Career Guides

Career Guide for Personal Trainers

Personal trainers lead, instruct, and motivate individuals and groups in exercise and strength training. They work to help people improve their health and performance. Many of these individuals are self employed and work out of fitness centers and health clubs.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to become a successful personal trainer.

Personal Trainer Summary

  • Many fitness and personal training jobs are part time, but many workers increase their hours by working at several different facilities or at clients’ homes.
  • Most fitness workers need to be certified.
  • Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average.
  • Job prospects are expected to be good.

Working as a Personal Trainer

Fitness workers lead, instruct, and motivate individuals or groups in exercise activities, including cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and stretching. They work in health clubs, country clubs, hospitals, universities, yoga and Pilates studios, resorts, and clients’ homes. Fitness workers also are found in workplaces, where they organize and direct health and fitness programs for employees. Although gyms and health clubs offer a variety of exercise activities, such as weight lifting, yoga, cardiovascular training, and karate, fitness workers typically specialize in only a few areas.

Personal trainers work one-on-one or with two or three clients, either in a gym or in the clients’ homes. They help clients assess their level of physical fitness and set and reach fitness goals. Trainers also demonstrate various exercises and help clients improve their exercise techniques. They may keep records of their clients’ exercise sessions to monitor the clients’ progress toward physical fitness. They also may advise their clients on how to modify their lifestyles outside of the gym to improve their fitness.

Group exercise instructors conduct group exercise sessions that usually include aerobic exercise, stretching, and muscle conditioning. Cardiovascular conditioning classes often are set to music. Instructors select the music and choreograph a corresponding exercise sequence. Two increasingly popular conditioning methods taught in exercise classes are Pilates and yoga. In these classes, instructors demonstrate the different moves and positions of the particular method; they also observe students and correct those who are doing the exercises improperly. Group exercise instructors are responsible for ensuring that their classes are motivating, safe, and challenging, yet not too difficult for the participants.

Fitness directors oversee the fitness-related aspects of a health club or fitness center. They create and oversee programs that meet the needs of the club’s members, including new-member orientations, fitness assessments, and workout incentive programs. They also select fitness equipment; coordinate personal training and group exercise programs; hire, train, and supervise fitness staff; and carry out administrative duties.

Fitness workers in smaller facilities with few employees may perform a variety of functions in addition to their fitness duties, such as tending the front desk, signing up new members, giving tours of the fitness center, writing newsletter articles, creating posters and flyers, and supervising the weight-training and cardiovascular equipment areas. In larger commercial facilities, personal trainers often are required to sell their services to members and to make a specified number of sales. Some fitness workers may combine the duties of group exercise instructors and personal trainers; in smaller facilities, the fitness director may teach classes and do personal training.

Work environment. Most fitness workers spend their time indoors at fitness or recreation centers and health clubs. Fitness directors and supervisors, however, typically spend most of their time in an office. In some fitness centers, workers may split their time among doing office work, engaging in personal training, and teaching classes. Nevertheless, fitness workers at all levels risk suffering injuries during physical activities.

Since most fitness centers are open long hours, fitness workers often work nights and weekends and even occasional holidays. In 2008, about 40 percent of fitness workers were part-time employees. Some may travel from place to place throughout the day, to different gyms or to clients’ homes, to maintain a full work schedule.

Fitness workers generally enjoy a lot of autonomy. Group exercise instructors choreograph or plan their own classes, and personal trainers have the freedom to design and implement their clients’ workout routines.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

For most fitness workers, certification is critical. Personal trainers usually must be certified to begin working with clients or with members of a fitness facility. Group fitness instructors may begin without a certification, but they are often encouraged or required by their employers to become certified.

Education and training. The education and training required depends on the specific type of fitness work: personal training, group fitness, and a specialization such as Pilates or yoga each need different preparation. Personal trainers often start out by taking classes to become certified. Then they may begin by working alongside an experienced trainer before being allowed to train clients alone. Group fitness instructors often get started by participating in exercise classes until they are ready to audition as instructors and, if the audition is successful, begin teaching classes. They also may improve their skills by taking training courses or attending fitness conventions. Most employers require instructors to work toward becoming certified.

