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How do I Become a Personal Trainer or Group Exercise Instructor ?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That is a question that several people have recently asked me. What do I have to do to become a personal trainer or group exercise instructor ? Do I have to have a degree ? Where do I start ? What certifications do I need ? Who provides these certifications ?

A person does not have to have a degree in physiology or sports education to be a good personal trainer or group exercise instructor. Yes, it is extremely beneficial. However, there are many folks, like myself, who discovered their love of fitness late in life. You do not have to go back to school to get a degree, but you do have to have certification from an accredited nationally recognized organization.

The first question you have to answer is this. What do you want to do in the fitness industry ? Do you want to teach a class like Body Pump or step aerobics ? Or do you want to work one on one as a personal trainer ? There is a difference between the two and they each have separate certifications. A person who is certified as a personal trainer can not teach a group exercise class if they aren't certified. The same is true for a group exercise instructor. They may be certified to teach a class, but personal training is the same and different.

So, if you find that you want to do both, you will need both certifications i.e. personal training certification as well as group exercise certification. Yes, there will be a lot of overlap as far as what you need to know. In general, becoming a personal trainer requires much more work than the training required to become a group exercise instructor.

Which is more rewarding ? Don't quit your day job. Most of the people who work in fitness aren't doing it for the money. In fact, most of the trainers I know (including myself) all have another job. Fitness does not pay well. It never did. The Jack Lalannes, Jillians and Bob Harpers are few and far between. Most of us are in fitness because it's something we love. We certainly aren't in it for the money ! LOL !!

I always encourage people to do something they really love. So, if fitness is something they enjoy, then I will urge them to become certified. The fitness industry always needs good people to pass the word !!

Back to certifications, once you've decided which program you'd like to do, you need to decide who you'd like to train with. There are many very reputable, fitness organizations out there. If you can make sure you're certified by a nationally recognized group. Yes, some gyms do have their own certifications. However, those certs are only good for working at that gym. They may not be recognized by chain gyms. Most chain gyms will and do accept the certifications from the following organizations.... NASM, ASCM, AFAA, ACE, ISSA, etc... If you google search any of those acronyms, you will find their websites. There are many more reputable fitness organizations out there. You can start with these. Check out there websites and they will tell you what you need to become certified.

One thing I will tell folks is this, certification classes do not come cheap. In general, the cost of the certification for personal trainer can range from $500-$700 dollars for a two to three day course. Once you've studied the materials and then taken the seminar, you'll then have to take the exam. You are not fully certified as a personal trainer or group exercise instructor until you've passed your exam. And yes, some of the exams can be quite difficult.
I spent three months studying for my NASM CPT exam.

Once you've become certified, the work doesn't stop. You'll need to take continuing education classes each year to keep your certification current. Most personal training certs are only good for two years unless you recertify.

So, yes, once you get into fitness, it can be expensive to stay in the industry. As a fitness professional, you will be expected to keep up with all the current fitness and health information. You need to keep all your certifications up to date. You can't let them lapse if you want to continue to work.

Let's talk about group exercise instructors for a moment. Let's say you'd rather teach a class instead of working at a personal trainer. What does a person need to become a group exercise instructor ? First, you need to decide what type of class you'd like to teach. Do you want to teach step aerobics ? Indoor cycling like spinning or maybe kick boxing ?

Before you can specialize in a particular sport, you need the certification for general group exercise instructor first. In short, you can't teach step if you don't know the basics of teaching a class. Where do you start ? Start with a fitness organization like ACE or AFAA. Both are highly respected fitness organizations who run programs that teach instructors. The AFAA group exercise instructor certification is a one day class. Doesn't sound difficult, does it ? i.e. just take a one day class. Well, it's not quite that simple. Yes, it's a one day class, but you have to know all the material prior to taking the class. You'll receive a couple of books and pamphlets you'll need to study before you go to class. The class will be your review as well when you take your practical and written exam.

Group exercise instructors need to take two exams. They have a practical exam that assesses their skill as an instructor. They'll then take a written exam to determine their knowledge of the material. What's in the practical ? You'll be asked to demonstrate what is and isn't a safe move for a person. You'll be asked to demonstrate three different levels of a movement. Example, if a person can't do military style push ups, what would be a good modification for that person ?

Most people don't realize how complex teaching a class can be. You have to remember that you could have many different types of people. When you teach a class, everyone should be able to participate in some way. I've taught people from 20-60+ years old. I always give people different options. Maybe they're injured. Maybe they have bad knees... you as an instructor have to keep all these things in mind when you teach a class.

Okay, so you've got your general group exercise certification. Now what ? Now, you get to specialize. Yes, if you become a group exercise instructor, you'll need two certifications. You'll need your general certification as well as your specialization certification. Where do you get specialized certs ? Depending on where you teach, you could take certification classes with Zumba, Les Mills, AFAA, ACE, Johnny G, etc...

If you want to become a Les Mills certified Turbo Jam instructor, you'll need the general group exercise certification plus the certification from Les Mills. As I mentioned earlier, there are many reputable fitness organizations out there.

Now, you have your certs. Will a gym hire you ? Not necessarily. Yes, you have your certs, but most gyms require an "audition" prior to hiring you. Which makes sense. Why would a gym hire you to teach a class if they don't know how you are in front of a group ? Once you have your certs, you need to start designing your class. You'll learn class design as part of your certification training. I had to audition. I still have to audition if I want a job at another gym. I love working in front of an audience ! LOL !! It's the frustrated vaudevillian in me ! LOL !!!

