Do you need certifications to become a personal trainer? No! History provides us with real-life examples of people who never had any kind of certification and still ran a successful personal-training business. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a full-time personal trainer for a brief time, without having any serious kind of qualifications—except being strong and muscular! There are many more people like Arnold who did an excellent job personal training. To name a few: Vince Gironda, Charles Atlas, Bill Pearl, Jack LaLanne, and so on. Some of them were muscular, strong, or just geniuses, but the majority didn’t have a bachelor’s degree or a licence.
The purpose of this article is to give you a retrospective view of how to become a personal trainer, including some history lessons and real-life examples, and we will discuss the importance of education and qualifications.
History of Becoming a Personal Trainer (Germany)
A prominent example of becoming a personal trainer without having any kind of licence is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Furthermore, he played a key role in launching the first personal certification service, which is even recognized by the state of Germany and its universities!
In general, Germany was breeding smart and passionate personal trainers even before Arnold set foot in the country of philosophers and thinkers. Carl von Voit was a brilliant German scientist who was one of the first investigators of protein usage. He made the statement that all humans must consume protein, fat, and carbs. He was not physique-conscious and didn’t teach any physical exercises, but he taught the importance of proper nutrition.
Mr. Voit was born in 1878 and grew up in Munich. Interestingly, he was even mentioned in the bodybuilding magazine Iron Man. They published an article entitled, “Protein—How Much? What Kind?”. The article was penned by Stephen A. Downs and addressed to Vince Gironda, a famous fitness guru from Hollywood. According to Downs, Mr. Voit established that a man requires 118 grams of protein per day. Later, an American student of Carl von Voit named W.O. Atwater raised this standard to 145 grams per day.
It’s not recorded whether Mr. Voit personally trained individuals the conventional way (face to face), but he drew a lot attention. According to Wikipedia, Voit was a successful teacher, and students from all around the world used to visit his school in Munich.
I found an old lecture by Voit, which was given in 1875. According to him, you must be conscious about what kinds of food you consume, and you must not trust your instincts. In Voit’s words, “Mostly, the senses of hunger and thirst are the unmistakable indicators that teach us to always find the right thing, which is why people believe that we do not have to take care of our nutrition. However, somebody could just claim that a human possesses a sufficiently accurate indicator for spoiled air or bad drinking water, and our senses of smell and taste will warn us. (…) The right decision of food—even when freely chosen—must not be left to our feelings alone, and many gross mistakes are made in this process.”
Another pioneer in fitness and health is Frenchman Hippolyte Triat. He is credited for founding the first public gymnasium in Europe, where people practiced the true and original form of personal training. If you Google “pictures of Triat’s Gym,” then you will see a huge facility filled with vintage equipment. Hippolyte was truly huge and had that broad-shouldered look! Golden-Era Bookworm created a great YouTube video on him. Hippolyte studied Roman and Greek gymnastic exercises from ancient books and was science conscious. Furthermore, he drew the attention of high society.
The home city of Arnold, called Graz, seems to be a magical place when it comes to bodybuilding because the genius personal trainer and gym owner Leopold Merc was born there, too, in 1932. Then, in 1956 (when Arnold was 9 years old), he made the same decision to emigrate to Berlin, Germany.
In an interview, he admitted feeling quite lost, and it was not easy decision to make. In Merc’s words, “I had a lot of plans in my youth about what I wanted to do with my life. Bodybuilding has made me a completely different person.”
So, he decided to establish his own bodybuilding gym in Berlin and become a personal trainer. Furthermore, he competed as a bodybuilder and managed to place first in the Mr. Universe contest.
Nothing is recorded on Leopold’s training certification, but he did a terrific job as a gym owner. According to an interview, 40,000 people passed through the doors of his gym, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
You might ask yourself, “What happened to him?” To be honest, I thought, “He is gone, and did personal training just for a brief time.” I was so wrong! I recently watched a report which was published in 2015 on the TV show “Sportschau.” It is available on Facebook. I linked it here (facebook.com/sportschau/videos/poldi-merc-bodybuilding), and it’s just mind blowing. It’s really a must-watch—even if you don’t understand a single word of German!
