When I became a full-time personal trainer in 2006, I felt ready for the gym floor. I'd graduated from college with a degree in kinesiology and three years of experience training my fellow students in the university's fitness center. Even more magically, I immediately got a job at a high-end gym in Toronto—one that paid $25 an hour, a startling income for a 21-year-old still living at home.
Most trainers aren't nearly that lucky.
As we discovered in our first-ever personal trainer salary survey, it often takes several years of experience before they have a full client roster and a livable income.
If you're someone who's starting a career in the fitness industry, or contemplating it, let's talk about what it costs to become a personal trainer, how much you can expect to make, and how to stay in the business long enough to build a career.
If you're someone who works with a trainer, or is contemplating it, you'll see what fitness pros typically earn, how they earn it, and how to get the most for your money.
What does it cost to get started as a personal trainer?
It's almost never just as simple as looking jacked and showing up at the gym. If you want a lasting, sustainable career as a trainer, you're likely looking at some fairly serious expenditure on the front end. Let's break it down category by category.
College: Two-thirds of personal trainers have a four-year college degree, and two-thirds of college graduates have some student loan debt. (The average amount is close to $30,000.) So, if you're an aspiring personal trainer, you'll probably start your career with monthly loan payments.
Do you need a college degree to get work as a personal trainer? No. But I recommend it. With few exceptions, the most successful coaches have a solid background in exercise science.
But there's no reason to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to achieve that education. If your goal is to work as a trainer, I guarantee no one will care where you went to college. Two years at a community college plus two years at a low-cost public university will take you just as far as four years at a private institution that impresses strangers when they see the school's name on your sweatshirt.
In fact, a degree from Southeast Flyover State U may take you further. You'll have less debt, and with less debt, you'll have more options in the crucial early years of your career.
Certifications: One benefit of getting a degree in exercise science: It'll be much easier to pass a certification exam from a major organization like the NSCA or ACSM. (In our salary survey, trainers with an NSCA certification make more money.)
Getting a credential shouldn't break the bank. As you can see in my article "5 Things You Don't Know About Personal Training Certs," you can expect to pay around $300-400 for the exam, plus another $100-$200 for the textbook and study materials. And if you join the organization—a good idea, since it gives you access to its publications and networks, and discounts on conferences and events—you'll pay an annual membership fee.
All told, getting certified should cost perhaps $500 up front, plus another $100-$200 annually to renew your membership.
You'll also need to get recertified at regular intervals. You do that with continuing education credits (CECs). The actual recertification cost is modest, perhaps $100 every two or three years. But earning those CECs can be expensive.
If you attend a major event like the Perform Better Functional Training Summit or the NSCA National Conference, for example, you could spend more than $1,000 on travel, lodging, and meals, on top of the cost of the conference itself.
But as with college, there are lots of ways to earn CECs without maxing out your credit card. You can attend smaller, regional events within driving distance. Or you can take online courses without leaving home at all. For example, my company, The Personal Trainer Development Center (PTDC), offers a CEC companion course in conjunction with a recent book, "The Wealthy Fit Pro's Guide to Starting Your Career."
Insurance: Another benefit of joining a certifying organization is access to liability insurance. You need it. Period.
The average cost is just over $500 a year for up to $2 million of coverage.
Accounting and taxes: Most personal trainers work as independent contractors. That is, they get paid directly by their clients and are responsible for their own financial bookkeeping and taxes.
All the things I've mentioned so far are tax-deductible business expenses for a self-employed trainer. The same goes for apparel, equipment, health insurance, and transportation, along with the cost of an accountant to keep it all straight.
Continuing education, in particular, is often a worthy expenditure for a veteran fitness pro. A single trip to a conference or workshop offers the chance to learn new skills, get CECs, network with other trainers, and perhaps even come up with new content for articles and social media posts. And all of it is deductible.
What is a personal trainer's annual income?
The average income for a personal trainer is $47,700. That's according to the 1,021 trainers who participated in our salary survey. Twenty percent make less than $15,000, including some who have no income at all.
Why? Inexperience, mainly. The veteran trainers in our survey, those who've worked five or more years, have more clients and charge more per session. They're also more likely to have at least a bachelor's degree, and on average have seven personal training certifications.
There's some survivor bias in these numbers. If you can't make a decent living within the first few years, you're going to find something else to do.
But there's also a pretty straightforward roadmap to success as a personal trainer:
- Get an education.
- Get certified.
- Train as many clients as you can, as often as you can, wherever you can.
- Expand your skills as you gain experience. You can see many options for continuing education in the PTDC's guide.
What should I charge per session?
Sixty-two percent of the respondents in our survey charge between $26 and $75 per training session. At the high end, 7 percent get more than $100. I've known trainers who charge as much as $400 per hour.
