How Do You Become a Personal Trainer? [Complete Guide]

Personal training can be a very rewarding career. How can you become a personal trainer? Learn how in this guide.

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Here's How to Become a Personal Trainer: TLDR

  1. Learn the basics of anatomy, physiology, and exercise science. These are your underlying principles in training.
  2. Attain practical experience. You might opt to shadow a trainer, take an internship, coach a friend, or hire a trainer for yourself.
  3. Study the scientific process of program design. Manipulating training variables over time to get people results is both an art and a science.
  4. Choose a certification to attain. Mainly for social proof and liability.
  5. Study for your certification (If needed) - The amount of studying recommended varies by background and certification.
  6. Get CPR/AED certified. This is a common requirement for most certifications.
  7. Take your certification test of choice - Some certifications allow you to schedule quickly while others book a few months out.
  8. Start charging people money for your help - There are several ways to make money. More on this below.

How to Become a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers have various educational backgrounds and carry a wide variety of certifications. Some trainers work independently, online, or in commercial gyms.

Read a full overview of common questions potential clients ask about trainers here.

If you’re confused about what makes a good trainer, the lack of a standard is to blame.

There is no licensing standard for what defines a personal trainer. The only need for certification comes from insurance companies. They won't carry you without some sort of certification.

1. How Do I Get Started as a Personal Trainer?

There isn't one particular way to get started in your career as a personal trainer.

John Berardi, a co-founder of Precision Nutrition, writes about five common origin stories for fitness professionals:

  1. Growing up with physical activity and sport - Continuing the practice into a career.
  2. Receiving mentorship at a pivotal time in life - Leading to paying the experience forward.
  3. Excelling at a particular goal - Using the experience as a cue to help others do the same.
  4. Watching someone suffer - Committing to help others avoid the same fate.
  5. Fixing one's own problems - The healing process inspired a desire to help others.

Once you decide to get started as a personal trainer, the next step is usually to attain a certification and your first paying client.

2. How Hard is it to Become a Personal Trainer?

It's not hard to become a personal trainer, you can simply call yourself one.

You could begin training now.

Some gyms will allow you to start training clients immediately, as long as you attain certification within your first 6 months.

In the United States, this isn't a licensing board or particular certifying exam to pass and become a trainer. It is completely legal to call yourself a trainer without certification.

This has its upside and its obvious downsides.

You might view this as a good thing. It allows training to be a second or third career or a part-time job for passionate people of any age.

To become an effective personal trainer, you'll need to work a bit harder to develop your skills and career.

3. What Skills Do You Need to Have to Be a Personal Trainer?

Build a knowledge base and skill set in areas including:

  1. Anatomy
  2. Physiology
  3. Program Design
  4. General, Good Nutrition
  5. Communication
  6. Behavior Change/Psychology

A basic understanding of anatomy and physiology will help you effectively coach others to change their bodies. It'll also help you answer common questions and spot misinformation.

Designing Programs is about four steps:

  1. What are your client's goals?
  2. Based on those goals, what type of training do you need to perform?
  3. How are you going to measure success towards those goals?
  4. What changes do you need to make in the next phase of training to continue to progress?

Depending on where you work, you may need to adjust training when life happens. Keeping the goal of the training session in mind, you can learn to adapt on the fly.

It is entirely possible to work as a successful personal trainer with an understanding of program design alone.

Anatomy and physiology teach you the underlying principles or "why" things work the way they do. Knowledge around general nutrition will help you refer to resources and other professionals should you need to make a qualified referral.

You can't possibly know it all.

Clients will have questions. Once you have a baseline understanding, you have to help clients follow through.

Your goal as a coach and trainer is to help people become a better version of themselves. How you get to that endpoint is a dance that requires you to constantly improve your skills.

4. Do You Need to be Fit to be a Personal Trainer?

You don’t have to be “fit” to be a personal trainer. That also depends on what you mean by fit.

If you’re going to teach a skill, you should know how to perform it yourself. That being said is fit;

  • Muscular strength?
  • Being able to run a marathon?
  • Swim several miles?
  • Biking a given distance?

Because we’re all built differently, some of us may be better at different modes of exercise than others. For example, I have squatted up to 500 pounds for 5 reps but can't swim.

Your trainer could own a ton of knowledge about your goals and not "look" like them.

