When learning how to become a personal trainer, many do it because it can be a lucrative career choice. In fact, you can reasonably expect to make between $40,000 to $100,000 plus per year as a personal trainer. If done correctly, you should have a firm understanding of your offering and your target demographic as well as the proper insurance and facilities.
1. Determine Your Type of Training
There’s not just one type of personal trainer. There’s the generalist who you’re used to seeing at your local gym, but there are others that focus on specific areas, such as athletes, powerlifting or rehabilitation.
The right type of training for you depends on your personal interests, willingness to learn specific specialty areas and revenue goals. This choice will have a big impact on where you can look to get clients, the experience you’ll need and personal trainer certifications or degrees needed.
There are typically four broad types of personal trainers. Each of these types has its own benefits and drawbacks and may or may not be right for you. Look at the table below for the four types, including examples and the pros and cons of each.
Types of Personal Trainers
|Type of Trainer|
|Generalist||Typical trainer you see at your local gym who helps almost anyone with his or her training goals.||This is the easiest to certify for, has the most employment opportunities and is the safest route. The downside is it’s harder to differentiate yourself from other trainers and may make it harder to build your own business.|
|Athletics||Trainers who focus on amateur or professional athletes. Often affiliated with schools, sports teams or athletic facilities.||You can generally earn more than a generalist trainer, and it can be more prestigious, especially if you can hook up with a well-known team or athletic facility. Tends to require more certifications and/or degrees around performance optimization, injury prevention and rehabilitation.|
|Specialized||Yoga, powerlifting, martial arts, and similar training-intensive activities||Easier to carve out a niche market and differentiate yourself from the generalists. There are a number of sub-specializations you can focus on such as specific types of martial arts or yoga. You can typically charge higher rates than a generalist. Usually requires more experience and/or specialized certifications in your specialty. Also reduces your addressable market to a specific niche.|
|Rehabilitation||Trainers at rehabilitations centers, medical centers and similar facilities who focus helping clients recover from injuries or surgery.||An alternative safe path slightly different from a generalist. Often positions can be salaried instead of hourly, helping smooth out income. Requires additional certifications and schooling in most cases.|
2. Decide Where You’ll Train Clients
Another big factor to consider is where you want to do business and the facility you’ll use. These generally include at a local gym, online, directly with clients or other another location like a rehabilitation center. Choosing the right place will help you attract your desired customers.
The facilities you can typically choose from include:
Local Gym Personal Training
This is what most people think of when they hear personal trainer. You can either rent a space or get hired on as a full-time employee for a gym. The types of people who come here are everyday people looking to get in better shape.
The pros and cons of training clients are your local gym include:
Local Gym Pros and Cons
If you think that a local gym is right for you, the next thing you’ll want to do is identify one of the top chains and inquire about their personal training programs. Let’s take a look at the top 10 fitness chains in the U.S. by 2016 revenue.
Top 10 Fitness Chains by Revenue
|Club||2016 Gross Revenues|
|LA Fitness||$1.987 billion|
(including TIme Fitness, Life Time Athletic)
|24 Hour Fitness||$1.42 billion|
(including Blink Fitness, SoulCycle, Pure Yoga)
|Town Sports International Holdings|
(including NYSC, BSC, PSC, WSC, Tone House, Boutique Fitness Experience, Lucille Roberts)
|Planet Fitness||$378.2 million|
(corp owned and franchise fees, not including franchise revenues)
|The Bay Club Company|
(including Spectrum Athletics)
Source: Club Industry
In addition to the general fitness chain, you may want to consider private facilities that can charge clients tens of thousands of dollars per year. They are harder to land a spot at but generally have better pay, better mentoring, and look good on a resume. Examples include Bosse Sports, East Bank Club, EXOS, The Bunker, and The Setai Club & Spa.
Direct Personal Training
Some personal trainers decide to go direct to clients, holding personal training sessions at you or your client’s home as well as out in nature. Starting as a personal trainer going direct to clients is going to be harder than a gym but might be more lucrative and more enjoyable.
This may sound daunting compared to just getting hired at a fitness chain. However, even if you work at a chain, you’re going to need to do many of the same things as a direct personal trainer. This includes having your own website, creating your own marketing materials, networking and selling.
The pros and cons of being a direct personal trainer include:
Direct Personal Training Pros and Cons
Online or Digital Personal Training
While a very different model than training clients one-on-one, a number of personal trainers have built successful careers using technology. A combination of websites, apps, videos, and so on have enabled them to become millionaires.
