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7 Things to Know Before Becoming a Personal Trainer

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When Idaho resident Katie Hug reached 270 pounds, becoming a certified personal trainer wasn’t on her mind.

She was taking a long list of medications. She felt tired and hungry most of the time. And in between chasing three little kids around, she ate … a lot. It was her way of dealing with anxiety, stress, and depression. Not exactly the hallmark of health and fitness you might expect of a personal trainer.

But then something happened. She went to see her doctor. And what she learned about her health changed everything. “You’re morbidly obese,” her doctor said. “If you don’t start taking steps toward a healthy lifestyle, you’ll die.”

That was Hug’s tipping point.

She got laser-focused on eating healthier. She started exercising 15 minutes a day. Walking, jogging, and running followed, along with losing over 130 pounds. She looked different. She felt different. And she was so motivated by her transformation that she became a Certified Personal Trainer and group fitness instructor. 

Have you thought about becoming a personal trainer?

Maybe you have your own story to tell. Or perhaps you’ve always lived an active, healthy lifestyle—and want to help others achieve their health and fitness goals while earning a living.

Download the Personal Trainer Career Guide

Why Personal Training Is a Different Career

Working as a personal trainer is decidedly different from holding a typical desk job (note: that’s not to say one is better than the other; it’s simply a matter of preferences and career aspirations). For example, unlike your 9-5, personal training allows you to:

  •   Set your own hours: Of course, some personal trainers might choose to work a 9-5 at the gym. But many who choose to run their own business as fitness trainers enjoy the flexibility of training clients in a way that suits their schedules (e.g., only morning or evening hours).
  •   Turn your passion into a fulfilling, lucrative career: According to a 2013 Deloitte survey of 3,000 US workers across job levels and industries, only 20% say they are truly passionate about their work. This is unfortunate; workplace psychology research shows that those passionate about what they do are happier and more productive at work. So, if you’re always dragging your feet to work, becoming a personal trainer could help you live your passion (i.e., inspire others to healthier beginnings) while earning an income. Win-win.
  •   Continue learning: Working in the same, stable 9-5 job for years can make you feel like you’ve plateaued and can go no further. Without dragons to slay or fresh challenges at work, your day-to-day life can start to feel like more of the same that has come before. Enter boredom—an emotion that plagues between 43-53% of the US workforce. Sick of feeling bored? Switching to a personal training career could help. Most personal trainer certifying agencies require personal trainers to recertify every two years by taking health and fitness Continuing Education Courses. As a certified personal trainer, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn something new, upskill, and gain deeper expertise.

Challenges of Becoming and/or Being a Personal Trainer

Sounds pretty good, right?

If you’re already drooling at the potential rewards (both financially and otherwise) of becoming a personal trainer, you may wish to tamper your excitement just a little.

As with any career, you can’t expect day-to-day life to always be sunshine and butterflies—you will still encounter challenges when trying to become and/or work as a personal trainer. Continue reading to find out what they are, specifically, and valuable tips on how you could overcome them.

Financial Considerations

How are you doing financially? Do you currently have access to spare cash you could use for a suitable personal training certification?

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Certified Personal Trainer?

In general, “entry-level” personal training certifications cost anywhere between $200 to $800. AFPA’s Personal Trainer Certification, for example, costs $599.

Here’s some advice: Try not to base your choice of personal training certification solely on price. It’s not the cheaper, the better. On the flip side, the most expensive may not necessarily be suitable for you.

While your budget should always take precedence, factors worth considering when choosing between personal training certifications include:

