Complete Guide to Online Personal Training Programs

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Quick Facts
Accreditation NCCA and DETC
Available Degrees: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Certificate
Avg Tuition: $16,098
Avg Salary: $31,720
Certification: Available but not required. View CPT for more info.
Job Growth 13%
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Personal training experts can make an incredibly positive difference in the lives of their clients. People who struggle with health or weight issues seek personal trainers to improve their chances of living a quality life, or even to improve their chances of living at all. Those who are working toward personal goals, like completing a triathlon or making their college swim team, often require the expertise of a personal trainer. Whatever their reasons for choosing to hire a personal trainer, clients seek the services of an effective person to help them accomplish what they can't do on their own. By completing a certificate or degree program in personal training, aspiring trainers can provide their clients with this service.

Though earning a Certified Personal Trainer credential is not universally required, many aspiring trainers who want to impress prospective employers do seek out these credentials. There are a number of organizations offering CPT or Certified Personal Trainer examinations, so you'll want to do your research about which programs might be best suited to your experience and career goals. Because there are a number of agencies seeking to credential qualified trainers, you will also want to research the accreditation agencies governing this type of certification to make sure that the institution or test you're taking is well-respected in your field. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) are two agencies worth looking into when considering any program in personal training.

Personal trainers work with individuals and groups of a wide age range and skill level to improve their strength, conditioning, and aerobic activities. Typical responsibilities for personal trainers include showing clients the proper ways to do exercises, cardio, and strength training to maximize the effects and minimize potential injuries; planning different classes or routines for those with a lower (or higher) exercising IQ; changing and adapting programs when needed; and working to advise and encourage on issues related to weight control, nutrition, and lifestyle concerns.

The minimum required degree to become a personal trainer is a high school diploma. Most personal trainers enter the profession after having earned their associate degree in personal training; however, increasingly, more employers are demonstrating a preference for applicants with higher degrees, such as bachelor's or master's degrees. These high-level degrees are not required for a career in the field of personal training, but it's helpful to earn additional education or certifications for related subjects like exercise science and physical education. In addition, training in management skills is highly recommended, especially for those aspiring trainers who would like to move up the employment ladder.

Students who are working toward a career in personal training take courses that further develop their understanding of the body. Anatomy and other natural sciences, exercise physiology, and biomechanics are typical course subjects. Students can also begin to specialize their training even at this early stage. Those interested in working with the obese, for instance, would take classes in disease management as well as exercise technique. Youth fitness, senior fitness, and injury prevention are other potential class options.

Comprehensive List of Online Colleges & Universities for a Personal Training Degree

Online Associate Degrees in Personal Training

Personal training associate degrees are two-year programs typically available through community colleges, technical schools, and career colleges. Students take 20 to 30 didactic and practical courses over two years. Program applicants need a GED or high school diploma; CPR certification may also be required.

In addition to foundational courses in the liberal arts such as math, English, communications, and history, the personal training associate degree curriculum combines classes in exercise and health science, fitness training, and business management. Basic courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, nutrition, biomechanics, and kinesiology discuss the structure and function of the human body. Fitness courses cover the skills for analyzing clients’ physical fitness, developing a fitness plan, safely instructing clients on exercises, and leading fitness classes. Courses in nutrition prepare the personal trainer to have a fully integrated view of wellness and an understanding of how different foods affect the body. Along with classes in exercise and fitness, students also learn about building a client base as a personal trainer. Marketing, business communication, and business IT applications are common requirements.

Students will complete an internship or gain practical experience working in a fitness center, under the supervision of experienced trainers. Because personal trainers are responsible for instructing people in proper technique, it’s important that students have hands-on practice in these areas. Personal training certification exams also test individuals on instructional techniques, and students with experiential training will have an edge over those who don’t. Upon completion of the degree, graduates can sit for voluntary professional certifications, such as those available through the American College of Sports Medicine or the American Council on Exercise. Employers prefer to hire certified trainers, although the type of credential preferred depends on the facility and type of training.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Personal Training

A bachelor's degree in kinesiology, exercise science, sports medicine, physical education, or a number of other disciplines can prepare the student for a career in personal training upon graduation. Students in a bachelor's degree program will learn about human anatomy, nutrition, strength, physical fitness, and a host of other skills and practices while preparing for a profession as a personal trainer. The bachelor's degree in personal training is normally a four-year course of study. Some online schools will offer an accelerated program for those students interested in obtaining their bachelor's in a shorter period of time. The timetable for a successful completion will depend on the type of school enrolled, the overall aptitude of the student, and the curriculum offered in the specific program in which the student enrolls.

