I always try to give people all the insider tips and experience testimonies I can once I navigate something myself, because no one else seems to do that so I know how it feels to go into everything blind! And I’m sure this is a topic that is on the minds of many who spend time on this website.
First of all, let me start off by saying that becoming a personal trainer alone in no way makes you a fitness expert, or even particularly knowledgeable for that matter, just as none of us became science/history/math/language experts by passing the classes we took in high school. It’s safe to say we all know there are plenty of awful personal trainers and the profession is still quite young with a lot of room for improvement!
No disrespect at all to the many prestigious certification associations, including my own (International Sports Sciences Association), but each is regulated by the government of their country of operation, and law unfortunately does not progress at nearly the rate science does. This means that these associations are limited to teaching only what has been approved by the government to be taught to aspiring professionals so that those professionals can lawfully practice once they have earned their certifications, so if the government still falls back on outdated recommendations like “healthy diets must be low in fat,” “margarine is a healthy butter alternative,” “breakfast is crucial and you must eat every three hours to maintain metabolism,” “at least six servings of grains a day,” etc. ad nauseum, that is also what all health professionals, including personal trainers, must be taught in that country.
And from a United States perspective, the government has far from kept up with fitness and nutrition science, for many different reasons, but I digress as that is beyond the scope of this article. My point with this brief rant is that if you value the service you want to provide, you have an absolute responsibility to lay a solid foundation of knowledge and experience for yourself before you assume the role of service to others through a profession in the fitness industry, and no single course you got a passing grade at the end of can give you that, even with the most progressive content.
I spent more than half my life hungrily absorbing all the knowledge I could from credible sources in the industry as well as through my own experience before I ever even Googled personal trainer certification programs. The bulk of a PT certification’s value exists in the training regarding the professional intricacies of serving clients through that particular association, as well as the certification itself of course, which permits you to work in the field and will help build a qualified background to advance in the industry. You should already have a strong grasp on and practice with the fundamental knowledge of the science of fitness and nutrition beforehand so you can objectively take the government-mandated concepts with a grain of salt once you open up your first personal training textbook, and continue to learn and improve afterwards as well.
With all of that being said, and my passionate catharsis achieved, I’d love to offer a little guidance for those who want to take their first step into the industry and be able to call themselves a personal trainer!
Which Organization Should I Use?
First, you’ll need to think about what association you want to become certified through. Think about the ones most familiar to you, ones that are generally respected within the industry. Who do you respect in the industry, who is doing what you want to do? What associations are they members of? If you have a specific job or company in mind, find out what certifications are accepted and preferred.
Compare benefits each association gives its students and members, like learning aids and guided study, regular renewal courses for reasonable fees, higher umbrella-certifications for completing groups of courses, access to professional materials such as client forms and business cards, ongoing support and guidance, etc. ISSA even grants college credit for some of their courses, as well as a full associate’s degree program! It is currently the only association accredited to do so, however keep in mind colleges and universities vary in regards to transferal of credit and what they will accept.
Also explore each association’s course schedule options and flexibility, and know what you can fit into your schedule and how you learn best; some associations are self-paced and entirely online and open-book, whereas others operate more like a college class, with due dates and timed, proctored exams. Some have several options from which you can choose based on preference; for example, ISSA offers courses as college credit, as mentioned, or as standalone certification courses, and those can further be personalized as a regimented course schedule with a specific course term to enroll in, with due dates and proctored exams, or as a self-paced course you may complete on your own time within a number of months and an unmonitored exam – plus other add-ons such as guided study and audio lectures to choose from.
Flexible At-Home Certification Programs
A word on these: those which allow you to complete the entire course from home on your own time place a great deal of trust in your personal integrity – here I reiterate the importance of keeping pride in your professional self. A certification completed privately and on your own time is an invaluable convenience for those of us who have busy schedules and not a lot of geographical opportunity for in-person education, such as myself, a full-time college student living on a very isolated military base; but it also undoubtedly means an easier path to that certification when you have no time limits and can look up all the answers during tests.
As I said before though, if you value your worth as a member of this industry, you will make sure you are quite competent before you ever register for a certification. In the same tune, this should serve as fair warning to anyone considering hiring a trainer: be picky and make sure they are knowledgeable and experienced!
Know Your Budget
Education is expensive, and personal training education is no different. Compare prices and be sure to check bundle-certification savings, discounts for paying upfront, military discounts, and any financial assistance options, either through the association itself or through other routes such as your employer. For example, ISSA has a close relationship with US military members and is an accepted institution for MyCAA funding for military family members.
Also be sure to check price breakdowns; sometimes portions of the course are optional, such as guided study aids, and you can save quite a bit of money by opting out of those. In the end, it comes down to weighing your pros and cons. Maybe one association is considered very prestigious in the industry but is far out of your budget for now and you could get a less-coveted abbreviation by your name for free due to a financial assistance opportunity… seize that opportunity! That’s what I did. I don’t aspire to be a general-public personal trainer, but I was not about to turn down the chance to earn a fully-covered certification that would be easy for me to earn given the knowledge I already had, and which will help me advance in the industry on my way to my higher fitness career aspirations.
You can always add to your qualifications as your journey progresses. Many successful industry professionals are certified by multiple associations – more never hurts.
First Aid Certification
Keep in mind that personal trainer certifications generally also require you to be first aid/CPR/AED certified as a corequisite before you can receive your course certificate. Arrange this early, through a reputable major organization such as the Red Cross, and be sure to check for any discounts available to you for that part as well; discounts will be hard to find and this training are expensive so always contact your local branch directly to inquire!
You will most likely be required to take a course which includes in-person training, but some, such as ISSA, will accept the much cheaper online-only first aid certification (and may even provide such themselves) IF you have proof of hands-on training in a full course previously. And if you are already first aid certified, simply provide your certificate to the association during your course. Remember this will need to be renewed at certain intervals along with your PT certification itself.
Once you reach the end of your course material and are ready for your final exam, expect a BEAST of an exam. You will need to not only answer basic test questions as you probably have been all along, but also prove yourself capable of creating thorough client programs. Be sure to take advantage of any example answers provided beforehand and take extra notice of the association-specific technicalities they are looking for!
If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, a solid foundation of knowledge vastly helps at this junction as well. I felt deeply for anyone traversing the written parts of that exam with no prior knowledge other than that course, to say the least.
Build Experience with Clients
Once you receive your certification it’s a great idea to build some experience with clients safely and slowly before you start really putting people’s health and wallets in your hands! Many trainers establish a client base for themselves by offering services for free and for personal friends at first until they’ve got a few successes under their belts to attest to their competency and know their way around programming and individual variability a bit.
Remember: you can’t take back a bad first impression… start off right and make yourself valuable.