Personal Trainer Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Personal Trainer Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Personal trainers are generally people who love being healthy and active and have a passion for all things fitness. Personal trainers may work on their own or at a gym or health fitness facility, helping clients to increase their level of fitness and become healthier. They push clients to tackle tough goals, provide them with feedback and tips on the exercises they are doing, and act as a motivating force.

"Personal training isn't a job for introverts," notes the National Federation of Personal Trainers (NFPT0. "You have to wear your passion on your sleeve, be the example of motivation (even when it's hard) because you represent the lifestyle that your client is looking to achieve." Thankfully, there are a variety of undergraduate training and degree programs available for those interested in personal training, and one of them could help move you move closer toward building a career that could benefit the lives of many clients.

Personal Trainer Duties and Specializations

A personal trainer is an athletic conditioning professional who works to provide motivation and guidance to clients on a fitness program. Duties of a personal trainer may include:

  • Demonstrating different exercises
  • Inspecting and correcting clients' exercise form to minimize injury
  • Explaining and enforcing necessary fitness safety precautions
  • Monitoring client progress
  • Providing sports nutrition information
  • Administering emergency first aid if necessary

Duties might shift slightly depending on where you work; personal trainers can work in environments that vary from fitness and recreation centers to health clubs, hospitals and even universities. Others may primarily work with clients in their homes or even as employees of specific companies, helping to devise fitness programs or motivational initiatives.

The work schedule for personal trainers can vary depending on where they are applying their specializations or areas of focus. Some may work primarily during the day, in places like hospitals, while others, like those working night shifts at gyms, may have evenings and weekend hours available to fit training into their clients' schedules. No matter the location, duties noted above are typically on the daily agenda.

How to Become a Personal Trainer

The Bureau of Labor Statistics ( indicates that personal trainers may need to have an associate or bachelor's degree to be hired, although a high school diploma, certifying classes, and working beside a trained professional may be another path to entry. For those wanting college-level education, there are a variety of fitness and health options available from the undergraduate to graduate level available, but a diploma, certificate or associate degree may be helpful to later seeking certified personal trainer (CPT) credentialing.

Personal trainer degree programs

Some certifying organizations offer training materials and programs helpful to becoming certified without any required college study, but for generally improved career outlook, there are college programs available in personal training and fitness that include:

  • Diplomas. A diploma in personal training may be completed in as little as six months and help students learn about the connection between heart function and physical activity, different types of aerobic and anaerobic exercises, and the foundations for strength training.
  • Certificates. personal trainer certificate can generally be completed in a year or less and provide students with a similar education found in a diploma program, but at a more in-depth level. Students may learn about biology, sports and exercise and nutrition, and also find that they have an elective or electives available to them.
  • Associate degrees. An associate degree in personal training may be completed in two years of full-time study. It is designed to help prepare students to work on CPT certification through a specific fitness organization. It may also offer them opportunities to learn about business and marketing and to take electives. Often, an externship providing hands-on experience may be part of an associate degree program.
  • Bachelor's degrees. At the bachelor's degree level, education and training in personal fitness begin to expand in scope and may be found under the umbrella of health and fitness or exercise science. Students may be able to take various electives, specialize in unique tracks and become specifically prepared to take an exam for one or more personal fitness certifications.
  • Master's degrees. At the graduate level, learning veers more into the science of fitness and health. Degrees may be available specifically in kinesiology, sports management or exercise science. Clinical experiences may be part of these programs and students may be required to do research into an area of interest.

Some select personal trainer programs and training may be completed partially online. These programs may make use of webinars, presentations, seminars and other online features to give students a full education.

Schools with personal trainer programs will usually have their own specific curriculum, but some core topics are common among programs. The following may be covered in a personal fitness degree or training program:

  • Business Management
  • Cardiorespiratory Training Techniques
  • Client Assessment and Program Design
  • Corrective Exercise Techniques
  • Exercise Psychology and Lifestyle Coaching
  • Exercise Physiology
  • Fitness Anatomy and Physiology
  • Fitness Sales and Marketing
  • Medical and Exercise Science Terminology
  • Managing Personal Health

Some personal trainer degree programs may help students to prepare for a specific type of personal fitness certification, such as available through the American College of Sports Medicine or National Exercise Trainers Association. Indeed, there are many different types of personal trainer certifications available, and applicants almost always need to have CPR certification as well as automated external defibrillator (AED) certification to be eligible for testing.

An externship, which is a short-term training program carried out in a workplace, may be required for some college-level programs. These can give students opportunities to work with clients and beside a professional already trained in the occupation. For online programs, pre-approval of an externship site or position may be necessary. Students looking into online personal fitness training programs may want to check with a school coordinator or advisor in advance to understand the externship guidelines.