While you still need expertise in personal training, and probably a certification or two, you’ll need to be especially good at building a brand, developing products and videos, online marketing, and building a loyal social following. Some examples include Kayla Itsines, Jen Selter and Joe Wicks.
Other Personal Training
In addition to more common routes to becoming a personal trainer, there are several other types of institutions where you can hang your hat. These include:
- Cruise ships
- Elderly facilities
- Resorts and vacation spots
- Municipal centers
- Rehabilitation centers
- Sports facilities
- Corporate wellness facilities
- Hospital therapy programs
These other locations can bring some benefits:
- Many of the benefits of a gym without the sales pressure
- Interesting locations
- Can be salaried instead of hourly or commission-based
3. Get Certified as a Personal Trainer
If you’re serious about being a personal trainer you’ll need to get certified. Most large fitness chains have a list of certifications that they’ll accept for new hires. Further, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies also offers certification programs. Certification costs range from $400 to $600 or more.
Here are the acceptable certifications for the three largest fitness chains:
Fitness Chain Certification Programs
|LA Fitness||AAAI/ISMA, ACE, AFAA, AFPA, BTFA, CFP, Cooper Institute, IFPA, ISSA, NASM, NCCPT, NCSF, NESTA, NETA, NFPT, PFIT, WFA, W.I.T.S.|
|Life Time||ACE, ACTION, AAPTE, CSCCa, Cooper Institute, NASM, NCSF, NCCPT, NESTA, NETA, NFPT, NSCA, PTA Global, LT Academy|
|24 Hour Fitness||ACSM, ACE, Cooper Institute, C.H.E.K, IFPA, NASM, NCSF, NESTA, NETA, NFPT, NSCA, PTA Global, W.I.T.S.|
Another certification option is the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) certification, an industry-accepted certification process for personal training certifications. This is a great option if you don’t want to work at a gym. Here are the major NCCA-certified certifications to choose from.
|ACE||The American Council on Exercise: 75,000 members; programs cover: client interviews and assessments; program design and implementation; program progression and modifications; and professional conduct, safety, and risk management.|
|ACSM||American College of Sports Medicine: Areas covered: initial client consultation and assessment; exercise programming and implementation; exercise leadership and client education; and legal and professional responsibilities.|
|Cooper Institute||The Cooper Institute: Exam covers: screening and assessment; goal setting and programming; exercise science; and professional responsibilities.|
|IFPA||International Fitness Professionals Association: Exam subject areas: basic muscle physiology; energy metabolism; exercise physiology training principles; strength and aerobic conditioning; safety guidelines; sports training; exercise testing; body composition analysis; safety, anatomy, and exercise; complete program design and development; nutritional considerations; psychology, motivation, ethics, and success; business of fitness: and marketing, law and finance.|
|NASM||National Academy of Sports Medicine: 190,000 members; exam covers: basic and applied sciences and nutritional concepts; assessment; program design; exercise technique and training instruction; client relations and behavioral coaching; and professional development and responsibility.|
|NCCPT||National Council for Certified Personal Trainers: Program based on two main concepts: periodization from Tudor Bompa and the concept of specificity or the S.A.I.D. principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands); exam covers health assessment; kinesiology; exercise physiology; nutrition; exercise application; business training; and emergency procedures.|
|NCSF||National Council on Strength and Fitness: Exam covers: functional anatomy; exercise physiology; physical activity and health promotion; screening, evaluation and professional practice; nutrition; weight management; exercise prescription and programming considerations; training instruction; and considerations for special populations.|
|NESTA||National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association: Exam covers: exercise application and instruction; program design; business application; assessments, injury prevention and emergency care, exercise science, exercise psychology, and nutrition.|
|NETA||National Exercise Trainers Association: Topics covered: exercise science (anatomy, exercise physiology, kinesiology and biomechanics); health and fitness assessments; exercise programming for healthy adults; principles of nutrition and weight management; and dynamics of communication and behavioral change.|
|NFPT||National Federation of Personal Trainers: Exam content covers: principles of human anatomy; principles of human physiology; fitness components; training program development, implementation, and modification; and professionalism and communication skills.|
|NSCA||National Strength and Conditioning Association: Exam covers: client consultation and fitness assessment; program planning; exercise techniques; and safety and emergency issues.|
Picking a Certification
The ACE, Cooper Institute, NASM, NESTA, NCSF, NETA and NFPT certifications work for all three of the largest chains. Deciding on any single certification is going to depend on your personal interests, convenience of location and times and budget.
