The Costs and Outcomes of Coaching Education

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | June 09, 2021

stack of coaching gear books lifting shoes belt

There are several paths to becoming a strength coach, but there is no clear outline of the costs and financial outcomes of each path. A prospective coach could waste time and money picking a suboptimal path. Having options laid out in advance could help in making the most intelligent decision. Three different education paths were evaluated for education cost, income upon completion, and time to completion:

Methods of comparison

Popular franchise gyms were surveyed and asked for certification recommendations for an aspiring personal trainer. They were also asked if an exercise science degree would be acceptable instead of a certification. Popularly recommended certifications were then investigated for education cost and time requirement and compared to college tuition data for an exercise science degree and A Chronological Guide to Becoming an SSC.[1] College tuition data were acquired from a website which consolidates and organizes data from the US Department of Education and National Center of Education Statistics.

The financial outcomes were also evaluated: the hourly rates a certified personal trainer for each of those franchise gyms was gathered from and for comparison. These wages were also compared to the Starting Strength Gym coaching pay rates.


This analysis will specifically focus on working with personal training clients in small group, private, and semi-private training settings. It will not include sports coaching, rehab, or physical therapy. The focus is on training the general public, not professional athletes, school children, or student athletes.

Franchise and other national gym chains were the primary focus, as private gyms were nearly impossible to acquire salary figures from for personal trainers. Smaller gyms use an employment model for personal trainers where acquiring clients is more self-directed. Franchise gyms typically hire their personal trainers as employees, provide member prospects through a sales funnel, and pay them an hourly rate as well as a commission rate.

Smaller private gyms typically employ personal trainers as independent contractors, charge them a rental fee (or a commission split), and expect the personal trainers to acquire their own clients. The independent contractor model is functionally like renting space as opposed to actually working for a gym owner. A coach who wants to focus on coaching and not on growing a business would be better suited to working in a gym with a sales funnel already built, like a franchise or commercial gym chain.

Gym Surveys: Recommended Certifications

48 gym locations were called and 30 were surveyed regarding personal training certifications and exercise science degrees. These gyms were in the United States (primarily southern and mid-west states: AZ, TX, CA, MI, OH, IL, NY, TN, MN) and from various franchises (Gold's Gym, YMCA, Snap Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Anytime Fitness, Equinox, LA Fitness, Planet Fitness).

The certifications recommended by the gyms are displayed in Table 1. The total number of recommendations is higher than the number of gyms surveyed because 16 gyms recommended more than one. NASM was the most highly recommended certification with 20 (67%) recommendations. Six (20%) did not recommend any specific certification but recommended that whatever certification is earned be nationally accredited. Seven gyms (23%) recommended specific certifications but also said that any accredited certification would be acceptable at their gym for employment.

Certification Times recommended Times recommended
 as % of gyms surveyed
NASM 20 67%
ISSA 9 30%
ACE 8 27%
NSCA 4 13%
AFTA 2 7%
ACSM 1 3%
NESTA 1 3%
NCCPT 1 3%
NEETA 1 3%

Table 1. Personal training certifications recommended by 30 gyms. 16 gyms recommended more than one certification.

Next, 23 gyms were asked if an exercise (PE) degree instead of a certification would be acceptable for employment. 14 of the 23 (61%) answered that a certification would be required regardless of exercise science degree status.

No Starting Strength Franchise Gyms were called to ask for certification recommendations. Starting Strength Gyms only employ Starting Strength Coaches as head coaches of the gym and head coaches are personally responsible for the quality of their coaching staff.

Cold Calls from Prospects

Six respondents who had certifications personally were asked if they had ever been sought out because of their certification. They were also asked if anyone had ever found their contact information on the certification website or database. All six responded that they had never been called or contacted because of their certification.

Seven Starting Strength Coaches were chosen at random from the Starting Strength Coaches Directory and asked the question "how many times have you been contacted in the past 30 days for the purposes of coaching because you are an SSC?" The average answer was 3.1 times in the past 30 days with a minimum of 0 (n=1) and a maximum of 7 (n=1). These calls were unique and from non-previous clients and non-referral sources.

Financial Outcome of Franchise Gym Employment

An insufficient number of gyms were willing to provide wage information for entry-level personal trainers. Wage data for the large chain gyms was acquired from and data, and this was used to compare wages (Tables 2 and 3).