  • Course outcome: Personal training certifications are not regulated under federal or state laws. So, a universal standard for what a “gold standard education” for aspiring and/or practicing personal trainers doesn’t exist. That said, you could judge a certification’s quality by checking out its free course preview and seeing if it’ll equip you with the expertise, knowledge, and skills you need to coach your ideal clients safely and effectively. Be mindful of what you’d like to help clients with (e.g., weight management, weight loss, or athletic performance)—and the type of equipment you wish to specialize in (e.g., resistance bands or TRX Suspension Training), where applicable, during the process. 
  • Teaching methodology and style: How will the course materials be delivered? Ideally, the delivery format of your certification program should align with your learning preference. For example, if you’re a tactile learner who learns best through self-study and hands-on experience, personal trainer certifications that provide “follow-along” worksheets filled with practice questions are a good idea.  
  • Certification procedures: Must you attend any physical lessons? How will you lock in your exam date, and must you show up for that in person? What’s the passing score? These are just some questions you should ask when considering a certification company’s program.
  • Time availability: What does your schedule look like? Would you be able to carve out regular, fixed times to attend live classes, or would self-study and working through the study materials at your own pace be a better fit? Choose an in-person course if you can do the former, and a remote one if you prefer the latter. 
  • Payment options: Beyond looking at a certification program’s overall cost, you may also wish to check if its certifying agency offers cash-flow-friendly, flexible payment options. Just note that you may be subject to a credit check. In addition, if you hold a military ID or are a family member of someone who does, it may also be worthwhile to check if your selected certification agency offers reimbursements for their programs (e.g., AFPA is a Military Friendly School, and all AFPA certification programs quality for military discounts).

Other Costs and Expenses to Consider

In addition to the cost of the actual personal trainer certification program, there are also other expenses you should account for, including:

  • CPR/AED certifications: CPR stands for “cardiopulmonary resuscitation,” while AED stands for “automated external defibrillator.” Many certifying agencies require proof of a current CPR/AED certification before you can register for their final exam or receive official recognition as a certified personal trainer.
  • Rental fees: If you’re working out of a gym or fitness studio, you’ll likely have to pay a rental fee for the use of the space in either a flat monthly fee or a percentage of your session fee. The same thing may also apply if you work out of cruise ships.
  • Liability insurance: If you plan on starting a new career as a personal trainer, you’ll want to have professional liability insurance, which protects you in case of a lawsuit for negligence or undelivered services.

Expect Income Fluctuations

Like all new personal trainers, your starting client base is likely zero. So, regardless of whether you work at a gym or run your own personal training business, you’ll need to figure out how to attract potential clients. Doing the following may help:

  • Create a personal brand: Maximize your employability by establishing a strong personal brand. Consider doing the following:

o   Build a website: You don’t need a fancy website. Even a single page with your smiling photo, your schedule, a brief bio (of who you are, how you’re different from other personal trainers, and what you bring to the table), and your contact information will suffice. Looking for more guidance? Click here to find out how to build a website you’d be proud of.

o   Explore online marketing: Online marketing, like creating a lead magnet, can help you connect with potential clients. Developing social media profiles on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn, then pushing out helpful, relevant fitness content, could also help you build an audience of potential clients. Find a step-by-step guide to getting started with content marketing here.

  • Be proactive: If you work in a gym, ways to connect with potential clients include offering members a free fitness assessment, volunteering to host a meet-and-greet event, and helping people work out smarter and safer when you’re on the gym floor.

It’s worth remembering that even if you’ve done everything “correctly,” building up a stable base of clients can take time.

That means you should be prepared for income fluctuations. For example, you can have no breathing space between clients one week, then gaps based on client schedules in the next, which means your take-home pay can decrease significantly. 

Here are two things you could do to better cope with the financial ups and downs of becoming a personal trainer:

  • Build up at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses: This “emergency fund” gives you more financial leeway as you try to find a more stable footing in your new fitness career.
  • Consider doing personal training as a part-time job: Working another job as you build up your personal training clientele could be a wise choice. Beyond granting you more financial stability, coaching clients part-time also allows you to gain experience and better judge if this particular career path is truly right for you.

You Need to Take Care of Your Own Taxes

If you’re on someone else’s payroll (e.g., you’re employed by a gym, fitness studio, fitness center, or cruise ship), taxes may already be taken care of. But that changes the moment you work independently. And a word of caution: Filing your taxes can get complicated.

