A personal trainer is someone who gets paid to help others achieve their fitness goals. For fitness enthusiasts, personal training can be a great career choice. As health and wellness continues to have more influence in mainstream culture, the demand for personal trainers keeps rising. Having a healthy body in our society is becoming a credential of success. Think of it this way too—many religions focus on bodily wellness just as much as spiritual wellness. The mind and body duality form a unified whole. So in helping people improve their bodies, you’re actually helping them to become happier, more complete people. Who doesn’t like to feel good and look good?
How To Become A Personal Trainer
There are two basic paths towards becoming a personal trainer. First, you can take the academic route and get an undergraduate or Master’s degree in kinesiology, which is a fancy way of saying ‘personal training.’ Some schools call it ‘Exercise Science.’ Others call it ‘Sports and Fitness Education.’ The benefit of going this route is that you’ll attain a thorough understanding of the biological and chemical principles that govern exercise. With this type of in depth knowledge, you’ll presumably be better able to help your clients meet their fitness goals. Also, this type of degree—especially a Master’s—will give you more options in terms of career placement. For example, if you’d like to be a strength and conditioning coach for a college sports team or even a pro team, this formal degree in kinesiology will truly make you stand amongst a competitive applicant pool. The most important credential, however, is experience, but a formal, academic degree is a good start.
One downside of the academic route is that completing one of these degrees takes several years. Obviously, an undergraduate degree takes about four years. A Master’s Degree in kinesiology will take two years if you’re a full time student, and closer to three years if you’re studying part time. Another big downside is that these degrees can be expensive. College, as you know, can be quite expensive, and Master’s Degrees aren’t much cheaper. A Master’s Degree in kinesiology can cost anywhere from $10,000 to around $50,000. The exact cost of a degree depends on the school, financial aid packages, in state tuition breaks—a lot of factors. But at the end of the day, if you want a good degree, you’re going to have to cough up ten thousand bucks at the very least.
The non-academic route, or ‘less’ academic route, is the most common. This route consists of passing a personal trainer exam administered by an accreditation organization. There are several accreditation organizations whose test you can take. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose as long as you choose one certified by the NCCA, which is short for The National Commission for Certifying Agencies. All the different tests you can take have different price tags. You’ll have to pay for study materials as well a fee to take the test itself. If you’re planning on working at a particular gym, you should check with the administration at that gym to see if there’s a particular accreditation that they prefer. Most people take the ACE (American Council of Exercise) exam. Some people take NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), others take ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine.) At the end of the day, you’ll be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t accept one of these three accreditations. I took the ACE exam so perhaps I’m biased, but ACE is the industry standard. The ACE exam will cost you around $700 for a package that includes all the necessary study materials as well as test registration. (Pro Tip: you can purchase study materials such as ACE's study guides for a discount on auction sites such as Ebay.)
The test is basically a lot of memorization. There are some rudimentary fitness principles on the test—for example, muscles contraction vs. muscles retraction, lateral movement vs. vertical movement—as well as health conditions and situations to be aware of. For example, if you’re training a pregnant woman, you can do X but not Y. If you’re training a senior citizen, you do X but not Y. There are many sections about mitigating liability. You also need to learn all the muscles and bones in the body which sounds a lot harder than it actually is. The only real mathematical calculations you have to do are heart rate and BMI (body mass index). You just have to study; if you study hard enough you will pass!
One important note: in order to be a personal trainer you have to have a high school degree, but not a college degree. You also have to be at 18 years old, and you have to pass a CPR and First Aid Class. The CPR and First Aid class will take no more than four hours and costs around $200.
Once you have your certification or your academic degree, the most common way to find clients is to work for a job at a gym with an established client base. Even before you’re officially accredited or have your degree, it’s probably a good idea to browse possible employment options. Speak to the HR department of various gyms and explain that you’re studying for certification, you really like their gym, and you’d like to learn more about their particular workplace philosophy. Perhaps that gym will allow you to submit an application for employment pending your accreditation test.
Working at a gym is the easiest way to guarantee that you have a steady income and clients, especially when you’re first starting out. Some gyms offer trainers an hourly wage as opposed to a commission-based salary, and you can use the gym’s brand to build a client base. You still have to sell yourself though!