Online bachelor's degree programs in kinesiology and exercise science are somewhat rare. With the specific nature of the courses, students need to be on-site in order to implement the tools they're learning. A student may enroll in health fitness and receive a fully online course of study while retaining and learning some of the same things taught in kinesiology or exercise science programs. While there are schools that offer fully online programs for students seeking to become personal trainers, it may be a more prudent path to take on-site classes or a hybrid online/on-site course of study. The courses necessary for preparation to become a personal trainer at the bachelor's level will vary depending on both the school and the major chosen. Five general classes that students may take include an introduction to kinesiology, exercise and sports psychology, athletic training, human physiology, and human anatomy.

Online Master's Degrees in Personal Training

A master's degree in fitness and personal training prepares participants to offer fitness coaching and counseling to private clients or groups. It requires advanced study in the sciences and theories of physical fitness, weight management, and nutrition. A master's in personal training typically requires a four-year bachelor's degree in addition to one or two years of study during the master's program. Some programs offer part-time study for professionals who need to work while they're enrolled in school; these programs may take longer to complete.

Personal training master's students learn to create and monitor fitness goals for their clients. They also learn how to instruct individuals and groups in a variety of fitness activities, including cardiovascular exercise and weight training. Fitness trainers study a variety of topics related to human anatomy and physiology, psychology, nutrition, business, communications, and customer service. Upon completion of a degree, graduates typically work as personal trainers or fitness directors in gyms or health clubs, or as self-employed service providers.

Most personal training programs require a minimum number of hours of direct work experience with clients. This will often be structured as an internship or practicum in a health clinic or fitness club. Online programs may vary with their requirements, so prospective students should research each individual program before making an enrollment decision. Some programs require a minimum number of hours in a seminar, but these on-site meetings may be organized to take place as full-day or weekend events to minimize travel time to and from the site. Professional organizations such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine provide certifications and continuing education courses for personal trainers. Most master's degree graduates have typically completed coursework required for professional affiliations. While these certifications may help improve job placement, they are not specifically required for employment.

Online Certificates in Personal Training

Personal training certificates provide practical training in exercise science and communication techniques for entry-level work in the exercise and recreation industry. Many community colleges and continuing education departments in universities offer certificate programs, and these certificates take anywhere from several months to one year to complete. A variety of online certificate in personal training programs offer a self-directed curriculum that may include DVDs or webinars, making it especially convenient for full-time workers who wish to change or enhance their careers.

Some certificates are associated with particular professional organizations, such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine or the American Council on Exercise; these programs prepare students to complete professional certification exams. Most certificate programs require that applicants possess CPR certification and a high school diploma or its equivalent. Personal training certificate programs typically require completion of 14-24 credit hours.

Personal training certificates are based in exercise science. Students study the anatomy and physiology of the muscle system, as well as kinesiology and biomechanics. Students may also take classes in sport and exercise psychology, program design and administration, and personal fitness and wellness. Students also study different types of exercises, such as cardiovascular training and weight training. Classes then cover how to evaluate a client’s fitness level and develop exercise and nutrition plans for different skill levels and goals. The personal training program includes both didactic and skills-based training components. The skills-based component requires students to participate in practicums or an internship with an experienced trainer.

Graduates of the certificate can become personal trainers and fitness instructors in gyms, community recreation centers, and work-based wellness programs. Depending on the type of certificate, graduates may be eligible to sit for professional credentialing exams. Many employers prefer to hire instructors with reputable professional certifications. Personal trainers with only a certificate will likely need to gain additional experience before they can advance in the field, as an increasing number of personal trainer employers are requiring an associate or bachelor’s degree in an exercise, health, or kinesiology area.

Career Overview for Personal Trainers

Those who choose to take up the profession of personal training are typically passionate about helping one person, or a small group of people, to improve the quality of their bodies and their lives. Trainers work in such environments as gyms, health clubs, resort destinations, and even in the homes of their clients. Rarely does a personal training career involve full-time work; most trainers juggle a few resident hours at a health facility with giving personal sessions to individual clients. Trainers devise their own workout routines and customize them for each person with whom they work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the job outlook for personal trainers to be about as positive as other industries in the coming years. A 13 percent increase in fitness workers is predicted between 2012-2022.

