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Forge a Successful Fitness Career with Internships

Obtaining hands-on, real-world experience from a mentored program is a wise investment.

Are you thinking about a career in fitness or looking to advance your position in the health and fitness industry? The outlook for personal trainers, fitness professionals and group fitness instructors is very bright indeed! Now is an excellent time to capitalize on this exciting and popular profession. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the personal fitness training industry is set to grow nearly 30% between now and 2018, making “personal trainer/fitness instructor” one of the top growing occupations in the nation.

Great news for sure, but simply getting certified or maintaining status quo in your current position isn’t going to catapult you to the top. The best way to make the most of your career prospects is to participate in a fitness-related internship program. Whether you are newly certified, a mature worker from another industry looking for a career change, or a fitness veteran wanting a career boost, gaining hands-on experience in a specialty area is a must. The type of valuable, post-certification training supplied by fitness internships will set you apart from others and increase your potential for cultivating a fulfilling and rewarding career.

What is an Internship Program?

Internships provide supervised, practical experience for people wanting to gain practical knowledge or training in a specific area or subject. These programs offer opportunities for qualified or certified professionals to expand their job skills and garner experience working in live occupational settings or with real-world clients.

Internship experiences are particularly beneficial for people who traditionally work one-on-one with clients and who need to learn, observe and practice applied skills. Personal trainers, sports performance coaches, Pilates instructors and corporate fitness practitioners flourish as interns. Professionals who train more than one person at a time, such as group exercise leaders, yoga instructors, small-group trainers and boot camp facilitators, can also glean valuable experience in how to design and operate lucrative group exercise programs.

Personal trainers and fitness instructors who work primarily with clients aren’t the only ones who can benefit from internships, however. Management prospects and those interested in the business aspects of health and fitness can learn smart and profitable strategies to help them become thriving facility operators and owners.

Types of Internship Programs

The specifics of internships can vary widely from program to program. Generally speaking, internships can be categorized as either paid or unpaid. You either pay for the educational opportunity or you do not pay. Unpaid internships are usually intended for current students or recent graduates from a university or certification course. They provide the participants (interns) with the chance to observe an experienced practitioner or teacher as he engages in his daily work activities and demonstrates the practical skills needed to work with clients, or in a business situation. In an unpaid internship, interns are permitted to observe the mentor and participate in follow-up discussions in exchange for maintenance and/or basic office and administrative work.

A paid internship, on the other hand, consists of more stringent responsibilities for both the teacher and the student. The attendee pays a fee in exchange for concentrated, hands-on experience and education in a specific area. Interns who attend a paid program usually acquire in-depth knowledge and guidance from experts who have a proven track record of successfully implementing practices with their own clients or business.

Internships can also vary in availability and duration—from a weekend-long intensive to a more gradual approach that may last 6 months to a year. Additionally, internships may be designed for a single individual or multiple people. Be aware of the types of programs available and cognizant of your personal and professional needs, goals and desires. This will help you choose the best fit.

Choosing the Right One for You

There are a number of ways to determine what kind of internship best suits your educational objectives and needs. Start by looking at each one in turn.

Unpaid Internships

An unpaid internship program may be ideal if you are a recently certified fitness professional. This is particularly true if your newly acquired knowledge consists more of theoretical learning than practical work. Even though you know the material, you may lack confidence in your ability to apply these skills in the field. This is normal for anyone starting out in a new career. An unpaid internship may be a good option because it can help you build confidence. Furthermore, you may not have many clients yet so finances might be tight. An unpaid program might be just what you need to help expand your experience and refine your skills without breaking the bank.

Regardless of when you became certified, unpaid internships can supply you with a nice way to network. It can also help you develop future business contacts and opportunities. For example, if you intern at a sports performance facility and later in your career decide to specialize in training professional golfers, your internship experience may morph into a solid referral source. If you’re a model intern, then you’ll be the person that first comes to mind when the facility needs to refer a client for golf-specific training.

Paid Internships
A paid internship is beneficial for the recently certified as well as for someone who has specialized experience but wants to make a career change. If you have just gone through an entry-level certification and are excited about a particular area of health and fitness, then a paid program can help you focus your education so you can start concentrating early on developing a specialty career. Alternatively, a mature worker or industry veteran who has identified a particular niche that is booming may want to attend a paid internship to gain specialty knowledge in that field.

For example, according to the 2010 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Trends survey, 83% of the facilities surveyed reported that they offer services for people with chronic or temporary injuries. It’s no surprise then that the field of corrective exercise is growing exponentially as more people seek the help of fitness professionals to help them alleviate pain. Therefore, a paid internship program in corrective exercise may be perfect to help fast track you to a successful career.

