So You Want To Become A Personal Trainer, Here’s How

Personal trainers share their words of wisdom so that you can turn your love of fitness into a personal training career.

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Are you passionate about all things related to fitness and nutrition? If the idea of motivating and inspiring others to exercise sounds like a dream job, you might be wondering how to become a personal trainer. If you want to turn your passion into a career by becoming a personal trainer but you’re not sure where to begin, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Knowing what it takes to make your dream a reality is the first step in your journey. And one of the best ways to learn about a career in personal training is to ask the experts for tips.

What is a certified personal trainer?

If you belong to a gym, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a personal trainer working with a member. While the job may seem straightforward, there are specific steps you need to take if you’re considering a career in personal training. Each certifying agency has its own definition of what a certified personal trainer is, but generally, someone in this role will design safe and effective exercise programs for clients based on their personal health and fitness goals. A certified personal trainer also provides instruction on how to exercise, feedback on progress, and support during the entire process. Knowing what a personal trainer does is only half of the equation. It’s also helpful to ask yourself why you might want to become a certified personal trainer. And that’s where the experts come in. What better way to get a feel for the why than to ask a few seasoned personal trainers? “I will never get over the feeling you get when you positively impact a client’s life.” That’s how ACSM-certified personal trainer Jessica Hagestedt describes what it’s like to be a personal trainer. Hagestedt says she can’t imagine her life without fitness and movement and wants to help share her passion with others. She also enjoys educating her clients about the human body and the role exercise and nutrition play in how a person feels, ages, and looks—all things, Hagestedt says, that light her fire. For NSCACSCS certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning specialist Melody Schoenfeld, it’s about making a difference. “I love working with people, and all I’ve ever wanted to do was make a difference in someone’s life; I feel like I do that every day in my job.” “I love helping women,” is what AFAA-certified personal trainer Pam Sherman says when describing how she feels about her job. “As a mom myself, I was able to help other moms fit working out into their day, make better choices eating, and learn the value of their health,” she adds.

What does it take to become a certified personal trainer?

Becoming a certified personal trainer is not easy. If you decide to pursue your certification through a credible organization, get ready to put some time and energy into studying. Most certifying bodies offer online study courses and prep packages, and some even have live events to help prepare you for the exam. Outside of what the organizations offer, you may be able to take a comprehensive in-person course to help you prep. Hagestedt took a year-long course at a local college that gave her hands-on and in-depth education specific to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) personal training exam. Believe it or not, some gyms and facilities employ personal trainers who don’t have a certification. Likewise, some private contractors advertise themselves as personal trainers but lack a credible certification. Although this is legal, it’s not recommended. Without a certification, you’re less employable and at a greater risk of being sued if someone gets hurt. That’s because no certification equals no insurance, which is never a good idea. While the internet is full of sites advertising personal training certifications, look for certifications that carry National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accreditation. This is considered the gold standard of accreditation in programs that certify health and fitness experts. Some of the best-known personal training certifications that carry this accreditation include the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American Council on Exercise (ACE), Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT).

What are the general requirements for personal training certification?

If personal training sounds like the career for you, the next step is to get certified. But before you sign up, there are some general requirements you need to be aware of.

  • You need to be CPR/first aid certified.
  • You need to have a high school diploma for credible certifications.
  • You need to be willing to enroll in continuing education hours to keep the certification current.

What are the costs associated with getting certified in personal training?

Before you get business cards made, you might want to check out the cost of getting certified through an accredited organization. Two of the more popular certifying agencies you can start with are ACE and NSCA. The ACE personal training exam will cost you $399; study packages average around $550 (including the exam fee). If you’re a member of NSCA, expect to pay $300 for the certified personal trainer exam. Non-members will pay $435. Like ACE, NSCA offers study packages that range in cost from $230 to a little over $500, but they do not include the exam fee.

What are the personal training certification exams like?

Once you decide on a test date and purchase your study materials, the only missing piece is figuring out what you need to know before you take the exam. All of the organizations accredited by the NCCA offer various study packages and guides to help you prepare. Most give a detailed outline of the different levels of preparation so you can choose the one that makes the most sense for your schedule and personal training career goals. For example, if you have a college degree in exercise science, you may not need the comprehensive package. But if you lack formal education in anatomy, physiology, or health-related fields, you may want to opt for the more in-depth study materials. The amount of time you dedicate to studying also depends on the knowledge you start with. According to ACE, the average candidate invests 80 to 100 hours of study time over a three- to four-month period. Since most certifying bodies now offer exams online, there are typically several dates to choose from. The exam itself usually lasts anywhere from two to three hours. For example, the exam for the NSCA’s Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) certification has 140 scored questions and 25 to 35 views and/or image items that assess competencies across multiple domains. It covers areas such as client consultation and assessment, program planning, exercise techniques, and safety, emergency, and legal issues. The length of the NSCA-CPT test is three hours.

What do you need to know about starting out in the personal training business?

Doing the research and deciding on the exam that fits your needs is the easy part. Figuring out what you need to know about the personal training business before you send off your résumés is another story. First and foremost, getting a certification does not guarantee you employment. A lot of trainers are under the impression that a passing score on the exam is their ticket to a job. This can be a real letdown for someone who is ready to light the fitness world on fire. Taking some time to figure out the areas of personal training you’re most interested in and passionate about can help in the job search process. In addition to working at private and commercial gyms, you might consider a corporate fitness program, hospital rehab center, senior center, cruise ship, spa or resort, personal training studio, or going into business for yourself. The possibilities are endless. But with the possibilities comes competition. That’s why Hagested says to remember that you may not start at your ideal job, but you should always be willing to work to get where you want to be. And while you’re working your way up, be aware that the pay can be unpredictable. The hourly rate can range from minimum wage to $60 plus an hour, with a median pay of $18.85 per hour. If you have any other areas of interest, such as yoga, indoor cycling, or CrossFit, you may want to consider earning certifications in those as well. To be employable, you need to show the employer that you’re the best person for the job. Finally, Sherman suggests talking to a few different personal trainers to see if this is really a good fit for you. Interview trainers who work at gyms, hospitals, or even senior centers. Ask them to give you the pros and cons of the business. These conversations will give you a real-world view of what it’s really like to work as a personal trainer. Because guess what? It’s not all glitz and glamour. In fact, expect to put in a ton of hours and long days when you start. High energy and a positive attitude are a must. “Long days and clients can be draining, so if you’re someone who has a hard time [with] these two things, personal training may not be the right fit for you,” Hagestedt cautions. That said, the satisfaction that comes from watching a client improve their health is priceless. If you’re ready to become a certified personal trainer, visit one of the accredited certification organizations provided above.

Sara Lindberg
A native of the Pacific Northwest, Sara Lindberg, MEd, is a fitness expert and full-time freelance writer with 20+ years of experience. She holds a BS in exercise science and a master's degree in counseling. She has spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind–body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health. When she’s not interviewing experts, researching the latest trends in health and fitness, or working away at her computer, Sara can be found at the gym lifting weights, running the back roads and trails to train for her next half-marathon, and spending time with her husband and two children.