Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve decided to become a personal trainer and wondering what to do next. You probably already know that one of, if not the most, important steps is to earn your certification – and there are several popular certifying organizations worth considering if you’re just starting out.
The ultimate question everyone wants to know is, what’s the best personal trainer certification?
However, this is a question that doesn’t have an absolute answer.
More specifically, you should be asking yourself: Which one suits me best?
You’ll be spending a good chunk of your precious time and money in becoming a professional personal trainer, so it’s in your best interest to choose the certification that’s 100% (or mostly) right for you.
To assist you in making this all too important decision, we’ve assembled a comparative analysis of the 5 most popular certified personal trainer credentials.
- 1 Top Personal Trainer Certifying Organizations
- 2 Exam Requirements
- 3 Study Materials
- 4 Pricing
- 5 Continuing Education and Recertification
- 6 Accreditation
- 7 Other Certifications and Specializations
- 8 Free Certifications
Top Personal Trainer Certifying Organizations
The following is the list of organizations offering these certifications, including a short blurb about each:
NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)
Largely based on its Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model, NASM implements the most current scientific research from the field of human performance into their certifications. Their CPT cert is more geared towards training of physically active individuals and competitive athletes. Learn more about NASM and its CPT certification here.
ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
The ACSM is recognized as the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. Some hospitals and wellness centers require or prefer ACSM certification for their personal trainers. ACSM has an established set of fitness and body composition guidelines and recommendations for both healthy and diseased populations including children and senior citizens. These widely recognized guidelines are used largely in clinical settings and universities. Recommended for those who wish to work in a clinical setting or interested in eventually pursuing a medical or healthcare career.
ACE (American Council on Exercise)
Emphasizes personalized training programs for all types of people through their patented ACE Integrated Fitness Training (ACE IFT) model. Becoming a certified personal trainer through ACE is a great choice for individuals interested in working with a wide variety of clients. One of the most widely accepted CPT certifications among employers. ACE presents a very transparent and structured organization, which is another advantage to take into consideration. Highly recommended for those just starting out in personal training to provide a solid, well-rounded foundation.
ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)
Preferred by many popular fitness center chains including Gold’s Gym, Lifetime Fitness, Bally’s and Equinox. More geared towards improving body composition/body building and fitness levels in adult, non-athlete clients.
NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
The NSCA is considered by many to be the leading human performance research organization in the world. Their CPT certification prepares its trainers with an overall solid background to train a wide variety of clients, though a little more geared towards active, healthy individuals. Recommended for those who would like to eventually obtain an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification and train sports teams.
Prior to diving into your personal trainer certification program, you’ll have to make sure you’ve met a few important requirements. These prerequisites can be divided into two basic groups, as follows.
Require you to be 18+ and certified in CPR/AED…
ACSM, ACE, ISSA, NASM and NSCA
One set of prerequisites that each of the five certifications requires is that you be at least 18 years of age and that you have current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automatic external defibrillator (AED) certifications. These certifications are commonly offered together as a single credential and can usually be obtained in one day through various American Heart Association (AHA) or Red Cross training centers or through your local fire department or first aid squad. You’ll need to be emergency care certified by the time you take your exam. For the American Council on Exercise and National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer (CPT) certifications, the age and CPR/AED requirements are all that’s needed to sit for the exam.
Also require you to have a GED or HS diploma…
ACSM, ISSA and NSCA
For the National Strength & Conditioning Association, International Sports Sciences Association, and American College of Sports Medicine certifications, in addition to the above requirements, you’ll also need to be high school graduate or have a general education diploma (GED).
Every one of these organizations has available their own “in house” exam preparation resources designed to aid you in studying for your personal trainer certification. We’ll give an overview of each.
Official Certification Exam Prep Tools
ACSM offers 3 top-notch books put out by medical publishing giant Wolters Kluwer under the Lippincott Williams & Wilkins brand: ACSM’s Resources for Personal Trainers, 4th ed. (592 pages), ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 9th ed. (480 pages), and ACSM’s Certification Review, 4th ed. (320 pages). Guidelines is actually a required text for a large number of exercise science related courses in colleges and universities across the nation. Also available are courses designed specifically to prepare for their ACSM-CPT exam: a 3-day in-person workshop or a 6-session (9 hours total) online webinar.
