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How to become a personal trainer in 5 steps

a personal trainer watching client perform elevated pushups

Personal trainers are passionate and committed to staying in shape. They serve as a coach and role model for those hoping to take their fitness to the next level.

If you’re interested in working with clients to help them achieve their goals in the gym, you’ll likely need to earn a personal trainer certification and become more familiar with the specific requirements of the establishment at which you’d like to work.

What is a personal trainer?

At a basic level, personal trainers are experts who create safe and effective exercise programs for their clients. They sometimes also, if they’ve received the proper training and education, assist their clients with nutrition goals which often includes creating meal plans, helping with macro counting, and more.

While their primary expertise lies in human anatomy, nutrition, exercise science, and building personalized training plans, successful personal trainers must be great coaches who are good listeners, analytical, motivational, and nurturing.

Steps to become a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT)

“If a person is fueled by helping others succeed in living healthier and happier lives, becoming a personal trainer may be the right fit,” said Araceli De Leon, MS, Business and Career Content Manager for ACE, as well as an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach and group fitness instructor.

“Being a personal trainer allows you to meet fascinating people, to build long-lasting relationships, and help people live a better quality of life.”

Earn your high school diploma.

woman graduating from high school

Most national personal trainer certification programs require candidates to have earned a high school diploma. If you haven’t earned your diploma, most programs allow candidates to fulfill this requirement with a General Education Development (GED) certificate which generally takes about three months to earn.

Earn AED and CPR certifications.

two men taking class on laptop

Since personal trainers should be able to provide basic assistance in the event that a client experiences a medical emergency, prospective trainers must earn both their AED (automatic external defibrillator) and CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) certifications. These typically take around four hours to complete and they must be renewed every two years.

Earn your personal trainer certification.

woman watching training video

There are several certifications aspiring personal trainers can choose from. They include certifications awarded from ISSA, NASM, and ACE. Exams for these certifications are typically taken on a computer and range from 120 to 150 questions in length. While each exam differs, expect to have your knowledge in the following areas tested:

• Anatomy and Physiology
• Kinesiology and Biomechanics
• Health and Physical Fitness
• Program Development
• Nutrition
• Fitness For All

Consider earning an advanced degree in a related field.

man on treadmill has heart monitored by exercise scientist

Do you need a degree to be a personal trainer? No. But with the employment of exercise trainers projected to grow nearly 40 percent over the next decade, it might not be a bad idea to get the education you need to stand out among your peers.

Earning an undergraduate or Master’s degree in Exercise Science, Kinesiology, Athletic Training, or Nutrition can help trainers offer more in-depth and tailored recommendations to their clients when compared to personal trainers who have earned just a baseline certification.

Choose your fitness specialty and apply for jobs.

woman trainer helps woman with alignment

While you don’t necessarily need to specialize beyond personal training, seeking out specialties that speak to your interest and skillset can expand the career opportunities available to you. In addition, learning more about topics adjacent to personal training can help you become a better trainer and allow you to offer more holistic advice to your clients.

Start building your portfolio by deciding the best position for your skillset. Some find work at their local gym and seek mentorship from experienced trainers, and some check NASM for job postings, as well as similar organizations. while others strike out on their own and build their business independently.

Personal trainer job description

Your job as a trainer is to lead, motivate, inspire, and instruct individuals and groups in fitness-related activities. You’ll work with people of all ages and fitness levels, covering topics like cardio, strength training, nutrition, stretching, and more.

What does a personal trainer do?

Many certified personal trainers work in fitness or sports centers, while others work for educational services or hospitals. In addition to helping clients get into shape, you’ll also be responsible for their safety during your workouts together, and for fostering positivity and inclusivity.

  • Introducing and demonstrating exercises and routines to clients
  • Assisting clients in exercises to minimize injury and promote good form
  • Modifying exercises according to the fitness levels and personal goals of clients
  • Monitoring client progress, providing feedback, and adjusting course as needed
  • Incorporating up-to-date information on findings in nutrition and fitness
  • Opening, closing, and/or managing fitness facilities and areas
  • Leading group classes and fitness/wellness-related workshops
  • Providing emergency first aid if necessary

In any place of work as a fitness trainer, it’s important to remember that in addition to helping clients get into shape, you’ll also be responsible for their safety during your workouts together, and for fostering positivity and inclusivity.

De Leon emphasized that no matter how or where you train, being a personal trainer takes dedication. “Just like any other business, it takes time to see the fruits of your labor. One must be patient and seek support from their peers when they are first starting out.

