Most Popular Group Fitness Instructor Certifications

ACE certified group fitness instructor in her exercise studio.

So, you have decided to teach group fitness or already do. Congrats! You’re part of the solution to shaping our nation’s health for the better. And that’s quite a noble task. Educating and instructing others on leading a healthy lifestyle and motivating them to achieve their goals is one of the most rewarding challenges in this industry. Whether you intend on making fitness your full-time career, or just a part-time job, getting certified as a group exercise instructor is one of the biggest steps you need to take to ensure your success, as well as the success of your students/clients.

Top 5 Group Fitness Certifications

Even if your potential or current employer has it’s own internal fitness education program or certification, in order to be marketable everywhere on your own, you’re going to have to get certified by a nationally recognized fitness organization. And though you may have decided you are only going to teach pilates or specialized interval training, for example, you will still need to have a general group exercise certification that covers the basics of class design, cueing, anatomy, exercise physiology and kinesiology. Furthermore, many specialty certifications (like those for pilates or specialized interval training) require a core certification in personal training or group fitness as a prerequisite.

In addition to our recommendations, talk to other instructors and find out which certifications they have, or their opinions on each.

ACE (American Council on Exercise)

As a long-time leader in the fitness credentialing industry, all of ACE’s core certifications are accredited by the NCCA – including Group Fitness Instructor. It is considered by many to be the “gold standard” in group fitness certifications. The American Council on Exercise reports that health and fitness professionals holding the ACE GFI cert make, on average, nearly $53,000 per year or $26.00 per hour.

Website: ACE Group Fitness Instructor certification

ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)

Even though ACSM’s Group Exercise Instructor certification is not accredited, it’s included based on the high reputation of the organization. ACSM just doesn’t churn out certifications to profit as much as they can, like some organizations do. You can bet a lot of quality research and development went into, and continues to go into, their group fitness cert despite its accreditation status.

Website: ACSM Group Exercise Instructor certification

AFAA (Athletics and Fitness Association of America)

Out of all the organizations listed here, AFAA is the most centered on group fitness. It’s also one of the longest standing organizations. Highly recognized as a leader in group fitness, AFAA’s Group Ex certification is in the process of becoming accredited by the NCCA.

Website: AFAA Group Ex Instructor certification

ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)

Similar to ACSM, ISSA is not exactly known for their group fitness certification – but based on the solid standing of the organization, you know it’s a quality cert. With ISSA, since they are accredited by DEAC (Distance Education Accrediting Commission) as an official online academic institution, the ISSA group exercise certification (and all of ISSA’s other programs) is offered as a single, all-inclusive comprehensive online course that culminates in a final exam.

Website: ISSA Group Fitness certification

NETA (National Exercise Trainers Association)

In addition to their Group Exercise Instructor certification being NCCA-accredited, NETA definitely places emphasis on the applied/practical component (as opposed to theoretical, book-based only approach) when it comes to preparing for their certification exam – which is invaluable to those just starting out. This is reflected by their inclusion of in-person review workshops as a certification package option. Again, for those of you new to teaching group fitness – after certification the next step is practice, and attending a live hands-on workshop will help streamline this process.

Website: NETA Group Exercise certification

Comparison of Group Fitness Certifications

Cost
  •    Certification
  •    w/ Prep Materials
  •    Live Workshop
  •    Recert Fee
  •    Recert Period
  •    Recert CEUs
  •    Requirements
  •    Accreditation

ACE

$299 - $4993 Packages Available
  • Group Fitness Instructor
  • $129
  • 2 years
  • 20 hours
  • CPR/AED
  • NCCA

ACSM

$239 - $299Exam Only
  • Group Exercise Instructor
  • $45
  • 3 years
  • 45 hours
  • CPR/AED
  • None

AFAA

$299 - $4993 Packages Available
  • Group Ex Instructor
  • $99
  • 2 years
  • 15 hours
  • CPR/AED
  • NCCA (10/2017)

ISSA

$5991 Package Available
  • Group Fitness Specialist
  • $99
  • 2 years
  • 20 hours
  • CPR/AED/First aid
  • DEAC

NETA

$239 - $2993 Packages Available
  • Group Exercise Instructor
  • $55
  • 2 years
  • 20 hours
  • CPR/AED
  • NCCA

Choosing the Right Certification

In the process of choosing your certifying agency, explore the study and exam options available, in addition to other details like recertification requirements. The above table provides a general comparison of key features.

