Do I Need a College Degree to Become a Personal Trainer?

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For many, their path after high school graduation feels very clear. They plan on pursuing a four-year degree because that is what they have been taught is the path to success. After they graduate, they’ll get a job, a job they believe is only possible because they got that college degree. While this story can often be true, there are many circumstances where a four-year degree is not the best choice or the right choice for life. Is the lack of financial aid a big issue in your life? Are you unsure what you want to do so you don’t want to waste the money figuring it out? Do you have life circumstances that demand too much of your time, making college an impossibility? These are just a few of the many reasons a college degree may not be feasible for you. If this is your story, then a career as a certified personal trainer (CPT) is one of many that do not require a college degree but can still lead to great professional joy.

If you are certain you do not want a college degree but would like to be a personal training, you likely still have a lot of questions. How long does it take to become a CPT? How much do CPTs make? Is there any sort of testing or exam I need to pass to be a trainer? What is the best path to success without getting a degree? These are good smart questions and the following information should prove valuable for you. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Personal Training Certifications

Factors for Consideration

Like many industries, there are a variety of certifications a personal trainer can get that help prove them qualified and capable, as well as make them more attractive to hiring personnel. When choosing which certification to pursue, there are a couple of factors to consider. A brief discussion of some important factors follows:

       Accreditation: Most hiring professionals will only want employees from an accredited certification. Look for programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the “gold standard” by most wellness professionals.

       Cost: When considering the costs of programs, make sure you look into study materials costs, exam costs, and the cost of retaking an exam (should you fail).

       Continuing Education Unit (CEU): Many certifications require maintenance via CEUs. This will be additional time and financial investment over the years.

       Pass Rate: This is a basic measure of the total number of test takers divided by the number of persons who pass. This could be an indication of test/certification difficulty.

       Expected Study Time: There is often a time limit between the purchase of study materials and the deadline for taking your exam. For those who need more studying time or believe themselves to be poor test takers, it may be in your best interest to look for extended study time.

       Educational Focus: Interestingly, while most certifications cover similar topics, there are differences in their specific concentrations.

Not unlike pursuing a bachelor’s degree, there are many factors to consider when choosing a personal training certification. The question of “what is the best personal training certification?” does not have a universal response. The situations and circumstances of each person will likely lead them to make some different choices.

Eligibility Requirements

While there can be some additional requirements among certifications, most have these standard prerequisites:

       18 years or older

       High school diploma or GED

       CPR and AED certified (For some certifications, you may get these while you are actively in the program)

 How Long Will it Take to Become CPT Certified?

The length of time to CPT certification will be dependent on the certification you choose, the program you choose, and the study time each individual needs. Generally speaking, certification via a gym program (unaccredited) takes approximately 90 hours, certification via a university degree program takes approximately four years, certification via a vocational college takes approximately 40 weeks, and certification via accredited self-study programs takes approximately six months.

RELATED: How to Become a Personal Trainer: What Degree Should I Get?

Exploring Different Certifications

The following is a discussion of four of the most popular self-study personal training certification options. Each of these options may be accredited by the NCCA.  

National Academy of Sport Medicine (NASM): NASM claims to be the top choice with fitness professionals for more than 30 years, with a focus on exercise technique and training instruction. NASM offers four different options, including a Self-Study program, a Premium Self-Study program, a Guided-Study program and an All-Inclusive program. Costs vary dependent on the program you choose.

The American Counsil on Exercise (ACE): ACE programs claim “simple, affordable and accessible” education, with a focus on behavioral modification to achieve wellness goals. They offer two different options, Basic and Plus, which differ in study materials and study experience. Costs will vary dependent on the program you choose.

Fitness Mentors (FM): FM programs, focused on fitness program design and business success, are the only programs that are offered 100% online. They offer five different program options: a Starter and a Plus program for Self-Study, a Pro and an Elite program for Mentor Study, and an Ultimate study program. Costs range from $399-$1499.  FM’s Starter program claims to be the cheapest option.

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA): The NSCA CPT certification focuses on techniques of exercise. They do not offer different study programs for their certified personal training (CPT) certification; however, they do offer exam preparation materials to help you prepare. If you would like to go through the NSCA and would like to work with specific populations of people, look through these options: CSCS (requires a bachelor’s), NSCA-CPT (certified personal trainer), TSAC-F, and CSPS.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): ACSM-CPTs pride themselves on both practical and scientific knowledge, with a focus on exercise leadership and client education. There are not multiple programs offered, however, ACSM has an adaptive online quiz platform and a certified Facebook group to assist in the studying process.

How Much Does a Personal Trainer Make?

Not surprisingly, the answer to the question of what a CPT makes varies widely. This career has options for a variety of schedules, including freelance work, part-time work, and full-time work. Additionally, incomes are often directly related to where you work and the population you work with.  CPT certification bodies are not required to publish annual income information, however, conservative estimates state that “average” income often falls between $35K-$42K.

There are a variety of things to consider as you continue to move towards your goal of becoming a CPT. While there is no one perfect path for everyone, there are many smart and healthy choices that you can make to ensure success and career fulfillment in the years to come.

Laura Mansfield

Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)| Sacred Heart University

Associate’s Degree of Nursing (ADN) | North Seattle Community College

Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.), Marketing, Sales | University of Washington (Seattle)

October 2019

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