by Kaitlin Louie
As fitness and physical health become higher priorities both in the workplace and on an individual basis, America has seen a faster than average growth in jobs for fitness trainers and instructors. A job in a fitness-related field offers opportunities to directly and positively impact people’s lives by helping them to achieve their health and fitness goals.
The terms fitness instructor and personal trainer actually encompass a wide range of occupations, all of which involve guiding people towards their fitness goals. For example, personal fitness trainers work with clients one-on-one or in small groups to develop their physical fitness, while group fitness instructors design and lead larger exercise classes such as aerobics and muscle toning. Specialized fitness instructors teach a particular method of physical activity, such as yoga, pilates, or Zumba.
Fitness and personal trainers provide guidance and motivation in many different forms of physical activity, from cardiovascular exercise to strength training to yoga and pilates. Personal trainers and fitness instructors typically design and implement fitness plans and routines for their clients, monitor clients’ exercise form, and provide emergency aid if necessary. They may also provide clients with information and resources regarding weight management, nutrition, and other healthy lifestyle topics. Fitness trainer jobs are available at gyms and recreational facilities, as well as hospitals, yoga studios, resorts, universities, and clients’ homes.
The employment outlook for fitness instructors and personal trainers is optimistic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the steady rise in health consciousness and the pursuit of fitness in America have lead to a projected 24% rise in the demand for personal trainers between the years 2010 and 2020, an employment growth rate that is approximately 10% higher than the national average. Skill, commitment, and further education and experience can also grant fitness trainers opportunities for advancement. For example, fitness director positions are available to candidates who earn a higher degree in physical fitness-related subjects, or who have extensive experience with personal training or fitness instruction.
Certification requirements to become a personal trainer or fitness instructor are often highly specialized for the field of fitness training one wishes to enter. For instance, a certification to become a yoga instructor will differ significantly from the certification to become a group fitness instructor at a gym. Thoroughly researching different fitness-related careers and their respective requirements can help one make the decision that best fits one’s goals and circumstances.
What are the general steps towards becoming a personal trainer?
While the career path of a personal trainer or fitness instructor will vary from individual to individual, the general steps to become a personal trainer include the following:
- Research the specific requirements for one's desired field of fitness instruction.
- Complete a fitness trainer education program or a degree in an fitness-related field, such as exercise science.
- Take and pass an accredited personal trainer certification exam. Most fitness employers strongly prefer—if not require—candidates to receive certification from an accredited institution. Note: In order to test for and obtain a personal trainer certification, one must first receive training in and certifications for CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), AED (automated external defibrillator) use, and First Aid.
- Work alongside an experienced trainer. This apprenticeship enables one to learn the practical aspects of personal training, such as interacting with clients and handling various pieces of gym equipment.
- Apply and audition for fitness instructor positions at fitness centers, resorts, university gyms, etc.
- If one passes the audition, one may begin training clients.
- Keep up to date with the latest fitness principles and developments by taking continuing education courses in nutrition/fitness/physical health.
- Maintain one's certifications in CPR, AED, First Aid, and Personal Training. Re-certifications are typically required every 2 years.
Keep in mind that this list is a general guideline and does not include all of the possible pathways towards this career goal.
If interested in a career in personal training or fitness instruction, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:
- What kinds of personal training degree programs are available, and how are they helpful?
- What is fitness instructor certification, and is it necessary in order to work as a personal trainer?
- How do I become a certified personal trainer or fitness instructor?
- What does the job search involve for this occupation?
- How do I advance my career in the health and fitness industries?
- What are the general responsibilities of a personal trainer?
- What tools and technology are used in this occupation?
- What skills are required of a personal trainer or fitness instructor?
- What is the typical job environment for a personal trainer or fitness instructor?
- What is the employment outlook for this career?
- What is the general compensation and lifestyle for personal trainers and fitness instructors?
- What careers exist that are related to a personal trainer?
- What additional resources are available for aspiring personal trainers?
Read CareerColleges.com’s interview with fitness instructor Nikki Warren, to learn about her experiences opening her own business. To discover more about personal training educational programs, read David Van Daff’s interview.
What kinds of personal training programs are available, and how are they helpful?
Fitness trainer degree programs provide a structured environment in which individuals can learn many of the concepts and principles that are important to being a personal trainer. Employers often look for educational credentials when considering candidates. Thus, a degree in exercise science, health and fitness, or a related field can be beneficial.
