Updated Introduction 4/6/12:
This (below in regular font) is a combination of two previous posts I made a year or two ago regarding getting started as a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach. Every month, if not every week, for nearly a decade, I get questioned by someone about becoming a personal trainer or how they should get certified. I've been a personal trainer for 9 years and it is still a rapidly growing but also rapidly more competitive industry with a lot of burnout and failure. I love being a personal trainer. I've been one shortly after deciding that I wanted to be one at the age of 17 (I did high school presentations on the career path as a junior and got certified before my senior year). For years, all I ever wanted to be was a personal trainer, and the best one in the world at that. My goals have changed a bit recently but I will always be a personal trainer at heart, and a successful one at that who has succeeded in big health clubs, personal training studios, strength and conditioning facilities, and as an independent in-home trainer.
Personal training has been good to me over the years and given me a lot of opportunities for work and to meet a lot of great people. But it is not the easy, stress-free, and glamorous profession that some might think it is. I had to say it, but if you are not one of the best out there you will fail with flying colors. You will get underpaid, unerappreciated, taken advantage of, and probably quit if you don't absolutely make it your life. You have to love it, make it a number one priority, and educate yourself to be the best.
You have to be willing to train clients from $5-15 an hour, or for free, for years like I did. I started at the very bottom, training friends and relatives and students and lunch ladies. You have to be willing to make a very small amount of money in a very unstable profession. You need to be ok with working erratic hours and working 6-7 days a week at least for a few years. Most people do not get or retain millionaire movie star, pro athlete, or CEO clients. You have to want to work for every dollar you get and genuinely want to help every regular person become the best they can be with a higher quality of life.
Sadly, most people that ask me about becoming a trainer will end up failing or quitting after a short period of time, but I answer them anyways. Out of about 100 people that have asked me, about 10 actually end up pursuing it, and out of that 10 about 2-3 end up doing at least half decent and stick with it. Here are my responses to their questions on the type of certification to get, how to get started, and my experiences in the beginning.
*If you don't like helping people more than you like helping yourself,
then don't bother reading on, you've already failed!
I have the NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer certs. The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist cert is the best one in the industry as far as I'm concerned because it is the only one you need a college degree for (any 4 year degree). I've also been ISSA certified fitness trainer and performance nutrition specialist. ISSA's performance nutrition program is pretty comprehensive and I learned a lot so I would recommend it. I also have gotten another dozen certifications from other organizations over the years such as NASM, AFAA, and Apex.
The NSCA certs cost about $300 each, and you also have to pay $100 a year to be a member of the NSCA. The ISSA certs are about $400-500 each but no annual membership fee. The NSCA is more strict about continuing education units as well for maintaining your certs, they expire after 2 years and you need to go to seminars and classes to get your CEUs. Those cost money as well.
Anyways, certifications are nice and you learn a lot but they are not everything. Expanding your knowledge on health and fitness as much as possible and learning how to market yourself are more important and necessary than certs. They are not required everywhere. Being a Performance Nutrition Specialist doesn't really mean that much, it just means you are competent enough to make nutritional "recommendations" to clients. It does not make you a Registered Dietitian by any means.
My advice to a colleague and anyone looking to become a Personal Trainer, based on my personal experiences...
If you are looking to be a college or semi-pro strength and conditioning coach, you obviously need the CSCS. There are tons of colleges in the area, I'm sure you could find a job somewhere if that is what you wanted to focus on. Pay is pretty bad from what I hear as a strength coach, and the hours can be extremely long. You reeaaally have to love what you do and love training athletes.
If you want to be a personal trainer, you technically don't need any certifications! I would say less than half of the trainers out there have an active certification. You are already ahead of the game having a college degree in exercise physiology or health science, i forget what you finished with. Having certifications makes you more marketable and may help you get a job quicker but it isn't a necessity at a lot of gyms and health clubs. I would still recommend getting your CSCS to cover all your bases and make you a stronger candidate.
I started out working at YMCA's when I was 17 and did floor hours, new member orientations, cleaning, free training sessions, and substituted for other trainers that went on vacation. If worst came to worst, you could always get a lot of hours or a full time job at the YMCA. There are plenty of old and lazy people at Y's and you might even be given some clients right off the bat.
Don't get hung up on certifications, send out the applications/resumes, practice training friends/family/neighbors, and get some work experience in for cash, at least part time. Learn as much as you can about fitness and nutrition. Take a tip from the Army and be the best you can be, or you will fail.
Michael J. Schiemer B.S. CPT
Owner of FRUGAL FITNESS Worldwide Wellness & Elite Cheapskate
Author of The Frugal Diet, The Frugal Workout, & The Ultimate Fitness Guides FRUGAL FITNESS TV | Twitter | Facebook | Fitness Books