How to Become a Certified Personal Trainer: 8 Steps to Take

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Certified personal trainers work closely with individuals to help them meet their fitness and health goals. Discover the requirements, how to become one, the salary, possible career paths, and more.

[Featured Image] A personal trainer guides a client through a weightlifting workout.

Certified personal trainers help others achieve their health and fitness goals through safe, efficient workout programs. Pairing their knowledge of physical fitness, health, and nutrition with an ability to work well with others, personal trainers are integral to helping their clients improve their health. If you enjoy physical activity and working face-to-face with others, then you might consider a career as a certified personal trainer.

In this article, you'll learn more about certified personal trainers, how much they earn, and the steps you'll have to take to join the profession. At the end, you'll also explore related careers and find some suggested cost-effective courses that can help you gain job-relevant skills today.

What is a certified personal trainer?

A certified personal trainer is a personal trainer who has acquired certification from an accredited fitness institution, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Certified personal trainers are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to help clients reach their fitness, nutritional, and overall health care goals.

While not every employer requires personal trainers to be certified, the vast majority will. Even if not required by your employer, becoming a certified personal trainer may increase your visibility as a trainer and improve your chances of gaining and acquiring new clients.

How much does a certified personal trainer make? Salary and Job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fitness trainers and instructors earn a median annual salary of $40,700 a year [1]. By contrast, Glassdoor puts the median base pay for certified personal trainers at $51,402 a year as of January 2023 [2]. As with any career, education, level of experience, and certifications can influence a trainer’s salary.

Overall, the job outlook for fitness professionals is positive. According the US BLS, the number of jobs for fitness trainers and personal instructors is expected to grow by 19-percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in about 65,500 new jobs every year throughout the decade [1].

How to become a certified personal trainer

Certified personal trainers are fitness professionals who have the training, experience, and knowledge required to help clients meet their physical fitness goals. Here are the steps you can expect to take to become a personal trainer that not only has the knowledge to help others meet their fitness goals, but the certification to back it up too.

1. Choose a certification program. 

Once you’ve decided to pursue a career as a certified personal trainer, you’ll need to choose an accredited certification program. Completing a certification program typically takes less than one year and costs anywhere from $200 to $2,000, depending on your program [3].

When considering your certification options, it’s important to choose a program accredited by a reputable institution, such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NFBE). Many employers tend to prefer NCCA accredited programs, though, because NCAA accredited personal trainers can register on the US Registry of Exercise Professionals and be easily found by clients. 

To help you find the right program for you, here are 14 NCAA-accredited certification programs you should consider to become a certified personal trainer and maintain your certification:

  • Academy of Applied Personal Training Education

  • ACTION Certification

  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

  • American Council on Exercise (ACE)

  • International Fitness Professionals Association

  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

  • National Council for Certified Personal Trainers

  • National Council on Strength and Fitness

  • National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association

  • National Exercise Trainers Association

  • National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)

  • National Strength and Conditioning Association

  • PTA Global

  • World Instructor Training Schools

2. Meet the certification prerequisites.

While certified personal trainers don't need a college degree, you must meet some prerequisites before taking the final exam to earn your certification. Typically, you must meet the following prerequisites:

  • Possess a high school diploma or GED: To be eligible for a personal trainer certification program, applicants must have graduated from high school or earned a GED. 

  • CPR/AED certification: Many certification programs require participants to obtain Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certifications before enrolling or sitting for the final exam. 

  • Be 18 years of age or older: Most programs require you to be over the age of 18 to sit for the certification exam. However, some programs may allow participants to begin the course before the age of 18, as long as they are of age by the time they take the final exam. Be sure you understand the age restrictions before starting a program.

3. Prepare for and take the certification exam.

Certification programs will likely offer training and courses to help you prepare for the final exam. Some offer several different personal trainer study program packages along with their certification exams. If you need some help preparing for the exam, ask the accrediting organization for free or paid resources or search online for virtual study groups. You may also access free practice tests online that help gives you an idea of the structure and content of the actual exam.  

When registering for a personal training certification exam, you’ll likely have to fill out an application and pay a registration fee. With a proctor, you’ll take the exam on a computer, either in-person or online. Expect anywhere from 120 to 150 multiple-choice questions in total [4].

Depending on the program you choose, you will usually be able to print a temporary certificate a few days after passing your exam. The program will mail an official, physical copy to you in the following weeks.

Read more: 11 Good Study Habits to Develop

4. Define your specialty and gain experience.

A specialization within personal training typically helps you stand out among other trainers. When choosing a specialization, consider your passions, skill sets, and professional goals to pick one that best aligns with your interests. Some common examples of personal trainer specializations include: 

  • Strength training

  • Weight loss

  • Corrective exercise

  • Youth fitness

  • Senior fitness

  • Group exercise

  • Bodybuilding

  • Cancer exercise

  • Sports performance

  • Pain management

5. Hone your personal trainer skills.

As a personal trainer, you'll need to be knowledgeable about fitness science and the human body, as well as possess the personal skills needed to motivate your clients to achieve their health goals. Here are some of the personal and technical and personal skills you'll want to possess to help you do the best possible job.

Personal skills 

As a personal trainer, communication skills and emotional intelligence are huge assets. You'll need to identify and manage your clients’ emotions to navigate between motivation and persistence. Each of your clients will have different goals and personality types, so having a firm understanding of what motivates them is key. 

Additionally,  personal trainers should also be motivated and motivating, possess excellent customer service skills, be creative and inventive in planning routines, and be well organized. 

