How to become a personal trainer

by Sherri McMillan, MS and Ryan Halvorson on Apr 04, 2011

Education, passion and planning are important components of a long-lasting personal training career.

If you love to work out and help others stay in shape, you could have a promising future as a personal fitness trainer (PFT). But don't be blinded by the prospect of earning $60 an hour to exercise: Becoming a successful PFT requires education, personality and diligence.

Personal fitness training is one of the most popular career options among fitness workers, a category where job demand is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which anticipates a growth rate of 29% through 2018. The 2010 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Trends survey bolsters the Labor Department’s data. Of 563 survey respondents, 38% expect the field to grow and 50% expect it to remain stable (Schroeder, 2010).

So it seems the time is now to enter the world of personal training, but is this career choice right for you?

Personal Training for All

What once was a high-end service reserved for those with unlimited financial resources, personal training has become increasingly available to the general public. More and more, consumers recognize the benefits of hiring qualified PFTs to help them reach health and fitness goals. But being a PFT requires far more than a desire to help others and a rudimentary understanding of exercise. “Too many PFTs ‘dabble’ in training because they exercise, can pay a few hundred dollars for a certification and don’t have to wear a suit to work,” says Anthony Carey, MS, owner of Function First in San Diego. “That’s no way to approach a career. You should know the various career paths, what it takes to succeed, what the earning potential is, employer expectations, and on and on.”

PFTs who want to succeed should recognize that being fit doesn’t always translate into helping others become fit. PFTs are teachers by nature and possess adept communication skills. “A PFT has compassion for people,” says Carrie Michele Myers, owner of CarrieMichele Fitness Studios in Barre, Vermont. “She is a good motivator and listener, has love and excitement for how the body works, has a good sense of humor, and is willing to work some odd hours.”

A commitment to ongoing education is also a must, Carey adds.

The scope of personal training and the many opportunities within the career make it difficult to identify a specific job description. However, at the very basic level, a PFT instructs individual clients, monitors and records progress, enrolls new clients and collects fees (Schroeder, 2011). Many fitness facilities require other duties such as floor and front desk time, facility tours, new-member consultations and achieving sales goals. In other cases, advanced PFTs offer services such as movement screen analysis and corrective exercise programs, sports-specific periodization plans for elite athletes and postrehabilitation programs, to name a few.

Know What You Want

You will want to create a career that allows you to do the things you are good at, and that you enjoy doing. A bit of honest soul-searching can help clarify if a career in personal training is right for you. For example, if you have difficulty relating or expressing yourself to others, you might want to look elsewhere. To learn about the other fitness careers available, read “Planning Your Fitness Career Path”. A love of helping people and making a difference in their lives is a preliminary indicator of career success.

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • Do I like working closely with others?
  • Do I often spend time researching and upgrading my knowledge base?
  • Am I a good listener?
  • Do I have experience in customer service?
  • Am I a good leader or role model?
  • Do I practice a healthy lifestyle?
  • Am I able to succinctly and effectively communicate ideas and directions?

Answering “yes” to all—or the majority of—these questions suggests you may be well-equipped to succeed in a personal training career.

Next, write down the top five career qualities that are most important to you. What do you want most from a career? Recognition? Wealth? Stability? Fulfillment? Financial freedom is one of the most common reasons individuals become interested in personal training. After all, the average training rate is $60, which—in theory—can add up to a hefty paycheck. It is important to consider overhead costs, profit splits between facility owners and other necessary investments. Take-home pay is often less meaty. According to the 2010 IDEA Fitness Industry Trends Compensation Report (Schroeder, 2010), the average pay rate is $34 hourly and $39,182 per year. Survey respondents offered an average of 18 sessions per week.

While financial prosperity is possible, a successful PFT must also be ready for a challenge, Carey says. “He must have the fortitude to get through the tough times and know that there are rewards of all kinds to be had if he perseveres.” New PFTs often underestimate the time and effort that goes into being successful.

Get Guidance

To fully understand what the job entails, nothing beats guidance from a seasoned professional. Find successful PFTs in your area and see if any are willing to share insights or advice. Lance Breger, MS, head trainer at Mint Fitness in Washington, D.C., suggests getting a bit of “real life” experience. “Shadow a trainer’s full day—from beginning to end—to see what it’s like,” he says. “Speak with someone who has been training for more than 10 years to see how she has evolved and stayed motivated.” Breger also advises attending local fitness conferences or workshops to gain insider experience and networking opportunities. Most PFTs got into the business for the love of helping others. Many would be happy to spend a bit of time with someone interested in following in their footsteps. But be prepared for some “no’s” from those who may not have time.