Fitness workers usually do not receive much on-the-job training; they are expected to know how to do their jobs when they are hired. Workers may receive some organizational training to learn about the operations of their new employer. Occasionally, they receive specialized training if they are expected to teach or lead a specific method of exercise or focus on a particular age or ability group. Because requirements vary from employer to employer, before pursuing training it may be helpful to contact local fitness centers or other potential employers to find out what background they prefer.

An increasing number of employers are requiring fitness workers to have a bachelor’s degree in a field related to health or fitness, such as exercise science or physical education. Some employers allow workers to substitute a college degree for certification, but most employers who require a bachelor’s degree also require certification.

Training for Pilates and yoga instructors has changed. When interest in these forms of exercise exploded, the demand for teachers grew faster than the ability to train them properly. Inexperienced teachers contributed to student injuries, leading to a push toward more standardized, rigorous requirements for teacher training.

Pilates and yoga teachers now need specialized training in their particular method of exercise. For Pilates, training options range from weekend-long workshops to yearlong programs, but the trend is toward requiring even more training. The Pilates Method Alliance has established training standards that recommend at least 200 hours of training; the group also has standards for training schools and maintains a list of training schools that meet the requirements. However, some Pilates teachers are certified group exercise instructors who attend short Pilates workshops; currently, many fitness centers hire people with minimal Pilates training if the applicants have a fitness certification and group fitness experience.

Training requirements for yoga teachers are similar to those for Pilates teachers. Training programs range from a few days to more than 2 years. Many people get their start by taking yoga; eventually, their teachers may consider them ready to assist or to substitute teach. Some students may begin teaching their own classes when their yoga teachers think that they are ready; the teachers may even provide letters of recommendation. Those who wish to pursue teaching more seriously usually seek formal teacher training.

Currently, there are many training programs throughout the yoga community, as well as programs throughout the fitness industry. The Yoga Alliance has established training standards requiring at least 200 training hours, with a specified number of hours in techniques, teaching methodology, anatomy, physiology, philosophy, and other areas. The Yoga Alliance also registers schools that train students to its standards. Because some schools may meet the standards but not be registered, prospective students should check the requirements and decide whether particular schools meet them.

Certification and other qualifications. The most important characteristic that an employer looks for in a new fitness instructor is the ability to plan and lead a class that is motivating and safe. Group fitness instructors do not necessarily require certification to begin working. However, most organizations encourage their group instructors to become certified over time, and many require it.

In the fitness field, there are many organizations that offer certification. Getting certified by one of the top certification organizations is becoming increasingly important, especially for personal trainers. One way to ensure that a certifying organization is reputable is to make sure that it is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.

Most certifying organizations require candidates to have a high school diploma, be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and pass an exam. All certification exams have a written component, and some also have a practical component. The exams measure knowledge of human physiology, understanding of proper exercise techniques, assessment of client fitness levels, and development of appropriate exercise programs. There is no particular training program required for certification; candidates may prepare however they prefer. Certifying organizations do offer study materials, including books, CD-ROMs, other audio and visual materials, and exam preparation workshops and seminars, but candidates are not required to purchase materials to take exams.

Certification generally is good for 2 years, after which workers must become recertified by attending continuing education classes or conferences, writing articles, or giving presentations. Some organizations offer more advanced certification that requires an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in an exercise-related subject for individuals who are interested in training athletes, working with people who are injured or ill, or advising clients on general health.

Pilates and yoga instructors usually do not need group exercise certification to maintain their employment. It is more important that they have specialized training in their particular method of exercise. However, the Pilates Method Alliance does offer certification. Pilates certification requires 450 hours of documented training or 720 hours of full-time work the previous 12 months.

People planning fitness careers should be outgoing, excellent communicators, good at motivating people, and sensitive to the needs of others. Excellent health and physical fitness are important because of the physical nature of the job. Those who wish to be personal trainers in a large commercial fitness center should have strong sales skills. All personal trainers should have the personality and motivation to attract and retain clients.

