Personal Trainer Courses: 5 Ways to Become a Trainer

I was perusing a personal trainer forum the other day and I saw a thread by a newly-certified trainer who experienced the following situation: he had just completed an online personal trainer course and wanted the forum’s opinion on whether his certification would be recognized by fitness institutions where he sought employment.

He went on to mention how easy it was to get certified using this $69.99 online method and that he was not satisfied with the ease of completion.

I don’t want to mention the name of the certification website, or be the bearer of bad news for the forum member, but his certification is what is called an “unaccredited personal trainer course.” I will get into more of what this means below, but the short of it is that this certification would not be recognized at major fitness institutions and he would likely be denied employment.

As there seems to be a lot of aspiring personal trainers wondering which personal trainer courses are right for them, I decided to cover this topic here, in-depth, to prevent anyone from spending any time or money on a certification that would not help them accomplish their professional goals.

Below, we get into five ways to become a personal trainer, including three accredited ways, and two unaccredited ways. After reading this, you’ll know which option is right for you based on what you want to do with your personal training career.

The five options are:


  1.       Certification via accredited US company
  2.       Vocational college
  3.       University programs with Bachelors or Masters


  1.       Unaccredited online options
  2.       Gym program (internal)
circles@2x 1
cross 1

Personal Trainer Courses: The 5 Options

to Consider for Your Career


Certification via Accredited US Company

Most major personal training certifications go through a vetting process to ensure that an unbiased, third-party organization can assure the public a safe standard. For personal training in particular, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is the certification agency that reviews some of the most prestigious personal training courses.

Aspiring personal trainer organizations must go through a validation process analyzed by experts to ensure they meet a high standard of professionalism, health, welfare, and safety.

Some of the most popular NCCA-certified personal trainer bodies include:

  •         NASM
  •         ACE
  •         NSCA
  •         ACSM
  •         NESTA
  •         NCCPT
  •         NCSF

At the time of this writing, the AFAA is undergoing the credentialing process and will soon be added to this list.

The ISSA is worth mention as well. While not NCCA-certified, ISSA is accredited through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE), but as we note in our Best Personal Trainer Certification post, these are not as highly regarded as the NCCA.

Getting a Personal Trainer Certification through an Accredited US Company

To get a personal training certification through, for example, NASM or ACE, you have to be 18 or older, have a high school diploma or GED, and be CPR certified. From there, you can visit the website of the organizations to complete the certification process.

You’ll need to get some personal trainer study materials, prepare for the exam, and pass, to get the official license.

For a side-by-side, objective, comparison of the major certification bodies and how to go about choosing which one is right for you, check out the aforementioned blog on personal trainer certifications.

Who Accredited US Company Certifications are best for

If your goal as a trainer is to work in nearly any gym, get strong fundamentals on exercise and exercise science, and even move on to a more entrepreneurial career in personal training, this may be a route for you.

Vocational college and universities also offer accredited personal trainer courses, however, these require different financial commitments as well as time commitments. Opting to complete a personal trainer course through self-study is who this route is best for. If you don’t do well studying on your own and need constant feedback or value a school setting, the next two options may be better for you.


Certification via Vocational College

Vocational colleges (also known as vocational schools or trade schools) are brief, career-specific programs that help to quickly prepare you for a career in personal training. These schools partner with accredited certification bodies (ex. NASM) to develop academic programs that are specific to one type of personal trainer certification.

For example, I was a professor at California Healing Arts College (CHAC) for the Personal Fitness Trainervocational program. The objective of this program was to help graduates get into a successful personal training career with NASM certifications. This class offered two programs: one 30 weeks long, 900 clock hours, and 32 credits, and the other 42 weeks long, 900 clock hours, and 32 credits.

These timeframes are fairly standard with vocational schools, as are the opportunity to work in a professional environment while in school (externship).

The courses are in-person as opposed to online, and you can expect an experienced personal trainer as your professor. What is great about vocational colleges is that the entire course is geared towards helping you become a successful personal trainer. Contrast this to going through an accredited certification body or university, where your coursework will be geared strictly towards a certification or will include education outside of personal training, respectively.

The cost of these types of programs generally range from about $15,000 to $20,000 for a 300- to 900-hour course.

Getting a Personal Trainer Certification through a Vocational College

Perhaps the best way to find a vocational college that offers personal trainer courses is through a simple Google search. Then, find the section on Admission Requirements and follow the steps or reach out the college directly for insight.