Technical skills

An effective personal trainer should possess the knowledge and/or have experience in the following technical skills:

  • Designing exercise programs

  • Operating and maintaining exercise equipment

  • Physiology and exercise physiology

  • Effective exercise methods

  • Record keeping

  • Basic nutrition

These are the skills you will likely learn as part of your certification training. 

Read more: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference?

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A lecture from the University of Colorado Boulder's Science of Exercise course.

6. Apply for jobs and build your resume.

When you’re ready to apply for jobs, you'll want to consider where you want to work, how you want to provide your services, and whether you want to work for an established gym as an employee or as a freelancer working for yourself.

Your answers to these questions will affect how you seek employment. While in some cases you might prefer the freedom of being a freelance personal trainer, in others you might relish the structure and consistency of working as a gym employee.

Whatever path you pursue, though, you'll want to make sure that your resume fully reflects your education, skills, and assets. Here's what you'll need to include in your resume as a personal trainer:

  • Relevant high school or college coursework 

  • Completed Internships

  • Years of professional experience 

  • National certification information, including other certifications like CPR and AED

  • Achievements or accolades 

  • Essential skills you have as a trainer 

  • Specialties, areas of expertise (i.e., nutritional goals for weight loss), or if you work with a specific population or demographic 

You can find certified personal training jobs online through job sites like Indeed, in person at local gyms or health facilities, or even in local neighborhood facebook groups. Mobile apps like FlexIt and Fitmatch are another way for certified personal trainers to find clients. 

Don’t let lack of experience keep you from applying for jobs. If your resume is reflective of your qualifications and skills, many employers are willing to hire entry-level certified personal trainers. Sometimes all you need is your certification and a great interview to get the job. If you find that lack of experience is affecting your job hunt, offer free or discounted training to friends and family to build experience for your resume. 

Read more: 10 Ways to Enhance Your Resume 

Need help with your resume?

In the State University of New York's free How to Write a Resume course, you'll review resume best practices and explore current trends with guidance from a professional career counselor and recruiter in just five hours.

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7. Network and build an online presence.

Networking is one of the most cost-effective ways you can land a job and grow a personal training business. A few ways to do this include:

  • Regularly working out at the same gym

  • Offering free or reduced rates for new clients

  • Starting a boot camp

  • Volunteering to lead or sub for exercise classes at your local recreation center 

Creating an online web presence is also helpful to networking and finding more work opportunities. From social media channels to a website, have an online landing space for people who want to learn more about your services and who you are as a personal trainer.  

Social media groups are great for advertising your services and getting a community with similar interests. Think about ways to provide meaningful content for your followers or viewers like videos on proper weight lifting form, short yoga videos, or workout routines. This free content will not only educate potential clients, but may also attract followers and build your online presence and reputation into something that could generate income and new clients.

Read more: 5 Steps for a Data-Driven Online Marketing Strategy

8. Continue your education and maintain certification. 

Your education as a certified personal trainer should not end at passing the certification exam. The health industry is constantly growing, with new research and innovation affecting the fitness industry.

An easy way to keep up with ongoing discoveries and health trends is to complete continuing education courses (CECs), which many certification programs require trainers to complete 20 - 45 hours every two to three years to maintain certification. You can meet these requirements by attending conferences that offer CECs for your certifying organization, enrolling in college courses such as biology or anatomy, or enrolling in CECs online.

Certified personal trainer jobs

Once you’ve passed your professional trainer certification exam, you have the option to take your career in many different directions.  Whether working with clients in person at a gym or remotely through apps, there are many ways you can make being a personal trainer your full-time and part-time job.

Here are just some of the professions you might consider pursuing as a certified personal trainer:

Group fitness instructor 

Group fitness instructors take their passion for exercise and knowledge of personal training and apply it to leading several people at once. These classes can involve various activities such as yoga, dance, aerobics, strength training, and more. Group training may require the ability to motivate, multitask, manage time, and apply the science behind exercise to multiple people. 

Gym manager 

Generally, gym managers oversee the day-to-day functions of their facility. Gym management requires certified personal trainers to have leadership skills, excellent communication skills, experience in personal training, extensive knowledge of a variety of exercise equipment, as well as equipment maintenance. Their duties include managing class schedules, selling memberships, maintaining exercise equipment, educating and training staff members, and sometimes one-on-one personal training.

One-on-one trainer 

Certified personal trainers have the option to coach clients one-on-one. You can do this either as a gym employee or freelance trainer.

Certified personal trainers who work independently are responsible for assessing their client’s fitness levels and working with them to create an exercise program that will work effectively with their personality and body type. Personal trainers also teach proper techniques to help clients avoid injury and achieve their goals. You may work out of your home gym if you have one or travel to a client’s home. Some gyms will also allow you to use their facility for a cut of your income. 

Be proactive with Coursera

If you love working with people and are passionate about exercise, then a career as a certified personal trainer could be a rewarding path for you. As you're preparing for your next big career move, you might consider taking an online course or specialization through Coursera to gain job-relevant skills and knowledge.

In the University of Colorado Boulder's Science of Exercise course, you'll learn how the body responds to exercise, and how our behaviors, choices, and environments impact our health and training.

In the National Academy of Sports Medicine's (NASM) Nutrition Essentials course, meanwhile, you'll acquire the knowledge and abilities to leverage nutrition education to increase your client's success, reduce turnover, and maximize adherence.

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Article sources

1

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook – Fitness Trainers & Instructors https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/fitness-trainers-and-instructors.htm.” Accessed January 9, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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