How to Become a Personal Trainer Specializing in Sports Conditioning

Becoming a personal trainer requires some specific steps, such as completing an educational program and taking a certification exam. This doesn’t have to be the end of the road, though. Personal trainers often specialize in one or more areas, like sports conditioning, also known as strength and conditioning.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fitness trainer careers are growing rapidly, at 13 percent. Salaries are $40,000 per year and up. But if you get a specialty certification, one that qualifies you to work with and train athletes, you can earn more and find yourself in even greater demand. 

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What is a Personal Trainer Specializing in Sports Conditioning?

Generalized personal trainers work with clients to meet any number of fitness and health goals: weight loss or maintenance, building strength, managing pain, recovering from injuries, or specific athletic achievements.

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A trainer specializing in strength and conditioning, or sports conditioning, has a narrower focus. They work with athletes specifically to improve athletic performance. This means they do a variety of things when working with clients:

  • Assess athletes to find areas that need improvement
  • Conduct sports-specific assessments
  • Plan workouts, especially strength training, that will improve performance in a specific sport
  • Guide athletes in nutrition
  • Help athletes prevent injuries
  • Refer athletes to other professionals as needed

Sports conditioning trainers work as athletic coaches in high schools and colleges and for amateur and professional sports teams. They work with Olympic athletes and other athletes in training. They may also become athletic directors for schools and organizations.

Athletes need these specialized trainers to build fitness, strength, power and agility in the off-season and to maintain fitness and avoid injury during their athletic seasons.

Do I Need to Be a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)?

There are no laws in any states that require personal trainers to have a specific education or to hold certain credentials. However, without certification your career prospects will be limited. If your goal is to work with student athletes or professionals, you should have both a degree and certification.

A certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) has extensive background knowledge in exercise science, training and athletics. Many employers require the certification and a degree to work with athletes. The stakes are high in sports, and it’s important to know how to train athletes effectively and without injuries.

The College Track to Sports Conditioning

The most recognized certification for this specialty is the CSCS offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). To get certified, you must first earn a four-year degree.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. Earning a degree is the right first step if you are serious about this career and know you want to work with athletes and be able to advance in the industry. There is no specific major required, so if you already have a degree in an unrelated field, you can study for and take the certification exam. If you have not yet earned a degree, good options are to major in exercise science, kinesiology, physical education, athletic training, personal training or exercise physiology.
  • Get CPR and AED certified. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, the NSCA requires that certification applicants are trained and certified in CPR and AED. Your degree program may include this, but if not, it’s easy to find classes locally to get certified.
  • Take the CSCS exam. To get certified, your next step is to take the CSCS exam. You must first register for the exam, and then you can send in your degree transcripts and CPR/AED certification documents. The exam costs $475 or $340 for NSCA members. The NSCA website includes a description of the exam and study materials. You can retake the exam for an additional fee.

The Non-College Track to Sports Conditioning

This track may limit career options and job positions, but it is much faster. You can complete all of this in less than a year and do most or all of it online and for much less money than the college track. It may be a good option if your time is limited and you need to start earning right away as a trainer. Or, if you are uncertain that strength and conditioning is the right career for you, this is an easy way to get started without investing too much money.

  1. Complete a personal training education program and get certified. You will first need some foundational knowledge in personal training. Many online schools, like the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), offer online, self-paced programs for becoming a general personal trainer. Most of these are followed by a certification exam. The above programs are all accredited, so employers recognize their certifications.
  • Complete a specialty course with certification. Once you have a general education as a personal trainer, you can complete an online course in sports conditioning or strength and conditioning, followed by certification. The ISSA, for instance, offers a strength and conditioning specialization with certification exam that does not require holding a bachelor’s degree. The program takes eight to ten weeks to complete and is self-paced.

If you complete this track and start working as a trainer, you can always return to college and earn a degree. This will open up more job opportunities in athletic and sports conditioning. Online certification programs are good for starting a general career in training, but you will need more education to land most jobs in athletics.

Work with a Mentor or Land Your First Job

Once you are certified as a strength and conditioning specialist, you will be qualified to work in the industry, but you may want to start out in a mentorship role. Learning in school, whether online or in person, builds a foundation of knowledge that is necessary to do the job. But, to really learn how to work with athletes requires doing and observing.

Through your degree program you may be placed with a mentor trainer or even be required to complete an internship. If not, network through gyms, colleges, schools and athletic organizations. Many experienced trainers are happy to work with new trainers, offering mentoring and hands-on work experience. This is a great way to learn but also a resume-builder that will help you get a job.

When it’s time to look for work, check with all the same organizations: schools, universities, athletic departments, community athletic groups and even gyms. Some sports conditioning coaches don’t work for teams but instead train athletes during their off-season in gyms or in their homes.

You may also want to consider starting a small business as a trainer. Because this is such a specialized field, it’s a good idea to get a few years of work experience before branching out on your own. Freelance or small business athletic trainers may start their own gyms, rent space in other gyms or work in an athlete’s school or home gyms.

Earn More Specialties in Strength and Conditioning

Once you have worked as a strength and conditioning coach for a while, you may want to consider learning specialty skills. NSCA, for instance, offers certifications that will allow you to offer more types of training and win more specialized jobs.

The Certified Population Specialist program will train you to work with athletes with special needs. These may include chronic illnesses or disabilities. It will also include training to work with specific groups, like youth or senior athletes.

The Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator program teaches you how to work with clients in the military, fire and rescue, protective services and law enforcement. These individuals have special requirements for strength and conditioning that improve job performance, minimize injuries and reduce risks on the job.

The NSCA also offers the Registered Strength and Conditioning certification at three levels. These recognize professionalism and experience in the field and are applicable after two years, ten years and 20 years of work experience as a coach.

Maintain Certification

Regardless of the type of certification you earn to work as a strength and conditioning coach or specialist, you will need to maintain it. Check with your certifying agency to find out the requirements. Most include continuing education credits every few years. You may be able to earn some credits online, but there may also be in-person requirements.

Working as a personal trainer specializing in sports conditioning can be both rewarding and challenging. It’s a career that allows you to work with elite athletes, helping them improve and stay strong while avoiding injury. Start with an education, preferably a degree program, and get certified for the best job opportunities.