Starting a Career in Fitness: What You Need To Know

I get emails monthly from people wanting information on how to switch careers to, or begin their career as Fitness Professional. They want to be full-time personal trainers or group fitness instructors, or they want to open a gym. They want to change lives! This is awesome and it makes me happy that so many are inspired to be leading healthy lives and wanting to help others. The only downside is that most people don’t feel it’s necessary to do the work needed to be a GOOD trainer. You gotta earn it! There’s a lot to do before you ever begin working as a personal trainer or group fitness instructor. Go grab a cup of tea and settle in. I’m gonna lay it all out for you here…

Step 1. Get Smarter.
Nobody cares how fit you are or how long you’ve been working out.
Looking the part is good, but there’s more to being a good trainer than having a six-pack.

Step 1a. Get a degree in the field.
If you’ve been working in one field your whole life and suddenly decide to switch a completely different one, you’re probably not likely to go back to school for a whole new degree. I get that. BUT if you’re already in school, go ahead and switch your major to Exercise Science, Kinesiology, Athletic Training, Physical Education; ANYTHING in the fitness field. It’ll help you score a job when you’re first starting out. When you don’t have any experience and you’re trying to get your first job, a degree in the field will help pave the way. Nowadays, you need a certification to get hired at a gym (a gym that will pay you more than $12/hr), but most want to see a degree in the field as well. This will also help to set you apart from other trainers and give you the opportunity to make more money.

Step 1b. Get certified!
There are a lot of great, reputable certifying agencies out there. The top ones: ACSM, ACE, NASM, NSCA, & PTA Global. You can buy your books online right away and schedule your test whenever you feel comfortable with the material. If you have a degree in the field, you may not need as much time to prepare, but if you don’t, give yourself about 3-6 months to study the material. Getting the study guides and practice tests are worth it! It’s good to know what format your test will be in before you take it. This will prep you and calm you before you go take your certification test. The books usually cost between $200 and $400 and the test itself is usually around $200 (unless you fail and have to take it again, which is usually the same price the second time).

Tip: If there’s a specific gym/studio you want to work in, ask the hiring manager first if there’s a specific cert they want you to have, as some prefer one over the other. This will help you pick the right certification, without having to pay and study for more than one!

Heads Up: There are lots of Qualifying Workshops out there for different formats of classes or training types (e.g. TRX, Cycling, Kickboxing, Zumba, Barre, Trigger Point, Rowing, CrossFit, etc. These are just education workshops, NOT certifications. They are meant for education to accompany already certified Personal Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors (see #5 below).  Just because you take a one-day workshop and you get a certificate of completion for that format, does not make you a certified trainer. Please note the difference. (Think of it like somebody who wants to be a chef taking a one day course on chicken recipes. He’ll know a lot about that one type of recipe, but this doesn’t make him a certified chef.)

Beware: A lot of times, certification is the step that a lot of people resist when they want to get started because they don’t feel like doing their homework, investing the money to get certified, or they find a rinky-dink gym that doesn’t require a cert and will hire them right off the street. Here’s what I have to say to that:

It’s your RESPONSIBILITY to know what the hell you’re doing. You HAVE to have a fitness certification to work; if a gym/studio tells you they’ll hire you without one, they’re more interested in saving money (by not paying you as much) than offering quality fitness programs/classes, and you shouldn’t be affiliated with them. Think about it, would you hire a contractor to build your house that wasn’t licensed? Would you like it if your child’s teacher didn’t have a teaching certification? Or if the person doing your taxes wasn’t a certified CPA and cost you thousands of dollars because they didn’t know all the tax laws? If you want to be a trainer or fitness instructor, you are going to be in charge of the movement that your clients/class participants do. You WILL have people with injuries, people with health conditions, pregnant women, elderly people, etc. If you give them exercises that end up hurting them because you didn’t know how to modify something or you don’t know the guidelines for exercising for different populations, that’s your fault. And you can be held liable. If you’re not going to get certified because you don’t want to invest in it, don’t even consider this profession. You won’t last.  And you may seriously hurt somebody. Your whole career will be spent learning and investing in continuing education, so make sure you’re willing and ready to do this. This is step ONE. Don’t skip it.


Step 2. Get Insured.



