Although some personal trainers start their career with a college degree, it's not at all necessary to practice. In fact, it can be wiser to get started in the industry, gain experience and see where your strengths are, and then decide whether an associate or bachelor's degree is in your best interest – and if so, which program?
The most essential qualification for becoming a fitness trainer is a well-respected certification. It can help you get hired and give you the foundation to safely and effectively coach your clients.
But how do you choose the right certification program? Do you need to also be licensed? What else do you need to know to get started in your new career?
What Does It Take to Be A Personal Trainer?
Obviously, you have to be passionate about fitness and exercise. That's a gimme. But you may not realize how many other skills you need for a successful career as a fitness trainer.
You need great communication and people skills to excel at personal training. You'll need to learn about clients' goals and needs, as well as adjust the type or level of workout based on how they're reacting. Good people skills help you get and keep your clients, but they also help you provide the best training experience.
You also need analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, and the flexibility to adapt. You'll need to build personalized training plans and work around injuries. Your schedule and income may change frequently and abruptly as clients cancel or reschedule their appointments.
You'll be responsible for landing your own clients, which means you'll need to learn how to market yourself, solicit business, and build professional relationships. It can take time and effort to build a steady roster of clients, even when you're not self-employed.
Speaking of which, striking out on your own as a freelance fitness trainer presents a whole new level of challenges. You'll have to develop business skills, which may mean finding a small business course to help you manage the legal and financial pitfalls.
What Qualifications Do I Need To Become A Personal Trainer?
Ultimately, the qualifications required for your career as a fitness trainer depend on where you want to work and whether you want to advance into a specialty. Some personal training concentrations or employers require more qualifications than others.
However, to start working as an entry-level personal trainer, the minimum qualifications are pretty simple:
- Have a high school diploma or the equivalent
- Hold a current CPR certification
- Hold a current AED (Automated External Defibrillator) certification
Generally speaking, most employers give hiring preference to fitness trainers and instructors who are certified through a reputable certifying agency, like those accredited by The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The NCCA is a nationally recognized third-party that holds certification agencies or companies to the highest standards.
Finally, some employers or specialties do give hiring preference to those with an associate or bachelor's degree in a relevant field.
Do You Need a Personal Trainer License?
You don't need a license to work as a fitness trainer, the way massage therapists and physical therapists do.
However, if you start your own personal training business, you may need to meet licensing, registration, or other legal requirements for your area.
How Long Does It Take to Become A Personal Trainer?
Depending on which learning track you choose, it can take as long as a four-year bachelor's degree in exercise science or a related field or as little as six months to complete a certification program.
How to Become a Personal Trainer
As we said earlier, the path to becoming a fitness trainer depends a little on what kind of personal training work you want to do.
A few goals will call for a degree, but we still recommend getting work experience before you invest four years. In most cases, you'll need to become a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) first through an NCCA-accredited certifying organization but choosing the "right" program is easier if you have an idea where your career is going.
Consider Where You Want to Work and Who You Want as Clients
Do you want to work with the general population of gym-goers? Or would you rather work with athletes? Maybe you'd prefer working with older adults or even kids. What about people who are recovering from a major illness or injury? Do you want to work one-on-one, with a group, or a mix of both?
Are you looking to build your clientele through a commercial gym, or work for yourself? Would you want to work in corporate fitness, or would you prefer a local community center? What about cruise ships or vacation resorts? Hospitals and wellness centers?
There are a lot of options out there for personal trainers, and you want to choose the right education to prepare you for your target clients and qualify you with your desired employers. Below, you'll find general advice about the focus of different certifications, but the most important advice is to search the job listings that interest you in your target area and see what credentials they require or prefer.
Choose a Certification Program
Many organizations offer a CPT credential, including half a dozen that are NCCA accredited. There are three well-known NCCA-accredited options: the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). All three are widely recognized in the U.S.
If you're not sure where your career will take you or you know you want to focus on the general population, consider earning your CPT through ACE. They have a strong reputation for teaching the essentials of personal training, including how to build workout programs for a variety of individuals.
Both NASM and ACSM are known for a focus on corrective exercise. That means they focus on how to train those who have muscular imbalances or are coming off an injury. Both teach you how to screen clients to learn more about strengths, weaknesses, and injuries. Both teach you how to tailor a personal training regimen to correct problems and imbalances.
Most employers prefer hiring personal trainers who've passed the NASM CPT over ACSM credential. Some major gyms even prefer NASM over ACE, because they believe that fitness trainers with corrective exercise training present less risk of injury for their clients.
Once you have your CPT, NASM also has plenty of specialty certifications for expanding your career, whether you work with athletes or average Joes. Options include Performance Enhancement for athletes, additional training in Corrective Exercise, or becoming a Certified Nutrition Coach.
However, there are two settings where ACSM CPT has better recognition: clinical settings and universities. This is partly because ACSM promotes scientific research and offers medically focused specialty certifications in addition to CPT and group exercise. You can earn a general Exercise is Medicine credential or learn how to work with specific populations, like cancer patients or clients with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities.
Get to Work and Keep Learning
Most personal training certifications require continuing education and periodic recertification.
ACE requires certification renewal every 2 years with 2.0 continuing education credits. NASM is similar – 2 years with 1.9 continuing education units (plus 0.1 CEUs to maintain your CPR and AED certifications).
ACSM renewal comes every 3 years but requires 45 continuing education credits. Many of our online fitness training certification programs qualify for ACSM CECs, as well!