ACE has a sizable variety of materials that you can purchase individually or as part of a study package. Core materials include ACE’s Personal Trainer Manual, Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals and the Master the Manual workbook. They also offer ACE Academy, which includes a practice exam, online review and an e-mail lecture series. And with Academy you also receive access to the ACE Resource Center, where you can e-mail or call an ACE-certified fitness expert for one-on-one consultations on anything relating to the test. If you’re not clear on a certain subject area, feel like going over a few study questions, or you’re simply experiencing some nervousness regarding the test, an exam counselor will be there for your support.
Certification prep materials for the ISSA certification encompass a diverse range of media including a textbook and ebook copy of ISSA’s Fitness: A Complete Guide (coming in at a whopping 735 pages!), an accompanying study guide and workbook, practice quizzes and tests, a large exercise video library on DVD, access to a web-based interactive exercise technique analysis lab and online support. One thing that sets ISSA apart from the other organizations is their business and marketing guide. It includes information on the steps you need to take in order to effectively promote your services and gain clients after you become certified – an all too crucial component for new trainers that’s neglected by some other organizations.
For the NASM-CPT certification, a variety of exam prep resources are available, ranging from a 20-chapter study guide to their 9-week eTeach course. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, approximately 95 percent of test takers who enroll in eTeach (which in entirely web-based) end up passing the certification exam on their first try. Also offered is a half-day in-person CPT exam preparation workshop that combines teaching with applied learning for a hands-on experience.
The NSCA also features a good selection of study products published through Human Kinetics – the leading publisher of textbooks in subjects relating to exercise science. As the “meat and potatoes” prep source for the NSCA-CPT exam, National Strength & Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Personal Training, 2nd ed., comes in at a hefty 700 pages (696 to be exact) and is in our opinion a reference book every personal trainer should own. Closely simulated practice tests, self-assessment and study workbooks, and audio CD’s round out the rest of the materials, which can be bought individually. For those wanting closer guidance in studying for the NSCA-CPT, there is an online study course which helps you get most out of Essentials book and includes interactive learning modalities and clear emphasis on the specific knowledge areas covered by the exam.
Acquiring certification in personal training is a relatively low- to moderate-cost venture, considering that in return it can help you earn a pretty good living. Each organization included in this article has available certification packages that include everything you need to sufficiently prepare for your CPT exam. While taking up the occupational role of professional trainer indeed necessitates a notable investment of both time and money, as soon as you become certified and begin building upon your clientele base, you will definitely see that it was all well spent!
Certification and Study Materials Cost
ACSM has available their 3 text books in a package for $134.99, in addition to 2 in-person CPT workshops to choose from: a one-day workshop for those with a basic background in exercise science ($130) or a three-day workshop for those looking to build upon their practical and applied knowledge in the exercise sciences ($375). A 6-course web-based seminar (webinar) is also available for $240. The CPT exam alone is priced at just under $300, however by signing up for the 3-day CPT workshop you’ll receive a $50 voucher towards the exam, which brings the cost down to $249. Some self-learners choose the book package only bringing the total to about $435 to prepare for and take the test. Probably the most comprehensive preparation route would be picking up the book bundle as well as attending the 3-day workshop, which would end up costing you almost $760 for the “whole enchilada”.
In offering up one of the more straightforward exam prep options, ACE makes it relatively simple to choose between their Standard, Premium or Premium Plus personal trainer certification study packages priced at $499, $599 and $699, respectively. All 3 study bundles include the cost of the exam itself, making it a convenient one-stop signup process. With the $699 Premium Plus package, you have the option of financing it through 4 monthly payments of $174.75, which is nice if you’re not in a position to cough up the total cost all at once. In case you’re fortunate enough to receive the study materials from a previous test taker, the fee for the ACE CPT exam voucher will run you $399. You can also purchase the study materials a la carte, though it makes a lot more sense to go for one of the package deals. For instance, all components of the $499 Standard plan would cost $750 if you bought them individually.