On the other hand, you might be more interested in the business side of health and fitness and want to gain knowledge in that niche. If you’ve been in the industry for a while and want to move up the corporate ladder, you could invest in a management training internship. Similarly, if you are a yoga instructor at a gym who wants to branch out on your own, you’d be wise to consider attending a program on how to operate a successful yoga studio.

Whatever the case, teachers and mentors of paid internship programs will have a proven track record of successfully implementing specific skills or techniques in a real-world setting. The price you pay to attend an internship with such reputable and experienced professionals is worth its weight in gold. You will fully realize this value when you apply the newly acquired skills in your own business. Another perk of attending a paid internship is that it gives you a chance to ask specific questions regarding DVDs, books and/or articles that the teacher/expert has written or produced or that others have created on the subject matter.

Whether paid or unpaid, know ahead of time how much time you want to invest (or have available to commit). Many people who are currently working prefer intensive, short programs that last a few days or a week. A program of this brief duration enables the intern to receive specific information and techniques she can use immediately. Intensive courses usually require a fee and the number of attendees are typically limited to ensure a quality learning experience. This is a nice bonus because the content can often be tailored to meet individual needs and objectives.

If you prefer to learn over a period of time rather than all at once, or you have adequate time to invest in your professional development, then an internship where you meet with the teacher/mentor for an hour or two per week over the course of several months may be more appealing. The key is to identify your educational requirements, availability and learning style.

How to Choose a Specific Program

Now that you are aware of the general types and duration of internships, you’re ready to find a specific program that is right for you. Start by evaluating your current situation. Assess your present position in the industry and where you hope to be in the next 2-5 years. This self-evaluation will help you develop a strategy and is imperative for choosing a program that will jump start you in the right direction. Here are some suggestions to help you decide whether a program you have in mind meets your needs.

Strengthen Your Foundation
Make a list of current strengths that can help you reach your goals. These could be things such as skills or work experience you already have, tasks you’re good at such as organizing or communicating, types of clients you train or have trained (i.e., corporate executives, kids, Baby Boomers, pregnant woman, athletes, seniors, etc.). When you’re finished, assess your strengths and experience to help you identify a specialty area or aptitudes that set you apart. If you see a distinct pattern, select an internship that will enable you to strengthen and refine these skills. If you’re unsure of your strengths, ask family, friends and/or clients to help identify the areas where you excel.

Embrace Your Shortcomings
If you find it difficult to come up with a list of specific things you do well, try making a list of things you are not so good at doing. For example, if you work in the business side of personal training and are excellent at the administrative aspects but fall short in sales, then it might be a good idea to find an internship that will bolster your sales skills. Similarly, if you are great at motivating clients, but your assessment skills need improving, then an assessment-based program would be a good choice.

Look at the Big Picture
You can also select an internship by identifying the opportunities that exist both in your business and the health and fitness industry as a whole. Many organizations publish annual fitness trend reports and research that can help you identify areas of potential development. For example, IDEA Health and Fitness Association and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) have recently identified personal training programs (both individual and group), boot camp classes, older adult training and youth fitness classes as areas likely to grow. The identification of trends by these organizations can help you make better decisions regarding your career and/or business. (You might also like to know that the number one worldwide fitness trend identified by ACSM for the past 3 years running is “educated and experienced fitness professionals”, so your decision to participate in an internship program is a very smart move!)

Use the trends information to scrutinize your own business to determine if your services are declining or to identify unique characteristics that place you in an advantageous position. For example, if you are a female trainer who has recently had a child or who plans to get pregnant, you could attend an internship in pregnancy training and capitalize on the growing trends of community classes and small-group classes for pre- and postnatal clients.

Look in Your Backyard
Identifying potential problems as your business grows is another way to help you select an internship. One of the most common challenges you may face is direct competition. However, if you thoroughly understand your competitors you can focus your attention on improving your own skill set in the areas where they are lacking. For example, if you’re a group exercise instructor who teaches yoga, indoor cycling and step you may want to take an internship in Pilates if you have identified that your competition does not teach Pilates classes. This strategy can help you gain clients in this growing arena and minimize risk to your business. Also, consider the long-term ramifications if you do not go to the internship and your competition does.

Immediate Application

Use a combination of all the above suggestions to identify a specific internship program that might be right for you. Create a complete outline of where you are currently in your career, where you plan to go, the strengths you possess, skills that need improving, business opportunities and any obstacles to success.

For example, imagine you are a new personal trainer with a few clients who wants to open your own studio within the next 3 years. In the past 18 months, you’ve overcome weight management issues and lost 50 pounds. As a result, you’ve gained specific skills and insight into this area and want to specialize in helping obese people lose weight. You also have a reasonable amount of spare time that can be dedicated to learning.

