Obtaining a primary, or general group, fitness certification is one way to begin a career as a group exercise instructor; another is to become a certified personal trainer. A general group exercise certification qualifies you to teach step, aerobics, muscle conditioning and basic flexibility classes. You can find nationally recognized certification programs from the American Council on Exercise, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, the American College of Sports Medicine and the YMCA, among others.
Prerequisites vary with each certification, but most require you to be at least 18 years old and hold a current CPR/AED -- cardio pulmonary resuscitation and automatic external defibrillator -- card. Some certifications allow you to enroll prior to getting CPR/AED-certified, but you won’t be issued your exam results or instructor certification until you show proof that you're certified. In any case, most fitness facilities require you to hold a valid CPR/AED certification to teach classes. Other requirements might include completion of a high school education and study of materials prior to any seminars.
Primary group fitness instructors and base-level personal trainers study similar course material, including human anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, injury prevention, sports nutrition, emergency procedures and the basic exercise needs of special populations, such as seniors. Group fitness certifications also include detailed information on class design, music selection, instructional approach and how to properly cue exercise technique to a group comprising a variety of fitness levels. Equipment, various class formats and proper form are also reviewed.
All general group exercise instructor certifications require you to study the chosen materials on your own, which you usually must purchase in addition to paying the certification and exam fees. After self-paced study, which may have a one-year time limit for completion, you can go to a local testing facility and take the exam. Many certifications offer one- to three-day hands-on seminars for an additional fee. Although seminar attendance isn’t always required for you to sit for the exam, it’s usually recommended.
Certifications in the fitness industry are industry-regulated, meaning that no governmental agency oversees them. Consequently, the fitness industry has implemented a system of continuing education credits, or CECs, that certified trainers and instructors must earn to maintain valid certifications. The number of CECs and the amount of time in which you must earn them varies from organization to organization, but you typically must earn between 15 and 20 CECs every two or three years. Getting certified in a specialized area, such as pre/postnatal fitness, is one way to earn credits.
If you have a personal training certification, you may not need a primary group fitness certification to teach classes. Many fitness facilities will hire certified personal trainers to teach group classes, using an audition process to assess their group teaching skills. To teach specialized populations and classes other than step, muscle conditioning, aerobics and basic flexibility, you must acquire additional certifications. Examples include indoor cycling, pre/postnatal group exercise, senior group exercise, water aerobics, boxing, yoga and Pilates.