Who Vocational College Certification is Best for

Compared to the cost of going directly through an accredited US company (generally less than $1,000), vocational colleges can be much more expensive. However, because the entire program is dedicated to helping you perform in all aspects of training, vocational programs tend to create the best trainers.

“because the entire program is dedicated to helping you perform in all aspects of training, vocational programs tend to create the best trainers.”

These programs are best for students who enjoy a school-like setting, the ability to interact with professors and their peers, benefit from hands-on experience, and who might be intimidated by self-study programs. These programs tend to be a lot shorter and less expensive than the final accredited option: going through a university.


Certification via University Programs with Bachelors or Masters

The most expensive and time-consuming route for a personal trainer course is by far going through a University. If you opt for this approach, expect 4+ to get a bachelor’s degree and 6+ years if you want a master’s degree.

As mentioned before, your coursework will not be entirely focused on personal training. For the bachelor’s, the first two years will have semi-focused coursework, then the final two years will have a few personal trainer classes sprinkled in. The degree is not in “personal trainer” per se, but rather something like kinesiology.

For example, Louisiana State University (LSU) offers a BS in Kinesiology, with several different areas of concentration including:

  •         Fitness Studies
  •         Human Movement Science
  •         K-12 Health & PE
  •         Physical Activity and Health

For the Fitness Studies concentration, the focus is to prepare students for careers in “personal training, strength and conditioning, corporate wellness as well as hospital, government and community-based fitness settings.”

Check out the course requirements on this program to see how it mixes general studies (ex. English, math, science, biology) with kinesiology courses and fitness studies concentration courses:

BS in Kinesiology


If you were to continue your studies into the graduate level, your master’s wouldn’t be in personal trainer either. It would be a Masters in Kinesiology, or some other specific science (physical therapy, athletic training, exercise physiology).

Getting a Personal Trainer Certification through a University Program

Should you decide that going through a University is the right career path for you, you’ll have to check out the initial admissions requirements of the university you want to attend and apply to get in. Once in, you’ll have to satisfy the coursework for that particular concentration of study. Go to the website(s) of the universities with personal trainer-like programs, and get in contact with the school to ensure it matches up with your career goals and to get guidance.

Going through the university route is a bit more daunting than the other accredited options on this list, however, a quick call to the admissions office will help you determine if a program is right for you and how to go about getting in.

Who University Programs are Best for

If you are in a rush to get into the personal training industry and want to get to work fast, it should be obvious that four to six years of school is not going to get you there. This is not to say you can’t xenical orlistat price work on your personal trainer certification with an accredited US company while in college, but if you want to focus on your education this method clearly takes the longest.

University programs tend to be best for people who want to experience college, round out their knowledge in other areas, like the idea of having an actual degree to fall back on, or who want to pursue higher education like a master’s degree.

However, a master’s in Kinesiology or other health and fitness science won’t really get you anywhere as a personal trainer in my experience; this is best suited for those who want to be more involved in research-style work or athletic management-style work. If you just want to be a personal trainer, a master’s degree is likely and overextension of your time and money and is unlikely to attract more clients than a trainer with a bachelor’s, a vocational degree, or a certification from an US accredited program.


Certification via Unaccredited

Online Options

computer desk electronics 374074

Compared to the previous three options, the title of this approach, “unaccredited online options,” may seem like a terrible choice. However, like many things, it has its place for certain people. I am not one of those people, but perhaps you are!

We learned above about personal trainer credentialing agencies like the NCCA, an organization that stands to uphold standards of professionalism, health, welfare, and safety. These standards are important to gyms and other types of employers, and should be important to you if you want a job at an established fitness institution.

A personal trainer may not be held in the same regard as an attorney with a law degree and who has passed the bar exam, or an accountant who has a CPA recognition, but the credibility behind these certificates is meaningful. With an unaccredited personal trainer certification, you’d kind of be like a person who takes a nutrition class and claims they are a nutritionist.

“if you were trying to get private clients who didn’t care if you had credentials, this certification would be fine.”

On the other hand, if you were trying to get private clients who didn’t care if you had credentials, this certification would be fine. But, like our friend from the forum who speculated that his online certification was a bit too easy, you’d probably be ill-suited to represent personal training and may be doing a disservice to your clients due to your lack of knowledge.

Getting a Personal Trainer Certification through an Unaccredited Online Option

The obvious way to find one of these unaccredited personal trainer courses is by a Google search for “online personal trainer certificate” or some equivalent. If you stumble across an online personal trainer course and are not sure if it is accredited, you’ll probably know because of the inherent low cost of entry. You should also be able to do some research on the site to see if the program is credentialed or not.

