Most people know what a lifeguard is, but for those who don't, a lifeguard is a trained safety professional who's paid to monitor swimming areas. Now, here's a common misconception: a lifeguard's sole purpose is to save people who are drowning. Yes, if somebody is drowning then a lifeguard's job is to remove that person from the water. But the most important task for a lifeguard is to prevent these types of incidents from happening in the first place. Experienced lifeguards have a feel and an eye for potential warning signs.

Another misconception is that lifeguards only work in the summer. Yes, during the summer the demand for lifeguards is greater, but if you live in a warm climate, the demand for lifeguards is stable year round. If you live in a cold climate, you can teach CPR or lifeguard classes for year round income as well as apply for jobs at indoor swimming facilities. But let's start with the basics.


In most states, you have to be 15 years old to be a lifeguard. You have to be a strong swimmer. You also have to be in good shape. If you're a beach lifeguard, you may have to swim long distances to assist somebody who's far offshore. The best way to build up your cardio endurance and strength is to swim. Swimming is amazing exercise that's low impact meaning that it puts little to no pressure on your joints. Also the more you swim, the better you'll become, but make sure you're swimming correctly. You don't want to ingrain bad habits or form. Perhaps take a swimming lesson. Even if you're a very strong swimmer, there's some aspect of your swimming that can be improved. A swimming lesson at the YMCA or your community pool shouldn't be too expensive. 

If you don't have regular access to a lap pool, then run and lift weights. A really great exercise that will help prepare for the lifeguard test is squats. You can either do free weight squats or use a stationary machine. If you don’t have much experience doing squats, start off with a stationary machine so that you don't hurt your back.

Before you take the lifeguard test, you have to be certified in CPR. Most people get CPR certified through Red Cross. Their certification costs around $110 and takes roughly three hours. You can either do the whole certification in person or you can do a portion on line and a portion in person. Part of it has to be done in person because you practice CPR on test dummies. You also use a defibrillator on test dummies. This certification needs to renewed every two years. If you're employed with a particular club or pool management company, they might pay for you to renew your CPR certification. It's important to note though that you should probably touch up on your CPR every year as opposed to every other year. In the rare event that you have to use CPR, you want to be confident that you're doing it right. One of the first things you're taught is to ask permission to perform CPR unless the subject is unconscious. The reason for this is to mitigate liability. 

Speaking personally, I've only had to use CPR once, and it was completely disassociated from a pool or beach setting. I was walking on the street and a few people were circled around an elderly man who just had a heart attack. I performed CPR on him until the paramedics arrived. Thankfully he ended up okay. In the heat of the moment, asking for permission becomes a blurry line. You have to make sure that you're giving CPR correctly both to help the other person survive as well as cover your own butt. 

It's also important to note though that many lifeguard training programs will embed CPR certification, so all you have to do is sign up for a lifeguard course and part of the course involves getting CPR certified. This set up is probably easiest because you'll only have to pay one fee and register for one course.

Also, invest in sunscreen.

Lifeguard Test

To be a lifeguard, you have to pass a lifeguard training course. As touched on above, many of these courses will embed CPR certification and other safety essentials such as the importance of placing severed fingers on ice. But the particular course you should sign up for largely depends on where you'd like to work. If you have a particular club or pool in mind, talk to the pool managers and see if there's a particular certification they require. For example, some require a specialized lifeguard CPR/First Aid certification as opposed to a regular certification.  Also, if you'd like to work at a beach, there are certain topics you may have to be tested on such as 'red tide' and 'rip currents.' If you want to work on at a beach, contact several of the beaches that you might work for and ask about their certification preferences. Another great resource is current lifeguards. If you know somebody who lifeguards someplace that you may want to work for, offer to take them out to lunch and have a chat about how they got certified.