According to the narrator, Merc is 85 years old and still going strong. He never stopped bodybuilding or personal training. In the video, at 00:56, he’s squatting, and then at 01:35, he’s instructing an 83-year-old man. His apartment is filled with vintage fitness equipment, and Merc’s mind is so clear and straightforward; there’s no sign of dementia or any other mental disease. He reasons that his longevity is due to weightlifting and always being active. In his words, “We were born to move. It’s our duty to exercise our body.”
The Personal Training Story of Arnold Schwarzenegger
One of the most famous personal trainers is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Much has been written on Arnold’s training and making the American dream come true, but only a minority of fans are aware of Arnold’s life as a personal trainer in Munich.
In his heyday as a weightlifter in Austria, there was an individual named Kurt Manul who claiming to have personally trained Arnold. Kurt Manul was the first athlete to beat Arnold in several competitions in a row. Both used to compete in the Mr. Austria contest, and Arnold always lost, but then Arnold became bigger and bigger, and he got the opportunity to compete in Germany.
In 1965, Arnold entered the German competition “Bestgebauter Athlet”, which was held by Peter Gottlob. At that time, Arnold was 17 years old and managed to beat the rising German star Franz Dischinger. In the audience, there was a young spectator named Albert Busek, who was the former editor-in-chief and photographer of the magazine Kraft Sport Revue. Albert had a keen business sense and gave Arnold the opportunity to come to Munich and work as an instructor. (Decades later, Busek’s decision to team up with Arnold would turn into a big moneymaking machine.)
Arnold accepted the offer and worked from 1966 to 1968 as a trainer in Putziger’s Gym, which was located at Schillerstraße 36. Quite interestingly, Arnold had no qualifications. The only thing of authority which allowed him to work as a trainer was his muscular body, but Arnold had to risk his own health to do so. More on this later.
Arnold played with the idea of emigrating to the States, but his English skills were poor, so he sought some English lessons to become better, and one day, a friend of Arnold’s suggested that he should team up with Roger Field. The German newspaper Spiegel published a great article on Arnold’s life in Munich. It was penned by Roger Field, who was an Englishman who got the opportunity to live in Germany and teach Arnold some English lessons. Mr. Field describes the young Arnold as “smart and gentle.”
After reading the article, I got the feeling that the young Arnold’s behavior in Munich was quite odd (I read another article, which was penned by Franz Dischinger, and according to him, they used to both have a lot of fun and pull pranks in Munich). For example, Roger Field and Arnold were once sitting in a restaurant called Diplomat, and after dinner, Arnold smashed his fist on the table, started to flex to appear bigger, and yelled for the bill.
Roger also described Arnold’s driving skills as “risky and crazy.” According to Field, Arnold used to drive a ‘58 Ford Taunus. One day, Arnold made a U-turn on Leopoldstraße, and Mr. Field was sitting next to him. While making the turn, Arnold stuck his huge arm out of the window and yelled to the passersby. Field admitted that the street had enough space to make the turn but driving with him was always a scary experience.
Interestingly, Arnold had no big secrets about consuming pills. Mr. Field remembered that after training, Arnold would go into the changing rooms, where he always swallowed some pills. Mr. Field believes that these pills were Dianabol, and he revealed that at that time, it was quite easy to get it from doctors. Arnold worked as a personal trainer, and to stay big, he had to take pills, but he never tried to push other youngsters to get on that evil track.
“I am a big fan of reading the magazine KRAFTSPORT REVUE and would love to distribute. My name is Trovato. I am from Sardinia, Italy and have been training since 3 years in Munich, Germany.
Lifting weights is my only hobby and I am training for 2 years in the Gym, in which Arnold is working as an instructor. I made great gains due to Arnold’s training wisdoms. “
I managed to find a letter which was penned by an Italian bodybuilder named Antonio Trovato. He wrote to the magazine Kraft Sport Revue that Arnold was magnificent, and he was so pleased to have been personally trained by Schwarzenegger.
As a rising star and personal trainer, Arnold had a lot of responsibilities. He appeared in the magazine Kraft Sport Revue to outline his routine and give fitness tips. Arnold loved to engage with his fans by answering letters. Even today, at 72 years old, he’s strongly involved in writing and advertises his newsletter on Instagram.
