Maybe you can do one hundred burpees without breaking a sweat or run a half marathon before breakfast. If your commitment to fitness extends beyond your own achievements—to encompass helping other people reach their fitness goals—then you may be a prime candidate for a career as a personal trainer.
Personal trainers are in the business of fitness training work. Instead of instructing large group exercise classes, personal fitness trainers typically work with individual clients, although they may also train small groups of clients, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. To be of service to their clients, professional personal trainers need plenty of knowledge of the science of exercise, as well as the skills necessary to guide and instruct clients in small group settings or personal meetings. Naturally, a college degree or another type of formal education can be valuable for aspiring personal trainers.
Which Level of Personal Training Degrees Should You Pursue?
Technically, you don’t necessarily need a college degree to be a personal trainer. Unlike many other careers related to health and healthcare, personal trainer roles generally don’t require a state-issued license that you would need a minimum level of college education to attain.
The majority of personal trainers—57 percent, as of 2021—report a post-secondary certificate as their highest level of education, according to O*NET. This means most personal trainers have some formal education after finishing high school, but that education does not take the form of a full degree program. The next most common level of education for exercise trainers is a high school diploma, which 14 percent of the profession reported having. One in 10 exercise trainers has an associate’s degree. Although they don’t make the top three most common levels of education reported for the field, bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees also exist in majors related to personal training.
Why would you go through the time, hassle and cost of earning a college degree if you don’t need one? Just because personal trainers can get started in this field without a degree doesn’t mean that having a college education isn’t beneficial. Generally, the higher your level of education, the greater your income potential as a personal trainer, according to Salary.com. The BLS reported a significant difference in earning potential among the lowest- and highest-earning fitness trainers and instructors. While the median salary for this occupation was $40,510 as of 2020, the best-paid fitness trainers made more than $76,550 per year, and those with the lowest earnings reported less than $21,640 annually.
There’s no right or wrong answer as to which level of degree you should pursue. You could spend two, four, six or even more years in college preparing to be a personal trainer, or you could skip college altogether and instead work on securing professional certifications from various national organizations. Generally, though, the greater your educational and professional credentials, the broader your career opportunities will be.
The BLS reported that some employers would rather hire personal trainers with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in related areas of study instead of choosing fitness workers with only a high school diploma or a certificate.
Careers With Personal Trainer Degrees
Personal trainers may work in a variety of settings, from gyms to country clubs, schools, resorts, hospitals and private studios. Some personal trainers travel to meet clients in their homes.
Gyms and other types of fitness and recreational sports centers are prime work environments for personal trainers, employing half of fitness trainers and instructors, according to the BLS. A large portion of the occupation, 18 percent, were self-employed as of 2021. Self-employed personal trainers build their own clientele from the ground up. Whatever their work environment, personal trainers should be prepared to develop fitness programs that get results for clients of all ages.
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Although a college degree is optional, professional certification is generally considered an entry-level requirement for a personal trainer. Having certification from at least one or more of the health and fitness organizations in the field is most often a non-negotiable qualification for acquiring a job in exercise training.
Some of the most popular professional organizations that award certification to personal trainers include the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). All personal trainer certifications you pursue are likely to require a written exam, and some certification processes include a practical component, as well. When preparing for a certification exam, review study materials such as books, courses and practice tests, many of which can be accessed through the certifying organization for free or for a charge.
The fitness field is booming. Between 2020 and 2030, the BLS anticipates the fitness trainer and instructor occupation to grow by a much faster than average rate of 39 percent, or 121,700 total jobs. Between the anticipated new jobs and the jobs that will open up as fitness workers retire or change career paths, the BLS expects there to be an average of 69,100 fitness trainer job openings each year during the course of this decade.
Certifying organizations and employers are likely to require continuing education for personal trainers over the course of their careers.
Choosing the Best Degree for Personal Trainers
What major should a personal trainer pursue in college? Many different programs of study may be relevant to this career path, including exercise science, kinesiology, physical education, recreation and fitness and healthcare-related fields of study.
Exercise science is probably the most popular educational path for personal trainers because—as the name suggests—it is the scientific study of the physiology of movement and physical exercise. When you study exercise science, you can expect to take coursework in anatomy and physiology, biomechanics and kinesiology, exercise physiology, fitness assessment, nutrition for fitness, health behavior theory and practice, exercise prescription, exercise for special populations and safety, first aid and injury prevention. Naturally, students tend to take plenty of laboratory courses in scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry and physics.
In addition to readying you to become a personal trainer, this background can prepare you to work as a sport scientist, an exercise physiologist, a clinical exercise specialist or a strength coach. Students of exercise science programs can also pursue careers in corporate wellness, human performance or cardiac rehabilitation.
