How to Become a Personal Trainer

Updated on January 31, 2020
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For the fitness-obsessed, learning how to become a personal trainer is a total dream job: You get to set your own schedule, you help others achieve their fitness goals, you can use your training to start your own business, and you can essentially spend your entire day in your happy place—the gym! And lucky for you, personal training is a promising field with a good amount of job security: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of fitness trainers and instructors is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 10% through 2028. 

The barrier to entry for this quickly growing field is relatively low. You’ll need to earn certain certifications to become a personal trainer, but you don’t need a degree more advanced than a high school diploma, or any long-term training, to qualify for this job. Personal trainers can find employment at large gyms or health clubs, or they can go solo and work at boutique studios, personal training gyms, and/or their clients’ homes—and for that reason, becoming a personal trainer requires very little overhead costs. In fact, the only startup costs you’ll likely need to cover are your certification exam fee and your training program fee (that is, until you’re ready to open your own gym, at which point you can look into gym equipment financing).

If you’re interested, but don’t know where to start, take a look at our step-by-step guide on how to become a personal trainer. Let’s get to work.

How to Become a Certified Personal Trainer in 5 Steps

Step 1: Evaluate Whether You’re Right for the Job

Before we talk about how to become a certified personal trainer, let’s define exactly what a personal trainer is, and the skillset you’d need to succeed in this role. 

Personal trainers lead, demonstrate, motivate, and monitor their clients in personalized fitness regimens. Trainers may choose to work with clients on a one-on-one basis, or they can conduct group exercise sessions (or both). As a personal trainer, you can also choose to take on a specialization, like weight loss, strength and conditioning, sports medicine, or injury rehabilitation, or you can offer diet and nutrition regimes and advice in addition to your standard personal training sessions. You may also choose to specialize in training a population that you’re particularly passionate about, like student athletes, disabled people, or the elderly. Depending on the track you want to pursue, you may need to receive extra training in your intended specialization (more on that later).

It follows, then, that effective personal trainers have a personality type that’s conducive to encouraging, motivating, and supporting their clients. And while the stereotypical personal trainer archetype seems more “drill sergeant” than “elementary school teacher,” in reality you’ll need to be equal parts tough and compassionate. You’re bound to be coaching your clients through some of the most physically (and, potentially, mentally and emotionally) challenging moments in their lives, so this role requires stellar communication and listening skills, and a high EQ generally. Compassionate, clued-in personal trainers can thoroughly evaluate each individual client’s needs and limitations, and then know when to push those clients to see better results, or to pull back to avoid injury. It should also go without saying that personal trainers are personally passionate about their physical health and fitness.    

If you feel that your career goals or personality type doesn’t actually suit this role, don’t worry! There are so many other positions in the health and wellness field that might be better suited to you, whether that’s becoming a nutritionist, a physical therapist, or a health educator. But if you know you’re right for this job, let’s move onto the nuts and bolts involved in becoming a personal trainer. 

how to become a personal trainer

Step 2: Get Certified and Trained

In order to work with clients—whether you choose to go solo or become a personal trainer at a gym—you need to become properly certified. Without this credential, you really can’t step foot in a gym as a personal trainer, and you certainly won’t be hired by a large gym or health center.

There are lots of places to get your personal training certification, and you should choose the program that best aligns with the career path you’ve chosen in Step 1. 

To start your search, take a look at  the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), which offers four certified personal training programs to choose from: a self-study program, which allows you to train at your own pace; a premium self-study program, which is also self-paced but gives you access to more educational content; a guided study program, which gives you one-on-one mentorship and support; and an all-inclusive program, which will give you the most support and on-site experience. NASM’s CPT programs can get you certified in 10-12 weeks. 

A couple other organizations you can look into are the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association, both of which offer personal training courses or programs that’ll help you prepare for your certification exam. 