Arnold worked for two years as an instructor while competing. Arnold entered the Mr. Universe competition in 1966 and nearly managed to beat the American bodybuilder Chester Yorton, who was 7 years older. Although Arnold ended up placing second to him, it was a sensation that someone who was basically still a kid almost beat Chester Yorton. The news reached out overseas to the United States of America. Then the American supplement company Weider hired Arnold, and since then, he’s been living in the States, but he never stopped personal training.
In the ‘80s, Jusup Wilkosz had the pleasure of being personally trained by Arnold. The YouTube-channel “Retro Training” published an informative video on this. If you are one of Arnold’s Instagram followers, then you have seen how Arnold has been personally training his son Joseph Baena, and furthermore, he seems to enjoy encouraging the disabled to participate in sports.
History of Becoming a Personal Trainer (USA)
The main workforce to establish gyms in America seems to be immigrants. I checked Wikipedia, and they claim that a German immigrant named Charles Beck established the first gymnasium in the United States in 1825! Afterwards, Charles Follen (also a German immigrant) established a gymnasium in 1826. He was a fan of German gymnast “Father Jahn” and introduced Americans to some new gymnastic exercises.
Interestingly, the YMCA claims to be “America’s first gym”, and their organization was launched in 1851, but who founded it? That’s right; it was not an American citizen; it was an Englishman named George Williams!
Then Louis Atilla, a German, immigrated to the States and established a gym in New York in 1894, after which another German immigrant named Siegmund Klein took over the gym after he married Louis’ daughter. Mr. Klein popularized the usage of kettlebells in the early 20th-century and wrote courses on it. Klein’s Gym survived into the 1970s.
So, when did Americans start to establish gyms? Some sources indicate that Jack LaLanne made the first step in this area, and he was the first American citizen who paved the way into the industry. His story is below.
Jack LaLanne, Personal Trainer and Mass Trainer
Jack LaLanne encouraged millions of couch potatoes to change their lives and become healthier and fitter humans. Jack had charisma and a gentle voice. Plus, his speeches were so powerful that his audience felt compelled to follow his instructions—and they were so easy to follow because no fitness equipment was necessary! He always wore a blue-suit, and he did not have a broad-shouldered look or a muscular appearance, but he still captured the attention of millions.
Most of us (myself included), would say that Jack LaLanne was just a fitness bunny and never trained above the pain barrier, but I did some research, and it seems that he was a calisthenics freak! For example, he did 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes. This astounding feat was done on the “You Asked for It” television program. Furthermore, I managed to find great pictures of Jack training his abdominals and latissimus. Just by the look on LaLanne’s face, you can see how he is working past the pain barrier. He’s gritting his teeth and sweating, enjoying the experience of muscle-building.
Jack was the father of personal training in the media, and he was the first personal trainer to reach out to millions of people. However, he was not only a personal instructor who showed up in the living room of millions of Americans; he was also credited for publishing the first commercial gym in California, which happened in 1936.
Writer and researcher Earle Liederman had the pleasure of meeting Jack LaLanne, and according to him, Lalanne “possessed terrific enthusiasm for knowledge. He read considerably, and only worthwhile books.” According to Wikipedia, LaLanne obtained a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, and he studied the book Anatomy of the Human Body by Henry Gray.
Charles Atlas, the Mass Trainer
Charles was born on October 30, 1892, and launched his company Charles Atlas Ltd. in 1929. He didn’t own a title, nor did he possess 20” arms. He was a fitting example of how to promote a course to the masses without the help of any commercial TV broadcast and without risking your health. Plus, he managed to promote his methods throughout World War II, as well as the Great Depression!
All Charles’ advertisements were illustrated to look like comic strips, with separate panels, speech bubbles, and so on. He used to place them in comic books in the hopes of reaching out to the youth. Charles’ marketing strategy worked so well; the youth was just thrilled to read the story of a weak boy who got bullied and kicked by the older kids, and then after following Charles’ instructions, he got the power and opportunity to fight back.
I read Charles’ brochure, and he not only motivated the youth who got bullied; he also motivated lower-middle-class men to become more physically active and promised that after following his course, they would be much more attractive on the job market.