Getting Started

Once you’ve decided on a career in personal training, the next step is obtaining a PFT certification. Earning a quality certification shows your seriousness and dedication to the industry. Fitness facility managers and owners will likely not consider you for employment without one. Also, pay rates often hinge on the type and number of certifications held.

There are more than 200 certifying bodies in the United States alone—some are more credible than others. How do you choose the best?

“A certification should be accredited and recognized by the fitness industry as being the crème de la crème,” advises Bill Sonnemaker, MS, CSCS, CEO of Catalyst Fitness in Atlanta and 2007 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. “Look into the history of the certification organization and why they came to be. Many of them are in existence only to make money. How old is the organization and what else [do] they bring to the table such as other certifications?” Research a variety of certification organizations to determine which resonates most with you. A good place to begin your search is the IDEA FitnessConnect website, which links fitness professionals to 110 certification bodies. For more on choosing an appropriate certification, read “ "Certification Update" in the IDEA Library.

Studying for—and Passing—the Exam

The next challenge is to study for and pass the certification exam. All agencies offer their own textbooks and study materials to help you grasp what will be required for passing the test. The certification process requires an upfront investment. Fee schedules vary by agency. For example, textbooks can cost from $50 to several hundred dollars. Certification organizations often offer discounts on bundle packages that include textbooks, study guides, mock exams and more. Many host live workshops that provide an opportunity to ask questions and gain insights from experienced teachers. Sonnemaker recommends taking advantage of as many study opportunities as possible so you pass the test on the first try. Exam costs run anywhere from around $200 and up.

“Be prepared, actually read the book. Take notes and take an exam preparation class,” Sonnemaker suggests. “Read for understanding of the principles rather than the details.”

You Passed. Now What?

Congratulations! The first step toward becoming a successful PFT is complete. While this baseline of knowledge is a great gateway to a career, obtaining a certification is only the beginning. It is common for a new trainer to prepare his resume—carefully highlighting the new certification—and send it off to local fitness facilities. The interviews begin, but the trainer will notice a trend: most managers or owners want someone with experience. According to the IDEA compensation survey, the top criteria hiring managers look for are skills and abilities, certifications and personality (Schroeder, 2011). But how do you gain experience if you can’t get a job? “You are at the base of the mountain in terms of clientele you are ready for,” Carey explains. “The higher you go up the mountain, the greater your skill set has to be. So you have to get your feet wet, but must also know your limitations.”

Become an Intern

A great way to get your foot in the door at a fitness facility is to obtain an internship or find a mentor. “All real professions require some sort of formal internship—medical doctors, physical therapists, electricians, plumbers,” advises Sonnemaker, who regularly offers internships to college and graduate students. This will let you shadow veteran trainers and network to develop strong relationships with those who may be willing to give you your first shot in the industry.

A wide variety of internships are available. Some are paid, many are not. Each internship will be different, and each is highly dependent upon the needs of the fitness facility. In some cases, the intern may have an opportunity to observe while performing basic tasks like filing paperwork or data entry. Others may be more involved. Regardless of the function, a job offer may be presented to the intern based on performance.

Other internships require an upfront financial investment from the trainer. These types of programs tend to last a specific amount of time and are more hands-on. They also tend to require a significant time investment from both the facilitator and the intern. You’ll want to be sure that you have the time and funds available when choosing this type of internship.

For a more in-depth look at internships, read "Forge a Successful Fitness Career With Internships".

Employee or Independent Contractor

Another consideration is whether you prefer to work as an employee or independent contractor. Each has its own set of pros and cons, and your choice will be based on your specific goals.

Employee
Many experts suggest going the employment route at the beginning of a career. The business you work for will most likely handle the marketing, administrative details, systems, payroll taxes and other key business initiatives. This enables you to focus more on developing your skills early in your career. Many fitness facilities may also provide health benefits for employees working a specific number of hours per week. Employees are often required to perform specific tasks, wear a company uniform, work the floor or front desk and more. For new PFTs, required floor or front desk time creates a chance to meet and mingle with facility members. Many see this as a nuisance or time-waster, but the most successful professionals use this time to network and drum up potential business.

Independent Contractor
Independent contractors often have more freedom, which comes at a price. An independent contractor is a business owner who makes his own schedule and essentially “leases” time to train in the gym. He can charge clients whatever he wants, paying the facility either a flat or per-client fee. An independent contractor can make more money than an employee, but he is also responsible for marketing, taxes and other business costs. Depending upon community rules and regulations, an independent contractor will likely have to register his business with the local government. For more information on requirements for independent contractors and business owners, visit www.business.gov. For specifics on tax laws for independent contractors, visit www.irs.gov and search on “independent contractor.”