Performing a task and knowing how to coach it are two different skill sets. (Just because I played football in college doesn’t mean that I can teach your kid)

5. How Long Does it Take to Become a Personal Trainer?

You can become a certified personal trainer in as little as 2-6 weeks or as long as 6+ months.

The length of time varies by certification. With experience and a background in exercise science, it's possible to take and pass the NSCA-CPT exam in 2 weeks.

Another certification that boasts a quick turnaround comes from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA).

The ISSA CPT is an online, seemingly open-book certification that boasts a 4-week fast-track certification program. This organization is not typically listed among the top in the industry by trainers.

Most study course recommendations are based on 4 types of candidates:

  1. Those with exercise science degrees but no practical experience.
  2. Candidates with practical experience but a brief background in exercise science.
  3. Those seeking certification with both experience and an exercise science background.
  4. People starting completely from scratch.

Depending on where you're coming from, it makes take shorter or longer than you expect.

6. What Personal Trainer Certificate is Most Respected?

The most respected certifying organizations for personal trainers include:

  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
  • The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
  • American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

Those are the only certifications that I would accept if I was in the market for a trainer. Honestly, I’ve carried an ACE and NSCA certification and the NSCA-CSCS was by far a better certification.

Depending on your state, trainers are allowed to give varying levels of advice.

Trainers often carry additional certifications that allow them to expand their scope. Some become health coaches, nutritionists, or movement specialists.

For example, the NSCA offers the following for those who want to;

  • Work with athletes (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCS))
  • Train Special populations (Certified Special Population Specialists® (CSPS®))
  • General personal training clients (NSCA-Certified Personal Trainers (NSCA-CPT))
  • Military, rescue, and law enforcement professionals (Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitators (TSAC-F))

The titles can get kind of wordy. Different organizations will sell you anything you're willing to spend money on. Trainers often have to guess if education programs will help them with clients.

The industry has made changes to try and improve.

Recently, the NSCA announced a future increase in the CSCS licensing standard:

"There will be two principal changes to the certification process:

  1. Effective target date 2030, all CSCS exam candidates must hold a Bachelor’s degree in a strength and conditioning related field, or be enrolled as a senior in such a program.
  2. Effective target date 2030, candidates will need to obtain those degrees from a college or university that has a program accredited by an NSCA-approved accrediting agency."

What do gyms look for in a personal trainer? If you want to work for a gym, ask them which certification they prefer.

7. How Much Do Beginner Personal Trainers Make?

Beginner personal trainers are not guaranteed to make any money. Most gyms will start a new trainer off with a couple of clients but, the rest is up to the trainer.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage you can expect is around $45,100 (assuming that you work 2,080 hours per year).

(The next section will get into the nuts and bolts of exactly how gyms decide trainers pay)

You can make good money as a trainer if you do a good job and address these three things that Seth Godin preaches:

  1. Who is the client that you're seeking to serve? A young college female? Retired Nurses in Columbia, Missouri? It's easier to market to a small, specific group.
  2. What is the change that your clients are seeking to make in their lives? Get stronger? Learn how to move safely? Age gracefully?
  3. What is the promise? What are you offering them? Ex. We help women who are looking to feel strong and confident using our proven training and nutrition system.

If you're looking to learn more about marketing, I can highly recommend two options:

The content of these two is largely the same. The marketing seminar is an immersive experience, well worth the cost.

8. How Do Gyms Pay Personal trainers?

Gyms pay personal trainers in one of four common ways:

  1. A percentage of what each client pays per session.
  2. An hourly rate.
  3. A yearly salary.
  4. The trainer takes what the client pays and pays the gym for the use of the space.

You can make a living as a personal trainer if you can supply your labor for the right price.

What Percentage Do Gyms Take from Personal Trainers?

At gyms that pay trainers based on percentages, a 40-60% margin is common.

For example:

  • At a 40% gross margin - If training is $50 per session, the trainer earns $20 pretax.
  • At a 60% gross margin - If a session costs the client $50, the trainer makes $30 pretax.

The vast difference in pay structure makes it hard for trainers to compare incomes and advocate for raises.

Some gyms pay trainers an hourly rate or a yearly salary. This is common in group settings where gyms make an effort to control costs. The gym's goal is to pump as many clients into a group class as possible while paying the trainer the same.