With the various opportunities and environments to personal train in this day and age, some personal trainers may find the variety of choices challenging in deciding where to train. Depending on where you train or how much effort you put into your business, you can also make a good living as a full-time personal trainer.”

How to be a good personal trainer

Modern personal trainers take a holistic approach to fitness, akin to a professional health coach —they know that ‘being fit’ isn’t just about going through the motions of a workout. Rather, it’s about having a healthy lifestyle and attitude. A great trainer is able to encourage and motivate clients to look at fitness as a positive element in a healthy life. Other skills essential to success as a personal trainer include:

Ethical leadership
Clients look to trainers for guidance and direction. A good coach welcomes that responsibility and ethically motivates clients to reach their fitness goals without judgment, discrimination, or dishonesty.
Effective communication
Clearly and concisely conveying your knowledge to clients, while patiently addressing their concerns, is key to getting results.
Assess fitness levels
Determining physical capabilities and assigning the correct training regimens for each fitness level is what makes for a positive personal training experience from the client’s perspective.
Weight management & nutrition
Whether you pursue a degree in nutrition or earn a nutrition specialization as a CPT, having in-depth nutrition and dietary knowledge can set you apart from other personal trainers.
Exercise science
Good fitness coaches pride themselves on their extensive collection of exercises. More importantly, they understand the underlying science behind things like pre- and post-workout intervals, stretching, proper session length, bodily limits, and the gym equipment’s intended usage.
Critical thinking
Every client is unique, and you will encounter all sorts of fitness journeys. To succeed as a personal trainer, understanding people and coming up with creative ways to maximize a client’s exercise needs is key.

“Other than having the proper qualifications and certifications, a successful personal trainer embodies continuous learning and growth of self,” De Leon said. “The health and fitness industry is constantly changing so being okay with keeping up with new research and trends is important.

Successful personal trainers seek mentorship and advice from their peers. They understand their why and strive to serve others through their personal training and knowledge. These people are supportive, great listeners, and know that their clients are the experts on themselves. A great personal trainer not only works in their business but on their business and takes time to understand what is needed to grow their business to meet their business goals.

Where can I work as a personal trainer?

As a certified personal fitness trainer, your workplace options vary depending on what your interests as a trainer are. Possible workplaces include:

Fitness and recreational centers

Many fitness centers offer complimentary fitness trainers, or customers can pay for training sessions. Your job will involve creating training plans, overseeing workouts, and monitoring progress for multiple clients.

Civic and social organizations

In these kinds of organizations, you will likely be providing the same fitness guidance you would in a fitness center or gym, but clients will typically be lower-income. Organizations like the YMCA/YWCA employ trainers who have a passion for fitness and also a desire to provide useful health information to this demographic.


For patients who are recovering from injuries, many hospitals will employ in-house personal trainers to work with rehabilitating patients. You will assess what the patient can and cannot do, and then provide a fitness regimen to help them regain mobility and full function. Often, trainers at hospitals will focus on helping patients regain lost muscle.


For trainers who are also comfortable marketing and promoting themselves, self-employment can be a great option. Running your own personal training business can be tough since you will need to advertise yourself and build a client base, but if you can pull it off, benefits include dictating your own hours and keeping all of your profits.

Your work schedule as a fitness coach can vary significantly depending on your work environment. Some work traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours, but many work part-time, including nights, weekends, and holidays. Others opt to be virtual personal trainers and check in with their clients over video as well as via email and over the phone.

Personal trainer salary & job outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), Exercise Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors, the category under which personal training salary is listed, earn a median annual salary of $45,380. Of course, factors such as geography and specialization can have a large impact on earnings and job outlook.

Are personal trainers in demand?

From organic ingredients on a restaurant menu to the White House’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, more Americans are embracing healthy living. For aspiring personal trainers, this couldn’t be better news, and official government data supports this sentiment.

According to the BLS, the employment of exercise trainers is projected to grow by 13.7% through 2032, far outpacing the national average of five percent for all occupations. Multiple factors are driving the need for more personal trainers, such as:

  • Corporate Wellness: Employers continue to recognize the benefits of fitness programs for their employees
  • Obesity Rates: National emphasis on exercise in combating obesity at all ages while encouraging healthier lifestyles
  • Aging Population: Baby boomers looking to remain active and prevent injuries and diseases associated with aging

How much does a personal trainer make?