Here’s a great quote of Atlas’s promises: “When you need to get and keep a respectable job, a strong, vigorous body does count. Put yourself in the boss’ place. You wouldn’t hire a sickly-looking, narrow-chested chap if you could get a broad-shouldered fellow, just radiating health and pep, would you? It’s the man with the sparkling eyes, big muscles, ruddy cheeks, and steel handshake who always wins confidence. That’s why he’s worth so much more in business.”
Vince Gironda, Celebrity Trainer
Mr. Gironda was one of the first celebrity fitness gurus. Nothing is recorded on Gironda’s education, but he got his knowledge from Dale Easton, who was a movie actor and ran the Easton Brothers Gym.
Vince Gironda did a lot case studies, experimented with different kinds of training methodologies, and then opened his own gym in North Hollywood, California, in 1948. Vince had such remarkable success that he published books, which even attracted the interest of universities, and they all ordered some copies for their libraries. Plus, doctors all over the world contacted Vince to discuss diets and training with him.
Vince was an instructor, but he had no degree; he just drew a lot of attention from people who possessed educational credibility. The only credibility Vince had was his superior body and his famous pupil Larry Scott, who won the Mr. Olympia competition and gave Vince credit for being a genius trainer and inventor.
Gironda built a cult status with his gym in northern California, and then stepped into the niche of celebrity personal trainers. Alongside Vince Gironda, America produced other great coaches, who were genius on their own niches, such as Bill Starr, Bob Hoffman, and Morris Weissbrot, who were great at coaching weightlifting stars.
Bill Pearl, Mike Mentzer, and Leo Stern were great at instructing bodybuilders. Dr. Ken Leistner, Louis Simmons, Mark Rippatoe, and Frederick Hatfield were science and strength geeks, as well as strength trainers. Most these men didn’t have any certifications, nor did they study any fitness subject.
Certification: USA vs. Germany
When it came to personal fitness, the United States of America went down the same path as Germany. There were no rules, like in the Wild West. You didn’t need any kind of certification until the ‘80s. Then both countries established certifications.
Today, I would say America is much farther ahead with running a great certification service than Germany is (which I will explain further), but who was the forerunner to establish this service?
Certification in Germany
Germany had the idea five years earlier than the USA. As you might remember, Albert Busek teamed up with Arnold in the ‘60s, and although Arnold left Germany, their friendship remains today. In 1983, Busek launched a new project called the BSA Akademie. It was the first step to establish a service for fitness trainers who wanted to become an authority on personal training. Mr. Busek developed the course, and the first attendees were allowed to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Here is a link (bsa-akademie.de/history) to a German article on the history of BSA Akademie, with Arnold promoting it. It has some great pictures, with an exceptional story! Albert’s company went on to become bigger and bigger. The article says that they have managed to certify over 200,000 people since 1983.
Certification in the USA
The Americans started their first personal training service five years later than Germany. Robert M. Goldman founded the first service, called NASM, in 1987, and since then, they have certified 190,000 personal trainers. The pass rate is 64%. I watched some YouTube videos, and according to some fitness YouTubers, if you pass their exams and get a certification, then you will have a great chance of working as an instructor.
Another recognized service is ISSA, which was launched in 1988 and has a pass rate of 90%. In 1988, the powerlifter Dr. Frederick Hatfield and his friend Sal Arria launched The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). They managed to certify over 400,000 trainers across 174 countries. According to Wikipedia, their services are even recognized by the government.
Recently, I listened to a podcast in which Frederick revealed how got the business idea. In Hatfield’s words, “A guy was on TV, talking about how he was training Hollywood celebrities to lose some fat, and he got everything wrong; he was doing so many things to those poor women. He didn’t know anything about nutrition at all. He didn’t know about the science of progressive resistance training. Sal Arria and I got to talking about that, and we produced the idea to get into the education business, educate some people, and give them certifications.”
Fred worked for a year creating a curriculum, and Sal, who was a chiropractor and an athlete himself, outlined a marketing strategy. Fred had the pleasure of being a writer for various muscle magazines and got the opportunity to place ads in some of them. Fred built the company from scratch.
