It doesn’t take much to get started as a personal trainer. Most gyms require little more than a baseline personal training certification, an interest in helping people, and a willingness to work long hours for whatever they want to pay you.
But you’ll soon face two challenges:
· How do you get the continuing education credits you need to retain your certification?
· How do you get paid more and move up in the fitness industry?
The answer to both questions is the same: Get more certifications.
“The number of certifications has a huge impact on a trainer’s productively and take-home income,” says Danny King, who’s in charge of education and development for personal trainers at Life Time. “If a trainer has at least three specialty certifications, they’ll be a top earner and have a packed schedule.”
The reason is pretty straightforward, King adds: “The type of fit pro who puts time, money, and effort into their education is also the type who tends to be successful. It really does seem to matter.”
Raphael Konforti, national head of fitness education for Youfit Health Clubs, agrees. “Many big box gyms, like Youfit, require specializations to be promoted and get paid more” for each personal training session.
But with nearly unlimited choices, how do you decide which ones are best for you? We asked personal trainers to weigh in on this Facebook thread, and a consensus quickly emerged.
1. What types of certifications are most valuable for your career?
First things first: Make sure any new certification will count toward CEUs for the one you already have. So if your baseline personal training certification is from the ACSM, for example, check to see if it’s accepted by the ACSM for continuing education.
Certifying bodies will encourage you to take their own courses, as you’d expect. If nothing else, you don’t have to worry about whether they’ll accept them for CEUs. And while one of those may indeed be your best choice, you owe it to yourself to broaden your scope.
Consider which ones will help improve your income or status. For Konforti, those fall into three categories.
It took a few decades, but fitness pros eventually figured out that yelling at people to exercise more or eat better doesn’t really work. Knowing how to help your clients break old habits and establish new ones is a crucial skill.
“It doesn't matter how much technical knowledge you have from other specializations if you can't motivate clients and keep them consistent,” Konforti says. Understanding how clients differ from each other also helps you coach them in a way that makes exercise more enjoyable, he adds. “The happier the client is, the longer they train.”
And the longer they train, the more money you make.
Among the organizations that offer behavior change certifications are:
· ACE Behavior Change Specialist ($249)
· ISSA Transformation Specialist ($799)
· NASM Behavior Change Specialist ($499)
“Group training is a tremendous asset and opportunity for trainers, whether it's small-group or traditional group exercise,” Konforti says. “You learn how to make things fun and quickly adapt to different people, which in my mind is critical to retention.”
Your options include:
· ACE Group Fitness Instructor (from $299 to $449)
· ACSM Certified Group Exercise Instructor ($239 for members, $299 for nonmembers)
· AFAA Group Fitness Instructor ($299 to $374)
· ISSA Specialist in Group Fitness ($799)
Immediately applicable knowledge and skills
A manager at his company once told Konforti that a foam roller generated more than $100,000 in sales. How?
· It quickly removes a client’s discomfort
· If produces an immediate change to the client’s body
“It’s what people want , but it’s hard to deliver in a single session,” Konforti says.
A few certifications in this category that trainers singled out:
· ISSA Corrective Exercise Specialist ($799)
2. What specialty certifications do personal trainers find most useful?
The most useful specialty certifications and continuing education workshops, King says, are those that meet these criteria:
· Limited in scope
· Include hands-on or practical components
· Apply to most of the clients a trainer works with
The certifications most often mentioned in trainers’ responses fit into four categories.
The skill-based and equipment-based categories have surprising crossover. Consider, for example, Josh Henkin’s DVRT (dynamic variable resistance training) Level 1 and 2. “A lot of people think it’s about training with sandbags,” says Joe Dowdell. But what it really does is teach movement principles, “and if you know those, you can apply them to any of the methods.”
These courses go by acronyms that, to an outsider, could just as easily be medical diagnoses or nuclear launch codes: FMS (functional movement screen), DNS (dynamic neuromuscular stabilization), FRC (functional range conditioning). Only USAW (USA Weightlifting) sounds like something that might be related to sports or fitness.
There is a financial benefit to having one or more of the following credentials, says Chris Bathke, owner of Elemental Fitness Lab in Portland, Oregon. But it’s indirect. “Clinicians are more likely to refer if they know continuing education and some sort of screening and sensible programming are happening.”
· DNS Exercise Course (certification takes more than a year, with multiple exams followed by a practical test; there’s an additional fee to be listed on the site as a certified practitioner)
· DVRT Level 1 ($399 for online or in-person course)
· FMS Level 1 ($399 for online course; $549 for two-day in-person course in the U.S.)