Exercise Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors

National data

Median Salary: $45,380

Projected job growth: 13.7%

10th Percentile: $23,920

25th Percentile: $31,530

75th Percentile: $60,060

90th Percentile: $80,330

Projected job growth: 13.7%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $38,940 $21,720 $53,240
Alaska $47,470 $26,200 $73,240
Arizona $44,780 $29,260 $75,050
Arkansas $35,930 $23,120 $53,490
California $55,740 $31,550 $100,450
Colorado $49,300 $31,370 $83,650
Connecticut $47,570 $28,050 $133,050
Delaware $40,800 $24,270 $73,090
District of Columbia $48,910 $31,620 $92,890
Florida $38,680 $20,800 $65,960
Georgia $47,170 $19,620 $77,430
Hawaii $47,930 $21,810 $84,840
Idaho $38,030 $23,620 $58,080
Illinois $46,800 $27,120 $81,940
Indiana $32,460 $22,200 $55,220
Iowa $33,930 $22,310 $48,420
Kansas $32,460 $20,800 $55,860
Kentucky $43,240 $25,220 $62,400
Louisiana $31,230 $18,960 $58,610
Maine $40,430 $31,440 $69,660
Maryland $49,150 $26,790 $90,470
Massachusetts $50,950 $33,610 $75,320
Michigan $45,020 $25,980 $65,950
Minnesota $45,660 $31,110 $77,080
Mississippi $36,670 $17,590 $55,820
Missouri $34,140 $23,190 $62,200
Montana $42,890 $26,800 $61,340
Nebraska $34,810 $21,310 $61,770
Nevada $31,980 $21,600 $62,320
New Hampshire $47,710 $28,840 $62,210
New Jersey $63,400 $27,820 $91,260
New Mexico $26,030 $23,920 $60,780
New York $50,370 $31,810 $112,560
North Carolina $46,130 $24,160 $81,270
North Dakota $37,470 $23,920 $56,370
Ohio $35,100 $21,470 $59,840
Oklahoma $37,960 $20,630 $61,580
Oregon $48,220 $31,190 $79,570
Pennsylvania $38,470 $22,180 $59,990
Rhode Island $48,170 $26,210 $62,420
South Carolina $33,550 $18,730 $59,430
South Dakota $33,280 $26,090 $49,540
Tennessee $38,050 $18,830 $61,530
Texas $44,920 $20,620 $75,020
Utah $49,920 $23,400 $67,590
Vermont $62,110 $35,740 $73,450
Virginia $38,380 $23,000 $58,880
Washington $48,140 $31,100 $73,410
West Virginia $30,870 $20,800 $83,200
Wisconsin $37,110 $20,430 $64,540
Wyoming $38,790 $24,960 $50,800

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Industries with the highest annual mean salary for exercise and fitness instructors

Certain industries pay more than others. According to the BLS, these five pay the highest annual salaries. Keep in mind, that the dollar figure alone may not tell the whole story. For example, insurance carriers show the highest salary, but personal trainer jobs account for less than .005 percent of the industry.

IndustryAnnual Mean Salary
Insurance Carriers$ 70,540
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals$ 57,520
Employment Services$ 56,000
Performing Arts Companies$ 55,530
Grantmaking and Giving Services$ 55,260

Cities with the highest median salary for personal trainers

Before packing up your suitcase and booking a one-way ticket, consider the cost of living in each of these metros areas, then compare them to your current city.

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $74,260
Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, HI $69,320
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA $63,550
Port St. Lucie, FL $62,690
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $62,470
Burlington-South Burlington, VT $61,680
Modesto, CA $59,710
Santa Rosa, CA $59,350
Ocean City, NJ $59,070
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $58,100

How personal trainer salaries compare to similar professions

Career Median Annual Salary
Exercise Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors $45,380
Athletic Trainers $53,840
Athletes and Sports Competitors $94,270
Exercise Physiologists $51,350
Recreational Therapists $51,330

Educational requirements for personal trainers

If your high school transcript isn’t what you wish it was, or if you’re feeling stuck on the wrong career path, earning your Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) certification is a great way to start without having to worry about overly burdensome, academic prerequisites.

To enter these certification programs, most certifying bodies require:

  • That applicants be at least 18 years old
  • You have earned a high school diploma or GED
  • You’ve earned both a CPR and AED certification

“Not only is it important to have the basic qualifications and education to train as a personal trainer, but it is also important to have these qualifications for the safety and wellbeing of your clients,” De Leon said.

Pairing personal training with higher education

Should you wish to take your education beyond the minimum requirements to become a credentialed personal trainer, you could consider:

  • A two-year associate degree in a subject like exercise science
  • A four-year bachelor’s degree majoring in health and fitness or a related field

Earning both a certification and an associate degree provides you with sufficient training to start your career as a fitness trainer. That said, earning a bachelor’s degree can improve the likelihood that you’ll be able to advance into management positions later in your career. Some personal trainers earn master’s degrees to advance their prospects even further.