Some common lifeguard training courses people take are the offered by Red Cross, the YMCA, NASCO and Ellis & Associates. Most of these programs are spread out over the course of five or six weeks and involve one class day per week, normally all day Saturday or Sunday. Then for the rest of the week you have some reading and homework to do, but it's not hard. Most of these classes cost less than $500. Some of the companies listed above offer lifeguard training bootcamps that you can complete over the course of four of five days of complete immersion. 

The centerpiece of every lifeguard training course is the swimming test which is fairly simple. Although each test differs a little bit, most require you to swim three hundred yards, tread water for two or three minutes without using your hands and to surface dive 15 feet in order to lift a 10 pound brick out from the bottom of the pool. It's important to note that normally you can't wear goggles or use any other swim aids while performing these tests although some places will let you wear goggles for the 300 yard swim

They make you tread water without using your hands under the theory that you'll have to potentially tread water while supporting another person's body weight, a person who may be unconscious. If you practice a little, it's really not that hard to tread water without using your hands.

The hardest part of the lifeguard test is the surface dive brick test. This maneuver is unnatural. Many seasoned swimmers have never attempted to do something like this before. Ten pounds isn't very heavy, but underwater it feels more like thirty. Earlier in the article, I recommended squats to help get in shape for lifeguarding in part because the muscles used in squatting are the same you'll have to use when you lift the brick from the bottom of the pool. You'll have to push off hard with your legs.

Don't get me wrong, most people pass the brick test on the first try. But it's smart to practice a few times before attempting the real thing. Once you lift the brick from the surface, it has to stay out the water as you swim back the length of pool. The easiest way to do this is float on your back with the brick up by your collar bone and frog kick to the edge of the pool.

The rationale for the brick test is that you may have to drag somebody who's unconscious from the bottom of a pool. I'm not trying to scare you or make you think that the brick test is harder than it is. Just dive down head first, locate the brick with your hands, get into a squat position and explode up while arching your neck backwards. If you practice, you'll definitely be able to pass.

Here's MIT Red Cross' Lifeguard Swimming Test Format. 

Finding a Job

In the summer, every location with a pool is looking for lifeguards. Identify pools or beaches you'd like to work for and contact the pool management company. Ideally you'll do this before you take the lifeguard test to make sure that your lifeguard course is accepted by that pool management company, but this isn't absolutely necessary. There are also websites such as that have many many listings for lifeguard positions. If you live in a warm climate, every pool will need a year round lifeguard. Good places to seek employment are beaches, country clubs, public pools, private lakes, schools, community centers, health clubs and indoor facilities at which you can work year round.

Another thing that might be wise to do is take a Lifeguard Instructor Certification Course. Red Cross offers this course, and teaching Lifeguard certification courses is a great way to maintain steady income throughout the year. 

Also, giving swimming lesson is another great way to supplement your income. If you gain experience, you can lead swimming classes, especially for children, which can be a good way to rake in dough.  

Salary and Lifestyle

Lifeguards can work on a full time or part time basis. Most lifeguards jobs are summer jobs that pay around $10 per hour. If you get a job as a full time lifeguard at say an indoor facility, you'll be making around $30,000 per year. If you teach a lifeguard course, you can make up to $1,000 per course depending on the number of students in the class.

The lifestyle of a lifeguard is for the most part pretty laid back. Lifeguards normally don't work nights as most swimming facilities are closed at night. Many clubs and pools are busy on weekends but close on Monday and Tuesday, so your "weekend" will be pushed back two days.

A plus to most lifeguard jobs is that you get to be outside and swim as much as you want. The downside is that you'll be placed in a very stressful situation if you have to save somebody's life. This rarely happens, but if it does, you have to be ready and you can't mess up. If you mess up, you may be legally liable depending on the circumstances. That said, many lifeguards relish these 'life or death' situations, so for some they're a pro rather than a con. 

The biggest plus is that you get to be a leader in some aquatic community. Lifeguards are important to communities and make people feel safe. It's nice to know that you're genuinely helping people and "holding down the fort" so to speak.

As a lifeguard your services will always be needed somewhere so you could have an extra income stream for life. 

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