Here’s what you can expect:

  • How you file depends on your business structure: If you incorporated your personal training business as a limited liability company (LLC), you’d file your taxes on Schedule C. On the other hand, if you’re a multi-member or S corporation, you’ll need to file on a partnership and Form 1120 or Form 1120-S, respectively. Your personal training business structure also affects your filing deadline. While the business tax deadline for federal tax returns for sole proprietorships (i.e., single member LLC) is April 15, the deadline is March 15 for partnerships, multi-member LLCs, and S corporations.
  • Keep accurate reports: The first thing you should do when starting your personal training business is create a new bank account to separate your business and personal finances. Then, depending on your preference, you can do your bookkeeping on an Excel spreadsheet or with an accounting software program. Ultimately, what matters most is that whatever you use works for you—and you’re consistently updating it (at least once a month, so you avoid having to do a year’s worth of bookkeeping right before you’re filing your taxes). 
  • Hire a tax professional: Handling tax filing on your own can be stressful. If you’d like to save time; avoid costly DIY errors; and potentially uncover deductions, credits, or other tax strategies that could significantly lower your tax bill, consider hiring a tax professional. According to the National Society of Accountants 2020-2021 Income and Fees Survey, you can expect to pay anywhere between $220 to $903, depending on the complexity of the returns and where you live.

You’ll Have to Do More Than Fitness Training

Yes, you’ll apply everything you’ve learned from your personal trainer certification program, from exercise science to sports performance, to design a safe, effective workout program that’ll help your clients reach their fitness goals. You’ll demonstrate proper exercise execution, count their reps, and correct their form whenever necessary. 

You may also play an active role in injury treatment and prevention. Special note: That said, operating within your scope of practice is paramount—so do refer your clients to a sports medicine professional for any injury diagnoses, then take into account their guidance when modifying your client’s workout program where relevant. 

But here’s the critical bit: As a certified personal trainer, your job scope extends beyond the physical side of things.

For example, you’ll need to have a good grasp of behavior change psychology. This helps you understand how you can better tailor your personal training services to your client’s unique priorities and lifestyle factors so they stay motivated to stay on track to achieve their health and fitness goals.

Your communication skills matter, too. Ideally, you’d want to communicate in a manner that empowers, motivates, and supports your client. If you’d like to learn more about how you could communicate with your clients to improve client relationships and overall success, check out this article, 5 Components of Effective Communication in Health Education and Counseling”.

You Need to Stay Organized

From underlying health conditions to exercise contraindications to injury history, every client is different.

So, as a certified personal trainer, you may struggle to remember key client information—especially as your client base grows and/or if you are a group fitness instructor.

Staying organized is crucial to prevent you from missing out on essential client health information, which could result in serious health consequences for your client and legal complications for your personal training business.

One tip you may find helpful as you transition into your new personal training career is to create a file for every new client you bring on board.

What to Keep Track Of

Ideally, all client files should contain the following information:

  •   Baseline performance: Some clients may appear more breathless than others when working at a set intensity. Others may report that it feels easy, and they are quick to recover. Note what’s normal for them (i.e., baseline) so you can gauge when to increase, maintain, or decrease their workout intensity in subsequent personal training sessions.
  •   Lifestyle habits: Does the client smoke? Do they drink excessively? How about their sleep—are they getting at least seven hours nightly? Since all these lifestyle factors may impact your client’s fitness performance and progression, as a personal trainer, you’ll have to keep track of all this information. 
  •   Current workout program: The last thing you want is for your clients to show up and you have no idea what exercises they should be doing for that particular session. Keeping a copy of their fitness program could help you avoid an awkward (and unprofessional) situation like that.
  •   Progress check-ins: Is your client coping well with their exercise program? Are they making progress toward their health and fitness goals? Keeping an up-to-date log of their progress check-ins allows you to learn all these in a glance.

Make Use of Apps

Note that this doesn’t have to be a physical file (although it could be if you wish).

Instead, you could depend on apps to streamline your client’s “database.” Popular apps amongst fitness professionals in the personal training industry include Practice Better, True Coach, The Training Notebook, and GAIN Trainer.

That said, many operate on a subscription-based business model (i.e., they charge recurring fees). Also, the more clients you have, typically, the more you’ll have to pay.

If you’d prefer something a little friendlier on the bottom line of your personal training business—and don’t see a need for those apps’ fancier features, like in-app messaging—consider the following free organization apps and software (note: some of them may offer paid plans with more storage space, but, in general, the free option will suffice for new personal trainers):

Other Questions About Starting a Personal Training Career

Still have a few questions you need answers to before you commit to a personal training certification and become a personal trainer? Then, you’re in the right place.

