How to Become a Fitness Instructor
If you’ve ever considered a career as a fitness instructor or wondered how your trainer gained his or her expertise, you may be surprised to realize how much each career path varies. Your yoga teacher may have learned from a famous yogi on a beach retreat or spent 500 hours perfecting flow, breathing technique, and style in the same studio where you’re lucky enough to spend one hour in a week. While spin instructors might endure a nerve wracking “audition” to land a job, some personal trainers may rely more heavily on referrals and networking than a resume full of certifications.
Most yoga studios offer training courses accredited by The Yoga Alliance, which is a organization that established a standard system of evaluating yoga teachers and studios. Most studios looking to hire a new instructor will seek out those who have completed some level of training through a Yoga Alliance certified studio. The training courses are not difficult to find because studios benefit from the profit they generate from offering them. For a yoga studio’s training program to meet the specifications of The Yoga Alliance, they must require 200 hours of technique and practice in addition to the study of methodology, anatomy, physiology and yoga philosophy. The training then culminates in a practicum during which a student will teach a class evaluated by an instructor and then a written test.
When choosing where to take a course, an aspiring instructor should pay attention to a few key factors. Some courses are accelerated programs that last only a few months but require a greater time commitment each week, while others last several months but only require a single class per week. It is also important to consider the type of yoga to specialize in. Aspiring instructors should familiarize themselves with Vinyasa, Bikram, Ashtanga and other common practices to choose which style matches their interests. Some studios even offer special Yoga Alliance approved courses in prenatal yoga or yoga for children. Class prices vary by studio and program but typically cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000.
To become a training level instructor who can teach training courses, the instructor will need to have the 500 hour teaching course, 1,000 teaching hours and be approved by Yoga Alliance. Lyndsay Fuls of Yoga Yoga says that the part of the price in the training program comes from the mastery of the teachers and the power of the Yoga Alliance.
“When a training is yoga alliance certified or you’re eligible to receive credit for the training what typically happens is the teacher is actually more tenured and so the teacher is going to cost more which is going to jack up the price,” Fuls says. “Generally that’s how you make your money when you’re a teacher. You want to get to that training level.”
Beyond the basic 200 hour program that allows a student to become a registered yoga teacher, there are further courses, like 500 hour programs that allow registered yoga teachers to refine their style and specialize in certain areas of interest. It is also possible to become a registered teacher by attending an intensive retreat with a well established instructor or founder of a certain style of practice. These retreats last anywhere from a week to a month and give students an alternative and more specialized, albeit expensive, route toward becoming a registered teacher.
To get hired at at studio, Fuls suggests potential teachers complete their certification and using the skills you learned to lead volunteer-based classes.
“They want you to have at least a year of experience teaching yoga. Usually how people start is they’ll start volunteer based or at a gym. Somewhere where yoga teaching is not the main thing they do. With a studio, they want more experience,” Fuls says.
Pilates instructor courses vary much more by studio. With some studios focusing on a particular style and others incorporating different Pilates reformers and equipment, the courses offered are more specialized to each studio. For some, potential teachers must apply and have previous experience teaching or taking Pilates classes and then be evaluated by teaching an audition class to get into the program. For certain Pilates styles like Lagree Fitness, studios will have certified instructors travel to different locations to offer a certification workshop for the instructors at the studio so that they can get an official certification after they’ve been hired. There are a few Pilates certification organizations that studios can offer courses through however they are becoming less popular and applicable because they focus more on one on one style training than group fitness classes.
Maja Kermath, founder of Kor180, says that other studios may use teacher certification programs as a revenue generator more than as a way to teach instructors to lead a group class. As a result, more studios like Kor180 train potential teachers themselves instead of looking for people who are already certified.
“I think there’s this massive shift, this pivot in the industry where group exercise is more popular than one on one training and folks, as a result, are developing their own teacher training programs that fit their own philosophy,” Kermath says.
With each studio specializing and differentiating in different ways, it's becoming less important to have a general pilates background and more important to have a dedication and willingness to master a certain style through the teacher training course at a specific studio.
With spin studios exploding in popularity in recent years it's not surprising to learn that the road to becoming a spin instructor is a competitive one. Typically studios will hold auditions where potential candidates may take an abbreviated class and get evaluated on their interactions with others, charisma, and general fitness. There is usually an interview process as well, in which candidates are asked about their experience with spin classes either as participants or as teachers. The final candidates will progress to a second phase of the interview where they will lead a shortened demo class.
Steph Dietz, Studio Director at Cyc Austin, says that potential instructors can best showcase their talents in the demo phase of the interview process.
“That's a really good way for us to see how comfortable people are with more specific things as far as queuing, rhythm with the music and understanding music and how they can teach to it, use their voice over the mic and how they can command the room.”
Most spin studios will follow a similar format with the intensity of competition for a spot varying by popularity of the studio. Once hired, each studio trains instructors to meet their specific standards. At Cyc, the training program lasts 6 to 8 weeks and involves a variety instruction.
“We go through different things like nutrition and anatomy, how to structure a class, how to find new music, how to create a playlist, all of those key components,” Dietz says. “Then we have our instructors do two to three 'tribe rides,' so they'll do community rides where they'll invite in a bunch of friends and family to practice in the studio and then from there they will graduate to becoming an official instructor.”
While entering an audition does not cost any money, aspiring instructors will likely have to gain a lot of experience taking classes prior to auditioning.
At gyms that are run by a larger company and have a vast network of franchises across the US, there is generally a company wide policy on hiring personal trainers. Most gyms, whether they’re a large franchise or not, will require applicants to be a Certified Personal Trainer, or CPT, who has passed a test offered by a nationally accredited training program. One of the most commonly accepted CPT tests is the one offered through The National Academy of Sports Science or NASM. Through NASM, candidates can simply sign up to take the test or they can order study guides, materials and other learning resources to prepare for it. The courses and study materials range from around $700 to $1,500. NASM and other organizations are certified by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or NCCA. Occasionally large gyms will hire a potential trainer that is uncertified under the condition that they shadow other trainers and pass a nationally recognized certification test within a short period of time after they are hired.
Director of Programs and Services at Castle Hill Fitness, Amy Rogers, says that while applicants are not required to have a degree, it could give them a leg up.
“Having a four year degree in a related fitness field is definitely a plus. It’s what we’re looking for because it shows longevity and commitment,” Rogers says.
All of this does not necessarily mean that everyone who works as a personal trainer has an updated certification or has even ever been certified at all. Some personal trainers work as independent contractors and essentially pay to use gym space with their own clients. While being certified certainly helps a trainer gain credibility, they can technically build a client base through referrals and networking alone. Where they can work may depend on gym policies.
“[non certified trainers] has clouded the industry for some time. That extends over multiple different industries. There’s a lot of different types of certifications and some are better than others,” Rogres says. “Having a passion for fitness and ‘walking the walk’ can be convincing enough. To be an independent contractor, all you are going off of is your word.”
Typically, trainers will invest in the certification either at the outset of their career or after some time working in a related field to increase their credibility and earning potential. There are also specialized certifications such as those in nutrition or elderly training, that trainers can take to differentiate themselves and gain a specialty.
“Austin has a pretty robust fitness community and I do think that it is tough to get into the community if you’re new to town but I think authenticity goes a long way here. I think that’s part of our Southern roots and our friendly culture that we have here,” TK says. “As long as you can be open and honest and yourself you’ll find some place, there’s so many different ways to be a personal trainer.”