Earning both a certification and an associate degree provides you with training sufficient start your career as a fitness trainer.

“Continuing one’s education like earning a bachelor’s or higher can help set a personal trainer apart from their peers,” De Leon said. You should base this choice on how much time and how much money you want to spend on getting your education.

Licenses, certifications, and registrations

Once you complete a program, whether it’s at the certificate or degree level, you’ll still need to become certified. To earn your certification, you’ll need to complete a program and pass the exam associated with that program. Exams will test your ability to evaluate the fitness levels of clients, and then develop an appropriate exercise regimen based on that evaluation.

Some certifications may require you to demonstrate your ability to teach a class in person or via video. Exams that have a written portion aim to measure your knowledge of human physiology, and your grasp of proper exercise techniques.

Professional personal trainer certification

There are several well-established organizations that offer personal training certification. They include:

  • American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  • American Fitness Training of Athletics (AFTA)
  • American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA)
  • Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA)
  • International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
  • National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)

Since many personal training schools prepare students for a specific certification, you’ll need to research your program choices carefully to be sure you’re preparing yourself for a certification that meets your goals.

Things to keep in mind when choosing a certification program

“Depending on your needs, you might want a less or more robust study program,” De Leon said. “One starts by choosing the study program that best fits their needs: do you want physical textbooks or are you okay with fully digital? Do you enjoy asking questions and having online support or are you okay with studying fully solo?”

According to De Leon, ACE offers free live study webinars where exam candidates can ask questions on the material and practice tests. The study programs are all self-paced with a robust online learning platform packed with demonstrations, quizzes, and learning activities. Some complete the course in as short as three to six months.

Once you have completed the online learning course, you can take your first practice test and register for ACE’s personal trainer exam. This is an example of one type of learning program and its associated certification—research what’s out there so you can determine which programs best suit your goals.

As you evaluate the features and benefits of different personal trainer certification schools, find out if they’re affiliated with any of the aforementioned credentialing agencies. This tells you if your education will prepare you for a specific certification exam. For instance, ACE and NASM recognize Heritage Institute’s personal training program.

Licensure and registration

Degrees and certifications are highly encouraged by employers of personal trainers, and the ​United States Registry of Exercise Professionals® (USREPS®), which is operated by the Coalition of the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREP®), maintains the list of the currently certified professionals.

Official certifications offered by CREP® vetted member organizations and accredited by the NCCA include:

LevelCertificate CodeDescription
FundamentalCPTCertified Personal Trainer
FundamentalNCPTNationally Certified Pilates Teacher
FundamentalGFIGroup Fitness Instructor
AdvancedCMESCertified Medical Exercise Specialist
AdvancedCEP Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist
AdvancedRCEPRegistered Clinical Exercise Physiologist
AdvancedTSAC-FTactical Strength and Conditioning​ Facilitator
AdvancedCSCCertified Strength Coach

Earning a degree in Exercise Science, or in a similar field, can better prepare you for the advanced certifications listed above. Also, earning an NCCA accredited (or ISO 17024-compliant) certificate through a member institution, automatically vets and registers you for the particular and qualifying USREPS® role.

But, you must maintain your credential and be in good standing to ensure ongoing registration. Failing to renew your certification means you’ll be removed from the registry on the day of the expiration.

Courses in personal training programs

Starting on a new career path can be a nerve-wracking experience, but with the right course load, you’ll be well-equipped to begin work as a personal trainer.

What will I learn in my courses?

Because personal trainers can work anywhere from fitness centers to school systems, you’ll learn how to train different populations and clients with unique needs. Meal planning, specific fitness routines, and creating personalized programs are just a few of the specific skills you’ll learn.

While specifics vary by program, course offerings tend to include:

  • Nutrition
  • Exercise Science
  • Health and Wellness
  • Human Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Applied Kinesiology
  • Weight Management
  • Clinical Exercise
  • Physical Fitness Testing and Assessment
  • Developing Physical Training Programs
  • Specialized topics in training clients with asthma, heart disease, arthritis, or other physical conditions
  • Professional and Legal Responsibilities

What specializations are available in personal training?

Personal trainers can specialize in multiple areas and doing so can not only help them expand their base of knowledge but could increase their earning potential and clientele. An often seen and valuable combo is that of a personal trainer and nutritionist.

