Choosing the right group fitness certification can be confusing at first glance, whether you’re an aspiring trainer or a more seasoned instructor interested in adding another area of expertise to your skillset.

With so many different fitness disciplines out there (and new ones gaining traction frequently), it can be tough to decipher which courses are worth completing to improve your bottom line.

We asked a few fitness instructors who have successfully navigated the world of certifications to give us their real take on how to determine what certifications you need, which ones are nice to have and which aren’t really worth the trouble. Here’s what they had to say on what kind of instructor certification you should get, and why.

Start with the basics

If you’re a new instructor, start with a certification that helps you get the fundamentals of group fitness training under your belt. “A great foundation is AFAA’s Group Exercise Certification,” says Lauren Chiarello, an instructor at exhale and Flex studios. “It’s important to find a program, studio or gym that will actually help you to learn how to teach as well as learn anatomy,” she continues. “For example, I believe a Pilates Mat certification is helpful for all instructors. Building our core strength is the foundation for all that we do in exercise!”

A few foundational certifications to consider:

National Academy of Sports Medicine

  • What it is: If injury prevention is something you’re interested in learning more about (as every instructor should be!) the National Association of Sports Medicine CPT certification focuses on corrective exercises, as well as certifies you to teach general fitness clientele and work as a certified personal trainer. Most athletic trainers hold this certification due to the prevalence of injury involved in competitive sports.
  • Getting certified: The NASM certification process is flexible based on your needs. Their self-study base level option offers the materials needed to study on your own, and the packages scale up from there. You have up to six months to study for and complete the exam and need to log 20 hours of participation with an accredited NASM facility. You’ll need to complete CPR training in order to obtain this certification.
  • What it costs: NASM’s self-study option costs $749, $899 for the self-study and live workshop, $999 with self-study and online course. Access to all of these plus a “job guarantee” (where they work with you to place you with an NASM accredited facility after you complete the course) clocks in at $1,299, and if you want to tack an internship of sorts onto that with one of NASM’s affiliate health clubs or facilities (which counts toward your required hours), you can do so at $1,999.

American Council on Exercise

  • What it is: A certification accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. This certification allows you to work as a group fitness instructor, ACE health coach, and advanced health and fitness specialist. You can also be certified as a personal trainer for an added cost.
  • Getting certified: You have up to six months to take the exam, and need to log 20 hours of participation with an accredited ACE facility. You also need to get certified in CPR.
  • What it costs: ACE offers standard, premium, or premium plus CPT packages at $599, $699 and $799. This also covers the cost of the exam.

American College of Sports Medicine

  • What it is: If you plan on taking your fitness training practice beyond the studio, you may want to consider a certification from the American College of Sports Medicine. In addition to being certified as a personal and group fitness trainer, this certification also allows you to work in a clinical setting.
  • Getting certified: You have six months to complete the exam, but you’ll need to log 45 hours at an accredited facility, and have your CPR certification.
  • What it costs: Test prep resources clock in at $135, and there are three workshop options to choose from: in-person 3-day workshops ($375), in-person 1-day workshops ($129), or an online webinar series ($240). The test is $299, but if you opt for the 3-day workshop you’ll get a $50 discount.

Explore opportunities to get certified in-house

Once you have your group fitness certification under your belt, take a look at certifications offered by studios where you’d love to teach at. “Exhale has a 40-hour training that anyone can sign up for,” says Chiarello. “From there, you audition to get accepted to complete 200 hours of total training to teach at exhale. It was a blend of formal teaching hours, observing classes, assisting classes and teaching practice classes.”

Evaluate your personal needs as an instructor

If you already know what discipline you want to focus on, don’t be afraid to enroll in a certification that focuses solely on teaching that fitness class from the get-go. “My first certification was with Corepower Yoga for the 90 hour sculpt course,” says Elyse Kaye, an instructor at Body Temp Yoga and Crunch. “I went through training to build on my own practice and to improve on areas. However, once I had that paper, I started subbing which led to teaching followed by several additional trainings and certifications. I now have been certified in several forms of yoga, pilates, Zumba, POUND, Buti and even a spin certification. Each time, I learn more about my own fitness journey as well as cues for teaching. It gives me an opportunity to teach more but more importantly, makes me a well-rounded enthusiast.”

Don’t let lack of experience deter you from getting certified

While most fitness certifications require you to spend a certain amount of hours in the field, don’t let your lack of training experience put you off from getting your first certification.

“After discovering a love (and strength) for indoor cycling, I decided I wanted to pursue instruction,” says Julia Sullivan, instructor at Crank Cycling Studio. “The lead instructor advised me to seek out one of two programs online that the studio I wanted to work at accepted––Schwinn and Mad Dogg. The actual certification wasn’t all that difficult: I paid $500, spent a day in a town two hours away learning about basic indoor cycling fundamentals and safety, and had to pass an open-book test with an 80% score or above. The real training, however, occurred when I came back to the studio with that certification––I was preparing for months for my debut ride. Each studio, including the one I currently work at, has their own unique approach to indoor cycling. But even more so, you have to be a performer to be successful as an instructor and have a knack for rhythm and DJ’ing––things I pretty much had to learn from scratch.”

Make sure the certification is one you’re passionate about

“Certifications are hard work,” says Kaye. “200 hours of yoga, for instance, can get daunting even for the most passionate yogi. Take classes from many different teachers before, during and after your certification. Tie in with a studio or gym that will allow you to both teach as well as explore your passions.” Also, keep tabs on the types of exercise classes that are trending within your discipline. “I recently got certified in Buti yoga which has a very passionate following,” says Kaye. “I now bring some of those teachings into my Pilates and boot camp classes.”

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