Your Need-to-Know On How To Become A Lifeguard

woman under lifeguard hut

Television and movies might give the impression that the key in how to become a lifeguard rests in skimpy swimsuits and slow-motion trots down the beach. In reality, the lifeguarding profession requires intense commitment and skill.

What is a lifeguard, anyway? The definition can be found in the title itself. Lifeguards do not merely watch swimmers and pick up lounge chairs. These dedicated professionals help prevent disaster and protect everyday citizens from harm. At their best, lifeguards can and do save lives.

Do you have what it takes to become a lifeguard?

How To Become A Lifeguard: The Essentials

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Lifeguarding does come with some important prerequisites.

The American Lifeguard Association helps set training and testing guidelines for lifeguards in the United States. Among basic requirements is a minimum age limit of 15 years. For patrolling the deep waters of oceans, this limit may be bumped up to 16 years of age.

In your checklist for how to become a lifeguard, you’ll also want to leave a box for swimming credentials. Before even beginning training, you will demonstrate your mastery of fundamental swimming moves and your ability to go the distance.

To employ a couple of cliched but true metaphors, don’t be a fish out of water or you'll end up swimming with the fishes career-wise.

Speaking of that training, a sizeable chunk of it will include a combo of on-site and traditional classroom-style coursework. Once you’ve gone to the head of the class, you’ll have an opportunity to show your stuff through a certification test.

But before you begin dreaming of rolling waves or poolside splashes, let’s take a deeper dive into how to become a lifeguard and make those dreams come true.

Physical Preparation

While you don’t need the physique of a body-builder, physical fitness will play a sizeable role in your lifeguarding quest. This job will require a lot of movement at times, and you’ll need to be especially quick in high-pressure rescue situations.

To perform rescues of both conscious and unconscious swimmers, core body strength will definitely be an added friend.

A consistent exercise regimen can help give you the stamina and swift reflexes that’ll save your job and save others in the process. A check-up with a medical professional to rule out any complicating health issues would be a good idea as well.

Swimming Prowess

Sink or swim? It’s the most fundamental question you’ll need to answer in the "how to become a lifeguard" rulebook. The swimming qualification test essential for lifeguard training will require you to show proficiency in some basic tasks.

The American Lifeguard Association lists requirements for their swimming test. These include aptitude in well-known swimming methods like the front crawl and the breaststroke.

Applicants will also be asked to swim at certain distances, depending on what type of water they will encounter. Deep-water trekkers must swim continuously for 300 yards. Shallow-water lifeguards (think many pool-side lifeguards) must demonstrate they can swim at least 50 yards.

Don’t think your swimming prowess will end at the distance events, though. You’ll likely face another type of endurance test wherein you’ll be asked to dive, retrieve a weight, and swim back to your starting point with this weight.

Trainers will put you under the gun here, asking you to complete this task in a pre-determined amount of time.

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Mastering The Skills

So you can swim like a fish and you’ve beat back all those physical barriers like a champ. You’re set now, right? Not so fast. Now that you’ve earned your training stripes, the real fun can begin.

First stop…back to school!

Signing up for the life-guarding classes that fit you best is the next step. Respected organizations like the American Lifeguard Association and the American Red Cross offer programs that will give you the credentials you need.

Visiting these organizations’ websites can put you in touch with local program offerings. A visit to your local YMCA/YWCA or parks & recreation services could also yield sign-up opportunities.

Programs are typically available throughout the year, and you can even opt for a blended program if you’re short on time. With this option, you would need to be available for a few hours of hands-on, on-site training. Online learning modules would replace a traditional classroom, however.

Whether you’re more comfortable with the tech or the tried-and-true lecture style, an average lifeguarding program will ask an average 25 or so hours (around 6 weeks) of your time.


What can you expect from your classes? In short, you’ll learn how to become a lifeguard. Instructors will give you a solid foundation of knowledge on which you’ll build the skills you need to succeed. Then they’ll put your book smarts to the test by asking you to perform the techniques and methods you’ve learned out in the field.

Both the Red Cross and the ALA provide basic lifeguarding programs and specialty programs for individuals working in specific areas like shallow water or within water parks.

In a basic program, you can expect to ply your trade in first aid techniques, automated external defibrillator (AED) use, and CPR. Take these lessons seriously, because someone’s life may one day depend on your knowledge and your dedication.


