What Does It Take to Become a Personal Trainer (and Is It Worth It)?

I got certified as a personal trainer last year to round out my knowledge and make sure I can be even more of a know-it-all when I write about fitness for you guys. Because so many people are interested in this line of work, I thought I’d share what the experience was like, if it was worth the effort, and what I’ve learned through personal training.

It’s funny how many people consider personal trainers to be the ultimate exercise experts, while others argue that certification doesn’t make sense. None of these points of view, in my opinion, is wrong, but there is some truth in each. There are some really great personal trainers out there, and someone with a certification is probably better at their job than a gym rat who picked up some good tips here and there. But you also don’t need to have actual experience to get certified, so someone who can pass the test in this subject won’t necessarily make a good coach.

What is a good certification?

The whole point of a certificate is to give you a certificate that you can show to someone. Who wants to see it? Who will take care?

Certification is a way to demonstrate your reliability. If you want to convince a potential client to hire you, they may be looking for someone with a certificate or see it as a valuable bonus. (For example, we advise readers to make sure their personal trainer is certified.) Certification can also provide some evidence of your experience if you work in a related job, such as writing about fitness. (Hey!)

But the most common use of personal training certifications is this: if you want to get a job at a gym, you will show the gym that you have the certification. And the gym wants you to be certified because their insurance requires them to hire qualified personal trainers. Certification is a good shorthand for “this person has a general idea of ​​what the job entails and knows how to make sure people don’t get hurt.”

Insurance is important in the world of personal training because there are many scenarios where a client could potentially sue you, especially if they injure themselves during a workout.

If you want to work independently, you don’t need a gym as an intermediary. You buy the insurance policy yourself – it’s pretty cheap, less than $200 a year for a few policies I’ve reviewed – and the insurance company may want to know if you’re certified, or may charge you extra if you’re not. The details, of course, depend on the insurance plan.

You don’t need to get certified just to educate people. “Personal trainer” does not apply to those professions that require a license from the state (as doctors need a medical license). If you think you know what you’re doing, people are willing to pay you for it, and you can either get insurance or be brave enough to do without it, you can skip certification entirely.

Which Personal Trainer Certification Should I Get?

Now that you know why certificates exist, you’ll have a better idea of ​​how to choose them. If you want to be hired at a gym, your best bet is to hire one that is common in many gyms. Among your options: ACE, NASM, and NSCA provide certifications that are accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and widely recognized.

But you don’t have to hold Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) certifications. There are also certifications as a group fitness instructor, health coach, and other roles that overlap with personal training. Coaches at universities often hold a CSCS certification, which is also highly regarded. And if you want to train people in a specific discipline like CrossFit, indoor cycling, or kettlebell training, there are organizations that offer specific certifications.

The cynical approach is that you should get the cheapest and easiest certification you can find, because its only job is to get your resume looked through. But it won’t do you any good if the one you choose is so niche that your gym won’t accept it. Do a little research and find out what certifications potential employers or clients will be looking for, especially if you’re targeting a specific job.

What do you need to learn to get certified?

The details vary, but in general, personal training certification indicates that you meet some minimum requirements to (a) not hurt people, (b) keep your employer out of legal trouble, and (c) provide people with effective or low-cost assistance. at least not a terrible, training program. This is a minimum for employment, and not a sign of deep expertise.

I got my ACE certification, which is pretty typical for big CPT certifications, and I would say the most important takeaways were:

  • Knowledge of the scope of one’s practice (for example, refusing medical advice) and what is considered ethical in the profession.
  • Ability to tag people who need a doctor’s approval before they start an exercise plan.
  • Ability to talk to clients and help them make plans and set goals without being an asshole
  • Knowing which exercises will stretch or strengthen each muscle group
  • Knowing how to tell if a muscle seems weak or tight (so you can ask the client to stretch or strengthen it)
  • Understanding the amount and complexity of exercise a person needs to achieve their health or fitness goals.
  • Have a basic understanding of insurance, tax status, and other business stuff (since many instructors are contracted or end up owning their own business)

Some of these areas become more detailed than others. You will be taught different energy systems (aerobic and anaerobic). You will be reading endless tables with points of origin and insertion of various muscles. But by the time you get to the certification exam, you really need to apply that knowledge, not repeat it. For example, you may be shown a video of a client struggling to squat and should write down the exercises you would recommend.

How hard is it to get through?