Other common specializations include:

  • Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC)
  • Certified Sports Nutrition Coach (CSNC)
  • Virtual Coaching Specialization (VCS)
  • Corrective Exercise Specialization (CES)
  • Stretching and Flexibility Coach (SFC)
  • Weight Loss Specialization (WLS)
  • Performance Enhancement Specialization (PES)
  • Group Fitness Instructor (GFI)
  • Behavior Change Specialization (BCS)
  • Senior Fitness Specialization (SFS)
  • Women’s Fitness Specialization (WFS)
  • Youth Exercise Specialization (YES)

You’ll also want to decide whether you want to be an exercise trainer and work with individuals and smaller groups, or become a group fitness instructor and take on larger groups.

“Some personal trainers find an interest in health coaching, so they’ll obtain their health coaching certification. Others enjoy working in groups and earn their group fitness instructor certification. There are also opportunities like getting a specialty certification which focuses on serving special populations,” De Leon said. This can be a great way to set yourself apart from other trainers and enhance your credentials.

Are online personal trainer programs available?

While personal training is a very hands-on profession, it is possible to earn a certificate online. For those interested in getting a certificate rather than a degree, online programs could be an ideal solution to cut down on education costs.

Choose your class format

Students typically access online course materials from a school portal. In some instances, you’ll also receive study materials for a professional certification exam. If you’re a fan of e-books, you’re in luck. Some schools offer their textbooks in this format.

Most online personal training certification programs aren’t 100 percent online. There is typically a hands-on component, and during those sessions, you’ll learn weight-lifting techniques and other skills that require proper form.

It’s imperative to do your research before selecting a program as different schools deliver the in-person training portion of the curriculum differently. You’ll want to compare the types of class formats based on your personal needs.

Personal training school types

Traditional: Earn your degree on campus as a full or part-time student.

Boot Camp: Taught once a week and lasts roughly one week.

Distance Learning: On campus at regular intervals, usually 1–2 times a week.

Self-paced: Receive materials and learn at your own pace.

Externship: Gain work experience in a real-world setting, such as a gym.

Check for accreditation

As you search for the right personal training certification online, seek out accreditation. Without it, there’s no guarantee the curriculum or school will properly prepare you for a successful journey in personal training.

Online personal training certificate programs should be accredited by one or more of the following:

  • National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)

Attending a non-accredited personal trainer school also jeopardizes your eligibility for federal financial aid. Only accredited schools, recognized by the Department of Education, are eligible.

How to study for and pass the exam

There are a number of exams to choose from, ranging in difficulty as well as cost. For example, the National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS) is considered the toughest with a 55 percent pass rate. The International Sports Sciences Association-CPT Certification, on the other hand, has a pass rate of 89.9 percent.

Analyze the weight each exam gives to the tested topics, such as:

  • Client assessment and functional training
  • Program planning and training models
  • Human anatomy
  • Exercise science and techniques
  • General safety and emergency procedures

Frequently asked questions

How long does it take to become a personal trainer?

A certificate may be earned in a matter of months, an associate degree in two years, and a bachelor’s degree in four. If you are working toward your certificate, the program you pick will determine how long it takes you to complete.

Some certificate programs take as little as three months to complete, and some can take up to two years. One more thing to keep in mind is that choosing an online program might affect how long your education takes, as online programs are typically self-paced and can be completed more quickly (or slowly).

How to become an online personal trainer?

First, decide what type of clients you prefer to work with: sports nutrition and performance, weight loss, general health, etc.. Then, create templated workout programs with journey phases for each type of client.

From there, you can compile a library of demonstration video exercises for clients to reference. You could also curate existing YouTube videos for them. Decide on the right pricing model for you. Whether it’s 1-on-1 training, mixing in-person training sessions, low-cost memberships vs. high-cost memberships, etc.

Gather info and create a virtual handshake in the form of an online training application, using Google Forms or a similar tool. Choose a payment processing service such as PayPal or Venmo. Lastly, market your services to attract leads!

How to get clients as a personal trainer?

Start with your immediate network, and incentivize them with a free trial or group workshops. Utilize social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook Groups, etc.) to showcase knowledge and provide value to prospective clients. Engage in fitness communities, both in-person and online. Showcase any client testimonials.

Pass out business cards, start a newsletter, develop working relationships with chiropractors (who combine chiropractic services with personal training), massage therapists, physical therapists, etc. A great way to generate future business is by doing a great job with existing clients and getting word-of-mouth marketing. Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals!

kendall upton

Written and reported by:
Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

Updated: December 19th, 2021

Araceli De Leon, MS

With professional insight from:

Araceli De Leon, MS, CPT

ACE Business and Career Content Manager; ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, and Group Fitness Instructor; Yoga Alliance 500-hr Registered Yoga Teacher