Being a personal trainer can be extremely rewarding. You can expect to meet new people every day and, while the social aspect of the profession is a great perk, it is important to note that there are a number of daily activities that a personal trainer should anticipate. This includes utilizing the skills and knowledge of several key subfields and categories that every good personal trainer should be familiar with. Three of the most basic personal trainer knowledge areas are biomechanics, exercise physiology, and injury prevention. These topics should be at the core of a personal trainer’s knowledge base, as many day-to-day issues will involve at least one of these items.

Many scientific and medical studies show that personal training is a vital profession, as it facilitates good health and productivity through weight training, aerobic conditioning, proper nutrition, and generally increased activity. There are a wide variety of activities a personal trainer may teach or otherwise participate in. Below is an overview of just a few of those activities.

  • Aerobics Instructor: An aerobics instructor should be knowledgeable on certain aspects of the workout. First, the proper usage of music and cues (both verbal and visual skills) should be facets that an instructor has down pat; these are two important aspects that students should be able to learn as well. Combination-building, choreography, and sequencing are three more facets that will be critical in teaching aerobics techniques. Finally, knowledge of aerobics lexicon and the latest developments in the field is important.
  • Fitness Therapist: A fitness therapist is an important resource to those recovering from injuries. A therapist should be well-versed in post-rehabilitation orthopedic exercises, drug interaction with exercise, sports medicine, and industrial fitness. Knowledge of workers compensation laws will also make a fitness therapist more marketable. It is also important to learn how to work with people suffering from arthritis, asthma, hypertension, muscular dystrophy, cardiac problems, and osteoporosis. The more conditions a fitness therapist is familiar with, the more sought after they will be as a personal trainer.
  • Kick-Boxing Instructor: Kick-boxing is an exciting subfield of personal training. This full-contact exercise makes for an exhilarating workout. Of critical note here is that safety measures will be of paramount importance for a kick-boxing instructor. Furthermore, a kick-boxing instructor should have a few select items in their knowledge base. Proper punching and kicking techniques are elemental to kick-boxing instruction. Combination-building is another facet of kick-boxing that an instructor should be knowledgeable about. Also, proper use of equipment will be important in order to ensure students get the most effective workout possible. Knowing how to avoid injuries, and deal with them should they occur, is very important for a kick-boxing instructor.

How to Become a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT)

There is a wide range of CPT, or certified personal trainer, certifications available after students complete online personal training programs, and there are many organizations seeking to certify qualified candidates. While not necessarily required to practice as a personal trainer, more and more employers are looking for applicants who are CPTs from the top agencies. CPT exams cover topics such as program design, program progression, professional responsibilities, and science foundations. It's important to understand that all CPT examinations will consist of a written section and some practical portion, as well. Future fitness trainers will have their knowledge of human physiology, exercise techniques, and exercise programs measured by these examinations.

Before selecting or registering for a certification exam, you should verify that it’s accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). This will help you ensure that you receive a reputable and high-quality CPT certification that will be well regarded by employers. In order to take part in a CPT certification process, applicants don't necessarily need to have any formal academic or training background. The certifying companies will most likely provide the candidate with study materials like books, CDs, and workshops in order to help prepare them for the exam.

There are a number of NCCA- and DETC-accredited organizations in the United States that offer certification. Here are just a few examples:

  • Aerobics and Fitness Association of America: AFAA is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and accredited by the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). AFAA offers many different types of certifications, including personal training, primary group exercise, step dancing, practical yoga instructor training, aquatic fitness, metabolic connection to obesity, mechanics of injury prevention, group resistance training, and many more. The AFAA offers study materials on practice, theory, exercises, nutrition, youth and senior fitness, and stress management.
  • American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM is NCCA-accredited and offers a CPT exam to applicants who are at least 18 years of age, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and possess CPR/AED certification.
  • American Council on Exercise: ACE is accredited by NCCA and offers a wide selection of study materials to help personal trainers prepare for the CPT exam.
  • International Sports Science Association: ISSA is accredited by DETC, which means that they are also recognized by the US Department of Education.
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association: The NSCA certification for the personal trainer does not require a postsecondary education but asks for candidates with a good working knowledge of biomechanical concepts, training adaptations, and anatomy, among other skills. To qualify for the NSCA-CPT exam, a person must be over 18 years of age, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and have CPR and AED certification before taking the test. NSCA is accredited by NCCA.

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