How Certified Personal Trainers Get Paid (It Depends on Whether They’re Employees or Business Owners)

First question: How do fitness trainers get paid? Or, rather, how will you get paid once you pass the final exam of your personal training certification and land your first job as a certified personal trainer?

Well, it depends on whether you’re employed or work independently (i.e., you run your own business):

  •   Employed: Gyms, fitness studios, corporations, cruise ships, fitness centers, and health clubs are examples of businesses that employ personal trainers. If you’re an employed personal trainer, you’ll likely receive a base salary with additional commissions based on your training sessions’ sales. 
  •   Run your own personal training business: Unlike employed personal trainers, independent fitness trainers typically own their own business (operating as either a DBA or some type of company structure, like an LLC or S Corporation) and, thus, can keep all the money their clients pay them.

How to Become a Personal Trainer without a College Degree

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a college degree (i.e., a bachelor’s degree) to become a personal trainer.

Well, yes, while there may be one or two certification programs (e.g., the Strength and Conditioning Specialist Certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association) that list a bachelor’s degree from an American college as a prerequisite, most programs out there only require you to hold a high school diploma:

In addition to having to hold a high school diploma, note that most of these programs will also require you to be at least 18 years of age and hold active CPR/AED certifications before you can purchase their exam voucher, sit for their final exam, or become a personal trainer.

Is It Worth It Becoming a Personal Trainer?

So, you meet all the prerequisites (i.e., you’re above 18 years old, hold a high school diploma, and either hold or will get CPR/AED certifications) to enroll in a personal training course. Instead of “Can I become a personal trainer” the question now becomes, “Should I become a personal trainer?”

As difficult as this may be to hear, that’s a question only you can answer. That said, asking yourself the following questions may help bring you clarity and guide your decision:

  • What are you passionate about? Does the thought of training clients, and helping them achieve their health and fitness goals, excite you?
  • What is your vision for your life? Envision your life five to ten years from now. What do you hope to be doing? What kind of impact are you making? Does a personal trainer career align with your vision?
  • What isn’t working for you in your current career? List what isn’t working for you in your current career (e.g., lack of flexibility and micromanagement). This may help you get a better idea of what you wish a personal training career could give you (e.g., more time flexibility and freedom of running your own business)—and you can then use that to gauge if those are realistic.
  • Can you afford the expense of personal training education? As mentioned earlier, certification programs can run anywhere between $200 to $800. In addition, some fitness certifying companies may also impose separate charges for study materials, like practice tests, practice exams, practice questions, and the final exam.
  • What are your barriers to becoming a certified personal trainer? How can you work through them? Will you have time to study, for example? And if you don’t, how can you rearrange your schedule to make space for it?
  • How will this decision impact significant others? Will your partner have to support you financially through the transitionary period? Have an open and honest discussion with your partner, so you both can better prepare for how your new career could affect your future together, especially when shared finances are involved.

Main Takeaways

Pursuing a career as a personal trainer can offer you several advantages over a typical 9-5 desk job.

If you’re passionate about training clients and helping them take charge of their health, it could help you live your passion daily while earning an income. You may also be able to work more flexible hours and continuously gain new skills and expertise throughout your career via Continuing Education Courses or specialized fitness certification programs.

Still, before taking your first step to becoming a personal trainer, you must be prepared for what a career in the fitness industry may entail:

  • Income fluctuations: You may find it challenging to attract and retain a steady base of clients. And even after becoming an experienced trainer, you may also run into client cancellations—impacting your income. You must be financially and emotionally prepared for these scenarios. 
  • Taxes: If you work independently, you’ll have to file your own business taxes, which can get complicated.
  • Excellent soft skills: Beyond designing fitness programs for clients based on everything you learned from your certification program (e.g., exercise science, human anatomy, sports medicine, and sports performance), you’ll also need excellent soft skills, so you’re able to inspire and motivate your clients to achieve long-term success.
  • Organization skills: From schedules to specific client health information, there are many things you need to keep track of as a certified personal trainer.

 Sure that this career is right for you? Good news: Your education level doesn’t have to be a limiting factor. Most certification programs don’t list an advanced degree (i.e., a bachelor’s degree) as a prerequisite. Instead, in general, all you’ll need is to be at least 18 years old, hold active CPR/AED certifications, and have a high school diploma.

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