For instance, the NASM certification is a more general one, tends to be easier for beginners and has a focus on building training programs and managing injuries. The ACE is less expensive and has solid training in behavior optimization.
In addition to a training certification, you may want additional certifications for a specific field, such as yoga, powerlifting, rehabilitation or get advanced certifications that can vary among programs.
“Having not only a training certification but a background in nutrition and yoga has helped me to create some well-rounded programs for those clients.” — Amanda Terry
Source: Gym Nut
Personal Trainer Exam Costs
Expect to pay between $20 to $800 for study materials and between $400 to $600 for the actual exam fees. Some gyms will sponsor the certification fee, so you may want to find the gym you plan on working at before signing up for the exam.
Other Personal Trainer Requirements
In addition to a certification, most fitness chains prefer:
- You are age 18 or older
- Are certified or trained on CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED)
- Have a degree in kinesiology or sports medicine
4. Get Insurance
To deliver personal training, you’ll need to get insurance. This usually covers general liability, professional liability, products you use or sell, damage to rented premises and sexual misconduct liability and anything along those lines. For a complete rundown on personal trainer insurance, see our guide on personal training insurance.
5. Acquire Clients
Like most businesses, there are a number of steps you can take to onboard the right clients. Things like getting in shape, effectively communicating your training niche, creating client programs and investing in marketing and sales.
“To be a good personal trainer with longevity means melding many different skills. You have to be a fun, engaging, real person while also keeping your clients safe through potentially complicated movements. You also have to be able to help people with totally different body types, goals and injuries every day. On top of that, you have to be good at communicating your value to potential clients. This is different than being a salesman. Value creates sales while the opposite is not necessarily true.” — Joe Feldman-Barros
Get in Shape
Would you trust a personal trainer who isn’t in better shape than you? Your best billboard for how successful a trainer you are is your own fitness. This is especially true as you pull together web and print marketing materials which will likely include shots of just how hot you are.
Define Your Positioning
There are a lot of personal trainers out there. Clients want ones that will get them results in a great overall experience. When learning how to become a personal trainer, make sure you answer questions like “So what is going to make you stand out?” “Is it your training experience?” “Is it your knowledge of sports medicine?” “Is it a unique combination of exercises?” “Is it a combination of all of these?” Clients will want to know this.
Create Your Program Template(s)
Now that you’ve got your positioning down, create your program templates, which you’ll customize for specific individuals. These should focus on goals of various clients instead of exercises. Some clients might be after slimming down, bulking up, strength training, working on an injury, and so on.
You’ll need to think through your market positioning, exercise combinations, and dietary recommendations. It’s easy for anyone to search the Internet for exercise and diet recommendations. They come to a personal trainer to put it all together to match their specific needs and motivate them to get results. So, your program templates should also take into account what motivates clients and how you’re going to get them excited to work with your system.
“When I coach my athletes, I make sure to customize every workout for what they need. I work on their strength and conditioning, their mobility, their core, their aerobic and cardio capacity, their coordination and balance and on their skills and technique.” — Alex Folacci
Source: New York Elite Magazine
Implement a Management System
You’ll be more successful and look more professional if you have an organized way of tracking activity, goals, and progress. If you’re starting out by joining a gym, they’ll have all of the necessary systems. However, at a minimum, you’ll need a website to promote your thought leadership.
If you’re going direct to clients, your system could range from very organized paper-based files to off-the-shelf software specifically designed to manage personal training businesses. In addition to tracking client information, you’ll also need to think about
- Scheduling and reminders: Ideally, instead of manually scheduling clients, you’ll have an automated system where they can set their own appointments.
- CRM: You’ll need a system to track who you’ve sent offers to and tracking them through the sales process.
- Point-of-sale software: If you’re selling directly to clients, you’ll need a way to accept credit card payments.
- Billing: You’ll need a way to manage send clients invoices and receipts.
- Accounting: You’ll also need a way to stay on top of general accounting tasks.
