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How to Become a Personal Trainer

By Zach Skillings

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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Posted: February 5th, 2022
How to Become a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers help people achieve their fitness goals through exercise and nutrition. It’s a rewarding career path that allows you to make a positive impact in people’s lives. If you’re wondering how to become a personal trainer, we’ll break it down for you in this guide. 

In most cases, you must have a high school diploma and certification from an accredited personal training program. Keep reading to learn more.

Also see: Top physical therapy scholarships 

1. Earn a high school diploma or GED

Before pursuing further education, personal trainers must have a high school diploma or GED. This is a requirement for most national certification exams (see step 5). 

2. Choose a fitness specialty 

It’s important to determine what area of fitness you’d like to focus on. Personal trainers specialize in a range of fitness activities, including the following: 

  • Strength and conditioning 
  • Group exercise
  • Senior fitness
  • Youth fitness
  • Weight loss
  • Yoga
  • Kickboxing 
  • Bodybuilding
  • Health coaching
  • Corrective exercise 

Knowing what type of personal training you’d like to pursue is key to selecting the right educational program, which we’ll discuss in the next step. 

3. Choose an educational path 

If you want to become a personal trainer, you have a few options regarding your education. At minimum, personal trainers are expected to have completed a personal trainer certificate program. However, earning a college degree can help boost your chances of employment and career advancement. We’ve outlined both options below: 

Certificate program 

In nearly all cases, this is the minimum qualification needed to become a personal trainer. Most certificate programs can be completed in a few months to a year, and many are available online. When choosing a program, it’s best to select one accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). These are some of the top certificate-granting organizations accredited by the NCCA: 

  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
  • American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

Use this database to find a full list of personal trainer programs accredited by the NCCA. As you’ll notice, some programs focus on specific areas such as group fitness, health coaching, or strength training. Research programs carefully to find one that suits your interests. 

College degree 

A college degree isn’t required to become a personal trainer, but it could prove useful in the job search. Employers may prefer to hire personal trainers who have an associate or bachelor’s degree in a field such as exercise science, kinesiology, physical education, or a related subject. Earning a college degree can also help you advance your career down the line. If you want to pursue a management position at some point, having a bachelor’s degree can definitely help. 

Don’t miss: Finance your education with our free scholarship search tool

4. Obtain CPR and AED certification

In the case of a medical emergency, personal trainers must know how to help clients until medical professionals arrive. That’s why they must be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillation (AED). This is a prerequisite for most certification exams (see step 5). 

CPR / AED certification classes are offered by a variety of organizations including the Red Cross, the American Heart Association, and the National Safety Council. Courses typically cost up to $55 and take 2 – 4 hours to complete. 

5. Pass a certification exam 

While it’s legal to work as a personal trainer without certification, your employment options will be very limited. That’s why it’s smart to become certified, preferably by an organization accredited by the NCCA. And remember that regardless of which educational path you choose (certificate program or college degree), you’ll still have to pass a certification exam. There’s a range of certification exams available, so be sure to research your options and find one that fits your area of expertise. This database is a helpful resource for finding accredited certification programs and exams. 

6. Find a job

Now that you’ve earned certification, you’re free to pursue work as a personal trainer. NASM, NSCA, and FitnessJobs.com all have job boards featuring personal trainer positions. If you’d rather not work for a specific gym, another option is to build a client roster on your own and work as a freelancer. 

Don’t miss: How to become a physical therapist

Frequently asked questions on becoming a personal trainer

How many years does it take to become a personal trainer? 

That depends on the path you take. With certificate programs, it’s possible to become certified and find a job in less than six months. But if you choose to earn a college degree, you’ll spend much more time preparing. Associate degree programs are two years, while bachelor’s degree programs are four years. Although the college route takes more time, you’ll have a better shot at landing a good job and advancing your career that way. 

Do personal trainers make good money? 

Personal trainers made a median annual salary of $40,510 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, pay varies according to several factors. For one, your income will look different depending on whether you work for a gym or if you’re an independent trainer. You might have a more stable income if you’re an employee at a gym, but you have the potential to make more money by freelancing. Pay also depends on experience, geographic location, and area of expertise. 

Which fitness certification is best? 

It’s best to choose a certification program accredited by the NCCA. While there’s other accrediting bodies, the NCCA is regarded as the “gold standard” in health and fitness. Check out this article to learn more about the best personal trainer certification programs.

Related: Exercise science major overview

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