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Personal Trainer Career Guide

What is a personal trainer?

A personal trainer typically works one-on-one with each client, but they can also work with small groups. They create custom workout plans based on the client’s needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Each personal trainer and their clients are different. Their workout plans normally incorporate gym equipment, but they might also include exercises using no weights. Personal trainers ensure that the client uses the equipment and/or performs the exercises safely and properly to make sure they are getting maximum benefits and don’t get injured. They provide motivation, encouragement, and guidance as well as monitor each client’s progress and provide feedback on a regular basis. They evaluate the client’s progress and modify the workout plan as needed. They also make sure that clients don’t get injured while training.

Personal trainers must be familiar with exercise physiology and proper lifting and exercise techniques. They should have a positive attitude, be personable, and be able to work closely with a diverse group of individuals. A personal trainer is also an educator, instructing clients on how to improve their health and physical fitness, which may include building endurance, strength, muscle mass, cardiovascular capabilities, and physical flexibility. Some personal trainers also help clients with their nutrition plans.

Qualifications and eligibility

Personal trainers should have in-depth knowledge of a variety of fitness equipment, exercises, and programs. They need excellent communication and motivational skills. The basic requirements you’ll need before pursuing a career as a personal trainer are:

  • You must be at least 18 years old
  • You must have a high school diploma or GED
  • You should have a CPR/AED certification (this isn’t an official standard, but is highly recommended and required for some employers)

Next, you need to become certified as a personal trainer. There are a number of different options to gain certification, which include:

  • A private company 
  • Vocational school 
  • University bachelor’s or master’s programs
  • Online programs 
  • Gym program 

The route you take will depend on how fast you want to get certified, how much time you have, and your personal preferences. Many choose an accredited certification program, such as one accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is the gold standard in health and fitness. Once you’ve taken the course, program, or received your degree, you can sit for the exam. 

Work environment

The majority of personal trainers work for a specific gym or fitness center or split their time between several different locations. Some are self-employed and go to where the client is, which may be a fitness center or the client’s home. They may also work on-site for large corporations, planning workouts for employees. Other places personal trainers work include sports complexes, civic and social organizations, resorts, colleges and universities, country clubs, and state and local governments. Some personal trainers travel with their clients.

Personal trainers work with a variety of exercise equipment, which includes free weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, exercise machines, resistance bands, cardio machines such as treadmills and stationary bikes, and battle ropes. Conditions vary as well. Some personal trainers work in loud gyms, while others might be in tranquil environments.

Typical work hours

Some personal trainers work full-time, but many work part-time and have other jobs. They typically work a variety of hours to accommodate their client’s schedules, which may include nights and weekends, although some self-employed trainers set their own hours. Trainers who work for large companies usually only work during business hours. 

A personal trainer’s schedule can change at any time, and they should always be prepared to accommodate the needs of their clients. Many people work out early before work or late after work, so personal trainers typically work more in the mornings and evenings. Weekends are also usually busy times for personal trainers. After New Year’s Day, personal trainers typically work heavier schedules as many people make New Year’s resolutions to start working out. The same is true to a lesser degree during the summer.  

Many personal trainers don’t stop working when they leave the gym or fitness center. They spend time creating personalized exercise routines and finding new clients. 

Types of personal trainers

As physical fitness is a broad area and incorporates many different types of training, personal trainers work in a variety of specialties, depending on their employer, experience, education, personality, and areas of expertise. Here are some common types of personal trainers:

Physical fitness trainer

Assists clients in reaching their physical fitness goals by developing custom fitness training programs based on the client’s needs. They may work individually or in a group setting. 

Sports trainer

Train athletes for a specific sport. Can often work for colleges, universities, and professional sports teams.

Physique trainer

Assists in helping clients achieve the body they want. Also trains athletes and bodybuilders for competition. 

Cardio trainer

Assists clients in gaining cardio and endurance., losing weight, and burning fat. Also helps clients prepare for marathons, cycling, triathlons, and other distance events.

Strength trainer

Specializes in building strength and power. 