Water rescue methods and demonstrations will also comprise a good chunk of your training. By the time your training’ is over, you should recite previously unknown terms by heart: slide-in entry, head-hold escape, simple assist strike jump... and much more.

In addition, you’ll be able to explain the difference between a reaching assist and a throwing assist, or between an active drowning victim and a passive drowning victim, with confidence.

The challenges will keep coming with drills addressing unique problems you may face, such as drowning incidents with multiple victims.

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Grade A-certified life-saver

Master all the coursework and physical challenges, and you’ve almost graduated “how to become a lifeguard” 101. There’s just one more not-so-tiny detail: certification. If you really want to trade in your summer look for lifeguarding gear, you’ve got to earn this badge of honor.

Certification is where you’ll put all you’ve learned to the ultimate test. A series of exams will evaluate your knowledge on swimming safety, injury types, surveillance and assessment techniques, and more. You will likely take both a regular paper test and a hands-on skills test.

The American Red Cross offers a book full of practice tests that can help prepare you for this important final leg of your journey. You’d also probably benefit from familiarity with the Red Cross' official lifeguarding manual.

Once you’ve taken your exam and passed (let’s stay optimistic), congratulations! You’re now a real-life, certified lifeguard.

Never forget that the learning never ends, though. The American Lifeguard Association reminds us that our knowledge can start slipping after only a few months. Refresher courses might “freshen up” your style.

And after about two years, you’ll dust off those books and training manuals for recertification.

Landing The Job

OK, now that you’ve got that certificate – digital, paper, or even pocket-size – in hand, what comes next?

Don’t pull out the sun-screen and the lifeguard jackets just yet. You’ve still got to score that sweet spot by the water. Find out more about the all-important where’s and how’s in the how to become a lifeguard job hunt.

Where To Apply

Long story short, you apply anywhere brimming with waterworks of the non-crying variety.

If you took a shallow water (about three to five feet of water or below) training program, hotels, regional organizations, and any business that boasts a pool will be looking for qualified supervisors of their watery attractions.

You could try water parks as well, but be aware that you may need special certification to work in this type of location.

For those who dove into the deep end of the water, so to speak, your options are a bit broader, with potential employment at lakesides or ocean beaches added to your repertoire. The numerous hotels that dot most beach-fronts would provide a good hunting ground for potential employment.

Peruse job postings online or in the classified section for opportunities. Networking is never a bad bet either.

Never expect a job will be handed to you, however. Just as with any employment opportunity, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have what it takes. Study those advertisements to get a good sense of what specific duties your job will entail.

Be aware that requirements may vary by location.

Whatever the particulars, you can always save yourself with a killer interview where you show your dedication to the establishment’s needs and your passion for the work.

Leave no doubt you are the man or woman for the job.

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Preparing for your first day as a lifeguard

Once you've scored your first gig, the true work commences. You’ll be doing much more than nursing your suntan.

You’ll be asked to supervise, observe, and assess both other people and a bevy of equipment that may range from first-aid kits to rescue cans.

Days can be long and grueling, so keep yourself hydrated and well-rested. If you must purchase any equipment like whistles or visors, do these tasks well beforehand.

Further, always, always keep your body and, perhaps most importantly, your mind in optimal shape.

You’ll frequently find yourself in situations that require a keen body and mind. Stay vigilant and always alert. You may break up a fight one day, give lost beach-dwellers directions the next, and rescue a drowning victim the next.

Bearing these realities in mind, sharpen the following skills: attention to detail, communication, maintenance, adaptability, problem-solving, stamina, and quick reflexes.

Dip that toe in the water with conviction.

Why Take The Plunge?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s much more to how to become a lifeguard than throwing on some swim gear and hoping for the best. This profession is demanding, to be sure. Yet if you can prove your mettle, you can reap immense rewards.

Few other professions afford interaction with people from all walks of life. You'll rub elbows with old, young, rich, poor, and meet individuals from just about any background imaginable.

Better yet, you’ll go to work every day knowing that you are providing a valuable service to the community. People can take a break away from the stresses of their every-day lives and enjoy a relaxing day because you are there as the reliable, dependable presence…in the tower, on the beach, beside the pool.

As a lifeguard, you are the guardian. You are the protector.

And the view’s not bad, either.

Do you have a lifeguarding experience or insight to share? Come on over to our comments section below. The water's warm!


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