As the study of movement, kinesiology is integral to the field of personal fitness training. Understanding the principles of physical movement helps you to fully understand the exercises that are used in personal training efforts.
The curriculum of a bachelor’s degree program in kinesiology typically includes kinesiology in public health, motor behavior, the physiology of physical activity, biomechanics of physical activity, psychology of physical activity and sociology of physical activity. Coursework in human movement and development, the historical and philosophical dimensions of physical activity and the connection between exercise, nutrition and behavior is also crucial for students of kinesiology. Students take classes in the science of health-related fitness as well as the research methods used in the field of kinesiology. More specialized courses may include physical activity across the lifespan, physical activity for individuals with disabilities, exercise psychology and adherence and the prevention and care of movement injuries.
People often associate degree programs in physical education with careers as gym teachers in K-12 schools, but the major can also apply to physical training careers. After all, what is a physical trainer if not an educator who teaches and informs their clients about physical fitness and the exercises that will help them achieve it? Majoring in physical education may be ideal if you like the idea of being a personal exercise trainer but you want to keep your employment options open to include gym teacher roles.
A curriculum in physical education will often include studies in anatomy and physiology, the physiology of exercise, and kinesiology. Typically offered through a Department of Education or School of Education, a physical education program will typically emphasize teaching strategy in physical education and exercise science, the teaching of team sports and individual activities, instructional technology and physical education teacher education methods for all grade levels from elementary to high school. A student teaching experience is also typically required for physical education majors.
Recreation and Fitness
For most of a personal trainer’s clients, fitness and exercise is a recreational activity rather than, say, a key part of the client’s profession. Unlike the students in a K-12 school physical education program, personal training clients choose to be instructed in the ways of effective exercise. A degree in recreation and fitness or recreation and sports can help students prepare for a career as a professional personal trainer for recreational fitness pursuits. It may also prepare you for a wide range of other career opportunities, such as sports manager, sports facility manager, resort activities and recreation director, marketing and public relations director for companies in the sports or wellness industries, sports scout and many other roles.
In a degree in sports and recreation, students may begin their studies with an introduction to sport and recreation management class. They will often study subjects such as sports and recreation program development and planning, the sociology of sport, facilities management and ethics and legal issues in sport and recreation.
Sport and recreation management programs tend to emphasize business topics more than a major in exercise science or physical education would. For example, students take classes in sports promotion and marketing, the economics of sport and recreation and sport business practices. Internships are common components of a sport and recreation degree program because they allow students an opportunity to build hands-on skills and begin cultivating a network of professional contacts in the field.
Healthcare and Related Majors
Some personal trainers come to the field from a background that is more closely related to healthcare. Fitness, wellness and the exercise and nutrition needed to achieve them certainly affect health, and understanding health issues can sometimes shed light on specific obstacles that may make it harder for certain clients to lose weight or build muscle.
Realistically, a physician won’t decide to give up the earning potential of a doctor to go into business as a personal trainer. The types of health-related majors you might pursue with the end goal of becoming a personal trainer tend to be programs that would prepare you for direct entry to a career in the healthcare industry, as opposed to getting you ready for medical school.
You might, for example, earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing, sports medicine, athletic training or health sciences, each of which can provide insight from the perspective of someone who works in the healthcare industry. Some students choose one of these majors so that they aren’t limited to a personal trainer career, especially if they plan to do personal training part-time or to start their own personal training business, in which case it may take years to build a client base large enough to support full-time work in this field.
Although the curricula listed above refer primarily to degree programs at the bachelor’s level, the core coursework involved at other levels of study, such as associate’s degrees or master’s degrees, consists of classes in many of the same subject areas.
What to Expect From a Personal Trainer Major
Whichever major you choose, you will likely take similar core classes in the fundamentals of anatomy and physiology, strength and conditioning training, physical education, exercise techniques, biology, nutrition and epidemiology. To ensure that you are prepared for the possibility of injuries and medical emergencies, you should also take first aid certification classes.
The higher the level of your degree, the more extensively you’re able to focus on a particular specialty within personal fitness training. These specialty areas commonly include strength training, weight management, exercise theory and functional movement, which shares some similarities with physical therapy. With a higher level of degree, especially a master’s degree, you’re also more likely to work your way into a management role, such as the athletic director of a college or an administrative position in a hospital’s wellness center.
Keep in mind that, while having a fully fleshed-out vision of your future career plans can be valuable for keeping things on track, you don’t need to decide right now how far you want to take your studies. You might start with an associate’s degree program, get your first job as a personal trainer, and eventually decide to go back to school for your bachelor’s degree.
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