If you’re a full time personal trainer at one gym, you MIGHT be able to get employee status. If you’re only going to work part time, or if you’re a group fitness instructor, you will usually only be hired on as an independent contractor. Check with your manager as soon as you’re hired to see if you will be hired on as an employee or independent contractor.  This will tell you whether or not you’re covered under the liability policy of the gym. If you’re not, you personally could be held liable in the event of an injured participant/client. To protect yourself and your assets (because as an independent contractor, you are now your own company and entity), you’ll need to grab Liability Insurance. Luckily, we are not doctors so our insurance costs significantly less. Your certification will usually suggest insurance for you and tell you all the details. The good news: a $1,000,000 policy will generally run you a little under $200. Total. For the entire year! This is also something that is totally worth the investment. Can you work without one? Maybe. But you don’t want to risk it. I’ve even been asked to show my insurance coverage documents during the hiring process. Where can you get it? Lots of places. But you can check out IDEA & Fitness Pak to look at plans and rates.


Step 3. Get your CPR, AED, & First Aid Certification



Depending on your certifying agency, you may have to get this one before you take your Personal Trainer/ Group Fitness test. Either way, you NEED it to update your certs every two years, to update your insurance, and to know how the heck to save/help one of your clients if they get injured or are in a life-threatening situation. Is this 4 hour course completely annoying to repeat every two years? Yup. Can it save somebody’s life? Absolutely. I dread every couple years when this cert is up and I have to renew, but I was thanking my lucky stars for it every time I’ve needed it. When you’re in a physically active setting, people get hurt. They sprain ankles, they trip and fall, they pass out when they work too intensely or have low blood sugar, etc. Sh*t just happens. Most of the time, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, so be prepared! I’ve been around when people in the gym have had sprains, broken bones, passed out, asthma attacks and even had a client experience a heart attack. Scary! But knowing exactly what to do helps keep you from freaking out, helps keep the injured person calm, and helps minimize damage from whatever the situation may be. Getting and renewing your CPR/AED/First Aid will run you about $45, but it’s good for 2 or 3 years, and you’d spend the equivalent in one night out with dinner & drinks.

Beware: there are lots of cheap, online CPR certs, but some are not recognized by your certifying agency! Make sure the one you choose is recognized by your certifying agency (the one you take your Personal Trainer or Group Fitness cert with) before you pay for it. I suggest the  American Heart Association . They are the most reputable, they’re widely recognized, and offer lots of options!

Step 4. Get experience.



There are only so many things you can learn from the books. You gotta get in there and get your hands dirty to know what it’s really going to be like when you start working. While you may not be able to train/teach before you’re certified, get to as many classes/sessions as you can in the meantime. Watch the trainers that are doing it right (i.e. successfully) and remember what you learn. When I was getting started I would take every group fitness class I could. I took strength classes, pilates, yoga, step, cycling, boxing, dance classes, meditation classes, classes on stair-stepper! You name it, I took it. I obviously don’t teach all those, but knowing a little about each one made me a very marketable instructor later on. The more diverse you can be in the beginning, the better off you are learning more and eventually finding your niche. Once I was certified, I was able to sub all kinds of classes, which lead to me being first pick to start teaching when a new class opened up where I was hoping to score work.

Before I was certified as a personal trainer, I would ask the trainers at my gym if I could sit in or partner up with their personal training clients (if the client agreed). I got to witness a bunch of different training techniques and principles put into practice. I took notes on different rapports with clients, and was well versed in fitness assessments before I ever applied for my first training position. All of this gave me more real-life knowledge and the confidence to get rolling after I graduated.

Note: 1. If you’re asking for a meeting for help with a trainer/instructor, be ready to pay for the time if they ask you to. Their time is valuable and if they’re talking to you, they’re not working and making money. Please be respectful. 2. You’ll make more enemies than friends/mentors if you straight up copy any other trainer’s or instructor’s program or class design and try to pass it off as your own. Use only bits and pieces that will work in your OWN setting and always give credit to the person you learned it from! I learn from all kinds of trainers and instructors, but I’m always quick to tell who taught me!

Step 5: Continuing Education


Once you’re certified and start working, great! Just know you’ll have two years to complete your continuing education credits. These are the credits you’ll need to renew your certification when it runs out. If you don’t do these, you won’t be able to renew your certification unless you pay for and take your test all over again, which doesn’t sound fun or efficient.   All you have to do is read articles or attend workshops and you get credits based on how much info you learned. You can find lots of articles online, including ones that are already up on your certifying agency’s website. These consist of new research findings, new exercises or protocols, and new programs that you can learn about. It’s critical to stay up-to-date as a trainer. You can be a great trainer now, but if you always do the same things and never learn anything new, you’ll never progress and be washed out in just a few years. If trainers were still acting on things they learned a decade or so ago, they’d be telling you the best way to lose fat is steady-state cardio. It’s not. So be the trainer that stays on top of their game! The best way to earn all your CECs needed for the year is to attend a fitness conference! I love IDEA conferences, and there’s also Perform Better, CanFitPro, Empower, and SCW. These conferences are also a great way to get your CECs, network with other fitness pros, and get to chat with and learn from the best presenters in the industry! The very first fitness conference I attended out of college was IDEA World. I had $8 to my name when I headed there with a couple other friends/colleagues from San Diego. It launched my career. It was this conference where I met these two guys at this little-known company that was just getting it’s feet off the ground, called Fitness Anywhere… which later changed its name to TRX Training. ; )