Looking at large personal training programs in particular (not specialized certifications), the main event is the multiple choice test. To take the ACE test, I had to go to the test center in the office park and sit at the computer for an hour or two, typing the answers. When I finished the test, boom, I was a certified personal trainer.

In order to register, I had to show that I was certified in CPR and first aid, another set of qualifications that shows I have a basic knowledge of how to keep people safe.

And before that – well, this is the most difficult. I had to study . Many personal trainer programs don’t let you just show up and take the test; You must buy a training package. I had an online course, practice tests, and the ability to call in for tutoring sessions. None of this knowledge was completely new to me, but I knew it would be important to be able to describe things using ACE terms and frameworks. And I did pick up some helpful tips along the way.

The volume of training was at the level of one semester in college. There is a textbook, a series of video lectures, several quizzes and a workbook. You can skip or review as many as you want and I probably could, but you have to pay to retake the test if you fail and I wanted to be very sure of passing. (In the end, I scored 98%).

It took me about six weeks to train, and it helped a lot that I already had a solid background in both fitness and basic biology. If you come without knowing, for example, anatomical terms, you will be very lost. As for how difficult the test will be: NASM says 74% of people who took the test in 2020 passed it. NSCA reports that their success rate was 72% in 2019. ACE says they had 71% in 2021.

I’ve seen advice on the internet for using third party apps and test suites, but to be honest, everything I’ve looked at is rubbish. The test questions are poorly written and focus too much on details that don’t really need to be memorized for the test. ACE updated their textbook and test a year before I took mine, and all third party study materials I found are out of date. The changes were significant – for example, the system for screening new clients for the risk of cardiovascular disease was completely redesigned, which is very important – so studying the old material will not prepare you for the new test.

How much does it cost?

Here is the price range for a few popular certificates:

  • ACE-CPT: $509 to $899 for study packages that include an exam.
  • NASM-CPT: $584 to $1,754 for training packages that include an exam.
  • NSCA-CPT: $430 for the exam, plus $201 to $513 if you want a training package.

Check the current numbers on the websites of organizations. The ACE and NASM study packs seem to always be on sale (here are the current prices on the website that include some sort of sale, but perhaps not all available discounts?), and the NSCA offers a $130 membership which saves money on exams and training packages. . To be honest, it’s very hard to get straight numbers to compare purchases, which is probably the whole point.

Now, how much can you expect to earn after taking the test? Here’s the bad news: personal training is not a very profitable business. Even if it seems like clients are paying a high price per hour of training, that fee should cover the overhead at the gym, as well as all the hours you spend writing programs, tracking phone calls, and everything else that goes into business. Job.

Here’s the bottom line: The average salary for group fitness trainers and instructors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics , is in the range of $20 an hour, or $46,000 a year. But it varies a lot, from celebrity trainers raking in the dough to people eating ramen while working on commission at chain gyms.

How ready are you to train people after receiving the certificate?

If you haven’t had experience or expertise in this process, you will come out of it with a decent amount of knowledge that will enable you to do a good job as a coach. But you would probably feel pretty overwhelmed on your first day at work.

If you really have good experience, you will probably feel pretty good about building a business (or getting a job) and actually teaching people. For me, getting certified filled some gaps in my knowledge and gave me some tools that I can use when I’m interviewing clients and setting up training programs for them.

In any case, there is no substitute for experience. If you are not ready to train people professionally, you can gain experience by offering your services to friends and relatives. I would recommend setting an end date for the trial period, as well as a contract that says what each of you will get from the relationship: they will get free or discounted tuition, and you will get experience. (And even though they are your friends, you still have to buy insurance and ask them to sign a waiver before you start.)

Another important way to expand your knowledge is to talk to other coaches and coaches, whether through a formal apprenticeship or internship program, or just through casual conversations with coaches you know. You will also need to earn “Continuing Education” credits to keep your certificate, and it’s up to you how you want to do it. You can do what is cheapest and easiest, or look for courses and activities that will be really useful and relevant to your interests.

When I teach people, I rely more on past experience and external research than on what I learned in a certification course. The course materials were heavily geared towards the general education of people who just want to be a little bit more fit and usually consider “losing weight” as one of their goals. On the contrary, I enjoy working with people who have specific strength or performance goals, like doing their first pull-up or squatting with heavy weights.

So, was it worth it? For me, yes. But if you want to give it a try, think about what you want to get out of certification. Foot in the door for practice work? He will do it. Basic knowledge of how to train people? It is too. Deep knowledge of how to be a good coach? You will have to learn this on your own.


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