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

Last year, I got a personal training certification to round out my knowledge and ensure I can be even more of a know-it-all when I write about fitness for you guys. Since so many people are interested in this line of work, I thought I’d break down what the experience was like, whether it was worth the effort, and what I learned about the personal training field in the process.

It’s funny: a lot of people look to personal trainers as the supreme experts on exercising, while others claim that a certification is meaningless. Neither of these view is accurate, in my opinion, but there are grains of truth in each. There are really great personal trainers out there, and someone with a certification is likely better at the job than a gym rat who has picked up a few good tips here and there. But you also don’t have to have real-world experience to earn a certification, so somebody who has managed to pass a test on the subject is not necessarily going to be a good trainer.

What is a certification good for?

The whole point of a certification is to give you a certificate you can show to somebody. Who will want to see it? Who will care?

Certification is a way to demonstrate your credibility. If you want to convince a potential client to hire you, they may be looking for someone with a certification, or they may see one as a valuable bonus. (For example, we’ve advised readers to check that their personal trainer is appropriately certified.) A certification can also provide some evidence of your expertise if you work a related job, such as writing about fitness. (Hi!)

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 a certification. And the gym wants you to have a certification because their insurance requires that they employ qualified personal trainers. The certification is a good shorthand for “this person has a basic sense of what the job entails and knows how to make sure people won’t get hurt.”

Insurance matters in the personal training world because there are a lot of scenarios in which a client could potentially sue you—especially if they get hurt while exercising.

If you want to operate independently, there’s no gym as a middleman. You purchase the insurance policy yourself—it’s pretty cheap, under $200 a year for several policies I looked at—and the insurance company may want to know that you’re certified, or may charge you extra if you aren’t. Details depend on the insurance plan, of course.

You don’t need to be certified just to train people. “Personal trainer” is not one of those professions requiring a license from the state (like how doctors need a medical license). If you believe you know what you’re doing, people are willing to pay you to do it, and you can either get insurance or are bold enough to go without it, you can skip certification entirely.

Which personal trainer certification should I get?

Now that you know why certifications exist, you’ll have a better sense of how to choose one. If you want to get hired by a gym, your best bet is to get one commonly accepted by many gyms. Among your options: ACE, NASM, and NSCA provide certifications that are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and are widely recognized.

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

A cynical take is that you should get the cheapest, easiest certification you can find, because its only job is to get your resume looked at. But that won’t do you any good if the one you choose is so niche your gym won’t accept it. Do some 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 a certification?

The details vary, but in general, a personal training certification indicates that you meet some minimum requirements to (a) not hurt people, (b) not get your employer in legal trouble, and (c) provide people with an effective, or at least non-terrible, training program. It’s a minimum for employment, not a sign of deep expertise.

I did my certification with ACE, which is pretty typical of the big CPT certifications, and I would say the biggest takeaways were:

  • Knowing your scope of practice (for example, not giving medical advice) and what is considered ethical in the profession
  • Being able to flag people who will need a doctor’s clearance before they start an exercise plan
  • Being able to talk to clients, and help them make plans and set goals, without being an asshole
  • Knowing what exercises will stretch or strengthen each muscle group
  • Knowing how to tell if a muscle seems to be weak or tight (so that you can have the client stretch or strengthen it)
  • Understanding what amount and difficulty of exercise a person needs for health or for their athletic goals
  • Having a basic understanding of insurance, tax status, and other business-y things (since so many trainers are contractors or end up owning their own business)

Some of these areas get more detailed than others. You will be taught the different energy systems (aerobic and anaerobic). You will read endless charts with the origin and insertion points of various muscles. But by the time you get to the certification exam, what you’ll really need to do is apply that knowledge, not regurgitate it. For example, you might be shown a video of a client who has difficulty squatting and have to note the exercises you would recommend.

How hard is it to pass?

Looking at the big personal training programs, specifically (not the specialized certifications), the main event is a multiple-choice test. For my ACE test, I had to show up to a testing center in an office park and sit at a computer for an hour or two clicking answers. When I finished the test, boom, I was a certified personal trainer.