Lifestyle trainer

Assists clients with overall health, including eating right and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

Group exercise instructor

Train groups with little individual attention. May include bootcamp training, Crossfit, yoga, Pilates, group cardio sessions, Zumba, and more.  

Mobile trainer

Typically self-employed trainers who meet clients at home, a local park, their workplace, or other locations.  

Income potential

The income potential for a personal trainer can vary greatly by specialty, location, experience, education, and whether you work full or part-time. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for a personal trainer in the US was $19.57 per hour or $40,700 per year in 2021. The top 10% of trainers earned more than $75,940, and the lowest 10% earned less than $22,960.

  • The estimated average annual income for a personal trainer is $64,259, with the bottom 10% making $31,788, and $92,298 for the top 10%. 
  • The income potential for a personal trainer can vary greatly by state, so it’s best to view data on your specific state. 

States with the highest salaries:

  • Washington – $56,508
  • Maryland – $55,088
  • Virginia – $53,939

States with the lowest salaries:

  • Georgia – $37,738
  • Louisiana – $36,900
  • North Carolina – $35,725

The average salary for a personal trainer is at $42,953, with the highest paying cities being New York, NY ($49,771 per year), Seattle, WA ($48,252 per year), and Los Angeles, CA ($47,126 per year).

Many personal trainers work part-time and have other jobs. The average weekly pay for a part-time personal trainer as of July 2022 was $774 a week. Some weekly wages are as high as $1,288 and as low as $337. How much a part-time personal trainer can make per week varies greatly by location, experience, and the ability to secure clients.

Position trends

Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, below are the occupational statistics for fitness trainers and instructors (SOC code 39-9031):

  • 2021 Median Pay: $40,700 per year ($19.57 per hour)
  • Number of Jobs, 2020: 309,800
  • Job Outlook, 2020-30: 39% increase (much faster than average)
  • Employment Change, 2020-30: 121,700 increase 

The outlook for fitness trainers and instructors is very good over the next 10 years, with an average of 69,100 openings projected each year.

Career path

Personal trainers have to be at least 18 years of age and have a high school diploma or equivalent. Many employers are looking for personal trainers with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in the health or fitness field, such as exercise science, kinesiology, or physical education. 

Personal trainers can move into management positions in health clubs and fitness centers with advanced education and experience. Some companies prefer a master’s degree. 

Although you can work as a personal trainer without certification, your options will be very limited. Gyms and other health clubs, private companies, and government jobs all require a personal trainer to be certified before working with clients. A personal trainer can also get certified in a specialized type of fitness instruction, such as yoga or Pilates.

The career opportunities for a personal trainer include:

  • Aerobics instructor
  • Certified personal trainer
  • Exercise instructor
  • Fitness director
  • Fitness trainer
  • Group exercise instructors
  • Group fitness instructors
  • Pilates instructors
  • Specialized fitness instructors
  • Weight training instructors
  • Wellness instructor
  • Yoga instructors

Personal trainers can also advance into high-level coaching positions or gym or club ownership with additional education, specializing in clinical health positions, such as:

  • Physical therapist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Clinical trainer
  • Fitness specialist
  • Athletic trainer
  • Sports medicine 
  • Injury rehabilitation

Steps to becoming a personal trainer

1. Earn a high school diploma 

To become a certified personal trainer, a high school diploma or its equivalent is required.

2. Earn an AED and CPR Certification

Personal trainers must complete cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) certification programs to be certified. These programs teach trainers important steps to take in a medical emergency. The classes typically take about 4 hours to complete. 

The most popular options for these certifications include:

3. Enroll in a personal training certification course

Choose a specialty that fits your skill sets, personal interests, and professional goals. Then, find a personal training school or course that is right for you.