Whether you choose a program through NASM or another organization, make sure your training course is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), a third-party organization that sets accreditation standards for personal training certification programs. Regardless of which program you’re certified through, too, note that you’ll likely need to complete both cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) certification programs before you can even apply to your chosen certified personal training (CPT) program.

After going through your CPT training course, receiving your CPT certification requires passing a written exam that’ll test your aptitude in understanding physiology, fitness techniques, assessing your clients’ needs and abilities, developing an appropriate fitness regime, and communicating with your clients, among other requirements necessary to do the job well. Your certification exam will likely include multiple choice questions, though it might also involve a practical element, too. Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay a fee for your exam (usually a couple hundred dollars), and the training program itself might require a fee, as well. Once you’ve passed your exam, it’s a good idea to shadow a pro trainer for hands-on experience before you can take on clients yourself.

With all the said, if you want to become a personal trainer at a particular gym or health club, then you should approach the institution of your choice and ask about the certification and training required to join their team.

Step 3: Maintain Your CPT Certification

If you’ve received your CPT certification from an accredited organization (which we certainly hope you did!), then you’ll need to renew that credential annually for a couple of years after you’ve passed your exam by receiving a certain amount of continuing education units (CEUs). The exact amount of credits you need to obtain, and for what length of time, is dependent upon the CPT program you underwent—for example, NASM requires that their graduates complete 20 hours of continuing education for two years after receiving their initial certification. Often, recertifying also includes maintaining your CPR and AED certifications.

Your CPT training program can point you in the direction of an approved organization through which to receive your CEUs, and the types of courses available will depend on your CPT program’s guidelines. For some context, Fitness Mentors can offer NASM-certified trainers CEU courses on building and marketing your personal training business; designing effective fitness programs; certifying as a Pain Management Specialist; and certifying as a Special Populations Exercise Specialist.   

Renewing your certification ensures that the personal trainers who’ve received accreditation under a particular CPT organization remain aligned with that organization’s rules, guidelines, and training techniques. But on a personal level, re-upping your certification and expanding and honing your fitness knowledge ensures that you’re offering your clients the best, most up-to-date techniques and regimens possible—which is why you got into this field in the first place!

Step 4: Continue Your Personal Training Education

Although you don’t need more than a high school diploma and your CPT credential to become a personal trainer, it can only help to have additional training or education in a specific, fitness-related subject under your belt, like nutrition, exercise science, kinesiology, or anatomy. 

Not only will you be better able to service your current clients, but expanding your knowledge base can also help you attract new clients. Those extra credentials will make you a more desirable candidate if you’re seeking employment with a gym, too. If you plan on advancing to a management position at your gym or health center, then obtaining higher education may actually be required. 

So once you’ve been practicing for a couple of years, you might want to consider pursuing an associate’s  degree, master’s degree, or additional certification in a field like nutrition or exercise program design. But if you’d like to pursue additional education with a bit of a lower lift, you might want to consider undergoing other types of fitness training, like becoming certified to instruct yoga, Pilates, spin, Zumba, or another modality that appeals to you and your client base. 

how to become a personal trainer

Step 5: Market Yourself!

As is the case with launching any type of business, implementing some kind of small business marketing plan is absolutely crucial at the outset of your new career. Because if you can’t get the word out about your venture and attract clients, then you can’t flex all those hard-earned personal training skills at all!

If you’re going solo, we recommend kickstarting your marketing plan by building a business website. There are so many business website builders out there (Squarespace and Wix are two of the most popular options) that make it easy even for technophobes to create and manage a professional, SEO-optimized site. 

Your website will act as your personal training business’s online landing page, so be sure to include all the information your prospective clients need to know about training with you—like who you are, what services you offer, your fitness philosophy, and how clients can get in touch with you. You can also consider integrating your appointment scheduling software so that clients can book you right from your website. Don’t forget to include links to your social media channels, too.

Speaking of social media marketing: Be prepared to create dedicated business accounts on all major social media platforms. Starting out with a business Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter account is pretty non-negotiable, but also remember to update your LinkedIn page so your professional contacts are in the loop about your new venture.  