A contractor is free to train clients how he sees fit and should not be required to wear a specific uniform, since he is not an employee. But it is important to recognize that a contract can be terminated at any time if management feels the contractor is not a good fit for the facility.

Where to Work

The next choice to make is what type of facility is best to get your career started. There will be a variety of gyms, large and small, to choose from. A thorough evaluation of your current skill set and future goals is necessary to determine the appropriate avenue.

Identify Your Needs
“There is no one best option for a new trainer,” Breger says. “Instead, find the best situation for you.” He suggests you consider the following when applying for work:

Does the facility have a strong in-house continuing education platform?
All experts agree that ongoing education is paramount to career success. Each day brings innovations in understanding the human body and techniques for improving its physical capacity. Working in a facility with a strong educational platform can keep you at the cutting edge of research. It will also allow you to gain expertise from a variety of successful professionals for networking purposes.

What is your monthly/yearly compensation objective?
The average yearly compensation for PFTs is roughly $40,000 per year (this will vary depending on where you live). Generally speaking, larger mid-range facilities will not offer great compensation packages. In most cases—as an employee—you will receive a base hourly pay and an additional per-session rate when facilitating client sessions. Base pay often can be as low as minimum wage. Facilities interested in minimizing turnover will provide incentives such as commissions on selling packages and higher per-session rates based on certifications held.

Smaller, private studios tend to pay more or offer a greater session rate split. Some facilities use a 50/50 split, others 60/40. This type of pay is more appealing, but gaining employment at such a facility can be a challenge, especially without adequate in-the-field experience. These are examples of possible compensation packages, but there is no universal standard.

Do you want to be given clients, or build your own client base?
One of the greatest challenges for a new trainer is to obtain a solid client base. After all, the number of clients you work with regularly will directly impact your paycheck.

A benefit of working at a larger facility is that potential clients are right in front of you. Each member you see on the floor can become a client. Often, sales counselors or facility management will act as a liaison between you and the member. In this case, much of the hard work of marketing yourself and selling your services is done for you. Many trainers prefer this method.

Alternately, the PFT will be expected to provide an initial consultation to determine if the pairing is right. The consultation is as individual as the trainer. Ultimately, the PFT will be required to do some sort of “selling” to guide the potential client toward a purchase. Many PFTs have a distaste for sales, but experts agree that it is a necessary component of the personal training business. Developing a modicum of sales skills at the outset of your career will give you significant advantage if you decide to eventually venture out on your own.

Working in a larger facility presents the chance to work with a lot of people of many backgrounds. This helps you understand how to work with a variety of people, and may give you an inclination of which type of person or population you connect with the most.

Other facilities will require that you do all of the work, from marketing yourself to making the sale. This can be especially difficult for a new trainer working in a smaller gym with very little foot traffic. PFTs with exceptional marketing and networking skills can succeed in this type of environment. At the start, it will be likely that the PFT working in this environment will spend a good deal of time outside the gym searching for potential clients.

Would you like a facility with a built-in career path or are you OK with limited room to grow within a company?
“Big-box” gyms tend to have growth potential. Many PFTs find that after several years of working the gym floor, they want to move up the corporate ladder. Most facilities offer management positions such as PFT director, fitness manager, general manager and more. Facilities with multiple locations will likely have corporate positions as well. And, like any other industry, the further up the ladder you go, the more significant your pay will be. According to the IDEA Compensation Survey, fitness/program directors yield an average $50,639 per year, and personal training/PFT directors can expect around $42,364 per year (Schroeder, 2011).

Smaller facilities do not usually have room for growth beyond manager or owner. After years of successful training, many career PFTs will take their experience and open a new facility.

Is it important to work alongside other health professionals such as physical therapists, dietitians, Pilates instructors, etc?
Facilities of all sizes often employ or house a variety of healthcare practitioners. It is helpful to develop a referral network with physical therapists (PT), registered or licensed dietitians, massage therapists and other similar individuals. Creating a relationship with your in-house physical therapists can benefit your bottom line. If the PT trusts you, she will refer patients to you once they’ve completed the physical therapy protocol. Conversely, if you client experiences an injury or other similar issue, you can refer to the PT. Having a large network of professionals to work with will generate more business for you and create a more enhanced, well-rounded client experience.

Choosing a facility is a very individual decision that requires significant evaluation. Take the time to put together a series of career goals and then match them with the facility that presents the best first step toward achieving them. If you are still unclear about your best option, hire a local lifestyle or wellness coach who has an understanding of the fitness industry. A coach will help take the guesswork out of making the right career choice.