Both Payscale and Glassdoor are crowd-sourced data websites that collect employer data using surveys from employees. Payscale also incorporates employer input as well as data filtration to remove impossible and unlikely entries through data exchange in their paid software. The Starting Strength Gym wages were provided by Starting Strength Gym owners.
Median hourly rate Sample Size
SS Gym Head Coach $45.00 11
Equinox $25.00 not given
SS Gym Coach $25.00 11
YMCA $17.50 43
24 Hour Fitness $16.60 20
Snap Fitness $16.00 not given
Gold's Gym $15.48 22
Anytime Fitness $15.14 46
LA Fitness $14.77 32
Lifetime Fitness $12.50 8
Planet Fitness $12.33 27

Table 2. Hourly rates for certified personal trainers at popular commercial gyms. Data acquired from for non-SS gyms.
Mean hourly rateSample Size
SS Gym Head Coach$44.0011
SS Gym Coach$25.0011
24 Hour Fitness$22.0033
Snap Fitness$17.009
Gold's Gym*$16.3029
Anytime Fitness$16.0039
LA Fitness$16.0044
Lifetime Fitness$14.0045
Planet Fitness$13.0077

Table 3. Hourly rates for certified personal trainers at popular commercial gyms. Data acquired from for non-SS gyms. *Annual salary values converted to hourly rates assuming a 40-hour work week, 50 weeks a year.

Equinox and the Starting Strength Gym positions were consistently in the top three for both data sources. Planet Fitness was consistently the lowest pay.

Financial and Time Costs of Education

Becoming a Starting Strength Coach as outlined in A Chronological Guide to Becoming an SSC requires full equipment to train both the coach and clients, two Starting Strength seminars, the core textbooks, an opt-in fee for testing, SSC coaching, and liability insurance (Table 4). The entire process takes about two years but can be done faster or slower depending on access to trainees and motivation.

Item Used/Cheaper New/Expensive
Book: Starting Strength $9.99 $29.95
Book: Practical Programming $9.99 $24.95
Book: Barbell Prescription $9.99 $26.95
Lifting belt $90.00 $175.00
Lifting shoes $60.00 $125.00
20 kg barbell $314.00 $314.00
10 kg barbell $224.00
Power rack/squat stands $200.00 $1,335.00
Plates for 367.5 lb load $183.75 $551.25
Chalk $5.00 $11.99
Flat bench $175.00 $240.00
Online coaching or in person with SS Coach $300.00 $600.00
6 months of prep course at $150/month $900.00 $900.00
SS Seminar (attend only)* $845.00 $845.00
SS Seminar (platform test for SSC)* $1,045.00 $1,045.00
Personal trainer insurance (2 years) $320.00 $320.00
Total $4,467.72 $6,768.09

Table 4. Items recommended for education and process to acquire Starting Strength Coaching certification.

The tuition costs for four years in a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science program of 531 American universities are summarized in Table 5.[2] Additionally, it is important to note that many graduates of four-year degrees take longer than four years – some as long as six.[3]

Private Public
In-state Out-of-state
Mean $127,972 $41,612 $88,536
Min $22,880 $13,040 $29,040
Max $232,532 $131,400 $211,988

Table 5. Tuition cost of four years of education in exercise science sampled from 531 American universities.

Housing, cost of books, lab fees, and other administrative fees were not included in the analysis. The minimum cost was $13,040, with a mean of $41,612 for in-state public education, and a maximum of $232,532 which was for a private education.

ISSA, ACE, and NASM certifications were investigated for education costs and time required. All three certifying bodies provide guided education from their website. The time to competition was provided by the customer support at each certifying body. The Starting Strength cost was averaged from Table 4 with the time to completion based on A Chronological Guide to Becoming an SSC. The average cost and time to completion of all five education pathways are summarized in Table 6.

Average Cost Time to completion
ISSA $828.00 2 to 4 months at 5 hr/week
ACE $1,115.67 3 to 4 months at 10 to 12 hr/week
NASM $1,523.75 3 months at 5 hr/week
Starting Strength Education $5,843.85 2 years
B.S. in exercise science at an in-state university $41,612.00 4 to 5 years

Table 6. Average certification cost and recommended time required to achieve credential or degree.[3-6]

The cost and time required for the certifications are roughly a sixth of the Starting Strength education recommendation. The Starting Strength education requires half to a third of time and about 14% of the cost required to complete a B.S. in Exercise Science.


ISSA, NASM, or ACE certifications are all relatively inexpensive and quick to acquire certifications that are respected by popular franchise gyms and facilitate entry to the industry. The financial outcomes are similarly low, but still exceed jobs that can be started with no training or educational background (fast food, unskilled labor, retail, etc).

The Starting Strength Coaching credential is more expensive and takes longer to acquire than the other certifications, but also consistently has high financial outcomes when coaching out of a Starting Strength Franchise Gym.

The expense and time involved in an Exercise Science degree is massive if the goal is to become a strength coach, especially considering that 14 out of 23 surveyed gyms indicated that a certification would be required anyway, and all of the popular certifying bodies have their own specific education pathways that are far cheaper than four to six years of tuition at an in-state university.


  1. A Chronological Guide to Becoming an SSC,
  2. College Tuition Compare,
  3. “Digest of Education Statistics, 2012.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education,
  5. “Personal Trainer Certification 2021: Get Certified Online.” ACE,
  6. “Become a Personal Trainer: Personal Training Certification.” NASM,
  7. A Chronological Guide to Becoming an SSC,

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