Before your favorite in-person or virtual personal trainer got to pushing you through an intense round of burpees or helping you meet that PR on your mile, they enrolled in a personal trainer certification program. They didn’t just jump headfirst into coaching—they spent weeks to months learning about the human anatomy, honing in on their instruction skills, and studying for an intense exam, to then pass said exam in order to train you.
Thinking about following in your trainer’s footsteps and helping others reach their fitness goals? It’s no easy feat, but it’s definitely doable. Especially with the advent of online training courses through organizations such as the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), starting your journey to becoming a certified personal trainer (CPT) is more convenient than ever, allowing you to learn at your own pace in the comfort of your own home (or home gym!).
Whether you’re changing careers and want to get certified ASAP or are slowly chipping away to start a side hustle, you’ve got more options and resources than ever. Yes, you can become a personal trainer online—below are the best courses to get certified, plus answers to your most burning questions about what else you need to get coaching.
What qualifications do you need to be a personal trainer?
To become a personal trainer you’ll first need to obtain a personal training certificate. And, in order to earn your personal training certification, you’ll need to pass the exam. Each organization that offers a personal training program has its own exam that participants will have to complete. For example, if you enroll in ISSA’s program, then you’ll complete the ISSA certification exam, and if you opt into the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM-CPT) training course, then the NASM exam is the one you’ll take. You wouldn’t enroll at NASM and then take an ISSA exam.
Prior to enrolling in a program, you’ll need to have a high school diploma or need to have completed your GED to start your journey towards becoming a certified personal trainer. Some programs have other requirements, too; Per the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CPT), for its program, you’ll also need to have a current CPR/AED certification. Be sure to check (and check again) what requirements the class you’re interested in requires before charging it to your credit card.
Post-passing the exam, you’ll want to have some form of sport fitness liability insurance. Once you are certified you can register as an individual in order to ensure that any potential, and qualified, damages that happen to, or in relation to, your business are covered.
The best online certified personal training (CPT) programs
Best for on-demand learning
Photo: Getty Images/Hiraman
Price: $83.25/mo or $799 lump sum up front.
For fans of live online learning, The ISSA-CPT program gives participants the opportunity to learn in real time while being supported with online coursework and exams. All 10 courses are recorded (with real professors) for student convenience, so you’ll never miss out on a lesson. Once you’ve completed the program, ISSA provides graduates with a free professional website and adviser support past the certification process.
Advice from a personal trainer: Blink personal trainer Ronny Garcia, CPT, advises CPT prospects to, “look for a program that is in depth and has a lot of information. That’s what is going to challenge your knowledge and you will learn more.” As for his ISSA-CPT training experience, Garcia says, “I felt confident after completing the course that I had the knowledge to take on clients with different goals.”
Best for those with a degree in exercise science
Photo: Getty Images/Peter Muller
Price: Tiered – Packages start at $110/year.
If you already have a background in exercise science, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) personal training program is perfect for those who want a customizable self-guided experience. The organization’s prep course provides you with everything you need to know ahead of taking your certification exam, including an official Facebook study group where you can communicate with other students and learn from past attendees who have gone through the course. Or, you can skip the prep and just go for the exam (but we recommend taking the course first.)
Advice from a personal trainer: ACSM-CPT and dietitian Jesse Feder went into personal training to help others improve their mood and health. “I get to really work with people on a personal level, get to know them, and watch them improve over time. I get to see how much of an impact exercise has on their life and it is very rewarding,” Feder tells Well+Good. “I highly recommend taking some exercise science courses. This helped me learn practically everything that was in the CPT textbooks.”
Best for multilingual trainers
Photo: Getty Images/Alvarez
Price: Tiered – Packages start at $152 for members and $201 for non-members.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CPT) certification is another widely recognized certified personal training certificate you can earn online. Before you take the exam you can access the association’s online handbook to make sure you have all the materials you need to prepare for and pass the exam. That includes choosing one of the NSCA-CPT study packages (Essential, Essential Plus, or Digital) to help you achieve your dream of becoming a certified personal trainer.
Bonus: The NSCA-CPT exam is also available in English, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. So, if you’d feel more comfortable taking the exam in your native tongue (if it is listed here) then you have that option available to you.