Another benefit of working for a gym is a healthcare package and other benefits although many gyms don’t offer very robust benefit packages to their trainers. As mentioned above, at many gyms, you won’t be paid per training session. I.E. your salary will be an hourly wage. That said, most gyms require that you maintain a certain number of clients in order to qualify for your hourly wage, and if you dip below that number for an extended period of time, you’ll be fired.
You can also find clients on your own and work independently. This method allows you to pocket all the money your client is paying for your services. Most people would do this as opposed to working for a gym if they could maintain a steady stream of clients.
It’s impossible to have a full load of clients when you’re first starting out. There are certain directory websites such as Thumbtack.com on which you can list yourself as a personal trainer, but often what trainers do is have a job at a gym to guarantee a steady income in addition to finding their own private clients.
An obstacle you have to overcome when you’re not affiliated with a gym is finding an exercise space that has all the equipment you need. You can’t train clients in a membership gym unless you work for that gym, and the client is paying that gym for your services. You’ll likely be banned from a gym if you’re caught training a private client there. If you’re creative, however, you can overcome this problem. If it’s summer, for example, you could have the session outside with a focus on cardio and body weight exercises. Many clients also have gyms in the basement of their apartment buildings. It would be wise, however, to gain clearance from the landlord of the building before using a building’s gym for personal clients.
Many colleges and community college also employ personal trainers as well as the YMCA and community centers. Even if a place—let’s say a senior center—doesn’t currently employ trainers, you can reach out to them and offer your services at a discounted rate.
How Much Do Personal Trainers Make?
Good question. You can make some serious money as a personal trainer, especially if you work independently, i.e. not affiliated with a gym. But let’s start with trainers who are working for a gym because to start your career, you'll be working for a gym.
Let’s focus on Equinox. Equinox is a very hip, popular gym that charges more per personal training session than most of its competitors. According to glassdoor.com, Equinox trainers make in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year. But hold on. Equinox charges customers around $110 per training hour. If you could work independently with a full time load of clients and charge $110 per hour, you’d be making a lot more than $50,000 per year, my friend.
Equinox is probably the highest paying gym chain in the world. Their top trainers—trainers with years of experience—can probably work their salary up to around $65,000 per year. But if you work on your own and your services are in demand, $65,000 per year will be a cakewalk. Think about it. If you charge $100 per hour and pocket all of it, you could work 20 hours per week, and be making $8,000 per month, which translates into just under $100,000 per year. The top trainers do this and make a butt load of money if they work full time hours. Only about 10% of trainers can pull this off, however, because you have to have a very strong reputation. You have to be regarded as “the best” and that takes a lot of work, often years of work and proven results.
But another way to monetize your personal training skills is to create a website or some type of media content that centers around health and fitness. You could create some youtube videos about ab exercises, for example, and if those videos circulate, you’ll help establish your brand.
Once your brand is established, there are a zillion ways to profit. Dieting and weight loss is a huge industry—billions of dollars type thing. If you could establish your own dieting regimen that becomes popular, you could become a millionaire. What trainers also do is become registered dieticians/nutritionists and consult clients on their diets in addition to personal training. Many personal trainers are also certified in yoga, pilates, etc. You can also teach group classes or "boot camps" which are very, very hot right now.
Personal training is a hustle best suited for people who genuinely enjoy being in the gym and exercising. It’s tough maintaining clients long term. Often a client will work with you for a couple of months then flake out. More often than not, your clients’ top priority will not be fitness. Everybody has a busy life; fitness plays a small part in most peoples’ lives. Also, many of the clients you work with, especially when you first start working with them, won’t be able to do much. They’ll be out of shape, and you have to be careful when pushing these people because if anything happens, you could be liable depending on your insurance and your gym’s insurance.
Some people can be difficult, but most are friendly and realistic. It really feels amazing to help a client break through personal fitness barriers and become healthier. It’s a slow process that occurs over time, but you’re truly helping somebody to become a more complete, whole person. Often times, people are simply paying you so that they’re forced to show up to the gym and work out. And then there’s the underlying irony behind the profession. Really what you’re doing is teaching somebody to be self sufficient in the gym. You’re teaching somebody to be able to meet their fitness goals on their own so that they will no longer need you.