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.
Sure social media likes it if you’re ripped, 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. When you don’t have any experience and you’re trying to get your first fitness job, a degree in the field will help pave the way. This can also help 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. Several great agencies include ACSM, ACE, NASM, NSCA, etc. 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 education workshops, NOT certifications. They are meant to be educational courses to accompany already certified Personal Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors (see #5 below).  Just because you take a one or two-day workshop and you get a certificate of completion for that format, it does not make you a certified trainer. Please note the difference.

Beware: Studios and rinky-dink gyms will hire people with no credentials or experience because there is no law against it in this country. But, it’s your responsibility to know what the hell you’re doing. If a gym/studio tells you they’ll hire you without one, they’re more interested in saving money than offering quality fitness programs/classes… and you’re getting taken advantage of. They will give you a membership in exchange for teaching or pay you much less than a certified professional. Stay away from these places… And get your certification.

When I ran my own TRX business, I had several people ask to teach for me or want advice on how to become a Master Trainer.  I never took anybody seriously that wasn’t even willing to take the first step.

If you’re not going to get certified because you don’t want to invest in it, then don’t consider this profession. Your whole career will be spent learning and investing in learning more, so make sure you’re willing and ready to do this. This is step ONE. Don’t skip it.


Step 2. Get Insured.

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If you’re a full-time personal trainer at one gym, you might be able to get employee status, but if you’re only part time, or you’re a group fitness instructor, you will usually only be hired on as an independent contractor. Ask your manager when you’re applying for the job whether or not you’re covered under the liability policy of the gym. If you’re not, you could be held liable in the event of an injured participant/client. (Check out this $750k settlement) and this one for $980k)

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 give you 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 often had 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

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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? You bet. 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. I’ve been around when people in the gym have had ankle sprains, broken bones, passed out, experienced asthma attacks and even I 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 minimizes 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.

Beware: There are lots of cheap, online CPR certs, but not all are recognized by your certifying agency! Make sure the one you choose is recognized by your certifying agency before you pay for it. I suggest the  American Heart Association if you’re in the U.S. They are the most reputable and offer lots of options!

Step 4. Get experience.

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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 sessions/classes 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 (you’ll find your niche later). 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 was comfortable with that). I got to witness a bunch of different training techniques and principles put into practice. I took notes. This gave me more real-life knowledge and the confidence to get rolling.

Have questions? You can always ask experienced professionals for help as well.

Note: 1) If you’re asking for a separate meeting for help from a fitness professional, be ready to pay them for their time. 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 fitness pros and I’m always quick to publicly recognize who taught me!


Step 5: Continuing Education


Now you’re ready to work! Just know you’ll have two years to complete your continuing education credits in order to maintain your certification. (If you let it lapse, you have to re-take the test and re-pay all the fees to be certified.)

You can answer quiz questions from industry journal articles or attend professional workshops, and you get credits based on how much info you learned. You can find lots of articles online, including ones that are already 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. If you don’t, you’ll never progress and be washed out in just a few years. Be the professional that stays on top of their game!

The most efficient way to earn all your CECs in one shot is to attend a fitness conference! Check out IDEA, Perform Better, CanFitPro, ACSM, and others. These conferences are also a great way to network with other fitness pros and get to chat with and learn from some of 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. It ended up launching my career.

Lastly: Be A Beast! 

I’m not writing any of this to sound daunting or dissuade anybody from becoming a fitness professional. You can absolutely become successful and profitable, there’s just a lot more to it than most people think.

Do the work. Know your stuff. 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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