. You can also hire a web designer. Here's how to choose the right one.
  • Business cards  - These days, it's easy to create your own business cards at home or you can use a low-cost website like Vistaprint.com.
  • Social media - Plan on setting up profiles on Facebook, Twitter,  and Instagram so you have a way to communicate with clients and readers.
  • Seminars - Offering free seminars, locally or online, about exercise, health, diet, etc. are often a great way to meet potential new clients.
  • Networking - Do some 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.

7. 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.

  • IDEA - 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 rack up almost all of your credits in one weekend.
  • Human Kinetics -Human Kinetics offers a variety of continuing educations courses for almost every certifying organization out there.
  • ACE Workshops - The American Council on Exercise also offers touring workshops with credits that count for ACE, the ACSM, the NFPT and more.
  • Empower Fitness Events - This conference, which travels all around the US several times a year, also gives you a venue where you can get all your credits at one time while keeping up with what's new in fitness.

8. 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.

  • 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 seems obvious, but it's 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.
  • Give regular assessments - Whether your client wants to lose weight or be stronger, set up some kind of assessment every few weeks so they can actually see their progress.
  • 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 that that let them know you're thinking of them and their situation.
  • Go to conferences and workshops as much as you can - These can get expensive, but 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 with a discount.
  • Offer a discount or a free session for referrals.

As you can see, personal trainers have many job opportunities and the need is only growing as our nation faces problems with obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

Fitness is a big business these days and the world always needs new, enthusiastic trainers to get the word out about health and fitness. Take the time to learn what's really involved in becoming a trainer before jumping in. You'll have a much better idea of what you're in for.


Webb M. Fitness Programs | ACE-certified, Now What? ACE Fit | Fitness Information. https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/fitness-programs-article/2779/ACEFit-workout-advice-and-exercise-tips/.

McMillan S, Halvorson R. How to become a personal trainer. www.ideafit.com. http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/how-to-become-personal-trainer. Published April 4, 2011.

Personal Training Certification & Careers | How to Become a Personal Trainer. How to Become. http://www.learnhowtobecome.org/personal-trainer/.