How I Became a Personal Trainer Cheap and Easy

by Rachel on March 23, 2010

Or, “How I Became a Cheap and Easy Personal Trainer.”

I’ve been getting several e-mails recently about my personal training certification, so I wanted to talk about why I chose to go with ACE and what it really involved!

Last winter in NYC, when I was thinking about changing jobs, I decided I was going to go full-out with my goal of becoming a health writer. Although I had tons of experience from losing weight, spending hours in the gym, and reading about health and fitness, I also wanted a bit more credibility on the topic. I would have loved to do an RD program, because I really love nutrition, but that would have required going back to school. I couldn’t afford it, and, frankly, I didn’t think it was worth the student loan debt because I didn’t see myself actually doing much work as an RD.

Personal training seemed like a better option. Let’s be honest — most writers need back-up plans to pay the bills, and training was a day job I could deal with. It’s something I could do anywhere and I actually enjoy spending a lot of time in the gym. So I decided to get certified.

Q. There are so many certs out there. Why did you choose ACE?

There are a lot of certifications out there, so I Googled “How to Choose a Personal Trainer” to see what experts considered the most reputable ones when people were choosing trainers. I also hit up Craigslist to look at the wanted ads for trainers to get an idea of what the commonly accepted certificates were. ACE came up several times, along with a few others. (I looked into NASM and ACSM too.)

Nearly all PT certifications are study-at-home-then-pass-an-exam type deals. But they vary based on how hard the exam is and what kind of studying is required. Unsurprisingly, my main objective was finding something cheap and easy. The exams alone usually cost about $300, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the study materials. And because I don’t have a science background, I wanted something that wasn’t for people looking to work in a cardiology rehab center or something.

After doing some research, it sounded like ACE fit that description. And I loved their Web site. Not even kidding. It’s bright, clean, and user-friendly. (Some of the other Web sites were just…not.) I feel like it’s very accessible and easy-going while still being professional. That’s what I was looking for in my cert. Plus it offers tons of resources for people who are certified. I also liked their continuing education programs — most certificates require you to do more coursework to stay certified — and their Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant cert, which was essentially what I wanted to do. But I had to get the PT cert or a Group Fitness Instructor cert first.

Q. Did you buy all their study materials?

Most certifications offer tons of packages of study materials that range from $300 to $800. You can get the books, the CD-roms, the access to unlimited sample tests…lots to choose from. I’m a pretty smart girl and I didn’t think I needed all that shit. (I mean, if I’m going to spend money on things I don’t need, I’d rather do it at Sephora.) I decided to use my hustling skills. I looked at the basic exam kit and figured out what the major textbooks were…and then I went on ebay and Amazon to try to find them used. I was able to get all the textbooks for about $100. (The basic kit from ACE is $500 for the books and a bunch of study guides and practice exams. Even the individual books were each at least $70.) One problem: I couldn’t find the most recent edition of the main textbook. I wasn’t too concerned — muscles are muscles, right?

Q. How much did you study?

As I started to study, I realized, Wow, teaching yourself musculoskeletal anatomy and human movement physics BLOWS. It was a little soul-crushing, quite honestly. I’ve read on a lot of message boards that many people caught up in that (because those are the first few chapters) and then they just want to quit right then and there. Yep…that was me. I stalled on it for a while. Then I decided I’d do the Group Fitness Instructor exam instead so I ordered that textbook because I found a really good deal on a used copy (I think it was like $40). Finally in the summer, when I had moved back home to Michigan, I decided to set an exam date to force myself to study. Since the exam was $200, I knew I wouldn’t want to fail. I ended up deciding to do the Personal Training exam.

Studying was no picnic. I made hundreds of flash cards as I tried to learn the muscles and the different planes of motion. My exam was September 30, and I started going balls-out on studying on September 1…that wasn’t much time. It was stressful and I wish I had been more disciplined and studied an hour each day all summer instead of six hours each day for a month, but whatever. There was just so much info to learn. I was really stressed about memorizing the plethora of formulas to test body fat or determine max heart rate. Plus you can’t use a calculator on the exam. Not cool…so not cool.


