If you’re working — or dream of working — in the fitness industry, chances are you’ve considered getting a fitness instructor certification of some kind.
There are group fitness instruction certifications, certifications for personal trainers, yoga and barre certifications…and any number of them can help you build your fitness or yoga business. Unsurprisingly, determining which one is right for you isn’t exactly the easiest process.
Think of this article as a Group Fitness Certification 101 class, complete with insights from experts in the field. We reached out to both Shannon Lay of The Connected Yoga Teacher and to Jay Nixon, our resident fitness guru, owner of Thrive Fitness, host of the podcast Thrive Forever Fitness, and bestselling author to work through all the possible angles.
In this article:
- What is a group fitness certification?
- Do I need to get certified?
- How should I pick my fitness certification program?
- The best fitness certifications and programs, according to fitness and yoga experts:
What Is a Group Fitness Instructor Certification?
You can think of a group fitness certification as an industry diploma. Fitness professionals and trainers take an exam to prove their expertise in their fields. These exams are typically tied to a fitness certification program, which can be taken in-person or online for a price.
Some programs, such as yoga teacher trainings (YTT), have strict requirements or practice and supervised instruction hours. Others can be as minimal as completing a multiple choice test. (Our experts told us that the best options tend to fall into the first camp.)
Do I Need to Get Certified to Teach Group Fitness Classes or Run a Personal Training Business?
While there are no laws or regulations surrounding fitness certification, in an increasingly competitive landscape, proof of your expertise matters — a lot. Fitness certifications (and the programs you complete to get them) prove that you set a high bar for your work, your fitness classes, and your clients.
Long Answer: Yes, But for Reasons You Might not Expect
“I think education and knowledge are vastly important,” says Jay Nixon, “Especially when you are dealing with someone else’s goals and desires.” To be able to help your client reach their goals, Nixon says, it’s essential that you know the science behind fitness. Every one of us is different, and so is our response to exercise programs.
“Most people come to personal trainers for one of two reasons: to lose weight (or cause body transformation) or to gain strength and/or muscle. In order to help someone with either of these goals, you need a working knowledge of the human body — first and foremost so that you don’t cause them harm or injury, but also so you help them achieve the desired result,” says Nixon.
Nixon is quick to explain that getting certified as a group fitness instructor or personal trainer won’t suddenly give you that knowledge. For that, you’ll need to log countless hours studying and working in the field.
Short Answer: Yep.
“Much like any certification program if you can read, remember and take a test you can become certified, says Nixon, “But is a certification a must? In my opinion: YES. It validates a basic level of knowledge and at least proves that you care about training enough to pay a few hundred dollars for the test.”
For this reason, adding a group fitness certification to your arsenal is a savvy business move as long as it’s a supplement to actually doing the work and gaining the proper education and experience.
What Fitness Certification Should I Get?
When selecting a program for you, you’ll need to weigh several factors. Here are the steps we suggest you take before deciding to move forward with a program.
What to Consider When Picking a Fitness Certification Program
1. Is the Program Vetted and Approved by NCCA?
The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), has been around in some form since 1977 to monitor and evaluate healthcare, and later (1989), fitness-related programs and organizations. Established in cooperation with the U.S. federal government, the commission seeks to “help ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public.” Before signing up for any certification program, check to see if it has NCCA’s stamp of approval. (If it’s not listed on their website, ask!)
If you’re starting a business in Europe, you’ll want to look into Europe Active, which offers the same sort of monitoring abroad.
2. How much does it cost? Can you afford it?
The cost of fitness certification programs is going to vary wildly, and that’s especially true if you want to move into a specialized area of the industry. So, you’ll want to do some research.
Make a list of 3-4 programs that appeal to you, then break them down by cost, time commitment, and a list of pros and cons.
Remember that more affordable does not equal better. If you can’t afford a program yet, consider setting up a portion of your budget or savings to allot to professional development. (If you need some ideas for finding money in your budget even during a pandemic, we highly recommend our free class on Financial Resilience.)
3. How much time will it take?
If you’re looking to add another certification as an already established fitness professional, you will probably want more time to study the materials, prepare for the exam, and get certified so that you can spread it out while working. If you’re new to the industry or looking to start working ASAP in a new fitness category, you’ll want a program that offers a more immersive experience — just remember that means you’ll need to log more hours each week.
Again, selecting the right program for you will require asking yourself realistically how much time you can commit daily and weekly.
4. Who do you know who’s done it?
When all else fails: word of mouth. If you’re looking to become a barre instructor, you’re probably already in barre studios several times a week. Stay after class a bit to chat with instructors you admire and ask them if you can pick their brains.