Who Unaccredited Online Certifications are best for

Again, this type of certification might work for you if your clients really don’t care about your credentials or if you don’t want to get a job at a formal fitness intuition like a 24-Hour Fitness, L.A. Fitness, or some other professional industry setting.

If you want to do the minimum to have an essentially worthless certificate, an inexpensive, non-credentialed option might be for you.


Certification via Gym Program

Most corporate gyms have in-house programs to help their trainers utilize skillsets and approaches that are important to the gym. However, while these programs may help you to progress within a specific gym or brand, they will not necessarily transfer to other gyms and will not mean you are accredited.

“these programs may help you to progress within a specific gym or brand, they will not necessarily transfer to other gyms and will not mean you are accredited.”

One of the best examples we’ve found of an internal gym program is the Equinox Fitness Training Institute (EFTI) available at Equinox gyms. Equinox, like other gyms who offer internal personal training programs, teach you specific skills that relate to Equinox, almost like an internship where the student pays.

There are a lot of pros to this type of program, you’ll learn lots of skills and concepts to help you become a good trainer and benefit from a well-thought education format (as is the case with Equinox). The cons, however, are that you’ll have to pay for a non-accredited program (Equinox charges $1,399 for non-members), you don’t get a personal trainer certification, and the certification of completion you get from the gym won’t transfer to other gyms should you seek employment elsewhere. Furthermore, many of these types of programs want you to get an accredited certification after you complete their program anyway.

To learn more about the Equinox experience, and to give you a good idea of what to expect within these gym-specific programs, we reached out to a friend of ours who was a trainer at an Equinox in New York. Jamie Wolff, now an Integrative Health Coach with Walnut Health, shared some insight regarding her experience at Equinox:

On choosing Equinox?

Jamie, like many trainers looking for some specific PT course or path that would provide her real-life experience, was new to the industry. When she heard Equinox had a training program, she went for it.

“It was the only gym I knew of that really invested education in their trainers – which I needed as a newbie. The beautiful space motivated, as opposed to many other gyms, which are dark and less-than-inspiring.”

On skills learned

Most gym programs will help you learn about sciences like anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, strength and cardiovascular training, and design personal training programs for your clients. The gym program also taught Jamie sales skills that are difficult to come by on your own:

“I was blessed with a wonderful manager (which isn’t always the case) who understood my strengths and weaknesses. But I also learned some basic sales “skills” like the need to move slightly beyond your comfort zone – which helped me.”

On getting an accreditation

Jamie already was NASM-certified before she joined Equinox, but mentioned you can also get hired if you haven’t finished an accreditation course. She did say that the gym had a requirement to get an accredited certification within a few months of completing their program, however.

Getting a Personal Trainer Certification through a Gym Program

Programs like the ones offered at Equinox and other corporate gyms don’t actually provide you with accredited personal trainer certs. As mentioned on the Equinox site, “Equinox Academy is a training program, not a certification.”

With these programs, you get a certificate of completion, not an actual license that is recognized at other gyms.

However, as we learned with Jamie, the experience of working with a gym to hone your skills can be rewarding. If you are interested in this path, contact the local corporate gyms you’re interested working at and inquire about their programs. Similarly, you may be able to find information on these programs online.

Who Gym Programs are best for

Gym programs are best for the personal trainer newbie who wants to be brought into an environment where they will be able to interact with other experienced trainers as well as potential clients. The programs will provide a soft introduction to national certifications and help you establish some knowledge of the coursework within national certs such as exercise science, anatomy, program design, and other concepts.

Many aspiring trainers look to these programs as guaranteed pathways to careers with gyms, however that is not the case. Equinox notes this on their website, and mentions their program is designed to help novice trainers but does not guarantee participants with jobs at their gyms.

Think of the gym program as an introduction to personal training under a live setting.

Which Personal Trainer Course is Right

for You?

This is a somewhat subjective question and the answer depends on your career goals, time constraints, financial constraints, preferred method of study, and the type of experience you want to get before coming a trainer.

For the quickest and most cost-effective method to get an accredited certification, a national certification like ACE, NASM, or NSCA is the way to go. If you like the idea of a more structured school-like setting, a vocational college may be best for you. If you plan on going to college and are interested in personal training and other managerial pursuits, the university path may be for you.

For the unaccredited path, the online courses are only an option if you will practice private personal training and your clients don’t care about your education or credentials. The gym program route has lots of benefits for gaining experience, but does not offer an accredited certification. This approach, combined with the national certification, could be used to set the tone for a great career, however.

Feel free to share your comments, questions, or experience with any of the above in the comments below.