How to Become a Personal Trainer the Right Way

Becoming a personal trainer is not difficult, but the job won’t be easy. Most businesses (usually gyms) require a specific level of education before hiring their personal trainers. There are two ways to gain this education – get a college degree, or a personal trainer certification. I’ve done both, but wouldn’t recommend the former for the average personal trainer. The cost is simply too high. Either way, becoming a personal trainer will require time, dedication and money.

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Certifying Bodies

Here in the U.S. we have several different certifying bodies which are recognized, or acceptable if you want to be hired as a personal trainer.

  1. ACSM – American College of Sports Medicine
  2. ACE – American Council on Exercise
  3. AFAA – Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
  4. Cooper Institute (Dallas, Texas)
  5. Fitness Mentors
  6. IFPA – International Fitness Professionals Association
  7. ISSA – International Sports Sciences Association
  8. NASM – National Academy of Sports Medicine
  9. NCCPT – National Council for Certified Personal Trainers
  10. NCSF – National Council on Strength and Fitness
  11. NESTA – National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association
  12. NETA – National Exercise Trainers Association
  13. NFPT – National Federation of Personal Trainers
  14. NPTI – National Personal Training Institute
  15. NSCA – National Strength and Conditioning Association
  16. WITS – World Instructor Training Schools

To my knowledge, ISSA, is the only personal training certification not currently recognized by the NCCA. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies seeks to keep the public as safe and healthy as possible by accreditation of certification programs. As you can see there are many programs listed above. The NCCA helps ensure professionals are competent in their knowledge.

Beware cheap and easy personal training certifications online. They may seek to sell you a $50 – $100 “certification”, which is not nationally recognized. That means, you may not have a good chance of getting hired as a certified personal trainer. A lack in skills and education could lead to harm (that’s very bad). Buying a cheap knock-off certification is not the right way to become a personal trainer.

A graduate stands on top of the world after completing his education.
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Nationally Recognized Personal Trainer Certifications

Personal training certifications are accredited to reduce the likelihood of harm caused by trainers. They are provided by educational institutions to keep us up-to-date on our skills and knowledge. You do not have to go through all of them, but you will want to hold at least one. I have taken courses from at least three of these certifying bodies, and provide a basic review below.

ACE – American Council on Exercise

I hold more certifications from ACE than any other certifying body. Their courses have been my favorites since I found them. The information provided is very applicable to everyday client needs. Unfortunately, the courses are not “hands on”, but they include very useful case studies, and are easy to apply in a professional setting.

Despite the apparently low pass rate, I found the personal training exam to be very easy. Some questions seemed rather subjective, but I saw how they could be applied on a daily basis. I did not need to study to pass this exam. However, I had already been certified as a personal trainer for several years. I joined ACE because I enjoy the way their courses are designed, I wanted to learn their methods, and they frequently offer discounts which make them more affordable.

ACE has a very good personal training certification which is well known, and accepted. I’ve loved every ACE course I have completed (which is several) thus far. The courses are easy to understand and apply. The education is put together very well, but it lacks the “hands on” learning some other programs provide. The ACE personal trainer certification is great for beginners entering the fitness industry.

A dumbbell rack in the gym.
Photo by Samuel Girven on

NASM – National Academy of Sports Medicine

Many gyms love the NASM personal training certification, but it would not be my first choice. I’ve completed some NASM courses as a prerequisite to being hired. Their courses often give me the impression they are full of their own education, if that makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love education. I enjoy learning, but NASM certifications are less enjoyable than others. Their courses can leave you feeling like you should have completed prior learning beforehand.

The NASM personal training exam is more difficult to pass than many others. In fact, the pass rate seems to be one of the lowest. You will probably need to study for this exam, unless you are already an expert in theory and practice. NASM provides a lot of education, but it may not be easy to apply with average clients. A “hands on” course would be much more effective.

NASM definitely has some valuable certifications, and a few of them are unique. However, I have not enjoyed the design of the materials, or the educational strategy. They even go so far as to include injury prevention within the list of program goals. I’ve always thought injury prevention was an unspoken goal, and one of the primary purposes for personal training.

Even so, NASM has many fans, and the education is above average. If you decide to become certified through NASM, mention my name (David Earley) on the phone – 1-800-460-6276. I’ll receive a credit toward earning CEC’s in the future! Let me know if you do so I can thank you.

WITS – World Instructor Training Schools

WITS was my first choice for a personal trainer certification because they provided “hands on” education in my area. This was nearly 10 years ago before they were recognized by the NCCA. Other certifying bodies currently offer a variety of “hands on” courses, but WITS was the only one providing that, at the time. The educational lectures were in a classroom setting, and we were able to practice with each other in a real gym.

The “hands on” training was very important and appealing to me. It is one of the best ways to learn as a novice personal trainer. WITS definitely put the “personal” in personal training. However, the area of program design was lacking immensely. I’m not sure how much the course has changed over the years, but it taught us next to nothing about designing a personal training program.

The WITS personal trainer exam was fairly difficult. I studied for hours, but felt like I was unable to sufficiently answer many questions on the exam. I imagine many people fail the exam on the first attempt, but cannot say for sure. The practical exam, on the other hand, was a breeze. It was too easy. WITS was a good program to begin with, but it lacked program design and a balance between the exams.

You must have a passion to serve others if you want to become a personal trainer.
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What Does a Personal Trainer Do?

