How to Become a Certified Personal Trainer

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Certified personal trainer jobs require you to 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 certified personal trainer works with a client in a gym.

To become a certified personal trainer, you must be at least 18 years of age, have your high school diploma or GED, get CPR certification, and earn certification from an accredited organization. A college degree is not required. 

Certified personal trainers have an important role in helping people achieve their health and fitness goals through safe, efficient workout programs. 

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. While not every employer may require personal trainers to be certified, the vast majority will. Completing a certification program typically takes less than one year and costs anywhere from $200 to $2,000, depending on your program [1].

When considering your certification options, it’s important to choose an accredited program. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NFBE) are two examples of credential programs. Most employers tend to prefer NCCA accredited programs. 

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. You can find a list of NCAA accredited personal trainers on the US Registry of Exercise Professionals, making it easier for clients to find certified trainers in their area. 

Here are the 14 NCAA-accredited certification programs for becoming a certified personal trainer and maintaining your certification as of May 2022:

  • 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

You can find a certification program for just about every preferred learning type. These programs vary in duration and structure, depending on the type of program and the scholar organization offering the certification. 

Examples of certification programs you can take include:

  • Self-study with tiered resource options such as:

    • Hard copy materials

    • Live Q&A webinars

    • Facilitated study groups

  • Self-paced study with a job guarantee

  • Guided study with 1:1 mentor coaching and a “Gymternship”

  • Training based on your current proficiency

  • In-person with free continuing education units (CEUs)

  • Self-paced with free recertification for life

  • Fast track with unlimited retests

While taking unaccredited courses is an option, this is typically a better choice for a personal trainer who already has an established client base and does not intend to work for a corporate gym. However, if you are a trainer building your client base from scratch, lacking an accredited certification may make it harder to pursue your career goals going forward.

Meet the certification prerequisites.

While certified personal trainer requirements do not require a college degree, you must meet some prerequisites before taking the final exam to earn your certification.

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 both Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certifications before enrolling or sitting for the final exam. 

Providers often offer these certifications, with Red Cross being the most common. Online-only courses are available, or you can find in-person courses through a local search. Remember that you'll need to retake these certifications to remain up-to-date, typically every two years. 

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. Some programs will allow participants to take the examination before turning 18 but will withhold the certification until the trainer has turned 18. Be sure you understand the age restrictions before starting a program.

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 [2].

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

Define your specialty and gain experience.

Personal training is a field that is quickly growing. Choosing a specialization within personal training typically helps you stand out among other trainers. Consider your passions, skill sets, and professional goals when selecting a specialization. Examples of specializations include but are not limited to: 

  • Strength training

  • Weight loss

  • Corrective exercise

  • Youth fitness

  • Senior fitness

  • Group exercise

  • Bodybuilding

  • Cancer exercise

  • Sports performance

  • Pain management

Apply for jobs. 

When you’re ready to apply for jobs, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do you want to work?

  • How do you want to provide your services? 

  • Do you want to work for an established gym as an employee? 

  • Do you want to work as a freelancer? 

These decisions will affect how you seek employment.  

Certified personal trainers can look for jobs online through job sites like Indeed or at local gyms or health facilities. Local job boards online can be helpful as can local neighborhood Facebook groups that have advertisements. Word of mouth can also play a big part in the job search for personal trainers, so consider how you might use social media and online job boards to find work. 

Build your resume.

Whatever pathway you’re going to pursue, the first step is building your resume as a certified personal trainer that fully reflects your education, skills, and assets. Here's what to include in your resume:

 

  • Relevant high school or college coursework 

  • Internships you have completed 

  • Years of professional experience 

  • National certification information (also include all other certifications like CPR, AED, and others you may hold)

  • Achievements or accolades 

  • Essential skills you have as a trainer 

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

If you need help with your resume, consider enrolling in a resume writing course offered on Coursera. 

Read more: 10 Ways to Enhance Your Resume 

Network.

Networking can play an important role in both landing a job and growing a personal training business. It is one of the most cost-effective ways to market yourself. 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 exercise classes at your local recreation center 

You might want to consider becoming a sub for fitness classes to help start your career. Try a mix of both in-person and online networking opportunities. Social media can offer many opportunities for circulating your qualifications and offerings as a newly certified personal trainer. Social media groups are great for advertising your services and getting a community with similar interests. 

Create an online presence. 

An online presence is vital in marketing yourself as a certified personal trainer, particularly if you plan to start your own business rather than working for a gym or other employer. 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.  

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 it may also attract followers and build your online presence and reputation into something that could generate income and clients. 

You might even find employment with mobile apps if you want to find ways to work remotely. Some fitness apps like FlexIt and Fitmatch pair people with certified personal trainers. 

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

Fill out applications.

If you know that you want to work for a gym, a helpful way to find job listings is to key in the search term “certified personal trainer” on platforms like Glassdoor, Indeed, and Google Careers. Adding “entry-level” to your search can help you find jobs that do not require previous experience. Be ready to upload a copy of your resume and provide personal and professional references.

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: How to Get a Job with No Experience: A Job Seeker’s Guide

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). You can offer your clients the most up-to-date, on-trend methodology and techniques with CECs. As a certified personal trainer, you can also specialize in particular areas that could help you to better market yourself and your services. 

Most commonly, certification programs require trainers to complete an average of 20 hours of CECs every two 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. You can find courses on subjects like nutrition and exercise on Coursera.

What skills do you need to become a personal trainer?

To become a personal trainer, you will need to be motivated and knowledgeable in fitness science and the human body. Typically your goal is to keep your clients safe to help them reach their goals, which requires technical and personal skills. 

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. 

Personal skills 

As a personal trainer, communication skills and emotional intelligence are huge assets. You need to be able to identify and manage your clients’ emotions and your own to navigate between motivation and persistence. Your goal as a personal trainer is to help your clients achieve their best results, which is different for everyone. Having an understanding of what motivates a person is key. 

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

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

Salary and job outlook 

With the health and wellness industry currently booming, the job outlook for certified personal trainers is expected to grow 39 percent from 2020 to 2030 [3]. In May 2022, the average salary for a certified personal trainer in the US was $75,106, ranging from $45,000 to $152,000 according to Glassdoor.

As with any career, the education, level of experience, and certifications can influence a trainer’s salary.

Career paths for a certified personal trainer

Once you’ve met all of your prerequisites and passed your professional trainer certification exam, you have the option to take your career in many different directions. This flexibility is one of the characteristics of this career that makes it so attractive to many people. 

Whether working with clients in person at a gym or remotely through apps, many trainers can choose to work as little or as much as they desire. Personal training can easily be a full-time career, but if you prefer to train a few hours a week as a part-time job, that can be an attainable option. 

Employment at a gym provides a way to grow your client base but may be less flexible. Freelancing or self-employment may require you to grow your client base yourself but allows you to create your own schedule and workload.

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 both 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. 

Next steps 

If you love working with people and are passionate about exercise, personal training could be a rewarding career for you. Take your first step by researching certification programs to find the one best suited for you. Build your resume by taking courses to increase your knowledge base, such as Science of Exercise or NASM's Nutrition Coaching Essentials. Once you've prepared and earned your certification, you’re well on your way to achieving your career goals in personal fitness.

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Article sources

1. National Federation of Professional Trainers. “Personal Trainer Certification Comparison, https://www.nfpt.com/personal-trainer-certification-comparison.” Accessed  May 30, 2022.

2. Test.com. “Ace Personal Trainer Practice Exam, https://www.tests.com/practice/ace-personal-trainer-certification-practice-exam-sample." Accessed May 30, 2022.

3. 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 May 30, 2022.

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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