Certifications for Fitness Instructors: Options by Specialization

Training programs for fitness professionals are available in a range of specialties. These programs instruct students in fundamental aspects of fitness and exercise and often prepare students for certification testing.

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Essential Information

Fitness instructors have certification options available in multiple specialties and professions. Several schools and organizations offer personal trainer, group exercise instructor and clinical exercise specialist courses and certification testing. Topics of study may include human anatomy, nutrition, injury management and patient assessment. Certification requires continuing education, which may include online or self-study classes. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age and possess a high school diploma or equivalent, first aid and CPR certifications, and English proficiency. Additional requirements may vary. Online or distance-learning options are available for some programs and continuing education is often required for continued certification.

Certification for Personal Fitness Trainer

Several reputable organizations offer certification for personal fitness trainers, including health standards associations and specialized training schools. Individuals may be required to complete one or more training courses offered through the organization prior to the certification exam. Other institutions may have more flexible eligibility limitations for certification testing.

Personal trainer certification programs and exams typically cover exercise, fitness and health topics. Courses may also help students prepare for self-employment in the field by offering business management training. Lessons are typically offered through DVDs, textbooks and practice exams, allowing students to study at their own pace. A few programs may offer live telephone or email support from training staff members. Some common topics include:

  • Management and marketing
  • Anatomy and kinesiology
  • Nutrition and weight management
  • Fitness regimen development
  • Equipment identification and usage
  • Pre- and post-exercise procedures

Certification for Group Fitness Instructors

Group fitness instructors are generally responsible for the safety, communication and training of a group exercise class, such as aerobics, step or yoga. Certification courses offered through credentialing organizations teach leadership techniques, instruction strategies and motivation methods for directing several types of group fitness classes. Prerequisites are similar to those for personal fitness trainer certification programs. Courses are typically sent to a student in digital or book form, and students may request a weekly coaching option to keep them on track. Classes found in many of these programs can include:

  • Introduction to anatomy and kinesiology
  • Injury prevention and management
  • Group class and activity development
  • Motivation and evaluation procedures
  • Popular group exercise programs

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  • Kinesiology and Exercise Science
  • Physical Education and Health
  • Sport and Fitness Management
  • Sports Medicine

Certification for Clinical Exercise Specialists

Clinical exercise specialist certifications, also known as post-rehabilitation or health exercise specialist, prepare individuals for careers in rehabilitation for patients with a variety of ailments, including cardiovascular, metabolic, orthopedic or obesity issues. These fitness workers typically develop exercise programs specific to a patient's condition, performing additional monitoring and testing. Certified clinical exercise specialists may also be eligible to work in exercise research, public health and a variety of medical facilities and organizations. To become a certified clinical exercise specialist, candidates may be required to have certification as a personal or fitness trainer, a bachelor's degree in a health science field, and 300-600 hours of relevant practical experience. Some of the topics of study common to many of these programs include:

  • Therapeutic exercise and rehabilitation
  • Patient evaluation, examination and assessment
  • Effects of medication on physical exertion
  • Rehabilitation application for pediatric, adult and geriatric patients
  • Exercise therapy plans for specific medical conditions

Common Career Options

Group exercise programs are offered at many establishments and institutions. Certified group fitness instructors may find positions at the following institutions:

  • Private or public health club
  • Community fitness center
  • Retirement or assisted living facility
  • Hospital or medical clinic
  • Corporate wellness centers

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

While some certified personal trainers find employment at fitness clubs and community health centers, many others provide private or residential fitness services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fitness trainers and instructors can anticipate 8% job growth between 2014-2024. In 2015, their median annual salary was $36,160.

Continuing Education Information

Typically, fitness instructor certifications are valid for 2-4 years. Recertification or certification renewal typically requires a determined number of continuing education hours that must be completed within the previous renewal period. Courses are usually offered through the certifying organization, and may be taken through self-study textbook or online formats. Some associations also accept on-site educational programs offered at local affiliated or approved training centers.

The type of fitness certification that is appropriate for an individual depends on the area of specialty of interest. There is some common coursework among programs, and continuing education is often required for ongoing certification.

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