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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Sweating it Out: How to Break Into the Fitness Industry

My resume in the fitness industry looks like this: I’ve led an impromptu kickboxing class for hyper tween girls as a camp counselor, dressed as an ’80s aerobics instructor for Halloween (highly recommended, by the way, for anyone looking to keep warm and comfortable in knee-high socks and sneakers all night), and sometimes given in to the urge to mimic a Body Pump routine when “Edge of Glory” comes on the radio.

Sounds like the makings of a fitness instructor, right? Not so fast.

Fortunately for my hypothetical clients, getting your foot in the fitness door takes more than a side ponytail and a love of Gaga. But what exactly does it take? To find out, I asked a few pros to set me straight and strong. Here’s what I learned.

Certification is Only the First Step

The process to become a certified personal trainer or a certified group fitness instructor isn’t as standardized as the one to become, say, a certified public accountant or a certified nurse midwife. After all, fitness jobs aren’t licensed professions. Lots of organizations can certify you, most cost at least a couple hundred dollars and require continuing education (read: more bucks), and all can seem like scams, says Joe Cox, a personal trainer in Washington, DC, who was certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) last November. “In a nutshell,” says Cox, “[these programs] send you a book and you have to take a test.” All of that can be done, in fact, without ever stepping a sneakered foot in a gym. But, he says, “You have to do it to be a professional.”

Besides NASM, some popular certifying organizations include The American Council on Exercise (ACE), The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). To figure out which acronym will serve you best, look at the “careers” section of gym websites or ask the hiring managers at a few local gyms which organization they recommend.

Specialization is Valuable

If you want to teach a specific type of class such as yoga, Spinning, or Pilates, the list of certifying organizations—as well as amount of money, time, and talent needed—goes on. But specializing is worth it, says Angela Meyer, the DC Regional Director of Group Programming for the YMCA. “It’s a fast-paced world,” she says, and a generic certification rarely cuts it anymore.

To decide what to specialize in, Meyer suggests first asking yourself what you’re passionate about, whether that’s aerial yoga, jujitsu, or Bhangra dance. “There are specialized [programs] you could go through, but there’s not one certification that’s going to umbrella them all,” she says.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you plan to strut your Lululemon-clad calves straight from the testing site to the upscale gym for a job, be prepared to watch the hiring manager roll his or her eyes. “People go and get certified, and then say, ‘Okay, I can teach!’” Meyer says. In reality, they can’t—yet. It would sort of be like taking the SAT and then showing up for a job interview on Wall Street without experience or a college degree.

So, how do you go from a sit-down exam to a stand-up charmer? Practice, practice, practice, says Eric Schwarz, who is now the Group Program Manager at VIDA Fitness in Washington, DC. After completing a 200-hour training program through Yoga Alliance, he taught a yoga class at his church to gain experience before a paycheck. “That got me more comfortable with the language, because you don’t want to get tongue-tied,” he says. You can do something similar in the park, at work, or anywhere else with lower-than-gym standards for fitness instruction. (So, my camp “class?” Perfect.)

Now that Schwarz is the one doing the hiring, “I want to see someone talented,” he explains. That means someone with experience, who connects with participants, who is safe, and who’s got his or her pacing and rhythm down. It also means someone who focuses on the participants—not himself. “I don’t have any time for egos,” Schwarz says.

Relationships Matter

When it comes to networking, the fitness industry may let you trade your suit for leggings and a cocktail for tea, but the sentiment is the same: Connections matter for success. “It’s about relationships and networking and who you know,” Meyer says. It’s also about being real. “Are you able to connect with people? Command a room? Are you self-aware?” she asks. “You have to know who you are to be an authentic teacher.” For personal trainers, making and keeping connections is a part of the job. “It’s like working in sales,” Cox says.

Like any field, it’s also important to have a mentor (or several), Schwarz says. Find teachers or trainers you admire, take their classes, observe their cues, and ask questions about their routines. “You can always learn something from every class you take,” he says. “Just because you’re a teacher doesn’t mean you can stop being a student.”

Do it Because You Love It

There a lot of seemingly great perks to working in the fitness industry. No more gym fees! Get paid to get ripped! Wear sweats to work! But none should be the reason why you want a job in this field. “Do it because it’s fun, and do it because you enjoy leading others in a workout,” says Heather Guith, an ISSA-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor in Washington, DC. In fact, don’t expect to get much of a workout in at all if you plan to be an attentive teacher, she says.

Another bad reason to go into fitness? The money. Most beginning fitness instructors will make $20-$50 each class, and while personal trainers charge can $70-$100 per hour, about half of that will probably go to their employers. Plus, it can take at least a few months to build up a client base, Guith adds, so “don’t expect money right away.”

You also have to be flexible (and I don’t mean by doing a back-bend or toe-touch). “If you want to have a normal schedule, don’t go into personal training,” Guith says. When she began personal training in Chicago, she’d often leave work at 9 PM and take last-minute clients when others canceled—putting a serious spike in her social life. “I feel like I missed out on some things,” she says.

But missing out on happy hours and the latest episode of Game of Thrones can pay off, says Schwarz. Just 13 months ago, he left his job at the Department of Agriculture to go into fitness full-time. “It’s such a profound difference,” he says. “I am infinitely happier.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Christian.