Then I started to go through some of the free study materials on the ACE Web site and realized that there was a bunch of stuff that was clearly in the new edition of the book — a lot of stuff on cultural factors that influence motivation, plus just new research. Naturally I was like…Oh shit. I mean a lot of it was common sense or things I knew just from reading about fitness so much for my own personal enjoyment…but still. I was worried.

Then I realized that the group fitness instructor textbook contained all this info — the two books were nearly identical, except for the section on how to design a strength training program for a client and how to do certain fitness assessments. I found the info I needed in the group fitness book, so overall, it was still cheaper than buying the new PT textbook. (Sometimes being cheap is a real hassle.)

Q. Was the exam hard?

I busted my ass studying and I was glad I did! I honestly didn’t know if I’d pass or not, which was a feeling I’d never had before an exam. My friends kept reminding me that there are a lot of dumb personal trainers out there, and I had to agree, but still…taking an exam when you’ve taught yourself everything is intimidating.

The exam wasn’t hard, exactly…but it would have been if I had just said, “Oh, I can just wing it!” A lot of the questions I knew because I had studied so much…or could make an educated guess (it’s multiple choice) because I could quickly eliminate wrong answers. And I passed! I was so happy!

When I came home, I made a pretty detailed list of exactly what was on the exam. You can check it out here if you’re preparing to take your test!

Q. Do you think it’s worth it?

I do think the cert was worth it. So far, I’ve used it to get my job teaching spinning and my summer job teaching workouts in the park. I haven’t used it to work in a gym so far because I haven’t wanted to or needed to, but I can take my own clients whenever I want because I’m insured and everything. The main thing is that it definitely gave me cred — but it also gave me knowledge. I knew a lot before, but I know way more now. I also get a lot of good stuff in the mail: newsletters, classes and seminars I can attend, discounted gear. I really like being part of a professional organization and I have to say, ACE is a good one. They are accessible (they respond to questions via the Facebook fan page) and they’re on top of the latest info and research.

However, if you’re looking to make a total career change and support yourself based on training alone, I can definitely tell you that it’s not easy. I have a few friends who have done this, and while getting a job wasn’t terribly difficult, making money is. Most gyms focus on selling packages, so the trainers spend hours in the gym each day trying to meet new clients and sell them training sessions. There’s a huge sales element that a lot of trainers don’t like — most people want to do it to help people, not feel like they’re stalking new clients. From what I’ve heard, it’s very frustrating to essentially work on commission.

I hope that helps anyone who is thinking about going this route!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alicia March 23, 2010 at 7:58 am

great post! I’ve considered getting some sort of certification, so I really appreciate your insider view of getting yours through ACE. Definitely something I’ll have to keep in mind! thanks!
.-= Alicia´s last blog ..Ohio Society of Professional Engineers =-.


2 Becky @ flybynyght March 23, 2010 at 9:10 am

Wow – great information! I think I’d love being a PT, if it wasn’t for the selling aspect. I have the science background (degree in kinesiology), but wow, would I ever need a major refresher… where’s your gastrocnemius again?? j/k :)
.-= Becky @ flybynyght´s last blog ..If I wanted water, I’d ask for water!!! =-.


3 Kristen March 23, 2010 at 11:06 am

thanks for this! i’ve actually been meaning to ask you about your PT certification for a while because i’m really interested in doing the ACE program. i also considered trying to become an RD, but seriously, can you say “second bachelor’s” and “so much loan debt i want to cry?” because that’s essentially what you get yourself in to when trying to become an RD. thanks, again!
.-= Kristen´s last blog ..oh baby, baby…it’s a cruel effing world =-.


4 Tina March 23, 2010 at 11:24 am

Thanks for this post. I am planning to get certified in PT once we have another kid and am ready to go back to work from being a stay at home mom. PT will be perfect to make a little extra money and have a fairly flexible schedule. At least compared to my previous job of teaching high school and having NO time. This was a helpful post to read. Thanks!
.-= Tina´s last blog ..Spring Is Popping! =-.