If you are really interested in becoming an instructor, one thing I'd recommend is that you'll need to train with an experienced instructor. If you'd like to teach kickboxing, keep taking a class with an instructor you admire. Ask that instructor if they'll teach you the basics of class design. Do make sure you have your basic cert before you ask or at least let them know you're training to become an instructor. Most instructors are more than willing to train newbies. I've trained several and I still train people. All you have to do is ask. It's important to have a mentor to help you on your way.

Does that all seem daunting ? Working in fitness does require quite a bit of work. Personally, I think it's worth every single effort you put into it. And before I forget, you absolutely MUST be trained in CPR. Not doing it is not an option. You must always have current CPR training. I take the training every single year. If I don't have current CPR training, my gym can let me go. All gym personal must have CPR and first aid training.

Now, all of the above is just for getting certified. Teaching a class or working with a person one on one are entirely different. Let me ask you this,"Are you a people person ?" Do you work well with others ? Are you patient ? Because I'll be honest with you, that two of the most important things a fitness professional needs to be a good fitness professional is social skills and patience. You could know everything about fitness, but if you aren't a people person, you're not going to last long.

A good fitness professional has to work with many many different people and yes, some will aggravate you. You can never ever lose your temper. Thus the need to be patient. You must always be professional no matter how irksome your client might be.

I've found that the best instructors really do have a good rapport with people. They have good social skills. They are good communicators. They are good teachers. They show empathy. Having empathy is a lot more important than people think. Being an instructor isn't just about kicking people's butts. Yes, some people do need a drill sergeant. Others won't. Keep in mind that fitness is not a one size fits all mentality.

Here's something I've learned, you don't have to be twenty something to be a good personal trainer or group exercise instructor. Good fitness professionals come in all shapes, ages and sizes. No, we do not all look like Jillian !! In fact, I've found that most people are intimated by a professional like Jillian. They won't take a class with that person because they feel they aren't fit enough.

Never be that way. When you teach a class or become a PT, everyone should feel welcome ! Thus the need for good social skills. You don't want to intimate people. You want to encourage them to be the best they can be.

As I was saying about age, it's important that older people realize that they too can be good personal trainers. I've talked with many baby boomers. They've told me quite frankly they'd rather work with an older personal trainer instead of a recent college grad. They don't want to work with a 20 something size 0 PT because they feel that person doesn't understand where they have been. That's why they want to work with someone older. Someone their own age understands their needs.

So, if you're 30, 40 or older... it's never too late to become an instructor ! I'm 46 years old and have been teaching for the last five years. I love it !!

Do what you love. If fitness is something you're really interested in, start doing your homework. Study and read everything. Check out those websites. Best of luck ! You can do it !

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
  • no profile photo AELLIS-ZA
    I am taking my PT soon with ISSA. I plan to follow up immediately with their fitness nutrition and exercise therapy certs. I have another business with my husband I have a realistic idea of what the income outlook will be. I am shooting ultimately for holistic wellness and Life coaching. But first I must learn to be a coach for myself. They say that the best way to learn is to teach. Learning to be a PT will help me become the version of my self that I know exists. I want to be able to help people get well in all areas of life. I am relatively young sill and I have the personality for it. I just wanted to share this because I would never have known there was another way a year ago. I had a lot of limiting ideas. Ive had to learn to expand my imagination. Everything else falls into place. Best of luck to everyone and Thanks for writing a GREAT article!!!
    1526 days ago
  • no profile photo FITNESSGURU65
    Dont forget IFPA. I highly recommend them! Had a great experience with them!
    2167 days ago
  • AGIGS22
    thank you so much for this blog! it was very articulate and helpful!! :)
    2410 days ago
  • JDUBS282
    This is exactly what I needed. You answered all my questions and was a good reality check. While I don't think it has changed my mind about getting my certs it was a more realistic viewpoint than I've found so far on the web. It all sounded so easy and like a field of roses, but you put into a little better perspective of how much hard work it really is. Some stuff for me to really think hard about, but I think it's definitely something I can do if I really want to. Six months ago before SparkPeople I NEVER would have thought that!! Thanks for all the helpful info!!
    2763 days ago
    Thank you so much for having this blog up!!! I have been thinking about becoming a PT for about a year. I am an unemployed teacher and in the last 3 yrs have become a fitness fanatic. But I don't really want to teach classes. I want to be a personal trainer. I'd love to be able to work with children as well...maybe thru a social work program...I am lucky enough to have a husband w/a steady job but any extra income always helps in these tough times. So I am definitely not in it for the money. I just want to help people...make a someone to help themselves. I'd like to NOT work out of a gym only b/c there are a lot of people who can't afford a gym and i'd like to be able to help those not interested in gyms. However, the fear of law suits and the cost of the PT programs is quite daunting. Are there any financial aid options you know of?
    2914 days ago
    thanks for the info! i've ordered my AFAA books and will begin my studies next week when they arrive :o)
    2939 days ago
  • NYPD14161
    thank you for the article!
    2951 days ago
    Do what you love... Important words no matter WHAT your aspirations. It's really obvious that you love what you do. That's why you're so good at it! Hugs, Calen~
    3313 days ago
    I guess it also depends on where you live. The community college near us has a certificate program where you are certified to be one.

    Depending on how good you are and the depend for trainers in your area, stay with your day job for a job. A lot of trainers start privately, perhaps working with brides and grooms who need to get in shape for their wedding day.

    Lots of options for those starting out. Just make sure you are doing what you location wants you to do.

    3314 days ago
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