How to Become a Strength Training Specialist

A career as a strength training specialist can be both rewarding and lucrative. Personal trainers with expertise in building strength and muscle are in demand. In fact, all personal trainers and fitness professionals are in demand with a job growth rate of 13 percent, much faster than average job growth across all industries.

The path you take to become a strength training specialist will depend on your career goals. To work as a personal trainer in a gym or independently, specializing in strength training, only requires that you become a certified trainer with some specialty training. But, if you hope to work with athletes at the college or professional level, or even in high school, you may need to earn a degree first.

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What is a Strength Training Specialist?

A strength training specialist is any fitness professional who has additional training in developing and working with clients in building strength. The term is broad and may mean different things depending on the individual and where they work.

For instance, a personal trainer with a specialty certification in strength generally works like any other trainer. They meet with clients, help them set goals, develop workout programs to meet those goals and then assess their progress. These trainers focus on strength training and work with clients who are trying to get stronger and build muscle. They mostly work in gyms but may also be self-employed.

A strength training specialist may also work more as a coach or a conditioning specialist. These trainers earn more—an average of $59,000 per year compared to $42,000 for personal trainers—and they work with athletes to help them get stronger during the off season and maintain condition and prevent injuries during their seasons.

This latter type of strength specialist earns more and has more specialized clients, but they also have more education, training and credentials. They usually have a college degree as well as certification in strength and conditioning.

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The Degree Pathway to Becoming a Strength Training Specialist

If your hope is to work with athletes on strength and conditioning, you will need to start with a college degree. Most employers require a four-year bachelor’s degree, although some may accept a two-year degree. Typical areas of study for this career include exercise science, kinesiology, athletic training, exercise physiology and physical education.

As part of a degree program you will probably get some hands-on experience, working with trainers to learn how to help athletes and clients. This is an important part of training for this career. If your school’s program doesn’t include it as a requirement, consider finding an internship or a job with the kind of trainer you hope to become. This will provide valuable experience.

Another important part of working as a trainer is being certified in CPR and AED. Again, if your degree program does not include this training and certification, seek it out on your own. Many schools offer it separately, but local community organizations also hold certification classes.

Once you have graduated with your degree, you will need to become certified. Most strength and conditioning specialists working with athletes have a credential from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

The NSCA is the most widely-recognized organization for certifying strength and conditioning professionals. The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential is needed for many jobs in this field. To take the CSCS exam, you must have a bachelor’s degree or be a senior in a degree program and be certified in CPR/AED. Registration for the exam is $340 for NSCA members and $475 for non-members.

The Personal Trainer Pathway to Strength Training and Coaching

If you want a faster route to becoming a strength training specialist, consider becoming a personal trainer first. With this path, you may not be able to work as a strength coach with athletes, but there are still many opportunities for employment including starting your own business.

The first step is to complete a program for becoming a certified personal trainer. This will provide the foundational knowledge and skills that all trainers need. You do not have to have a college degree to enroll, but be selective when choosing a program. It should be accredited, have a few hundred hours of coursework and culminate in a certifying exam. Some of the best online schools for personal training, all of which are accredited, include:

  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
  • American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  • International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

Once you have this base-level certification, which should only take about two months with self-paced, online learning, you can earn a specialization. Not all of the above schools have a strength training certification, but you do have a few options:

  • National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT). Accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the NCCPT’s Certified Strength Training Specialist program is intended to help trainers add strength work as a specialty for clients. The complete program includes online study materials, exam prep materials, access to career advisers and the certification exam.
  • National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF). The NCSF is also accredited by the NCAA. The Certified Strength Coach program will teach you strength training exercises and proper form, how to develop strength programs for clients, how to use assessment tools to track progress, and strategies for developing power and agility along with strength. The course takes a few months to complete and includes a certifying exam. A hands-on workshop is available as an add-on to the program.
  • International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA). The accredited IFPA program for Strength Training Specialist certification includes a textbook, study guide and certification exam. The program teaches you the principles of strength training as well as nutritional guidelines for building muscle.
  • International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). The ISSA does not have a specialty program called strength training specialist, but it does offer a few related certification programs. These include strength and conditioning, to prepare you to work with athletes; powerlifting, a type of workout that uses a specific technique for building strength and power; and bodybuilding, to train you to work with and coach clients interested in fitness competitions.

Landing a Job as a Strength Training Specialist

Once you have followed and completed either of the available pathways, you will be ready to land your first job training clients. Gyms, spas, resorts, wellness centers, community organizations and fitness centers, local parks and recreation departments, corporations with employee wellness programs, and retirement communities are great places to look for personal training jobs with a certification in strength training.

If you have a degree as well as certification, you may also be qualified to work with amateur and professional athletic organizations. Professional sports teams, Olympic teams and athletes, colleges and universities, and high schools hire qualified trainers to work with athletes on strength and conditioning.

A good place to start looking for a job is with your college or training program. Most offer career placement or advising. The networks these schools have developed over the years include many potential employers, so let them bring some job opportunities to you. If you are unable to find the job you want right away, get into any gym and start working with clients. Training experience now will help you land your dream job later.

Working Independently as a Strength Specialist

Personal training and strength coaching are suitable careers for entrepreneurship. Whether you want to freelance and take on a few clients part-time or start a small personal training business, you will need to learn to be a business person as well as a trainer.

You will need to learn to market yourself and win clients without the backing of a gym or larger organization. Use social media, a website, networking and free events to bring in potential new clients. Work out of your home, go to your clients’ homes, work outdoors or rent space in gyms to get started working with clients.

Just be sure you have appropriate insurance lined up and are already certified so that you can avoid liability in the event someone gets injured or is unsatisfied with your services. Freelancing as a trainer and starting your own business does come with risks and a lot of hard work, but it can also be rewarding to build from nothing.

Careers in fitness are booming right now as people realize the benefits and rewards of working out and being in good health. As the industry grows, there is more demand for trainers but also increased expectations. Employers and clients are looking for highly educated trainers. They want personal trainers with specializations too, like strength training. As a certified personal trainer with a specialty in strength training, you’ll draw more clients and be able to earn more in this exciting, rewarding career.