“I believe the best option is to go where you can find a good mentor in the area [of expertise] you need the most improvement,” Carey suggests. “Big-box gyms [24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness, for example] might offer mentoring in sales. A private studio may provide more personalized mentoring experience. A high-end facility may offer ongoing continuing education with in-house and outside providers.”

Sonnemaker agrees. “My first recommendation would be to find a personal training facility where the trainer feels he can grow and learn.” Big-box facilities let you work with a wide range of people, which ups the experience factor. This experience may come at a price. “In general, big-box facilities do not pay trainers what a private facility would pay,” he adds. “As a result, these facilities do not get or cannot keep trainers who posses the highest amount of knowledge, skills and abilities. This being said, there are always exceptions to the rule.”

Attracting Clients

Now that you’re hired, it’s time to focus on attracting clients. This can be difficult and awkward at first. Be patient, it takes experience and practice to convince clients your services are necessary. Top tips for building your client base:

  • Offer incredible service. Word-of-mouth marketing is your best friend, Myers says. Staying friendly, professional and always having a good attitude will ingratiate you in the eyes of your client. And happy clients like to share their experiences with friends, family and colleagues.
  • Be Seen. Get in front of as many people as possible, Breger advises. Offer a class on the group exercise schedule; provide expert service on the fitness floor; help with membership tours; hold question-and-answer sessions; write articles or record videos for your facility’s blog or newsletter.
  • Train the staff. Offer a complimentary training session to everyone who interacts with potential clients—from the front desk attendant to the general manager. The staff will be more likely to refer clients to you once they better understand your style and services.
  • Get connected. Creating a profile on IDEA FitnessConnect puts you in front of millions of consumers. In collaboration with 23 verifying certifications and top fitness sites like FitnessMagazine.com and SparkPeople.com, your profile will connect you with potential clients in your area.
  • Offer outside presentations. A great way to become known in your community is to offer guest lectures on health and fitness topics at local events or gatherings. Invite interested attendees to your facility for a complimentary assessment or consultation.
  • Get advice. There is no better way to understand what works and what doesn’t than to ask your fellow successful PFTs. A colleague or co-worker can offer tried-and-true guidance that will save you time and effort.

For more tips on attracting clients, read “Building a Full Schedule” in the October 2007 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

Steps for Continued Success

Much of the first year or so of work as a PFT involves enhancing your skill set and experience levels. Ideally, by this time confidence levels will have improved and you may have developed a better idea of where you want your career to take you. For instance, you learned that you have a significant interest in working with athletes. What steps must you take to become a specialist in this area?

Specialization
Most experts agree that specialization—or finding your niche—comes with experience, but is also a necessity for success. As the saying goes, it is difficult to succeed when you are a Jack-of-all-trades but an expert at none. When you’ve determined which population you are more successful in working with, seek out continuing-education experiences to enhance your knowledge. Many certifying bodies offer niche certifications for all types of groups, from older adults to athletes. You can then market yourself as a specialist in the area that will attract your desired population.

To learn more about the role of ongoing education and specialization in a successful careers, read “Staying in the Fitness Game,”.

Diversification
Another way to remain successful and fulfilled is to diversify your offerings. If you’ve become an expert in working with older adults, you might seek out presenting or authoring opportunities in the area. For instance, submitting a niche-specific lecture application for IDEA World Fitness Convention or other similar event will elevate your status in the industry. It can also help broaden your scope and prevent career burnout.

The most successful fitness professionals have their hands in a variety of pots. Some offer boot-camp classes or small group-training sessions. Others are regular contributors for various local and national publications.

Plan and Succeed
The beauty of the industry is that there are so many options for being successful. A career in personal training can be financially lucrative and emotionally fulfilling. Taking the right steps from the beginning lends greater opportunity toward optimal and long-lasting success.

References

Schroeder, J. 2011. 2010 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Survey. IDEA Fitness Journal, 8 (1), 36 - 48.

Schroeder, J, and Dolan, S. 2010. 2010 IDEA Personal Training Programs & Equipment Trends. IDEA Fitness Journal, 7 (9), 22 - 31.

© 2015 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Authors

Sherri McMillan, MS

Sherri McMillan, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Sherri McMillan, M.Sc. has been inspiring the world to adopt a fitness lifestyle for over 20 years and has received numerous industry awards including 2006 IDEA Fitness Director of the Year, 1998 IDEA...

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is the associate editor for IDEA Health & Fitness Association; a fitness instructor at the Wave House Athletic Club; a Master Instructor for Metabolic Effect and the creator of www.RYAN...

6 Comments

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  • User

    Thanks for the great article. It really answered some questions I had without having to go to so many different places for the information!
    Commented Nov 15, 2011