I checked their internet presence, and what I can say? It’s an empire! According to semrush.com, they have around 300,000 visitors per month, and that’s 10 times bigger than Westside Barbell and Starting Strength!
Today, there are various companies in America that offer a fitness-trainer certification. I must admit that I am astonished by how big the American market is. In Germany, I can say we have one service, and that’s it, but America has a certification service for every niche: losing weight, gaining strength, building muscle, cross-fit, strongmen, and so on. There’s Zach from Undergroundstrength.com, who offers knowledge on becoming strong, and content on old-time strongmen. There’s Charles Glass (aka “The Trainer of Champions”), who built a membership only for bodybuilders who want to learn how to eat and lift the right way. Lee Haney and Dorian Yates, both multiple title holders of the Mr. Olympia competition, also started their certification service, which offers content on old-school bodybuilding. The list of certifications is long, and that’s why I like America; it’s so big, and there are so many opportunities!
So, what’s the best service? ISSA has managed to certify 400,000 people, and it’s the biggest one! It is even recognized by the government. I don’t have any kind of certification, but my co-worker Paul Leonard has had the pleasure of passing ISSA’s certifications recently. He has been a strength athlete for 35 years, and he’s been personal training for free since he was 20. Even though he’s working 50 hours a week as a law-enforcement officer, the certification was easy and helpful for him! In Paul’s words,
“I think that it is helpful to have the certification but not necessary. I chose ISSA because of my star pupil Josh Bryant’s affiliation with that organization. He grew up with people who knew Fred Hatfield, so he began to work for them. That sold me. I can recommend ISSA, as they have been excellent in the courses I took.”
NASM vs. ISSA: Which Should You Choose?
The NASM pass rate is 60%, and ISSA’s is around 90%, and all gyms accept the ISSA certification, so it seems logical to take the ISSA certification—especially when time and money is a limited factor, as most of us have a mainstream lifestyle, which means working 40 hours a week and studying, and personal training is just a side business or hobby.
Furthermore, ISSA is backed by authorities like Fred Hatfield, Josh Bryant, and Sal Arria, who know their business and history. Fred Hatfield, for example, authored best-selling books and penned great articles in Powerlifting USA for decades.
To be honest, it really puzzles me why NASM’s pass rate is so low. I don’t think that being a personal trainer is like rocket science, I mean, I am studying here at college, and the pass rate of my mathematics course is around 70%, and the pass rate of my engineering course is around 60%.
Becoming a Personal Trainer: USA vs. Germany
If you check the job market in the USA, then you will realize that you must have a certification. I checked the job advertisements on indeed.com and getting a personal trainer job is tougher in the USA than it is in Germany. Gold’s Gym is currently searching for instructors, but their list of must-haves is so long! The list includes a “high-school diploma (some college coursework preferred),” and with a “current, nationally recognized personal trainer certification (NASM, ACE, ISSA).” You also need to have “knowledge of anatomy, functional exercise, basic nutrition, and basic exercise science.”
Here in Germany, it seems quite easier to get a job as a trainer. The biggest gym franchise, Mcfit’s, is always searching for trainers, and their job requirements are that you must inspire their members and help them achieve their goals, and that “practical experience in the service industry and personal training is an advantage.” That’s it! No knowledge of anatomy, no certifications, not even a high-school diploma.
It puzzles me, why the job requirements are so different. As you might know, the German RSG-Group runs Mcfit’s and recently, they bought Gold’s Gym for $100M US. They announced that they will replace the Gold’s Gym equipment with Gym-80 equipment, and that they are going to change some things. This may affect the job requirements at Gold’s Gym.
What Do Germany and the USA Have in Common?
The first certification services in both the USA and Germany were developed by people who lived the sport.
In Germany, Albert Busek was an athlete and promoted bodybuilding with his magazine. Furthermore, he teamed up with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Arnold managed to win the Mr. Olympia seven times!
The same thing happened with Fred Hatfield. He managed to squat 1,000 pounds at the age of 50, authored books on powerlifting, and helped optimize Lee Haney‘s training. Lee Haney ended up winning Mr. Olympia eight times! I think it’s just mind-blowing how Germany and the USA went down the same path.