To register, I had to show that I was certified in CPR and first aid—another set of qualifications that show I have basic knowledge about how to keep people safe.

And before that—well, this is the hard part. I had to study. Many personal trainer programs don’t allow you to just walk in and take the test; you have to buy a study package. Mine had an online course, practice tests, and the ability to call in to study sessions with a tutor. None of the knowledge was brand new to me, but I knew it would be important to be able to describe things using ACE’s terms and frameworks. And I did pick up some useful tips along the way.

The amount of studying was on par with taking a one-semester college course. There’s a textbook, a series of video lectures, a few quizzes, and a workbook. You can skip or skim through as much of it as you want, and I probably could have, but you need to pay to retake the test if you fail, and I wanted to be very sure of passing. (In the end, I scored 98%.)

I took about six weeks total to study, and it helped a lot that I already had a solid background both in fitness and in the underlying biology. If you’re coming in with no knowledge of anatomical terms, for example, you’ll be pretty lost. As for how hard the test ends up being: NASM says 74% of people who took the test in 2020 passed. NSCA says their pass rate was 72% in 2019. ACE says theirs was 71% in 2021.

I’ve seen advice online to use third-party apps and practice test packages, but to be totally honest, every one I’ve looked at is garbage. The test questions are badly written, and focus too much on details you don’t actually need to memorize for the test. ACE updated their textbook and test the year before I took mine, and all the third-party study materials I found are out of date. The changes were substantial—they completely revamped the system for screening new clients for cardiovascular risk, for example, which is hugely important—so studying the old material won’t prepare you for the new test.

How much does it cost?

Here is the price range for a few of the popular certifications:

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

Check the organizations’ websites for current numbers. ACE and NASM study packages always seem to be on sale (the numbers here are the current website prices, which include some kind of sale but maybe not every available discount?) and NSCA offers a $130 membership that saves money on the exam and study packages. To be honest, it’s really difficult to get straight numbers for comparison shopping, which is probably the whole idea.

Now, how much can you expect to earn after you pass the test? Here’s the bad news: Personal training isn’t a hugely lucrative business. Even if it seems like clients are paying a high price for an hour of training, that fee has to cover gym overhead as well as all the hours you’ll spend writing programs, following up on phone calls, and everything else that goes into the job.

Here’s the bottom line: the average wage for trainers and group fitness instructors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is in the range of $20/hour, or $46,000 per year. But this varies widely, from celebrity trainers who rake in the dough to folks who eat ramen while working on commission at a chain gym.

How prepared are you to actually train people once you have your certification?

If you had no experience or background going into this process, you’ll emerge from it with a decent toolbox of knowledge that will allow you to do a not-terrible job as a trainer. But you would probably feel pretty overwhelmed your first day on the job.

If you did have a good amount of background, you’ll likely feel pretty good about setting up a business (or applying for a job) and actually training people. For me, getting the certification filled some gaps in my knowledge and gave me some tools to use when I interview clients and set up training programs for them.

Either way, there’s no substitute for experience. If you’re not ready to train people professionally, you can gain experience by offering your services to friends and family. I would recommend setting an end date for the trial period, and also establishing a contract saying what you each get out of the relationship: they get free or discounted training, you get experience. (And even though they’re your friends, you should still buy insurance and have them sign a waiver before you start.)

Another important way to build your knowledge is to talk to other trainers and coaches, whether through a formal apprenticeship or internship program, or just through casual conversations with coaches you know. You’ll also need to earn “continuing education” credits to keep your certification, and it’s up to you how you want to do so. You can do whatever is cheapest and easiest, or you can seek out courses and activities that will be genuinely useful and relevant to your interests.

When I train people, I find myself drawing more on past experience and outside research than on what I learned in my certification course. The course materials were very much geared to general training for people who just want to be in a little bit better shape, and who typically hold “losing weight” as one of their goals. By contrast, I like working with people who have concrete goals for strength or performance, like getting their first pull-up or squatting more weight with a barbell.

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 a certification. A foot in the door for a training job? It’ll do that. Basic knowledge of how to train people? That too. In-depth knowledge of how to be a good trainer? That you’ll have to learn on your own.

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