Advancement. A bachelor’s degree in exercise science, physical education, kinesiology (the study of the mechanics of human motion, including the role of the muscles), or a related area, along with experience, usually is required to advance to management positions in a health club or fitness center. Some organizations require a master’s degree. As in other occupations, managerial skills also are needed to advance to supervisory or managerial positions. College courses in management, business administration, accounting, and personnel management may be helpful, but many fitness companies have corporate universities in which they train employees for management positions.

Personal trainers may advance to head trainer, with responsibility for hiring and overseeing the personal training staff and for bringing in new personal-training clients. Group fitness instructors may be promoted to group exercise director, a position responsible for hiring instructors and coordinating exercise classes. Later, a worker might become the fitness director of an organization, managing the fitness budget and staff. A worker also might become the general manager, whose main focus is the financial aspects of the organization, particularly setting and achieving sales goals; in a small fitness center, however, the general manager usually is involved with all aspects of running the facility. Some workers go into business for themselves and open their own fitness centers.

Employment as a Personal Trainer

Fitness workers held about 261,100 jobs in 2008. About 61 percent of all personal trainers and group exercise instructors worked in fitness and recreational sports centers, including health clubs. Another 13 percent worked in civic and social organizations. About 9 percent of fitness workers were self-employed; many of these were personal trainers, while others were group fitness instructors working on a contract basis with fitness centers. Many fitness jobs are part time, and many workers hold multiple jobs, teaching or doing personal training at several different fitness centers and at clients’ homes.

Job Outlook

Jobs for fitness workers are expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations. Fitness workers should have good opportunities because of continued job growth in health clubs, fitness facilities, and other settings in which fitness workers are concentrated.

Employment change. Employment of fitness workers is expected to increase 29 percent over the 2008–18 decade, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. These workers are expected to gain jobs because an increasing number of people are spending time and money on fitness and more businesses are recognizing the benefits of health and fitness programs for their employees.

Aging baby boomers, one group that increasingly is becoming concerned with staying healthy and physically fit, will be the main driver of employment growth in fitness workers. An additional factor is the combination of a reduction in the number of physical education programs in schools with parents’ growing concern about childhood obesity. This factor will increase the need for fitness workers to work with children in nonschool settings, such as health clubs. Increasingly, parents also are hiring personal trainers for their children, and the number of weight-training gyms for children is expected to continue to grow. Health club membership among young adults has grown steadily as well, driven by concern with physical fitness and by rising incomes.

As health clubs strive to provide more personalized service to keep their members motivated, they will continue to offer personal training and a wide variety of group exercise classes. Participation in yoga and Pilates is expected to continue to increase, driven partly by the aging population, which demands low-impact forms of exercise and seeks relief from arthritis and other ailments.

Job prospects. Opportunities are expected to be good for fitness workers because demand for these workers is expected to remain strong in health clubs, fitness facilities, and other settings in which fitness workers are concentrated. In addition, many job openings will stem from the need to replace the large numbers of workers who leave these occupations each year. Part-time jobs will be easier to find than full-time jobs. People with degrees in fitness-related subjects will have better opportunities because clients prefer to work with people they perceive as higher quality trainers. Trainers who incorporate new technology and wellness issues as part of their services may be in more demand.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors 39-9031 261,100 337,900 76,800 29
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings as a Personal Trainer

Median annual wages of fitness trainers and aerobics instructors in May 2008 were $29,210. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,610 and $44,420. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $16,120, while the top 10 percent earned $60,760 or more. These figures do not include the earnings of the self-employed. Earnings of successful self-employed personal trainers can be much higher. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of fitness workers in May 2008 were as follows:

General medical and surgical hospitals $32,140
Fitness and recreational sports centers 30,610
Local government 30,200
Civic and social organizations 25,110
Other schools and instruction 24,230

Because many fitness workers work part time, they often do not receive benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans from their employers. They are able to use fitness facilities at no cost, however.