Fitness trainer education programs vary in intensity, course offerings, and their ability to prepare one for both certification and a career in fitness training. In general, fitness trainer education programs include modules or lessons on the following subjects: cardiovascular fitness and exercise, strength training, human anatomy, weight control, nutrition, behavior modification, stress management, flexibility, and fitness-related safety concerns.
As with course selection and content, the duration of a program also varies among different institutions, which grants aspiring fitness instructors flexibility for their schedule and budget. Below are several general examples of the course requirements for a bachelor’s and master’s degree in exercise science, fitness instruction, or a related field. It is important to keep in mind that fitness trainer employers (ex. health clubs, resorts, etc.) consider the length and intensity of a candidate’s fitness education program, and as a result longer, more in-depth, and more rigorous programs may yield more career opportunities.
Associate degree programs in exercise science, health and fitness, or a related field are generally geared towards preparing students for professional careers in personal training and/or fitness instruction. These degree programs can provide students with the strong base of knowledge necessary to be competitive and competent trainers in the fitness industry. Associate degree programs typically last 2 years, and many can be conducted either online or in person. Courses can cover such subjects as general biology, weight training, cardio training, human anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, injury prevention and treatment, public speaking, nutrition, business management, coaching techniques, and self-marketing. Many associate degree programs help prepare their students for the exam required to become certified as a personal trainer or fitness instructor, and several programs have a mandatory internship that allows students to work alongside a fitness professional to obtain hands-on experience.
A bachelor’s in exercise science, health and fitness, or a related field may be thought of as an extension of the associate degree in that it covers the same or similar subjects, but provides more in-depth courses and requires students to take more classes across a broader range of subjects. For example, while an associate degree in exercise science might require introductory courses in nutrition and biomechanics, a bachelor’s in the same subject might require more foundational courses such as chemistry and biology, as well as more specialized and advanced courses such as neuroscience. As a result, the bachelor’s degree in a health and fitness-related field generally takes 4 years to complete and can provide candidates with a stronger foundation of fitness knowledge to support their career. In some cases, individuals who earn an associate degree in an exercise or fitness-related subject can apply much of their associate degree coursework to a bachelor’s degree in the same subject; however, one should check with prospective schools to learn their specific transfer credit policies.
A master’s degree is a 1-2 year program meant for practicing fitness professionals or recent graduates of a bachelor’s degree program in health and fitness, or related field, who wish to expand their knowledge and expertise as well as heighten their credentials. Master’s programs generally feature even more advanced coursework in the same subjects that are covered in associate and bachelor’s degree programs. For example, while a bachelor’s degree may require courses on kinesiology and nutrition for performance, a master’s degree might require courses in advanced nutritional biochemistry, as well as fitness and nutrition research analysis. The electives in a master’s program can also allow for increased specialization—for example, one can take more coursework in developmental nutrition or health promotion and disease prevention. Some master’s programs encourage students to write a thesis, which is an extensive research paper that a student must defend before a committee.
What is personal training certification, and is it necessary to work as a fitness instructor?
Fitness instructor certification signifies that an individual has passed a test and proved his or her knowledge of key personal training and fitness instruction-related concepts. Many employers heavily prefer their trainers to be certified by an organization that is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), so an investment in certification could be a wise choice for those wishing to enter this field. However, some fitness trainer employers do not strictly require certification. If one is interested in becoming a personal trainer, one should call the health centers and gyms that one is interested in working at to learn about their specific requirements regarding certification, education, and experience.
While fitness instructor training and degree programs can help prepare an individual for a certification exam, these programs are separate from--and thus do not automatically qualify a person for--certification. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “no specific education or training program is required for certification” (bls.gov, 2012). Most organizations offering personal training certification also offer course modules, workshops, and study materials to help individuals prepare for the certification exam. That said, while certification in personal training or fitness instruction is separate from receiving a degree in these fields, both add to a prospective personal trainer’s credentials and can grant individuals greater opportunities for employment and career advancement.
How do I become a certified personal trainer or fitness instructor?
In order to become certified, a fitness instructor must pass a certification test provided by an NCCA-accredited institution. Such institutions include:
- American College of Sports Medicine
- American Council on Exercise
- International Fitness Professionals Association
- National Academy of Sports Medicine
A more extensive list of accredited certification organizations is available at the Institute for Credentialing Excellence. Keep in mind that in order to qualify to take a personal trainer certification exam, one must first receive CPR, AED, and First Aid training and certification; information on these certifications can be found on the American Red Cross website.