But there's a pronounced class divide among trainers. At the entry level, a trainer in a commercial gym might get just $10-15 of the $25 fee their gym charges the client. That number will increase as the trainer gains more clients and brings more revenue to the business.
Those at the high end are typically in big cities and often known for training celebrities. They're sometimes celebrities themselves (or as famous as trainers get). If they don't own and operate exclusive studios, they train wealthy clients in their homes. In almost every case, the trainer's operational expenses are astronomical. Not only do they live and work in high-cost, high-tax cities, they're often at the mercy of their clients' schedules and timetables.
Is it better to train in the gym, at client homes, or online?
You might need all three. In my training days, I started work before the sun came up by teaching one or two bootcamp classes. Then I would train a couple of clients in their homes. Then I went to the gym, where I often worked until 8 or 9 p.m.
That's the price I paid for being enterprising and successful. In exchange for money, I gave up a social life, my own workouts, and a full night's sleep.
That dilemma is the reason I became such an advocate for online personal training. The highest-earning fitness pros in our salary survey were most likely to train some or all of their clients online.
Since most of them continue to work with clients in person, the income from their online clients gives them the freedom to choose when, where, and even with whom they'll work. They also gain time to work out, have relationships, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. (Getting up at a reasonable hour is a different story; as long as you train people in person, you'll have clients clamoring for those early morning slots.)
What should a personal trainer cost?
Now, let's look at this from the client's perspective. As you know from everything I've described so far, most personal trainers have a lot of skin in the game by the time they finish school, get certified, and land their first full-time job. Even experienced trainers who've paid off their student loans (or were lucky enough to avoid them altogether) still make investments in continuing education.
But how do you know if someone's the right trainer for you? And what you should be willing to pay for their services?
The above guide will give you a bit of insight into what trainers often make, so let's reframe the question slightly by discussing what is worth paying extra for.
As with wine, you can't judge the quality of a trainer by the label. It's normal to expect that a personal trainer should look like someone who knows their way around a gym, but good luck finding a correlation between skill and body-fat percentage. The most jacked dude on the staff might be the best trainer. Or he might be the worst. Or anything in between.
Price tends to be more indicative of a trainer's quality, but it could also be more about the perception of quality. A popular trainer, someone who's associated with local celebrities and makes regular media appearances, gives his or her clients bragging rights. I know I benefited from that dynamic whenever I got quoted in a magazine like Men's Health.
In addition to popularity and demand, you can expect to pay a premium for any or all of these attributes:
I'll tell you a secret: Personal trainers learn as much from their mistakes as their successes, if not more. But you can't learn from mistakes until you make them, acknowledge them, and correct them.
An experienced coach will still make mistakes, but they're nothing like an entry-level trainer's blunders. To paraphrase the popular insurance commercial, they know a thing or two because they've messed up a thing or two.
Someone who focuses on a niche is in it for a reason. For example, a coach who struggled to recover from childbirth might specialize in training postpartum women. On top of her personal experience, she's probably certified in pre- and postnatal exercise, and has had success training new moms, with testimonials from former clients to prove it.
Trainers who specialize in medical rehab may not have experienced any of the problems they help clients recover from, but they've probably had extensive training. The better they are, the more referrals they'll get from medical and rehab professionals.
Same with coaches who focus on fat loss or preparing college football players for the NFL Combine. Even if they haven't lost a lot of weight or played the sport, their success speaks for itself.
A trainer's reputation is usually based on some combination of proven results and self-promotion. I don't mean the latter as a put-down. The best advice I can give personal trainers is to do a great job and make sure everyone knows about it.
As a consumer, though, you have to figure out if there's any daylight between the trainer's PR and their accomplishments. A few questions to ask:
- Do you know anyone the trainer has helped? If this is a trainer in your gym, there's a good chance you're acquainted with at least one client. Strike up a conversation, preferably outside the gym, to learn more before you sign on.
- Has the trainer helped anyone like you? If you don't know a client the trainer has worked with, go to the trainer's website and look at the testimonials. Does anyone look like you, or have the same goals?
- Are there any red flags? A quick Google search could alert you to any prominent legal or ethical issues, and a scan through the trainer's social media will give you clues about their personality, interests, and values.
Pay particular attention to how they use Facebook or Instagram. What's the ratio of helpful posts to marketing and self-promotion? Are they more invested in sharing information and answering questions or in projecting an image? Do they respond to criticism with humor and humility or with anger and umbrage? Are they friendly to their followers or do they blow them off if they aren't customers or acolytes?
The bottom line is whether the match makes sense. Can the trainer do what you need, at a price you can afford? Do you have goals or medical concerns that require someone with specialized expertise? If you do, are you willing to pay a premium for a trainer who checks those boxes?
Conversely, if you have no injuries or limitations, and your goals are more typical (look better, move better, feel better), lots of trainers can help you. Pick one you like, at the budget you can handle, and you'll probably like the results.