Most offer their certification as part of a package – with some organizations having multiple options available. One exception is ACSM, where everything is pretty much a la carte – from the exam voucher to the recommended study materials. AFAA and NETA offer one-day training and review sessions that are held in-person. These training and review courses can be invaluable to new instructors. You are given the opportunity to ask questions and have complex concepts explained by fitness professionals – basically, you’ll pick up things, including insider knowledge/tips, that you would have otherwise learned through your own trial-and-error.

If you’re already an experienced instructor in a group fitness setting, and just trying to gain an additional certification, then you probably wouldn’t have as much to gain from live workshops compared to a newbie. Choose wisely, and invest as much time as you can in preparing for your exam. You will need to spend a great deal of time studying on your own (some people without an exercise science background or experience study for months).

Know the Eligibility Requirements

It is required by all the certification programs listed here that you be 18 or older and have at minimum current training in Adult CPR/AED procedures. And, unless otherwise stated, the CPR/AED certification must include a live hands-on assessment – so, online classes won’t suffice. ISSA requires a first-aid training component as well. You can find these courses through your local fire department, university, or directly through the following organizations: American Heart Association (AHA), American Red Cross (ARC), American Safety & Health Institute (ASHI), and National Safety Council (NSC). Sometimes fitness centers also host emergency life-saving/supporting classes periodically to accommodate their instructors and community members.

After You Get Certified…

Passing an exam and becoming certified doesn’t automatically make you a good fitness instructor – if not already experienced, you also have to make a concerted effort to practice and rehearse skills such as cueing and choreography which can’t be instilled in you passively by studying from a book, manual or video.

How to Teach Group Fitness

In addition to referring to your certification study materials when needed, start reading up on fitness related topics and the fitness industry in general. Absorb all the relevant information you can as part of a continual learning process. As an instructor, your students will consider you a fitness leader and expert and will ask all types of questions pertaining to anatomy, exercise physiology, weight management and injuries. While you can’t be expected to be an expert in every aspect of fitness or give medical advice, you need to know as much as possible to at least make safe, informed recommendations. Take some classes if you can, and don’t forget to include public speaking and motivational techniques to prepare yourself to teach large groups.

Practice

Practice, practice, practice…and when you think you’ve got it, practice some more! Practicing can not be emphasized enough. You will feel more confident and at ease if you take plenty of time to perfect your cueing, combination breakdowns and choreography. Spend time practicing on your own, and then gather friends and family into small groups and practice instructing. If you have the opportunity, find a seasoned instructor willing to be your mentor and provide guidance. Team teach the warm up of one of your mentor’s classes, and gradually increase the amount of class time you teach. Breaking yourself in slowly will reduce your nervousness and boost your confidence.

Class Design

Many educational and fitness organizations offer classes on cueing, choreography design, programming and other related techniques. Take advantage of these tried and tested instructing methods and use them to design your classes. It will take the pressure off of you to come up with brand new choreography, and will give you more time to concentrate on preparing to teach.

Choosing the proper music for your class is important. The right music will keep you working at the correct intensity range, and the wrong can make your class unmotivated at best, and injure them at worst. Choose music that is designed specifically for fitness and that has the correct tempo and phrasing for the type of class you will be teaching. As a general rule-of-thumb, your warmup should be in the 130 – 140 bpm range, and your cool down in the 120 -128 bpm range.

Here are some recommended tempos for various class formats:

Class FormatMusic Tempo
High impact

135 - upper 150s bpm

High energy, explosive music

Low impact

130 - 149 bpm

Energetic, motivational music

Perinatal

129 - 140 bpm

Mid tempo music

Step

122 - 128 bpm

Build up from low 120 bpm range

Kickboxing

125 - 140 bpm

Mid tempo music

Strength training/conditioning

125 - 135 bpm

Slower pace to allow for full ROM

Yoga/stretching

Slow relaxing tempo; specialty tapes or jazz, classic, new age music

Cycling

Tempo a little lower than step

Continuing Education

As a group exercise instructor, it is your responsibility to not only keep up on current research, information and trends pertaining to the fitness industry, but continually reinforce your knowledge as well. Join fitness-related organizations, subscribe to magazines and online newsletters, and attend aerobic conventions and courses. Your certification will require that you receive a certain number of CECs or CEUs (continuing education credits/units) on a biannual basis to maintain your credentialed status. Most of these organizations provide you with great opportunities via online and in-person courses and seminars that can be applied towards fulfillment of your continuing education requirements.