Fitness instructors must obtain re-certification every 2 years. Re-certification often involves the following steps:
- Complete several Continuing Education Credits (CECs) in the health/fitness field in which you practice
- Maintain your CPR-AED-First Aid Certification
- Apply for re-certification and pay the mandatory fee
After receiving certification from an accredited organization, aspiring personal trainers often seek the mentorship of and the ability to work alongside an experienced trainer at a fitness center or similar institution. Experience on the job and receiving targeted feedback and guidance from a practicing personal trainer can be incredibly valuable in increasing one’s own credentials and marketability.
What does the job search involve for this occupation?
One’s education, certification, and apprenticeship in fitness and personal training all prepare one for the fitness instructor job search. This search entails looking for fitness center job listings on job websites, calling fitness centers to see if they have openings, submitting one’s resume, and ultimately interviewing and auditioning for fitness trainer/instructor positions. Interviews involve discussing one’s qualifications with potential employers, while auditions often include showing potential employers an exercise routine one has designed ahead of time. Upon obtaining a fitness instructor position, one can advance in the field through on-the-job experience, keeping up to date with fitness and health developments, and staying on top of one’s mandatory re-certifications.
How do I advance my career in the fitness and health industries?
Career advancement often requires an additional educational degree and/or higher certifications. Generally, a director of fitness has more education and a more advanced certification than a fitness trainer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), fitness trainers who want to take on a managerial or administrative role should earn a bachelor’s degree (or in some cases, a master’s degree) in physical education, exercise science, exercise physiology, kinesiology, or another fitness or human health-related subject.
Increasing one’s experience with and credentials in certain specialized areas of fitness and health may also improve one’s employment prospects. Many credentialing institutions offer multiple types and levels of certification to match people’s varying occupational goals. For example, the American Council on Exercise provides an Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist certification, as well as a Lifestyle and Weight Management Coach certification. Furthermore, Yoga Alliance has a 500-hour certification level that builds off of its 200-hour certification.
In addition to the certifications provided by the accredited organizations mentioned previously, other institutions and exercise methods provide their own independent training and certification programs. For example, TRX training offers course packages that end in an instructor certification to teach others in this exercise method. In addition, different dance fitness methods such as Jazzercise, Zumba, and Barre require their own certification, which often involve purchasing a package of courses.
Continuing Education Courses (CECs) and other physical health-related courses can also help one build more expertise in certain fields important to fitness, personal training, and healthy lifestyle. For example, nutrition courses are often very helpful for personal trainers as clients generally want to know how to improve their diet and eating habits in addition to their exercise program.
One can also advance in a fitness-related career through job experience and gradually working up to managerial or director positions. Some personal trainers with a business background are able to organize and open their own fitness centers, though such an endeavor requires much business savvy, effort, and funding.
What are the general responsibilities of a personal trainer?
The key responsibilities of a personal trainer generally include but are not limited to:
- Design and implement fitness regimens for clients on an individual or group basis
- Guide clients in proper exercise form, fitness improvement techniques, and optimal physical exertion levels
- Monitor clients’ exercise sessions and fitness progress
- Provide general nutrition guidance and encourage positive behavior modification
- Explain and enforce safe recreational, exercise, and gym practices
- Provide emergency first aid/CPR/AED services if necessary
Supplemental responsibilities include:
- Maintain fitness equipment
- Market and promote the facility at which one works
- Host athletic or fitness-related events and workshops
The duties of a fitness instructor vary based on an individual’s specialty and the institution at which he or she works. For instance, while a boot camp instructor might be required to conduct exercise sessions for his/her clients on challenging outdoor terrain, yoga teachers often lead meditation sessions for their clients.
What tools and technology do personal trainers use?
Personal trainers will typically be called upon to use and guide other people in using:
- General gym equipment such as cardio machines, weight training machines, free weights, exercise balls and mats, etc.
- Heart rate monitors
- Rehabilitation equipment
- Sound systems (if leading an exercise class to music)
- Nutrition tracking and schedule/calendar management software
- Medical software
What skills are required for fitness instructor jobs?
- Interpersonal—being a personal trainer involves interacting daily with clients to guide and motivate them to achieve their goals.
- Physical Fitness—leading exercise sessions and group classes requires a degree of physical strength and stamina.
- A Passion for Exercise—enthusiasm for one’s field is crucial in motivating others to improve their health.
