Since I have been seeing a ton of questions regarding becoming a personal trainer and what national certification to get, I decided to put together a FAQ to answer questions about where to start and what direction to go. If anyone has any first hand objective info to add please do so as I do not have all 300+ national certifications out there. Also note, this thread is aimed towards the average personal trainer working with average gym member clients, not towards those who want to train elite level athletes or professionals.
Where do I start?
The easiest place to start for someone who has zero personal training experience is to call around to local gyms and find out if they are hiring. Yes, gyms will hire you with no experience and no certification. Some fitness managers even prefer it because they get to train you themselves and can dictate the way they want you to work. Most major health clubs have an in-house training program which they require you to pass. Then you can start doing some work on the floor while you work towards your national certification. Many gyms also prefer one certification over another and may even help you pay for it. I got both my certifications through a PT company I was working for and both times they paid for up to half of it. Also, the company I was working for required a specific certification to progress to the highest level of trainer and the higher pay scale.
What certification is best?
This is the biggest question out there and the answer is really quite simple. You have about 3 nationally recognized certs that IMO are hands down far and away above any other cert. You then have another handful which are recognized by name. And anything after that you’re simply getting certified to say you’re a CPT. Most clients just want to know that you’re a CPT. If you have a degree in the field, even better. A select few of educated clients will really hound you on both your experience and your education. On the other hand most fitness directors or gym managers will recognize one cert above another but will also have preferences regarding your certifications and should evaluate you on other things also. I’ll get into that later. Back to the certs. IHRSA recognizes exactly 6 certifications internationally and I would rank them in this order:
1. ACSM-requires a 2-year or 4-year degree in a health related field or requires the candidate to be in the last semester of his/her program. Also requires current CPR. Hands down the industry standard. Any reputable certification teaches the ACSM guidelines for exercise.
2/3. NSCA or NASM. I rank these 2/3 as I think they are equally good.
6. Cooper Institute (Unless you live in Texas you’re not getting this one).
Like I said, after that everything else is to learn a little and say you’re certified. Most of the other 300+ odd certifications teach you basic anatomy, biomechanics, cardiovascular and strength training guidelines, and maybe a little about proper diet (When I say proper I mean the food guilde pyramid. Don’t expect anything profound).
What about the personal training schools?
I devoted a special section to these because I am very opinionated about them. These seem to be popping up all over the place these days. They are normally 6-month courses than can cost thousands of dollars to get hands on personal training experience. They claim you’ll get experience working with clients, gain valuable knowledge, all while getting yourself into shape….blah blah blah. I think these are a huge waste of money. Instead of paying out $5,000 to get 6 months of basic experience you could be getting paid to gain experience. Most “floor trainers” can at least get paid minimum wage to work towards becoming a trainer and work with the fitness director. Not to mention the money and time you’ll save. They do have their benefits but I don’t feel the cost/benefit ratio is even close. I steer new trainers away from these programs. I hope I don’t offend anyone that is involved in these programs and you’re welcome to debate their validity with me. I however would not recommend them as a top choice.
What about a CSCS?
People always confuse a CSCS with a CPT. A CSCS is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. It is a specialty certification offered through the NSCA and is not necessary, nor designed for your everyday personal trainer. It does require a degree to sit for the exam though oddly enough it does not have to be a health related field. It is probably the most well known of specialty certifications though many others are offered through different organizations. NASM used to offer a similar cert called a PES (Performance Enhancement Specialist). They eliminated that now and offer an SFS (Sports Fitness Specialist) which isn’t as comprehensive as the PES. I’ve seen both.
Should I work in a gym or on my own?
Another good question. Both have their pros and cons though what it really boils down to is client volume versus hourly rate. Unless you have a ton of clients lined up or don’t want to work many hours chances are you at least want to start in a gym. The gym provides a lot of benefits such as a steady flow of clients, constant exposure to clients, and usually a degree or credibility. The way it normally works is that as new members join a gym they get a free session or two, with a trainer, as part of their membership. That is your chance to pick up a new client. In a high volume gym you could see as many as 20-30 of these new members a week. Even a slightly competent trainer should be able to close 1 out of every 5 new members. That means you could pick up 10-20 clients your first month. The downside is that the gym is going to tell you how much you can charge and they’re going to take a portion of your money. The upside is that you’re always going to have clients until you don’t want/can’t handle anymore. Also, working in a gym you have unlimited access to equipment. Another benefit is that everytime you step out onto the floor with a client, you and your client are advertising for you as a trainer. You better believe people are watching your training methods and your client’s results. I think everyone understands the pros and cons of working in a gym environment by now. Just think, you can always start in a gym, build a nice client base, and they take all your clients somewhere else. A lot of places will have you sign a non-compete clause but that usually doesn’t encompass training clients in home or at a neutral site.
The major benefit to training people in-home or in a studio is that you can charge a higher rate and you keep all the damn money. The only downside is that you have to go out and find your own clients. Once you establish yourself this should be no problem. You’ll hopefully get tons of referrals. When you’re first starting though this can be a little tricky.
How do I choose a gym or PT company?
When you go for an interview there are a couple key questions you want to ask to determine how well the environment sets a trainer up for success.
1. As a new trainer what kind of training program can I expect and will you help me get certified? A good company will have their own in-house training program, ongoing education with the fitness director and trainers and will often help you get certified.
2. If not, what certifications do you prefer?
3. How do you pay your trainers? Some companies pay on a percentage scale, some pay a flat rate. Some companies pay to train you, some don’t. Find out exactly how much money you can expect to make. The manager should be able to give you a ballpark figure. You should also have an idea of how much money you want to make. That was a key question I used to ask potential new trainers. I want someone that wants to make $80,000 a year not someone who wants to make $30,000. There is money in PT, especially per hour worked, you just have to know how to get it.
4. How many trainers do you have? And maybe more importantly, how many are still picking up new clients? See next question.
5. How many new members do you get on a monthly basis? This is important because if a gym gets 60 new members a month and has 10 trainers looking for clients you’re going to struggle for appointments. Conversely, if a gym sees 250 new members a month and has 5 trainers looking for clients you’re going to have your hands as full as you want them.
6. What is your month PT revenue and what percentage of your members participate in PT? This is going a little further but if you’re serious about being successful quickly they are good things to know.
I hope this helped some people who are starting out. There’s probably tons of things I missed so either ask questions here, PM me, or add to the thread. Best of luck.