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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Personal Training Certification Levels—How Do They Differ?

Personal Training Certification Levels—How Do They Differ?

Reading Time: 5 minutes 16 seconds


DATE: 2024-05-20

Researching the levels of personal training certification and requirements for becoming a trainer can be confusing. Personal training is an unregulated industry in the U.S., so there are no universal rules to follow. However, certification is important.

The proper credential prepares you to do the job and helps you get clients and earn an honest living doing what you love. Programs that educate and train fitness professionals offer various types and levels of certifications. Here’s what to look for when getting certified and what each credential means for your career.

Why Do I Need a Certification to Work as a Personal Trainer?

Regardless of how high you rise in this industry, the first step is to get certified. Technically, certification is not a requirement. Just because it’s not required doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. There are many good reasons you need at least a basic credential:

  • Personal training requires basic skills and knowledge. Training clients without this background can be more harmful than helpful.

  • A personal trainer certification is a simple way to communicate to others that you are a professional and know what you’re doing. It gives you important credibility.

  • Certification is also a way to self-regulate in the industry. The profession loses credibility if people work as personal trainers without proper training and credentials.

  • Clients are more inclined to hire a certified fitness trainer than one with no official credentials. They want to spend their money wisely and get results.

  • Some gyms require certifications for their professional trainers. You can work independently without a credential, but if you want the security of gym employment, you may not have a choice.

  • For gyms that do not require certification, you can likely earn more with that credential.

  • A certification program teaches you more than just the fundamentals of fitness training. It will set you up for success as a fitness professional and a small business owner and include marketing, social media, networking, and other tools needed to get and retain clients.

If you’re just getting started in the fitness industry, check out this guide to beginning a thriving personal training career.

What Are the Different Types of Personal Training Certifications?

A basic certification program is all you need to get started. But this is just the first step in a long, successful career in the fitness industry. Understand the different levels of certification and the benefits they can bring to your career as you start this exciting journey.

Certified Personal Trainer

The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) offers several levels of personal trainer certification. If you’re starting, try the Certified Personal Trainer course. This is a foundational personal training program you complete online and at your own pace. It will teach you:

  • Basic human anatomy, human movement, and exercise physiology

  • Emergency and safety procedures

  • How to conduct a fitness assessment

  • How to work with client goals to create a custom exercise program

  • How to stay up to date on and educate clients about fitness, exercise science, health, and nutrition

  • The correct way to engage and motivate clients

  • The fundamentals of running a successful small business

This starter personal training course includes online textbooks, an online exam, a personal success coach to help ensure you ace certification prep, and a money-back guarantee that you’ll find a job upon completion.

Learn More: The Best Personal Training Certification

Certified Elite Personal Trainer

If you’re serious about your career and committed to the industry, consider starting at the elite level. ISSA’s Certified Elite Trainer program includes the personal trainer certification and additional credentials that expand your ability to help clients meet their goals.

Like the basic course, you’ll complete work online and pass the test for becoming a certified personal trainer. You will also complete a nutrition course and choose an advanced course. Just a few of the options include:

  • Certified yoga instructor

  • DNA-based fitness coach

  • Group fitness instructor

  • Powerlifting instructor

  • Exercise therapy certification

  • Exercise recovery specialist

  • Strength and conditioning

This certification deepens your knowledge of fitness, exercise science, sports medicine, and specialty areas in the industry.

Certified Master Trainer

The ultimate level in personal training through ISSA is the Certified Master Trainer program. As with the elite level, this program includes basic fitness certification and a complete nutrition course. Additionally, choose four specializations to become a genuinely well-rounded fitness professional.

At both the Elite and Master levels, you’ll also get a free CPR certification course. If you choose the Master Trainer program, you’ll get the equivalent of six certification courses for much less than you would pay to earn them separately. It’s both a cost-effective and time-saving way to get more professional development as a personal fitness trainer.

In addition to advanced levels, consider adding a new skill so you can provide clients with additional services. Learn how to become a nutrition coach to help clients meet health and fitness goals.

Learn More: What is the Best Personal Training Certification that Most Gyms Accept?

Why Should I Get Advanced Personal Trainer Certifications?

There’s no reason you can’t start at the basic level. In fact, there are good reasons to choose this program. For instance, if you’re not 100% sure this is the career for you, the Certified Personal Trainer course is just right. You’ll get a good deal on a solid credential so you can get your feet wet and decide if you want to continue advancing in the industry.

If you’re serious about a fitness career, there are many good reasons to start with or to work toward more advanced levels of certification:

Advanced Levels of Personal Training Certification Set You Apart

When getting new clients, you need to sell yourself as a qualified professional. Even as an employee in a gym, clients have some say in which trainer or coach they work with. Attracting clients is even more critical if you go it alone.

Advanced certifications and specializations communicate to potential clients that you are an expert in your field. While the other trainers may have their certifications, you have elite or master status. That makes a difference.

Additional Certification Expands the Client Pool

Advanced levels of personal trainer certification make you a more desirable hire. They also widen the field of potential clients. With the basic certification, you can help most people but may be limited in your ability to work with special populations.

With the right advanced personal training certificate, you can work with seniors or youth clients, help people with injuries or special needs, and teach groups or coach and motivate people with chronic health conditions.

Advanced Certifications are a Form of Continuing Education

Continuing education is essential for trainers. Exercise science changes as researchers make discoveries. To do your job well and serve clients effectively, you must keep learning. Additionally, most certifications require that you keep earning credits to maintain your credential.

So, if you’re going to continue taking classes to meet this requirement, why not use them toward a new level of certification. Go for elite or master certification while keeping up to date with the industry and the science of fitness.

Earn More as an Elite or Master Trainer

Achieving higher levels of certification puts you in a higher pay bracket. You can command more from a gym, health club, another employer, or clients if you work independently.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a trainer is $46,480 per year. (1) With an advanced personal training certification, you have more to offer so you can charge more.

How to Become a Personal Trainer

Becoming a personal trainer is a big step toward a rewarding career. As you plan out your future in the fitness industry, consider the types and levels of certification. You may start as an entry-level trainer, but there’s no reason not to keep building on that foundation and becoming an expert in your field.

Get your fitness career started with ISSA’s Certified Personal Trainer – Self-Guided Study Program. It’s a great first step to working as a professional trainer.

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  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Fitness Trainers and Instructors,
    at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/fitness-trainers-and-instructors.htm (visited April 23, 2024).

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