Last Updated October 20, 2023 (originally published on February 27, 2014)
The first step in any journey is often the toughest to take. If you’ve already passed your ACE Certification exam, you may be starting a new career and be wondering, “what’s next ” Or perhaps you haven’t taken an ACE exam yet and are still trying to figure out if this industry is the right one for you.
Either way, now is the time to find (or create) your own path in an industry that features countless opportunities. You may hope to lead exercise sessions or teach classes in a local facility and become a fixture of your community. Or, maybe you’re more interested in setting up a home studio and becoming an online health coach, personal trainer or group fitness instructor. You might become self-employed, work in a large gym or become a small-business owner. The variations are endless, which means that the fitness industry will likely offer a home for you. You just have to find it—or build it yourself.
Here, we asked five industry veterans, all of whom are long-time friends of ACE, for advice they would like to share with newcomers to the fitness industry and those contemplating whether it’s a good fit for them.
Education and hands-on experience are two big keys to getting started. Education goes without saying—it's empowering to learn and understand. I took advantage of any opportunity to learn from other instructors and trainers, and, years later, journalists—shadowing, observing and then putting it into practice myself. I spent endless hours doing things for free or just getting educated to better my skills. I always say LUCK is preparation meeting opportunity!
Also, be smart about your digital footprint. If you are trying to create a brand, your social and digital profiles should match your values and your goals.
Follow Chris on Instagram at instagram.com/chrisfreytag
My best advice for breaking into the industry is don’t go at it alone—whatever that means to you, find a great network with which to surround yourself. Think about a mentor who is doing what you want to do, veterans that have been in the business for a while, people that are willing to share their missteps with you to help lead you in the right direction. Our industry operates in silos, which hampers innovation and growth. Find a great group with which to surround yourself and you can accomplish just about anything!
—Shannon Fable, ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Health Coach; 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year
Follow Shannon on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/shannonfable
It can take a while to develop a clientele as a trainer, so it’s a good idea to have another job and start training part-time. Many club companies allow managers to train clients part-time, and if being a trainer is your ultimate goal, it can be helpful to use your experience from outside of fitness by starting in a full-time management position. As you develop a clientele and improve your skills, you can make the transition to a full-time trainer. That’s how I did it when I got into the industry. I had a job in a different field, but wanted to learn about fitness so I started at the front desk part-time. From there I became assistant manager and then general manager. Along the way, I trained clients and took every opportunity to learn from other trainers and continue my education by attending events in my area. Once I had a critical mass of clients I transitioned, into a full-time trainer role.
—Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, ACE Certified Personal Trainer; Author of Smarter Recovery: A Practical Guide to Maximizing Training Results
Follow Pete on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/pete-mccall-b9540380/
If you are fairly clear on what path in fitness you want to take (trainer, group fitness instructor, hybrid trainer) and where you want to work (large gym, studio, fully independent, etc.), then get certified and get started. There’s nothing that can replace experience. And if you know the location and type of training you are most drawn to, then it is best to get out there and start doing it as soon as possible. Of course, entry-level positions will often be all that is available, but the experience you gain can be invaluable. While this is going on, identify people who are more experienced and occupying the same spot in the industry you would like to occupy and reach out to them. Most of us in fitness have gotten where we are with some help from others and we are often willing to pay this favor forward.
If you are uncertain about your fitness path and where/how you’d like to work, then begin studying to get certified as a personal trainer. While you’re preparing, reach out to a variety of people in roles you find appealing and ask for a short interview for some insights. Keep the questions limited and just begin to gather some ideas for how you might be able to express the passion you have for fitness in the industry. Once you’ve done a little groundwork to create some potential options and scenarios for your career, consider some mentoring to help sort through the choices. Any full-time fitness professional that has been at it for a while has a lot of experience that has likely been learned through much trial and error. Investing in mentoring can more than pay for itself in saving you the time and headaches of making those same mistakes. Some options for mentoring include my own, Shannon Fable or Lawrence Biscontini.
And whether your professional path is certain or uncertain, from an educational perspective, start learning everything you can about health that “isn’t fitness.” Fitness is about more than exercise. The future client of a fitness professional will expect more than just competency in exercise program design and instruction. Learn about posture, corrective exercise, brain fitness, motivation and behavior change, sleep, stress management and nutrition. Anything related to wellness would be relevant. The population is skewing older and by 2030, one in five people in the U.S. will be age 65 or older. Worldwide, the 65 and up age group outnumbered people under age 5 for the first time in human history in 2018. Further, people at mid-life and beyond as a whole represent the third largest economy in the world, after China and the U.S. They’ve got both the means to afford your services and the motivation to maintain vitality and thrive with age.
—Jonathan Ross, ACE Certified Personal Trainer; Creator of Funtensity, multiple Personal Trainer of the Year Award Winner (ACE, IDEA and PFP Magazine); creator of the Alzheimer’s and Brain Fitness Specialist Course
Follow Jonathan on X at twitter.com/JonathanRossFit
The most beneficial thing I did to break into the fitness industry was job-shadow as a high school student. Not only did I learn so much from the trainers and instructors I followed, I also got my foot in the door. From there I spent some time working the front desk, playroom and even cleaning the locker rooms. But by doing that the staff got to know me and I was able to grow as a fitness professional. Simply mailing out your résumé can work, but letting others see your true personality first is a benefit to both parties involved.
Attending in-person fitness conferences such as IDEA, IHRSA and Club Industry is not only valuable for education, but also for exposure to many in the fitness industry. Through these in-person conferences, connections and relationships are built, along with your resume!
—Shana Verstegen, ACE Certified Personal Trainer; TRX, ACE and Keiser Cycling master instructor
Follow Shana on Instagram at instagram.com/shanaUW
Business management is a sometimes-overlooked element of success in the fitness industry. To learn how to successfully market yourself or your business and operate a fiscally responsible business, check out this course: Fitness Business Management (worth 2.0 ACE CECs.)
Also, you may be inspired to read a Q&A and watch a video about Harry King, who, at 80 years old, became an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and is still looking forward and setting new career goals for himself.