If you are considering becoming a personal trainer, it’s important to know the day-to-day activities and responsibilities. I have a passion for fitness, and a desire to help others accomplish their goals. However, I was incredibly unprepared for the task at hand. Being fit, enjoying exercise, and wanting to help others do the same is simply not enough.

Becoming a Personal Trainer Takes Time

As I stated in the introduction, you will need time if you hope to become a personal trainer. There is A LOT to learn. How do muscles work? Why do people develop poor posture? How did that athlete achieve super hero (like) abilities? Why can’t everyone simply train like I do? These are just a handful of questions to answer while you become a personal trainer.

Take the time to learn from experienced personal trainers before you obtain your own clients. WITS requires a few hours of “shadowing” in order to complete their personal trainer certification. This is incredibly useful, and something other certifying bodies should consider. Watch what other professionals do and ask questions.

Why are they using a specific exercise? Do they appear to like their job as a personal trainer? What will your potential clients be like? These are very important questions to ask while you are training to train others. Personal training is so much more than making somebody buff, or helping someone lose a few pounds through diet and exercise. You will need to spend your time learning about people, and actually understanding them. If you do not, you may have a very light schedule.

An bright and empty gym will not be a typical sight after you become a personal trainer.
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A Personal Trainer Must be Dedicated

Do you know how to sell a personal training package to someone who isn’t like you? Are you willing to wake up at 4am to train your first client for the day? Are you able to empathize with individuals of various backgrounds? Will you actively listen to your clients, as opposed to simply telling them stuff all the time? These are just a few of the things a personal trainer certification will not teach you (at least mine did not). Be prepared.

Certifications are constantly being updated, but in the past they taught absolutely nothing about sales. In most scenarios you will need to sell the idea of personal training, before you ever work with a client. If you have no sales experience, or you dislike sales, this part of the job will be very challenging. In fact, many gyms require that you meet a monthly quota in personal training sales. Some gyms survive on personal training revenue alone. Be aware that you may need to be a salesperson, and figure out an effective selling strategy.

Many people workout before they head to work in the morning. More people stop by the gym to exercise after work. You may acquire an odd time schedule because of this. Prime time for early morning workouts is between 5am – 7am. 9am is a popular time for many females, and midday is when you may find older people in the gym. Young athletes won’t normally train until 4pm, after they finish school. You will not see the majority in the gym until about 6pm, many of which will not be very excited to workout after a long day at work. Your schedule may be very colorful depending upon who you are training any given day.

Empathy is Key

Do you know how to empathize with many different types of people? You must! Barking orders at people is not how (most) successful personal trainers spend their day. Those who do are typically coaching a group, and not simply one individual. Clients want to know how to do things, yes, but they also want to be understood. They want feedback. Personal training is NOT about standing idly by counting reps. Anyone can do that. Personal training certifications should prepare you to empathize with people, and then you should actively help them achieve great things (their goals!).

Becoming a personal trainer is a great way to help others achieve their goals through exercise.
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Becoming a Personal Trainer Requires Money

There are many options to choose from these days when considering a personal trainer certification. How much does a certification cost? Most personal trainer certifications range from $400 – $800, with NASM being the most expensive, and Fitness Mentors being the cheapest. The average cost is about $560. The programs I reviewed above are all above average, but discounts may be available in some instances.

A simple online search reveals the annual personal trainer salary to be between $50k – $60k. However, I’m doubtful of those numbers because the average trainer makes about $18 per hour. That comes out below $35k, not including taxes. Offering in-home personal training (as I do) is one of the best ways to make more income as a personal trainer. Although, you will need to find your own clients, use your own equipment and hold your own liability insurance.

The easiest way to gain access to potential clients is by working at your local gym. Finding people to train may be easier, but most gyms will take a cut of the money you make. Generally, this is about 50% in my experience. You may not necessarily need your own insurance, and you definitely won’t need your own equipment. There are pros and cons in each instance. It will be up to you to decide which route to take.

“How to” Summary

How do you become a personal trainer?

  • Choose your first personal trainer certification (or go to college)
  • Educate yourself and learn from experienced trainers
  • Pass your exam (or finish your degree)
  • Choose your area of expertise
  • Get hired, or start your own business
  • Market and sell your style – YOURSELF
  • Build relationships with your clients by listening, empathizing and helping them reach measurable goals
  • Stay educated

There are a lot of things that go into being a successful personal trainer. Choosing an accredited certification is the easiest part. After that, it’s all about learning, and preparing to do an effective job. The best way to do that is through studying, and shadowing sessions. If you can, shadow consultations as well. If this isn’t possible, consider role playing to improve your skills. Your future clients will appreciate an understanding attitude, and an attentive ear.

Once you obtain your personal training certification, congratulations will be in order, but you can expect more work ahead. You must sell yourself as an expert in the health and fitness industry. Put yourself out there by building relationships. You will make mistakes. Pick yourself up and grow from them. Continue your pursuit of eduction as your career develops. Good luck as a certified personal trainer! You may have no idea where it takes you from here.

I’ve been a personal trainer for nearly a decade, certified by ACE, NASM and WITS. Helping people reach their fitness goals and potentially live longer is a true honor. I have over 1,000 hours of coaching experience with seniors, youth athletes and individuals with disabilities.

I can help you feel better, and live longer. Even though I share workouts on this site, you are solely responsible for trying exercises, or places discussed here. Let’s move better, live longer and wander more often.


David Earley


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