Consider a group training scenario where class size can grow to as many as 20 participants paying $10 each per class:

  • At 15 people - If you pay a trainer an hourly rate of $40, the gym gets to keep $110.
  • At 15 people - If the trainer is paid a percentage, say 40%, the gym keeps $90.

The gym exists because it makes money so, it makes sense that most gyms opt to pay trainers a flat wage in this example.

There are alternative pay models that factor for trainers bringing in new clients vs. the gym marketing for them. In these models, the gym may charge a trainer the cost of that client's membership and or/a percentage.

(Yes, gyms may force clients to pay for a gym membership on top of training sessions - whether they use the gym or not independent of training)

9. Do Personal Trainers Need a Business License?

If you are a sole proprietor then yes, you need a business license.

A trainer that works at a gym is likely an independent contractor or salaried employee. In those cases, you will be operating under someone who holds a business license.

You may still need an LLC - talk to a good business lawyer. Nathan with Jones and Ueligger Law has been a godsend for me.

While you're at it - get an accountant. I work with Tom at Petrocelli CPA.

10. Is a Gym Profitable?

A gym may be highly profitable if it has a healthy margin.

Gyms may price their margins based on different accounting methods including:

  • A market price - what they can get away with charging or, what everyone else happens to be charging.
  • A price based on desired dollars of profit per square foot in the facility.
  • A price based on an hourly base rate (commonly the one-on-one session)

Pricing is always reliant upon what the market is willing to pay. The difference between a fair market price and what some gyms opt for is pulling a common price out of the proper context.

A gym may opt to charge $50 per session, simply because the other people are. What's lost here is the nuance in knowing the other gym's expenses.

Pricing based on square footage helps decide how a class should be priced, given the number of square feet it will require in the gym.

Pricing based on individual session cost requires that this be the baseline at which the business has a healthy profit. If the business is losing money at its baseline service, the money has to come from somewhere, or else it won't work.

The following percentages are often seen in businesses using a one on one session as a base:

  • One-on-one training costs between $40-150+ (depending on the market).
  • Semi-Private Training (1-5 clients) is 60% or more of a private session.
  • Group Training is 15-25% of a private session.

At 60%, a business isn't likely making money but, more importantly, it's not losing money. Since semi-private training has 1-5 clients training at a time, you can make anywhere from 60-300% of what you would in a private session.

Group training is highly variable in that it may be anywhere from 5-10 or 10+ clients in a session.

11. Why Do Personal Trainers Quit?

Personal trainers often quit for three reasons, schedule, stressful client relationships, and pay.

Trainers are often forced to work very unconventional hours. Most clients come in to exercise before, during, or after the workday begins. This can lead to some workdays starting as early as 5 am, ending as late as 8 or 9 pm.

It's not easy working with people through some of their highest and lowest emotional points. Clients' motivations naturally fluctuate from day to day. If you are not trained in some counseling techniques, you may find yourself taking on some of your clients' stresses.

We discussed the potential salary above. Some trainers hold as high as an MS or Ph.D. in exercise science or physiology. With that high of a degree, it makes sense to expect to earn more.

Trainers often receive little to no schooling on how to attain clients (and pay bills).

Take a look at the University of Missouri's Masters in Exercise Physiology curriculum. You'll see no mentions of business, finance, or sales.

Some trainers feel obligated to work weekends to make up for the lack of hours. You get to decide how you want to approach this career.

12. Is it Worth Being a Personal Trainer Part Time?

If you'd like to experience the joy of coaching without relying on it for livelihood, it's worth it to consider training part-time.

Training has long hours and can carry a steep continuing education requirement depending on the clientele. That being said, many find that there is a value to helping others that just can't fit on a spreadsheet.

Consider the opportunity cost - Listen to Think Like an Economist episode 17

Learn More:

  • Human Anatomy & Physiology - Elaine Marieb and Katja Hoehn have written several editions of this text. It's long but, well worth the time.
  • MASS Research Review - A great resource if you want to stay current on the latest updates in evidence-based fitness.
  • Muscle and Strength Pyramids - A practical, science-based guide to program design. Helpful for developing a scientific approach to designing a resistance training program.
  • Periodization - A dense text but, it greatly helped me understand The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Read this book if you hope to attain a CSCS.
  • CSCS Study Guide: My practical guide to studying for the CSCS exam. For people who find themselves creating flashcards.