The health and wellness industry has grown considerably in recent years, and continues to evolve and grow alongside progress in the exercise science and physiology fields. Fitness trainers are the link between science and the individual, providing guidance, motivation, and structure to help their clients set and reach their fitness goals. Students with a personal passion for exercise and nutrition make excellent candidates for this industry, and may find their own experiences advantageous as they work with clients. However, more than personal experience is needed to have a successful career as a fitness trainer.
Most personal trainers have a high school diploma, and many employers are now requiring that trainers also have a bachelor's degree in a related field such as kinesiology or exercise science. In more rare circumstances, students may choose to further their education by pursuing a graduate degree in exercise science or sports medicine, although this is not necessary to have a career in this field. While there is a wide spectrum of degrees that provide the foundation for a career as a fitness trainer, the most essential part of any personal fitness trainer's education is his or her certification. There are many excellent certifications available, with both in-person and online options.
The prerequisites for fitness trainer certifications are minimal. It is helpful to have an associate or bachelor's degree in a similar area of study, and admission requirements for those undergraduate degrees are largely determined by the institution itself. Most will require high school transcripts, with evidence of achieving standards in math, science, and the humanities. To be best prepared for pursuing a degree and career as a fitness trainer, students should have a basic understanding of physics, biology, and health sciences.
The admission requirements for graduate programs will also be dictated by the academic institution. Students hoping to apply should ensure that they have strong grades in their undergraduate courses and a clear idea of why they would like to continue their education. It is also helpful to have work or internship experience.
There are several undergraduate degrees that are beneficial to a fitness trainer's professional trajectory. While the specific degree titles might differ, these programs will all provide the educational foundation for a career as a trainer. Bethel University, for example, offers a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training. Students pursuing this major take courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, sociology and psychology, and then progress to more specific training in injury prevention, emergency care, nutrition, and principles of rehabilitation. Many institutions, including Bethel, also include business and management courses in their curriculum, with the ultimate goal of making students who complete the program sufficiently prepared to become certified and either secure employment in athletic training or gain admission to a graduate program.
Although graduate degrees are not particularly common among fitness trainers, there are programs available for those who would like to pursue doctorate or master's degrees. Armstrong State University, for example, offers a Master of Science in Sports Medicine that is recognized for its excellence by the NSCA Education Recognition Program. In both research and practical application, the program focuses on three main areas: exercise physiology, strength and conditioning, and biomechanics. Students of this program are frequently involved in presenting research at prestigious national meetings, and also contribute regularly to professional research journals. A second strong option is Marshall University, which offers a two-year Master of Science in Exercise Science that emphasizes leadership skills to adequately prepare students for working with individuals ranging from the elite athlete to those with chronic disorders or diseases.
As stated above, accredited, state-approved certification is required by nearly all employers in order for one to work as a fitness trainer. Undergraduate degrees in kinesiology, exercise science, or a related subject will help to prepare students for becoming certified, but unless certification is a part of the curriculum, having a degree is not the same as being certified to take on clients. There are many accredited organizations that offer certifications. Examples include NASM (National Association of Sports Medicine), ACE (American Council on Exercise), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), and NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association). It is also important to note that continual recertification through most of these organizations is necessary, which usually requires acquiring continuing education credits and paying a small recertification fee.
The majority of fitness trainer certifications can be done online and through self-guided study. Students will purchase or rent the textbooks, and study them at their own pace to prepare for the certification exam. Many organizations offer online support with quizzes, study forums, and additional material. The hands-on practical components of becoming certified cannot be completed online.
Accreditation for fitness trainer programs and certifications is extremely important, as it is with all other professional fields. Accreditation ensures that the programs and certifications are credible and legitimate, and meet industry standards for safety, scientific accuracy, and comprehensive subject coverage. In order to check the accreditation status of a university or organization offering certification, students can visit the Accredited Programs Directory on the ICE (Institute for Credentialing Excellence) website, or searching for verification of accreditation on the educational program's website.
Annual tuition for a fitness trainer's degree will largely be dependent on the institution offering the degree. There are options starting around $5,000 a year, with the more expensive schools reaching close to $45,000. Certifications also cost money, but are less expensive than a four-year degree. Excluding course materials such as textbooks, accredited certifications can cost between $220 and $600.
As the fitness industry evolves, the number of ways fitness trainers can specialize increases. Often, new and innovative exercise equipment requires specialized certification (such as kettle bells, TRX, Pilates, and Olympic weightlifting). These types of certifications cost money (either a personal expense or paid for by a trainer's employer), and can be completed through day-long or weekend-long workshops. Other types of specializations are extensions of the basic personal training certification programs and include weight loss specialization, youth exercise specialization, and corrective exercise specialization, to name a few. The objective with these training specializations is to expand on one's existing knowledge to include additional understanding of a particular population group or training method.
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