You can also check the websites of certain businesses to see if you notice any patterns in the types of certifications most fitness studios in your area seem to go with or if any of your favorite studios offer certification programs of their own (this is pretty standard in barre, pilates, and yoga).
5. Do you like the format?
There are all-online fitness instructor certification programs out there (we shared our favorite one below), but if you find it difficult to focus when you’re in front of a computer, they may not be the option for you — unless, of course, they’re your only option right now. Or if you’re out of work and feeling rushed to get add some new skills to your resume ASAP, an intensive program, weekend workshop, or class series might be better for you.
And then, of course, there are the programs that stretch out over months for people who are juggling jobs and studies. Which one feels best for where you are right now?
6. How scalable is the fitness certification you’re considering?
Let’s say you decide to move from Denver to San Francisco a year from now. (You may love Denver, but you never know!) Will the certification program you’re considering carry any clout in a new city? Does that matter to you? Do you feel like you’ll want to get another certification in a year or two simply because the program seems like it might become outdated quickly?
Sometimes, these questions are hard to answer — but it’s good to at least consider those possibilities.
Pro tip: Looking for an online scheduler to help run your new fitness business? With Schedulicity, you get the tools you need to manage your calendar, marketing, and payment processing — all under one roof!
The Best Fitness Instructor Certifications and Yoga Teacher Training of 2022
10 Best Certifications for Personal Trainers
Because selecting the right certification program can vary greatly according to your goals, Nixon gave us not one, but 10 certification program recommendations. “All 10 of these will have a varying curriculum and different minimum standards for course completion, (AKA certification),” he says, “Some will have an actual lab-style practical that must be completed with an instructor while others are a basic multiple-choice test you can do online.”
- ISSA – International Sports Sciences Association
- NASM – National Academy of Sports Medicine
- ACE – The American Council on Exercise
- NSCA – National Strength and Conditioning Association
- ACSM – American College of Sports Medicine
- NESTA – National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association
- NCCPT – National Council for Certified Personal Trainers
- NCSF – National Council on Strength & Fitness
- AFAA – Athletics and Fitness Association of America
- NFPT – National Federation of Professional Trainers
Think about what you most want to get out of your program, research hard, and select accordingly.
Best Certification for Yoga Instructors: Varies by Studio, But Make Sure the Program Requires at Least 200 Hours, and Preferably 300
Yoga teacher training, or YTT, varies greatly from program to program, so it’s important to do your research. (Are you sensing a trend with our advice?) For some general recommendations, though, we reached out to one of our favorite yoga instructors, podcast hosts, and Schedulicity advisor, Shannon Crow, who in turn asked yoga professional in her favorite Facebook community.
By far and away the consensus was: Any certification program worth its salt should require at minimum 200 hours of training, at least two years of consistent practice, and at least one year of teaching experience under a certified mentor. There are 300-hour are 500-hour certifications as well, which advance your experience and knowledge even more.
As one commenter, Leah Shirton of Happy Body Yogi puts it, “I tell people 200 is your undergrad and 500 is like your masters.” Meanwhile, Wenlin Tan of Yoga in Torino argues that 300, not 200, is closer to the sweet spot because that’s the zone where you learn “advanced sequencing, anatomy, and the business aspects.”
Most of all, the yoga instructors we heard from say that you should choose a reputable school and a teacher you trust. And remember that some programs will work better for you than others, so don’t be afraid to look around until you find the perfect fit.
Want more insight? Crow also shared a recent podcast she did with Cecily Milne on how to choose a Yoga Teacher Training where they cover how to pick the right one for you.
Best Online Fitness Instructor Certification: ACE Certification Programs (Any of Them)
The ACE programs pop up everywhere — including Jay’s recommendations for personal trainers — for a reason: they’re some of the absolute best. So, if you’re interested in going an online-only route, we’d say this is probably a great bet.
You can choose between the online personal trainer certification program (recently updated in 2020), the online group fitness instructor certification program, or even the medical exercise specialist or health coach certification programs — all of which are available online. Each one features a digital classroom as well as digital textbooks. You can invest in a higher-priced program for added support and resources. ACE also offers payment plans if you’d prefer to avoid a huge expense all at once (though remember that you’ll ultimately pay more over time).
One piece of advice we heard consistently while researching this article was that a professional fitness or yoga instructor license is not everything. It’s a great supplement to consistent and diligent practice and education.
Most of the yoga instructors we talked to, for example, emphasized that they regularly take workshops and intensives on specific topics (such as yin yoga). And Nixon could not stress enough that he believes in putting in the hard work, finding mentorship, and dedicating yourself to your studies rather than leaning on the shiny stamp of fitness certifications.
That said, they’re a great way to demonstrate that you’re passionate about what you do — and that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.