Marketing is arguably more important for freelance personal trainers than it is for trainers working at a gym, as the latter will be provided with clients through the gym itself. Still, having, at a minimum, a social media presence is so important for boosting your visibility and legitimacy. If you regularly post engaging content, then you might even find that social-media-savvy clients will join your gym just to train with you!

Other than social media marketing, there are tons of other low-cost or totally free marketing ideas you can play around with that don’t require breaking the bank. But ultimately, the best form of marketing for service-based businesses is word-of-mouth. So while it’s important that you spend time creating and updating your marketing materials, don’t get so lost in the weeds that you lose sight of your main focus: your clients! If you build strong relationships with your clients (and get your clients strong in the process), then they’ll be more inclined to refer you to people in their network—a surefire way of expanding your client base. 

Top Tips From a Personal Trainer

Rebekah Miller has been a personal trainer for 10 years. After starting as a part-time intern-trainer at a corporate gym, she underwent her CPT certification and started her own fitness training program using the $1,000 her parents gifted her for graduation. Now, she heads up Iron Fit Performance, a strength and conditioning facility in St. Petersburg, FL. She’s also a writer for Exercise.com and holds an MS of Kinesiology, CSCS, NASM- CPT, RYT-200, and Precision Nutrition, Level 1-Certified. 

Miller has learned a lot through her journey from a side-hustler to a full-time gym owner. Here are her top tips for aspiring, entrepreneurial personal trainers:

“My top three notes for personal trainers who are starting their own business are:

  1. Bigger isn’t always better. You don’t need a huge space or lavish studio to start. Think small and be creative. The growth will come with time.
  2. Find your niche. You simply cannot be a trainer to everyone. If you prefer student sports athletes, stick with that. On the contrary, if you find geriatrics training rewarding, stick with that. For me, I train primarily professional women who need workouts that are efficient and quick because of their busy schedules.
  3. Be professional. Even as you start small, don’t cancel sessions or show up late. Act as if you were running a million-dollar business. You’ll keep clients simply because of your work ethic.

Beyond owning your own business venture, I’ve also learned that in order to be a successful personal trainer, you must:

  • Be able to learn and evolve constantly. There are always new research findings and there are always new fitness trends. Stay on top of it all and remember: Knowledge is power.
  • Meet people where they are at. Your clients come from all different backgrounds, so teach yourself how to talk to a beginner versus an experienced athlete; and don’t treat both the same. Furthermore, some people need a little more encouragement while others excel simply by showing up.
  • Have a personality. You cannot expect to be a dull monotone personality and keep clients coming back. A good client-to-trainer relationship is essential.
  • Learn to rest. New trainers work early mornings and late evenings to get in as many clients as possible (I’ve been there!); however, your health is important too. Set boundaries on your schedule.
  • Actually enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it’ll show. It’ll show in your enthusiasm while teaching and your overall demeanor. If you’re having a bad day, you can let the client know what’s happening, but then use all your might to be cheery and helpful. After all, they are paying you for a service.”     

The Bottom Line on How to Become a Certified Personal Trainer

The most important takeaway from this primer on how to become a personal trainer? Make sure you’re signing up with a reputable certification program—that way, you’re guaranteed to receive the training and education required to train clients safely and effectively. 

But it’s also important that you gain hands-on experience in a professional setting before you can strike out on your own, whether that’s by finding a mentor before going solo, or by signing up for a training program at your local gym or health club. Once you’ve gained sufficient experience—and continue to re-up your fitness education—you can start to confidently market your services, with the full knowledge that you’re prepared to change people’s bodies and lives for the better.

Contributing Writer at Fundera

Caroline Goldstein

Caroline is a former Fundera staff writer and current freelance writer, specializing in small business and finance. She has an MFA in fiction from New York University. She loves finding creative ways to help entrepreneurs grow.
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