In looking more closely at your skills, you realize you don’t have much experience in attracting new clients or in the business side of personal training—something you will need to set up your own facility. However, you have identified a huge opportunity to market your services to the hundreds of people you met at the weight-loss program you attended in the previous 18 months. You are aware, though, that there is a growing prevalence of online diet, exercise and weight loss programs that are in direct competition. As a result of gathering this information you can plan to seek out an unpaid internship program with a personal training facility, for up to 4 hours per week, with the aim of honing your business skills.

Go Out and Get it

By now you should understand how advantageous participating in an internship can be. The next step is to go out and get the one you want. Contact the organizer or provider to see if there are any prerequisites for attendance or application, such as specific certifications, level or years of experience or required reading. If there are pre-qualifiers, make sure you can meet the initial requirements. Then ask for an application or registration form.

Keep in mind that if the program you are interested in is an unpaid internship, there may be a lot of competition for the position(s). Therefore, come up with a novel but professional way to approach the teacher or mentor since he or she probably receives many requests and applications each week. Obviously, you will need to detail your objectives, qualifications and experience in a written letter or resume, but it might also be a good idea to contact the teacher/mentor in person—or even make a short video that demonstrates your skills (see sidebar “Questions to Ask a Mentor/Internship Leader” for more information about finding a mentor). Enthusiasm and initiative can go a long way toward convincing a teacher that you are a good candidate.

The most important factor for ensuring success is to obtain experience that meets your needs and seek opportunities that provide hands-on experience you can’t get elsewhere. Practical experience is the missing component in most fitness professionals’ repertoire and is an invaluable element of a satisfying and successful career.

Questions to Ask a Mentor/Internship Leader

When choosing which internship program best suits your needs, keep the following questions in mind for a potential mentor.

1. What kind of information does your program contain and what can I expect to learn from working with you?
Once you have narrowed down your choices, create an outline of your objectives. Do this before approaching possible mentors and/or teachers. If you understand what you want or need it will help you match your learning objectives with the program content. Regardless of how appealing a teacher or mentor may appear to you personally, if the syllabus does not provide the education or experience you need, then it may not behoove you to attend. Do your homework first to ensure that the time, effort and money you spend is worth your while.

2. Will I be eligible for continuing education credits?
As you may already know, reputable fitness professionals are periodically required to obtain continuing education to maintain their certifications. Fortunately, many internships offer continuing education credits. Check with the mentor or teacher to see if their program is approved for CECs by your certifying agency.

3. How much does the program cost?
If the program is a paid one, you will need to know if it fits your budget. Typically speaking, more expensive internships cap attendees at a low number. This may provide a more individualized approach to training that justifies the investment. However, always check first to make sure the program is everything it’s cracked up to be. Ask the mentor if you can speak to others who have attended the program so you can make a fair determination. If a program is perfect, but out of your budget range, ask if you can arrange some type of payment plan.

4. How long does the program last?
Of course, you will need to know the time commitment and whether you have that time available. Some programs have clearly identified start and end dates, but others may not. This is particularly true of unpaid programs. Ask the mentor for specifics regarding the number of days per week, hours per day and the overall duration of the program to see if it will work with your schedule.

5. What does the internship program include?
In addition to actual contact hours, many internship programs (especially paid ones) offer additional tangible products for interns. You may receive study materials, DVDs, books, equipment, business tools, workbooks and/or other goodies for attending an internship program. Don’t forget to ask about these!

The most important question regarding internship programs is one you must ask yourself. What is the potential cost to my career of not doing an internship?


Schroeder, J. and Friesen, K. 2010 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Trends. IDEA Fitness Manager. 2009; 21(4):1- 14.
Thompson, W.R. Worldwide Survey Reveals Fitness Trends For 2010. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 2009;13(6):9-16.
U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (nd). Employment Projections Program. Fastest growing occupations, 2008 and projected 2018. Retrieved April 6, 2010 from http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_103.htm
Bio: Mary Bratcher, MA, is a certified life coach who specializes in small business development. She is also the co-creator of The BioMechanics Method, an educational program that provides fitness professionals with the assessment, corrective exercise and business skills required to work with people in chronic pain. For more information, visit www.thebiomechanicsmethod.com.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Mary Bratcher, MA

Mary Bratcher, MA, is a certified life coach and co-owner of The BioMechanics in San Diego, California. She holds a master's degree in psychology; and for over a decade, has used principles from psychology and life coaching to help people develop better strategies for dealing with life's demands.
CEC provider for: ACE

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