Lastly: Be A Beast! 

I’m not writing any of this to sound daunting or dissuade anybody from becoming a fitness professional. You can totally make it happen for yourself, there’s just a lot more to it than most people think. Most people come to me asking which weekend course they can take on Saturday that will make them a trainer so they can start working on Monday. Then they want to know how they can be a Master Instructor too. After I explain this process, they either change their minds, or completely ignore me. (Not all of them, just most of them).  If you WANT to make a career in fitness happen, you will! If you don’t want to do the work, you’ll find away around all the steps I listed above, keep trucking for a little while, never really make any money in it, and decide to go back to your old job a few months later, wasting your time.

I’ll say it again:

You can absolutely make a successful and profitable fitness career.

You just have to take the right steps: Do the work, know your stuff, and put your heart into it.

Oh yeah… and Be A Beast! : )

Questions? Ask away:

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  1. brooke lyn says:

    this post could not come at a better time for me!

  2. Ashley says:

    Great post with lots of useful and clear info – thank you! I also love the new site design!

    Do you have any advice or suggestions for people like me who are certified to teach a single group fitness format but are not certified trainers in other areas? Currently, I’m planning to teach only group fitness (if I want to pursue more than that, I’ll definitely be back here to plot my course!). I’m curious as to what would be the best ways to improve my knowledge (like modifications for specific populations or new exercises in my particular class, etc). I try to look online, but am not confident my resources are reliable or comprehensive.

    • Hi Ashley! Thanks for reading this and for your question. When you say you’re only certified to teach a single class format, which format is that? Do you have a Group Fitness Certification from ACE or ACSM?

      • Ashley says:

        Hey, Ami!
        I don’t have a general group fitness certification (so no, nothing from ACE or ACSM). I’m only certified to teach TRX suspension. And it is the only thing I teach, but I want to make sure I’m staying current on new exercises or class formats. Plus I want to make sure I’m as informed as possible about how to modify exercises for certain populations (especially pregnant ladies). I’m terrified to do something wrong or potentially harmful to my students.

        • OK. THIS is what I mean about step 1. Getting your Group Fitness Certification will give you all the information you’re wanting to know about. It covers anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, modifications, special populations, etc. Your TRX course was a “qualification” not a “certification”. They’re different things. TRX courses are educational workshops. It’s meant for those who are already certified to build onto their knowledge. So get your Group Cert first. Then go from there. ACE and ACSM have great ones! : )

  3. cassie says:

    Just what I needed to read! Thanks for this post, and for putting the effort into writing it.

  4. Kelli S says:

    Love this! It’s people like you that keep me motivated to be better than I was yesterday. It’s been really hard for me the last 5 years or so to really develop as a trainer and fitness instructor, and even though I move around the country due to my husband’s job every 3-5ish years, I keep chugging along. I can read books, articles, etc. to no end, but I learn best by doing, and finding quality instructors/trainers who are certified and are current with techniques, research, etc. has been hard to find, let alone give me the time of day. I recently attended SCW Philly Mania for my first ever fitness conference and I learned so much! I was so excited to learn and try new classes and equipment, and I couldn’t wait to apply and dig some more and bring that knowledge to my TRX classes and clients. I know I reach out to you often and I feel guilty that I don’t have anything to offer you, but I am so appreciative and thankful that I got to meet you at my first TRX Suspension Training course in Chicago. You’re blogs and tips/tricks have helped me in more ways than I could ever thank you for. I hope to see you again in the future, maybe at a conference. Keep up the good work Ami!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Kelly. I know exactly how you feel. It took me a year and half in San Diego to finally get my foot in the door teaching at different clubs. It’s a lot of work, but getting yourself out to different conferences, meeting people, and getting into different clubs is the key! Good luck with everything and keep it coming. I’ll always answer questions (it just may take awhile if I’m traveling to respond). : )

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