Advice from a personal trainer: Nutritionist Christine VanDoren, CPT, obtained her personal training certification through NSCA when she realized that there were people out there who yearned for a change in their personal health, but weren’t certain how to obtain their goals. “ I wanted to be able to provide guidance and support for these people, so they could start feeling happier and healthier,” the Strong Home Gym fitness expert tells Well+Good. “For anyone wanting to become a CPT, I would recommend they consider the game plan they want to pursue after they get certified. Taking the test is the easy part compared to building a clientele.”
Best for fast learners
Photo: Getty Images/Kathrin Zigler
Price: Tiered – Packages start at $49/mo
Looking to become a personal trainer in a flash? Then browse the American Council of Exercise’s (ACE) training programs. Per the council’s site, it’s possible to complete ACE-CPT in just 3-6 months. You can choose between self-guided or assisted training programs where you can learn from a textbook as well as videos, interactive learning activities, quizzes, and practice tests. And, if you opt for either the plus or advantage program (instead of the basic level) you’ll get access to live question-and-answer webinars that are led by an ACE study coach so that all of your questions will be answered ahead of your certification exam.
Advice from a personal trainer: ACE-CPT, Tessa Breeden, completed her training program a few years ago and has blossomed into a passionate personal trainer because of it. “The thing I love the most [about becoming a CPT] is being able to educate people and help them feel confident in and out of the gym,” she says. As with any training program Breeden says, one should, “be adaptable, approachable, and willing to learn.”
Best for hands-on experience
Photo: Getty Images/Luis Alvarez
Price: Tiered – Packages start at $59/mo
Another widely recognized personal training certification is the NASM-CPT. The personal training organization offers four types of programs for someone looking to complete their CPT program: self-study, premium self-study, guided study, and an all-inclusive package.
The self-study package offers NASM’s combination of 23 chapters with audio summaries, over 45 learning videos and well above 200 exercise demonstration videos to give students the opportunity to experience a well-rounded training experience from the comfort of their own home. The premium option adds a job guarantee, while the guided study program also offers a hardcopy textbook and unlimited access to NASM fitness experts among other benefits. Looking to get into the gymspace right after graduation? Then mosey over to the all-inclusive package. That’ll give you all of the aforementioned benefits and includes a “Gymternship,” which will give you in-person experience at a gym in your area.
Advice from a personal trainer: Former Equinox trainer and NASM-CPT, Vanessa Liu, offers a wise word for those looking to obtain a CPT certification: “Start to get a sense of the type of client you want to work with because this will help determine which certification program to sign up for,” Liu says. “If you want to work with general population clients who are busy working professionals, then NASM is a good choice. If you want to work with performance clients who have specific athletic goals, then NSCA is a good choice.”
CSCS vs. CPT, what’s the difference?
While you browse through training programs you may see the term CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) pop-up. Is that the same as a CPT? Nope, and here’s why.
According to the NSCA, a CSCS is a professional who trains athletes to improve their performance in a particular sport. “They conduct sport-specific testing sessions, design and implement safe and effective strength training and conditioning programs and provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention,” the NSCA website states. Contrarily, a CPT is a health/fitness professional who uses an individual approach to train their clients. “They design safe and effective exercise programs, provide the guidance to help clients achieve their personal health/fitness goals, and respond appropriately in emergency situations,” per the NSCA. Keep this in mind when shopping for programs.
How long does it take to become a fully qualified certified personal trainer?
How quickly you become a fully qualified certified personal trainer depends on your learning style, your previous knowledge around fitness and anatomy, and the program you enroll in. Some online personal trainer programs—like the one offered by the American Council of Exercise (ACE-CPT)—can take around 3-6 months to complete. Others, like the NSCA-CPT, can take 3-6 weeks to prepare for if you already have an exercise science-related degree.
Once you become certified you’ll need to re-certify every two years to maintain an up-to-date CPT certificate, according to both the ISSA and NASM websites.
Can you make good money as a personal trainer?
As a personal trainer, you’ll get to set your own schedule, and depending on where you offer your services, you’ll get to set your rate. On top of that, the more specialized you are, the more you might be able to charge. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal trainers earned between $40,000-$76,000 in 2021.
So, let’s say you set your rate at $125 an hour and you train clients for 12 hours a week. You’d make $72,000 a year. Reminder: as a certified personal trainer, you’d most likely work as an independent contractor which means you’ll be in charge of financing your own health insurance, paying your taxes, and paying all other expenses, so make sure that you factor all of those costs when you set your rate and coaching hours.