5 shelby @ eatdrinkrun March 23, 2010 at 11:29 am

Thanks so much for this. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a certification and trying to teach a class or two at my gym. Very helpful to hear about your experience!

Signed, yet another chick trying to scrape together a writing/freelance career :)


6 Kris March 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Nice article, I am taking my ACE CPT test on Monday. You are right there is a lot of info to jam in your head but the multiple choice will help out. :-)


7 Mari March 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I LOVED THIS POST! I want to get a new certification and I am highly interested in ACE but I have been so hesistant to buy the package since It IS so much money…I am going to try my luck on Amazon =)


8 Girlwithnoname (Jackie) March 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm

SERIOUSLY? You haven’t had ANY in person instruction or training in a gym?


I love ya girl, and I’m glad you’re making a great go of it, but I have to say I don’t agree with being allowed to take on someone’s health and fitness without some kind of ‘in person’ training to make sure you know what you’re doing with proper form and exercises before imposing it on clients.

I see so many trainers out there giving instruction that is just NOT good advice (or instructing improper form or contraindicated exercises) and I always wonder why they themselves think it’s good advice, assuming they’ve had the proper training themselves, which clearly they haven’t, or didn’t pay attention in class.

I had to take several hours of in-person weight training and personal training instruction as well as more hours than I care to count of practice on real people that I had to prove before I made my certification requirements (and this was after all the testing and studying).

how / where did you get your practical experience?

.-= Girlwithnoname (Jackie)´s last blog ..Interview with Scott Colby, “My First Six Pack” Creator =-.


9 Rachel March 23, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Hey J ~ I totally see your point! Because I knew it was going to be a while before I was actually training clients in a gym, I was comfortable doing an exam that was just paper and pencil and not practical. (And a LOT of certs are this way I found.) I knew that no reputable gym would hire me without some experience for all the same reasons you listed above, and assumed I would “intern” in some way or another before I started training.

When I met the trainer who owns the studio where I teach spinning, she sort of became a mentor trainer and I’ve been able to observe her and she’s been able to observe me! So in that sense, that’s my internship and I’m definitely still learning the practical stuff every day! But what I immediately got from my cert was a lot of book knowledge of exercise and training — which, to be clear, is what I wanted, because I am first and foremost a writer.


10 Girlwithnoname (Jackie) March 23, 2010 at 9:55 pm

coolio. I wasn’t dissin’ ya, I’ve been watching you a while, I know you know your stuff. I remain INCENSED that this is ALL that PT’s have to go thru before they get to call themselves PT’s tho.

Nothing to do with you and everything to do with the loosey-goosey way the fitness industry and formal training for certification is set up!!

.-= Girlwithnoname (Jackie)´s last blog ..Interview with Scott Colby, “My First Six Pack” Creator =-.


11 Carla March 23, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Perfect timing Rachel! I was just going to ask you about this! I’m aiming to take my test in May. I know it can be hard to find a job and the selling aspects can be annoying, but I was really hoping since I am already employeed by the Y, I could start working there where selling is NOT part of the job. In a perfect world I’d work at a MAC type facility, and do alot more then train, I want to get the lifestyle & weight management certification too!


12 AMTB March 24, 2010 at 2:36 am

Thanks for the info. I hear ACE certification is the best to have.


13 Melissa (It's a Veggieful Life) March 24, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Nice background on your cert. I think I’ll stay away from the musculoskeletal anatomy and human movement physics…and NO calculator at exams? I can hardly help my son with his 1st grade homework without a calculator! :)
.-= Melissa (It’s a Veggieful Life)´s last blog ..Join the Food Revolution! =-.


14 chandra April 7, 2010 at 8:07 am

Ugh… wish I would have had someone tell me this part two years ago: “Most gyms focus on selling packages, so the trainers spend hours in the gym each day trying to meet new clients and sell them training sessions. There’s a huge sales element that a lot of trainers don’t like — most people want to do it to help people, not feel like they’re stalking new clients.”

SO.True. Ick.
.-= chandra´s last blog ..Step One =-.


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