If you are going direct you are going direct to clients you’ll probably want to go with a system designed for personal training businesses. Examples of web-based systems include:
- Vagaro: $25 per month for one personal trainer and increases with number of trainers
- MINDBODY: $125 to $395 per month for one location
- PTminder: Free to $75 per month for one trainer
Create a Client Experience Plan
Building a successful personal training business is more than working through a training program. Clients refer personal trainers because of a great overall experience. Think through how you’re going to get folks excited. Are you going to provide snacks or protein drinks during sessions? How will you communicate with them? Will you have handy articles for specific conditions like knee injuries? The goal is to go above and beyond the competition in order to build your brand. Also remember to bring copious amounts of positivity and smiles.
“Some things I do is set up grocery tours with my clients. I set up a time at a local Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, typically weekend mornings are super slow so it’s really intimate with all my clients. I’ll take them through the store and tell them what to buy and why to buy. They actually really appreciate this and brings more value for their money. Some other things I do is make sure I send them birthday cards and add a little joke. For instance, the last birthday card I sent, I put two movie tickets and said,” Just be careful of the butter in popcorn ;). — Brandon Long
Source: Joe Cannon
Create Your Sales and Marketing Materials
Not unique to a personal training business, but important nonetheless, is building out your sales and marketing materials. These could include things like business cards, gift coupons for first-time customers, a sales sheet, client references, and so on.
The most important marketing collateral is going to be your website, whether working through a gym or direct to clients. The main purpose of the site is to build your personal training brand. The key thing that should come across is your thought leadership and the resulting special-sauce programs and experience you’ve created.
Key components your personal training website should include:
- Your publications, including your blog around thought leadership
- Tips on your favorite exercises (good SEO, especially videos hosted on YouTube)
- Your specialization
- Your certifications
- How to contact you, schedule a free consultation, obtain gift cards, and so on
- Examples from your fantastic social following
To build a really successful personal training business, you’re going to be just as good at sales and promotion as personal training. Sorry, that’s just the way it is with small businesses. In addition to your social and web presence, you need to activate a personal network and manage yourself just like any other business.
Connect With Influencers
Assuming you’ve got all of your sales and marketing materials put together, you’ll get a lot more leverage if you can engage folks who influence others. For example, the Holy Grail that you hear from many superstar trainers is their miraculous first celebrity client that brings in a who’s who of clients and you’re off to training stardom.
However, for most mortal personal trainers, you should target a similar word-of-mouth effect but with your local influencers. These could be family (who’s going to be a bigger advocate to others than your mom), real estate agents, rehabilitation doctors and nurses, leaders of mothers groups, or others. The main point is focusing your efforts on those who will spread the word for you.
Manage Sales Funnel
Many personal trainers get an initial client list and then spend so much time training they don’t build a stable long-term business. You’ll need to balance training existing customers and allocating enough time to add new prospects to account for inevitable client losses. Eventually, if you’ve got a winning formula, you’ll need to think about how to scale your business. It could be leveraging the Internet to sell products, hiring personal trainers to work under you or starting your own gym.
6. Maintain Your Certifications
Lastly, for any certification, you’ll need to recertify periodically. Generally, it’s every two years and consists of completing continuing education units (CEUs) or continuing education credits (CECs) and paying a recertification fee. Also, most certifications require you to maintain your CPR/AED certifications.
Certification Maintenance Requirements
|ACE||Earn 2.0 CECs every two years; $129 fee.|
|ACSM||Certification is good for three years; must complete 45 CECs $45 fee.|
|Cooper Institute||Recertification every three years; 30 contact hours; $55 fee.|
|IFPA||24 CECs every two years.|
|NASM||Recertification required every two years; required to maintain current CPR and AED certifications; must earn 2.0 CEUs (20 hours).|
|NCCPT||Must recertify every two years; must complete 2.0 CEUs within a two-year certification period; recertification fee $75.|
|NESTA||Complete 4.0 CEUs during a four-year period; $149 fee.|
|NETA||Certifications valid for two years; must complete 20 CECs before expiration (six of the 20 CECs must be obtained from NETA workshops or NETA home study courses).|
|NFPT||Certifications good for one year; 2.0 CECs are required after first year of certification; $85 annual fee for renewal.|
|NSCA||Certification good for three years; four CEUs required; $80 fee for renewal.|
The Bottom Line: How to Become a Personal Trainer
You see lots of superstar personal trainers making millions but, to get even close, you need to become a professional trainer and also work on the blocking and tackling of building a business. Follow the six steps discussed above to learn how to become a personal trainer, and you’ll be on your way to success.