Popular personal training education options include:

  • NASM
    NASM offers a personal training certification that goes above and beyond. With six sections and a final exam, NASM prepares you to become a personal trainer with the best education. To be eligible for this personal training course, you must have a high school diploma or GED. Additionally, you need a Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certification and an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) certification.
  • Ace Fitness
    At Ace Fitness, they have the most recognized certification. With three different certification levels to choose from, Basic, Plus, and Advantage, you can choose which level works best for you. You can do the course at your own pace, making this perfect for anyone who can’t commit to a set schedule.
  • NSCA
    If you’re looking for an affordable certification to become a personal trainer, you’ll find it at NSCA. Starting at just $300, this is a great option for those who are ready to go. You have to complete the exam within 150 days of registering, so keep that in mind.
  • ISSA
    If you’re ready to become a personal trainer, but looking for financing options, ISSA is a great choice. Starting at $69/month, ISSA will get you where you need to be. If you study for one hour a day, you’ll finish in 10 weeks! You get to go at your own pace as well.

4. Prepare for the certification exam

Once you have chosen a specialty, the next step is to prepare to take the certification exam. You can find resources online to study on your own or take a personal trainer certification course. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is the primary accrediting body for personal training certifications. The major certifying bodies include:

5. Pass the certification exam

Once you have completed a certification program or prepared for the exam on your own, the next step is to register for the exam. Generally, there is an application fee to register. 

The typical test is computer-based and includes between 120-150 questions. The amount and types of questions may vary depending on who is administering the test. 

The Certified Personal Trainer Certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has questions across four sections:

  • Program Planning
  • Client Consultation and Fitness Assessment
  • Exercise Techniques
  • Safety/Emergency Issues

Other tests may vary, but they all are similar in content. Other popular tests include ISSA, NCSF, Fitness Mentors, American Council of Exercise, ACSM, and NSCA.   

6. Apply for jobs

After you have passed the exam and received your certification, you are ready to start applying for a position as a personal trainer. You can do this at a gym or online.

7. Continuing education

To continue to grow in your career and take advantage of new opportunities, you can further your education in the following ways:

  • Take courses at a vocational school
  • Earn an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in a sports/health-related field. 
  • Take personal training courses

Tips for becoming a personal trainer

If you are looking at becoming a personal trainer, you probably already have an interest in fitness, health, and exercise and a passion for helping others achieve their fitness goals. If so, a career as a personal trainer might be a great fit for you. Here are a few helpful tips that can help guide you on your journey to becoming a personal trainer:

Practice what you preach

You don’t have to have an amazing physique, lean build, and perfect abs to be a personal trainer. Many people become personal trainers through their journey to overcome their own fitness issues, such as being over or underweight, lacking strength, lacking cardio, or lacking overall health and fitness. Whatever you struggled and overcame in your path to fitness, you can help others do the same. Continue to practice what you preach. In other words, keep yourself in good physical condition by working out and exercising regularly to show your clients what is possible and inspire them. 

Know your training style

Some clients like a loud and firey personal trainer, while others like a calm and soft-spoken voice. Knowing which one you are, or if you’re somewhere in the middle, will have a big impact on the type of clients you’ll be able to attract and motivate. 

Be a good communicator and a great listener

Regardless of your training style, you’ll need to have excellent communication and listening skills. Personal trainers interact with many different personality types and many different fitness levels. Being able to communicate effectively with all of them and being a great listener are keys to being a success with any client.

Get your certification

Pick a method, whether self-study or through an accredited course, but get certified if you’re serious about a career as a personal trainer. Here is a list of the top certifying organizations:

Whichever personal trainer certification path you choose, make sure it is accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

Pick a specialty

There are many different specialties you can choose from as a personal trainer that can help you expand your opportunities. Here are just a few of the wide variety of specializations that are available to personal trainers:

  • Strength and conditioning coach
  • Group exercise instructor
  • Fitness manager
  • Senior fitness specialist
  • Youth fitness specialist
  • Weight loss transformation specialist
  • Bodybuilding specialist
  • Corrective exercise specialist
  • Health coaching
  • Yoga instructor
  • Nutritionist
  • Performance enhancement coach
  • Powerlifting instructor
  • Exercise therapy specialist
  • Running coach

Keep learning

Expand your horizons by learning about anatomy, physiology, sports psychology, nutrition, diet, healthy weight loss, and more. Stay up-to-date on the latest trends, breakthroughs, and advances in science and training. Earn additional certifications. Earn an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, sports medicine, physical education, or another related field. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to help your clients achieve success.

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