- Oral Communication—giving instructions is a daily requirement for personal trainers. Candidates should thus develop skills in articulating advice and feedback in a clear, friendly, and accessible manner.
- Listening—as a fitness instructor one must address the specific needs of clients on a daily basis. Strong listening and comprehension skills are therefore quite necessary.
- Creativity and Problem Solving—both individual and group fitness instructors must design fitness programs and specific exercise routines for their clients that are both effective and enjoyable.
What is the typical work environment for personal training jobs?
The most common job setting for a personal trainer or fitness instructor is a health club or fitness center. However, as mentioned in the overview, the location of a personal trainer’s work can be very flexible based on his or her specialty and clientele. Personal trainers can work in their clients’ homes, hospital health centers, university gyms, and spas, among other places. Furthermore, specialized fitness instructors can teach at studios that teach a particular fitness practice. For example, some yoga instructors practice exclusively at yoga studios.
As this job involves continual instruction and client observation, fitness instructors must be on their feet for most of the day. Constant interactions with clients and fellow health center staff should also be expected. The physical requirements of personal trainers and fitness instructors can make them vulnerable to injury; hence trainers must be vigilant about their own exercise form, particularly since they are seen as a model for proper exercise.
What is the employment outlook for a personal trainer career?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012) states that the employment of fitness instructors and trainers is projected to grow by 24% between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the national average. This rise in employment outlook for fitness trainers can be attributed to the corporate world’s acknowledgement of the importance of fitness when providing health care benefits to employees, as well as the baby boomer fitness movement of recent years. In addition, increased publicity regarding America’s obesity epidemic has prompted an enthusiastic campaign for fitness and proper nutrition across all social demographics. Hence, increased reliance upon weight-loss and fitness coaches fits the priorities of the nation on the social, governmental, and individual level.
States with the highest employment level of fitness trainers as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What is the average personal trainer salary?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the median compensation for fitness trainers and instructors in 2010 was $31,090 per year, or $14.95 per hour. The hours for fitness instructors and trainers often depend on client schedules or gym hours. For example, some personal trainers work in the evenings or on weekends because that is when clients are able to come into the fitness center for a session.
Hourly and annual wage estimates by percentiles for personal trainers:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Top paying states for fitness trainers:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
District of Columbia
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What careers exist that are related to a personal trainer?
Careers related to personal training and fitness instruction include:
- Athletic Trainers specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of muscle and bone injuries and illnesses among people of all ages and demographics, from professional athletes to young children.
- Physical Therapists work with people who have injuries or illnesses in order to improve their physical condition, range of movement, and pain management. Physical therapists are often an integral part of patient rehabilitation and treatment programs in many medical fields, from respiratory illnesses to sports injuries.
- Physical Therapist Assistants work under the guidance of physical therapists to help patients recover from physical injuries and illnesses. Physical therapist assistants often work one-on-one with patients, helping them with rehabilitation exercises and recording their progress. They also perform clerical work and maintain the cleanliness and organization of a physical therapy space.
- Recreation Workers design and lead leisure activities such as arts and crafts events, sports events, games, and music performances for groups at recreational facilities or volunteer agencies, such as parks, summer camps, senior centers, and playgrounds.
- Athletic Coaches teach amateur and professional athletes how to succeed at their sport. With the help of Athletic Scouts, coaches search for talented athletes to add to their team (if they teach a team sport).
- Registered Dietitians and Nutritionists provide individuals with nutritional and weight management guidance. They design meal plans and help their clients with positive behavior modification regarding their eating habits and lifestyle choices.
What additional resources are available for aspiring personal trainers?
"http://www.acsm.org/" | American College of Sports Medicine
"http://www.acefitness.org/" | American Council on Exercise
"http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.d8aaecf214c576bf971e4cfe43181aa0/?vgnextoid=aea70c45f663b110VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD&vgnextfmt=default" | American Red Cross
"http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-membership" | IDEA Health and Fitness Association
"http://www.ifpa-fitness.com/" | International Fitness Professionals Association
"http://www.nasm.org/" | National Academy of Sports Medicine
"http://www.credentialingexcellence.org/NCCAAccreditation/AccreditedCertificationPrograms/tabid/120/Default.aspx" | National Commission for Certifying Agencies
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/39-9031.00" | O*Net Summary Report for Fitness Trainers and Aerobics Instructors
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/fitness-trainers-and-instructors.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Fitness Trainers and Instructors
"http://yogaalliance.org/" | Yoga Alliance
Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degree in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.