Most likely, any job or career in exercise science you go into will require at least one health/fitness-related certification. Now, the one you eventually get really depends on where you want to work and what you want to do. You basically want to choose the one that’s best inline with your professional goals.
Reviewing and deciding which fitness credentialing organization to get certified by can be a daunting task. There are just so many options available!
Finding The Right Certification
While it’s always good to carry out due diligence and perform your own independent research, we’re here to make this process a little easier for you. We’ve profiled the top organizations that grant personal trainer certifications and other fitness-related credentials – the ones that are the most well-known, have been around for years, have upstanding reputations, and have a consistent history of turning out certified professionals with the skills and working knowledge to produce results.
Certification Review Guides
Beware the Fitness Industry’s Wild West
Contrary to other career fields (i.e. most medical and finance professions) fitness is for the most part an unregulated sector without any singly defined certification or licensure standards for personal training or roles related to exercise instruction. For example, to become a professional nurse you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination – Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN) and to practice as a licensed physical therapist you’re required to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).
On the other hand, there are numerous certification exams out there for becoming a personal trainer, which explains why you see so many different fitness certifying organizations on the market. Basically, any business can grant their own fitness certification that declares you a certified personal trainer. There’s really no regulation against that. However, as a result of this non-regulation, there’s been an increase in the number of incompetent trainers and subsequent client injuries. At the same time, more people are doing research on credentials before deciding which personal trainer they hire.
Types of Certifications
As you’ll see below, not all exercise science-related certifications are the same. For example, if you want to work in a gym or be self-employed providing one-on-one workout instruction to people aspiring to change their body composition, then a certified personal trainer (CPT) certification is likely meant for you. Interested in working at a hospital or healthcare facility? There are clinical exercise certifications designed to help you get there. How about training athletes? Credentials dedicated specifically to improving athletic performance in sports are yours to go after.
In general, fitness certifications can be placed under the following categories:
The “gold standard” for accreditation of fitness and wellness certification programs, including those for personal training, is the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).
If you’re interested in working as a personal trainer, look to acquire a CPT certification from an NCCA-accredited organization, such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) or the Cooper Institute (CI). The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) cert is accredited by the DETC, which is another reputable credentialing organization.
Basically all the major CPT certifications are now accredited and there really is no reason not to go with one from these organizations (listed in alphabetical order):
Have the energetic and motivational spirit to lead an aerobics class or group fitness activities? If you do, then you have a few good options to choose from. While ACE is usually synonymous with this particular field of fitness, ACSM, NASM and NETA also offer group fitness-related certs. You should also know the only ones currently accredited by the NCCA are from ACE and NETA.
NASM’s offering, Group Personal Trainer (GPT), is not exactly a full-on group instructor cert in the traditional sense. Instead of preparing you to lead a studio full of participants, it blurs the line between personal and group training, basically qualifying you to provide personalized instruction to small groups of around 5 people.
For those of you leaning more towards the clinical side of exercise science, ACSM is the obvious choice for many. Their Health Fitness Specialist (HFS) certification qualifies you to work with people that have stable, medically-controlled health conditions and otherwise healthy adults. It’s basically for those wanting to take on an advanced personal trainer role by working with clientele that may have minor to moderate health considerations.
If you’re interested in a more clinical role, as an exercise physiologist (EP), ACSM’s Clinical Exercise Specialist (CES) credential qualifies you for duties related to exercise assessment, training, rehabilitation and lifestyle coaching for people that have or are at-risk of cardiovascular, pulmonary or metabolic disease(s), as well as healthy populations.
ACE and ISSA offer clinical certifications similar to the HFS called Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist and Fitness/Exercise Therapy, respectively. Much like the HFS, they are designed to enable fitness professionals to work with people that have a medical condition(s). ACE also has a Therapeutic Exercise specialty, which is meant to be more of a supplementary credential for both fitness and medical professionals.
If you’re fully dedicated towards pursuing a clinical career as an EP, then becoming an ASCM-certified Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP) is highly recommended and in some cases required. This certification is for those already on the path to becoming clinical professional, since a Master’s in exercise science, exercise physiology or kinesiology and six-hundred hours of clinical work experience is minimally required. The RCEP is qualified to carry out exercise testing and prescription, counseling, evaluation and education to at-risk and diseased populations.
If you’re 100% about training athletes on any level – high school, collegiate, amateur or even professional, you’ll find NSCA’s Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification is typically the one that clearly stands out.
Although ISSA has their own S&C cert, NASM their Performance Enhancement (PES), MMA and Golf Specialist certifications and ACE their Sports Conditioning cert, the CSCS is the only NCCA-accredited strength and conditioning certification program for training athletes. It is an in-depth “core” certification that requires you to have a bachelor’s degree and for many years has been considered the benchmark qualification in strength coaching.
That being said, NASM’s PES cert has been gaining notoriety in the sports world with nearly all athletic trainers working in the NBA having this credential.
Is it in your heart to work with either the youth or senior population exclusively? Want to be a women’s fitness expert? Maybe you have a passion for specializing in weight loss or nutrition? These (plus many other) specialty certs exist and in most cases are meant to complement your “core” credential. ACE and NASM lead the way with several certs each in various specialty fields.
This category can be broken down into the following major areas:
Prevention and Correction
NASM’s Corrective Exercise Specialist and ACE’s Orthopedic Exercise and Functional Training certifications fall under this category. These qualify you to work with people suffering from issues related to poor posture and/or biomechanics as well as those recovering from orthopedic surgery. ACSM offers their unique Inclusive Fitness Trainer, developed for working with populations that have long-term or chronic disabilities to make exercise accessible to them.
ACE, ISSA and NASM all offer certs in both youth and senior fitness. NSCA has a single one, Special Population Specialist, that covers all ages. NASM is the only organization with a credential just for women’s fitness.
Also referred to as health coaching, this specialty field involves taking a truly holistic approach towards improving health. Among the leaders in this growing profession is ACE with their Health Coach certification. As the only one that’s NCCA-accredited, it’s more geared towards the fitness professional population. There are others more suited to those working in the medical field. NETA also has a Wellness Coach program. ACE, ISSA, and NASM all have Fitness Nutrition specialties available. Both ACE and NETA have a Mind/Body as well.
Click here to learn more about specialty certifications and how to become a fitness specialist.
Accreditation and Reputation
Unfortunately, there are places online that will gladly take your money and simply send you a certification – something ANYONE with a credit card could do. Whether you get hired by a gym or health club with a “no name” certification is a different story, but essentially nothing would be stopping you from legally training people. However, in being a fitness professional you owe it to yourself and future clients to receive the best preparation, support and continuing education that only the top certifying organizations can provide.
This is why we’ve profiled the following most recognized and established accredited organizations in the fitness industry:
More organization profiles coming soon!