Now is a better time than ever before to become a personal trainer. The field is gaining momentum and nuance, and trainers are in increasing demand as the general public becomes more aware of the benefits of working with a CPT (Certified Personal Trainer) – and, unfortunately, as obesity rates climb. According to CNN Money, jobs for personal trainers are on the rise, increasing by 24% between 2010-2020. If the idea of spending your days at a gym helping people achieve their fitness goals sounds like your dream job, this could be the perfect career choice for you.

What Education Do Personal Trainers Need? 

Most personal trainers have a 4-year degree in kinesiology or exercise science or have passed an NCCA accredited CPT exam, or both. Personal trainers are also expected to maintain a current CPR/AED certification. The certification offered by NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) is one of the most widely respected and recognizable certifications. This how-to guide focuses on the NASM certification.

Four Steps to Becoming a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT)

1. Assess financial and employment options.

Before you jump into the process of earning your certification, it is important to research personal training careers and make a long-term plan for employment and finances (including funding the expense of the exam itself). Your plan will most likely change over time, but having one at the outset will help you stay motivated and focused.

Personal trainers have a variety of employment options. The two most popular options are 1) working as a self-employed personal trainer out of gyms, people’s homes, public parks, or other spaces, or 2) working as an employee at a gym, often commercial.

Both options have their pros and cons. Self-employed CPTs tend to make more per hour, but net profit diminishes due to higher taxes and lack of employee benefits. When you’re self-employed you will have more freedom to choose your clients, training style, and even wardrobe. But you’ll also most likely carry more of the burden of finding and maintaining a robust client base. If you are independent, ambitious, and have extremely strong people skills, this may be the best option for you.

As a personal trainer employed at a gym, you will be more likely to receive benefits (although they’re not guaranteed). You’ll also wear a uniform, answer to a boss, and possibly be required to maintain a certain percentage of sales. You may also spend time cleaning equipment, attending meetings, and completing other tasks that aren’t directly related to training clients. Many gyms have on-site childcare for members that is also available to employees, so if you have a child, this may be your best option.

Know that it typically takes 1-5 years for personal trainers to build the client base necessary to sustain a reasonable income. If you have dependents, lots of expenses, or both, you may want to consider a secondary income source as you’re beginning your career in order to prevent unnecessary financial stress. Do your research, map out out a budget, and create the support you need to help you stay focused on growing your business.

2. Make a study plan and commit to the process.

The NASM certification costs between $500-$1400, depending on how much study support you need. Take some time to review the different options and honestly assess which one will be most likely to set you on a path to success. If you are self-motivated and already have some fitness-related education, you will likely need little support. If, however, this is all new material to you and you struggle to stay on task outside of a traditional classroom setting, opting for more support at the outset may save you money in the long run, as retaking the test is not cheap.

The NASM program offers many ways to study. In addition to a comprehensive PDF textbook, you’ll have access to online ungraded quizzes and practice tests, educational videos, and a helpful study guide. Pocket Prep offers over 500 questions with detailed answer explanations and references to the NASM textbook for further study.

With all of this at your fingertips, all that’s left for you to do is put in the time. You must schedule and take your NASM exam within 180 days of purchasing a program. Most participants study for 10-12 weeks before taking the exam. Be aware that you will need a completed CPR/AED certification before you take the exam, so get that done as soon as possible in your study process.

Make a daily study plan utilizing the resources you have available and taking into account your personal study style. Follow it for 3-4 weeks, then determine how much more time you believe you’ll need before the exam. Schedule your exam through the online portal, then continue studying! Keep in mind that the test asks a large number of questions related to fitness assessments and muscle imbalances, and this is also the area where many students struggle the most, as it is detailed and complex material. Weight your study time towards areas that you understand the least, with a special focus on these subjects.

3. Practice with yourself and friends/family.

In addition to spending time at your desk, it is so important to spend time at a gym during your study journey, applying what you’re learning to yourself and anyone who will let you “train” them. Nothing cements the concepts you’re learning about in your head more than working through them with an actual body. Try all of the exercises and fitness assessments in the textbook yourself. Take notes based on your actual experience of the movements.

Take another person through the workouts outlined in the book, following the OPT Model structure that NASM uses to organize workouts. If you’re becoming a CPT, chances are you already workout regularly. During your study time, reframe your usual workouts and make them serve double-duty as study time. Take yourself through one of the OPT Model programs from start to finish as well. This will help you understand the underlying principles of the model in a whole new way.

4. Schedule and pass the NASM exam.

Once you’ve completed all of the study modules, practice quizzes, and practice exams, you feel confident in your grasp of the material, and you’ve obtained your CPR/AED certification, it’s time to take the exam! The NASM test is strictly proctored, so pay close attention to the testing rules and only bring along the allowed items. Show up early at your testing site and make sure you’re well rested and that you’ve eaten a healthy meal. Use the full allotted time and review your answers carefully.

Passing the NASM CPT exam is just the beginning. Throughout your journey as a personal trainer, you will learn new things every day from your clients: their needs, their bodies, their goals, their injuries. Make a concerted effort to continuously educate yourself as well. This can include studying with Pocket Prep’s app, attending weekend seminars to earn CECs (Continuing Education Credits – NASM requires 20 hours of CECs every 2 years to maintain your certification), and watching informational YouTube videos on your lunch break. Keep your interest in the field alive and your clients will find your passion and enthusiasm infectious.