Personal trainer certifications

For better opportunity down the road, consider certification is an important component in becoming a personal trainer. For instance, personal trainers who offer their services on a freelance basis can also benefit from the extra measure of confidence that official certification can inspire in potential clients. Certification from a fitness organization may help showcase your potential to work with and successfully train clients.

One of the top reasons to become certified, according to the BLS, is that employers may look to hire certified personal trainers over those who are not certified. However, there are many different types of personal trainer certifications available and you may want to find the certification (or certifications) that best attest to your skills and experiences or that a facility or gym may want to see before hiring. At the very least, most people entering the field have a high school diploma or a GED, and to sit for a certifying exam, typically need to have CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) certification. Below are some personal trainer certifications that are available:

  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): A variety of health fitness, clinical and specialty certifications are available through this organization, founded in 1954, that include certified personal trainer (CPT). Certification testing is available at Pearson VUE sites across the country, and ACSM has study guides and review materials available to help testing candidates.
  • American Council on Education (ACE): Four fitness certifications are available through ACE, including personal trainer, group fitness instructor, ACE health coach, and advanced health and fitness specialist, as well as nine specialty certifications ranging from fitness nutrition to therapeutic exercise. Computer exams are available at sites across the country, but in some cases paper examinations may be available.
  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM): For more than 20 years, this organization has offered certification, continuing education, and health and fitness tools to personal trainers and others interested in fitness. NASM provides a personal fitness certification as well as performance enhancement and corrective exercise specializations.
  • National Exercise Trainers Associations (NETA): More than 130,000 fitness professionals have been certified through NETA since its founding in 1977. A variety of certifications and specializations are offered, including CPT certification that can be taken either by registering for a two-day preparation workshop or by registering online to take the exam at one of more than 500 Comira testing sites.
  • National Federation of Personal Trainers (NFPT): This organization has offered certified professional trainer (CPT) credentials to entry-level trainers since 1998, and has testing available at more than 350 locations across the country. The exam has 120 multiple-choice questions based on nine content categories.

All of these fitness and personal trainer certifications require continuing education and renewal that may be needed later anywhere from one to three years. There is a cost for both the initial certifying exam and the renewal exam, plus the training and educational materials typically have a cost associated with them as well.

Organizations offering certification range from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) to the American Council on Education (ACE) and National Federation of Personal Trainers (NFPT). Generally, CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) certification are required to sit for any of the personal trainer exams, and there is a fee to take an examination. Continuing education may also be part of the process for renewal, which may be needed every one to three years, depending on the certifying organization. Students may find it worthwhile to check with potential employers to see what kinds of certification they like their personal trainers to have.

Continuing education for personal trainers

Personal trainers can take a couple of different paths to advancement in their field. First, and perhaps most challenging, they can work to take on more or higher-profile clients, create a fitness brand around their diet advice and exercise routines or join the payroll at a prestigious health resort.

A second method of advancement is the management track, which often requires a bachelor's degree in physical education, exercise science, kinesiology or a related discipline. Several years of experience in a fitness training environment is often necessary for fitness management jobs, and some organizations may require candidates for management roles to earn graduate degrees.

Skills and Qualities for Personal Trainers

Personal trainers need a variety of skills to help motivate their clients and to ensure training at the appropriate level. Living a healthy lifestyle themselves and having experiences with many different types of fitness and exercise may be important to their career, according to the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. Other qualities that may be helpful to personal trainers, according to the BLS, include:

  • Physical fitness: Personal trainers need to demonstrate exercises to clients, showing them the specific techniques and body positions to correctly carry them out. Trainers also need to be a model of inspiration for their clients, showcasing a lifestyle of health and fitness. As the National Federation of Personal Trainers (NFPT) points out: "[T]he idea that someone will hire you if you've never stepped foot in a gym or never picked up a free weight or done a bench press in your life, well that's nowhere near realistic."
  • Speaking skills: Specific exercises and exercise goals need to be clearly communicated to clients. Otherwise, there may be a risk of burn-out or the chance for injury if a client does not understand the proper way to do an exercise.
  • Motivational skills: Knowing what to say and when to say it can be important for personal trainers. The strategies that work with one client may not be as effective with one another. This is why some personal trainer educational program even offer classes focused on motivation and exercise psychology.

Being a good listener is also essential, as clients may have unique issues they need help with -- the reason they turned to a fitness trainer in the first place.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Job opportunities for personal trainers are typically steady, due to a growing baby boomer population that is staying active and businesses that are also providing incentives to employees to stay active and healthy, according to the BLS. Also, in general, the employment increase can be partially attributed to a growing understanding of the role that exercise fitness plays in overall wellness, which is encouraging businesses, governments, schools and insurance companies to offer fitness incentives alongside their usual programs.


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