How to Become a Personal Fitness Trainer

Tamsen Butler
Woman with her trainer working out

Becoming a personal fitness trainer can come from many different paths - while some trainers study at college and earn a degree in Exercise Science or a related field, other trainers simply start offering their services as trainers despite any formal training. There is no national licensing requirement for personal trainers, so nearly anyone can make a claim to the title, but those who want to be good trainers should follow a path of education and training before starting their career.

What You Need to Become a Trainer

Personal trainers should have a passion for fitness and be good with people. If they plan to work out of a gym, they should also be good with sales as they will be expected to sell their services as well as any supplements the gym offers.

A Passion for Fitness

Rhonda Decker, a certified personal fitness trainer and certified nutrition specialist, arrived at a personal fitness training career after her own fitness journey. "I had struggled for many years of my life (in my teens and most of my 20s) with issues of self-esteem and an unhealthy view of my body. After becoming a mom, however, I really felt the need to be the best role model I could be for my daughter," said Decker. "To make those changes in my life, I began working with a trainer and the transformation took place-both in mind and body. I simply want to share that amazing feeling with everyone else out there who desires to be better, but needs the proper guidance and support."

Well-Rounded Education

Personal trainers should expect to continue their education as this is a requirement among most certifying organizations. Trainers with no certification should seek additional training to increase their knowledge and skills. Said Decker, "I have certifications in both personal fitness and nutrition as well as holistic healing as a massage therapist. I specialize in nutrition, working with post-natal and menopausal women who need help losing or keeping weight gain off. I am also currently involved in learning Pilates and the study of martial arts, as well as Russian Kettlebell training."

Required Education

Since there is no law in place requiring personal trainers to have a specific license or certification, it falls upon the trainer's employer to set the standards. While some gyms require degrees or certifications, others have in-house training. Trainers who work from their home or online can call themselves "fitness trainers" even if they have no certification, but the title "certified personal trainer" is only obtained through a certifying organization. Every personal trainer - certified or not - should have a current CPR certification.

Certifying Organizations

Many organizations exist that certify personal trainers. While some have better reputations than others, all should provide the basic knowledge necessary to get started as a personal trainer. It's important to note that not all organizations are equal - you truly do get what you pay for. Here is a brief list of some of the organizations available:

  • NASM: The National Academy of Sports Medicine is a well-respected certifying organization that offers personal training certifications both online and in local workshops.
  • ISSA: The International Sports Sciences Association certifies personal trainers through an online educational platform.
  • NCEP: The National College of Educational Professionals is a fairly new organization that certifies through local workshops.

Specialization Training

Most trainers go into their careers knowing who they want their client base to be. "Most of my clients are women," said Decker. "Most people are between 35-60 years old who want to be healthier and look better. I will help the ones that sometimes need a lot of help and have tried everything else to lose the weight." Knowing which population you want to work with should help define what type of training you seek as a trainer.

Trainer watching woman running ladder

Additional Certifications

Nutritional specialist certifications, weight loss specialist certifications, and specific exercise protocols are all good ideas for personal trainers who want to be effective in their trade. "The body begins from the inside out. How a person feels physically is a result of what they put into their body. Optimum nutrition will help to produce optimum fitness. By making the right choices in what we eat, we are able to start to feel good and want to be active," said Decker, explaining why she pursued a nutritional certification.

Location Concerns

The advantage to working for a gym is two-fold: you have a built-in client base and the gym likely carries liability insurance to protect you if a client sues. But many trainers prefer to work in clients' homes or even in online sessions. "I am able to reach so many more people online, and help them reach their goals to lose weight, perform better, and live healthy and happy lives," said Decker. "In a live session one-on-one, I am only there for them one hour, maybe two to three times a week. But online training allows me to be there for them anytime-whether it's to update their workouts or give them support and help with their grocery shopping."

Training Limitations

Personal trainers should only offer advice about fitness - never medical advice or nutritional advice that borders on medical advice (such as advice that would come from a certified nutritionist or dietician) as this advice exceeds the scope of personal training. If a client follows advice and gets injured as a result (for example, you suggest ice on a bruised ankle so the client goes home and ices it for hours, damaging muscle tissue) you may be liable since they were following your advice.

Helping Others

New personal trainers will quickly discover that training people isn't just about the exercises - there's a human aspect that can't be ignored. Clients need motivation and help setting goals, and sometimes just need someone to listen to their frustrations about trying to lose weight or get fit. It's up to the trainer to ensure client sessions don't turn into gab sessions and stay productive.

A People-Centered Profession

"I wish I could help every person, and for everyone to have a happy, healthy and active long life," said Decker. Personal trainers should share this goal of wanting to help people be healthier and more active.

Where to Start

Investigate the various certifying organizations to find the one that best aligns with your own fitness philosophy, budget, and location. It's a good idea to talk to a manager at your favorite gym to find out if they have a preferred organization for their trainers. A career in personal training can be flexible and rewarding, but it does take some time to build your brand and reputation as a good trainer.

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How to Become a Personal Fitness Trainer