· USAW Level 1 ($499 for two-day course; to become certified, you have to complete an online training module and pass an online exam within seven days of finishing the course)
Equipment-based workshops and certifications got some of the strongest endorsements and most scathing criticism. “Most tool-based systems are redundant, low on actual knowledge gained, and so strict with technique they often become rigid and dogmatic,” says Daniel Silver.
Especially if the equipment is inflatable.
“Knowing what I know now, I would tell my younger self to pass on the BOSU ball cert,” says Nathane Jackson. Glenda Watt has similar regrets about a stability-ball certification: “That would qualify as the biggest waste of money.”
The best ones, Konforti says, are fun to take, expand your repertoire of exercise variations, and keep you motivated. That’s in addition to the CEUs, which you have to get anyway. But they rarely add much to your bottom line.
These three were endorsed by trainers for different reasons: RKC and StrongFirst for the quality, depth, and rigor of the program, and TRX for the immediate applicability to clients.
· Russian Kettlebell Certified Instructor ($1,199 for two-day course)
· StrongFirst SFG 1 Kettlebell Instructor ($1,595 for three-day course)
· TRX Qualified Trainer ($221 for one-day course)
The major organizations we listed in this article offer certifications for just about any demographic you might be asked to train: seniors, youth, pre- and postnatal women, special populations.
But no trainers mentioned any of them to me, either on the public Facebook thread or in private messages and emails. These three, however, got solid endorsements.
· EXOS Performance Specialist ($1,130)
· Girls Gone Strong Level 1 ($799)
· NSCA Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator ($300 for NSCA members, $435 for nonmembers)
The three criteria Danny King mentioned at the beginning of this section only kinda-sorta apply to nutrition certifications. They’re not really “limited in scope,” given how much there is to cover. And it’s hard to imagine a “hands-on” component, unless it includes chef training.
Finally, while it certainly “applies to most clients,” that doesn’t mean most clients want or expect it from their trainer.
But being able to offer nutrition along with fitness programs can elevate a trainer’s status and income, especially online. And there’s only one certification that got enthusiastic mentions from multiple trainers:
· Precision Nutrition Level 1 ($799)
If you're interested in more options, here's a good comparison article on nutrition certification programs.
WHAT ABOUT ONLINE TRAINING?
There’s one training credential that doesn’t fit neatly into any of our categories but is nonetheless worth mentioning:
· Online Trainer Academy Level 1 ($799)
Like the others in this article, it’s accepted for CEUs by every major certifying organization. And because it’s our own course, we feel confident saying it’s the only one on this list that teaches you how to make more money while giving your clients the service and results they want.
3. What certifications probably won’t help you very much?
Certifications provide lucrative revenue streams for those who offer them, including the ones with .org in the URL. And where there’s potential profit, there’s temptation. If they can make a lot of money from a personal training certification, and maintaining it requires continuing education, why wouldn’t they offer advanced and specialty credentials to fulfill those requirements?
The power to create both the supply and the demand gives them a pretty sweet business model. But at least you get CEUs out of the deal.
The certifications to view with the most skepticism “are the ones from weekend seminars led by one person,” based on that person’s own training system, says Cody Hill.
At least wait until the system has achieved enough recognition among your peers to give the credential some prestige, even if clients don’t know what it is.
And that brings us to the final category.
4. What certifications will help you outside of personal training?
If you know me, you know I’m a writer and editor, not a personal trainer. But because I write about fitness, the CSCS I earned in 2001 has helped me in multiple ways.
First, it forced me to learn exercise science at a deeper level than I could’ve achieved without having to study the NSCA textbook cover to cover. That was important because, as I used to say back then, it made me bilingual. I could speak with trainers about what they did and why they did it, and then translate what they told me into English.
When it worked, everybody won: Trainers not only got to share their ideas with audiences they couldn’t otherwise have reached, they got to see their names in magazines and books. The readers got the best information and advice in language they could understand. And because I got paid for all that, my family was able to enjoy luxuries like food and shelter.
It’s not unusual these days for fitness writers to have certifications. Pete Williams, for example, got a personal training credential after he was turned down for magazine assignments because he didn’t yet have one.
While Williams got his from the NASM, most of the fitness writers I’ve known and worked with chose the CSCS. There’s a simple reason: It may be the only training credential recognized by people outside the fitness industry.
It also has surprising weight inside the industry. “My CSCS allowed me to negotiate for a higher starting salary at my first physical therapy job,” says Mike Stare, DPT. “It seems to carry more weight in rehab circles, compared to other certs. Those with the CSCS are often given stronger consideration and more compensation.”
That brings us back to where we began:
When you consider specialty certifications and continuing education workshops and seminars, the most important question is, what’s in it for you? Will it make you more valuable to your employer? To your clients? To your peers? To media gatekeepers outside the fitness industry?
The answers will be different for everyone. What matters is that you start with the right questions.