If you decide to go with ISSA, you won’t have any trouble making up your mind on what study package or materials to get. In making life easier ISSA combines all its study aids, including the test, into one comprehensive package for $499. One and done! This makes ISSA’s personal trainer certification the most economical option out of the entire group.
Just like ACE, the National Academy of Sports Medicine offers a selection of all-inclusive study packages that includes both the personal trainer exam and various preparation aids. Where NASM differs is how they go the extra mile in ensuring you secure a job once you become certified. This guaranteed job option is only available with their more premium study bundles. Here are the 5 packages NASM has available:
- Self-Study – $699
- Self-Study w/ Live Workshop – $849
- Self-Study w/ Online Course – $999
- All Access w/ Job Guarantee – $1,199
- All Access w/ Job Guarantee and Experience – $1,999
The package that includes experiences is referred to as the NASM Associate Personal Trainer Experience program, which is basically a sort of internship that is coordinated by NASM with one of its affiliate health club or gym facilities. You basically get the opportunity to gain experience at a particular fitness center with the chance of being hired if your a good fit for the gym and vice-versa. You also do have the option of purchasing the exam voucher by itslef for $599 and the prep materials individually if needed, though you do save some cash when you buy the packages. In terms of “exam only” cost, NASM CPT is the most expensive out of the 5 certifications outlined in this guide.
NSCA-CPT exam prep packages are available (3 total), however they do not include the exam. These packages simply combine some of their study materials (all of which can be purchased individually) into a discounted bundle. Pricing is determined by non-member, associate member and member status. Containing the core ‘Essentials of Personal Training’ textbook (around $95 by itself), practice exams ($85 – $185 depending on membership status) and exam content outline booklet ($20 – $27), the Basic Package is sufficient enough for many to prepare for the NSCA-CPT. It costs $277.20 for non-members or $179.10 for members. The Standard Packages include all Basic Package contents in addition to the ‘Exercise Technique Manual for Resistance Training’ (around $70 alone) and additional materials. The ‘Exercise Technique’ book is ideal for those needing to brush up or work on correct lifting specifics. NSCA-CPT Standard Packages range from $287.10 to $486.00 based on membership standing. There are 4 different National Strength & Conditioning Association membership options:
- Associate – $47 per year
- Student – $65 per year
- Professional – $120 per year
- Certified Professional w/ liability insurance – $337 per year
If you have your heart set on becoming NSCA certified it’s definitely a wise decision to obtain one of these memberships. Depending on the one you choose, membership can include several benefits designed to aid/further your knowledge, education and career – not to mention discounts on NSCA study material and certification exams. The personal trainer exam, which again has to be purchased separately, ranges in cost quite a bit – from $235 to $420. What you end up paying is not only based on membership status, but on whether you choose to take the test on computer or the old-fashioned way… pencil and paper. To add to the fee disparity, the price for the pencil/paper option also depends on whether or not you register in advance.
Whew! It’s safe to say that NSCA for sure has the most variables involving cost across the board, which can be confusing for some.
Continuing Education and Recertification
In keeping your personal trainer certification current, every one of these fitness certification agencies requires you to maintain your CPR/AED certified status, in addition to acquiring a set amount of continuing education credits (CECs). ACE, NSCA, NASM and ISSA all require 20 CE’s, while ACSM requires 45. All these organizations usually count similar forms of education for credit, such as going to fitness industry-related conferences, taking certain web-based or in-person classes, and even online seminars. Most of the time there is a cost associated with the continuing education medium. This entire process is called recertification and needs to be done every 2-3 years depending on the organization.
The American College of Sports Medicine has the least expensive recertification fee of $30 every 3 years. On the other hand, they also call for the largest amount of CECs, with 45 required in the same 3-year time frame. About one hour of time spent on continuing education is equal to 1 credit. ACSM holds numerous conferences across the nation throughout the year, web-based workshops, and online seminars. They also acknowledge continuing education credits acquired from various other health and fitness companies.
For ACE personal trainer recertification, it comes around every two years and costs up to $139 depending on whether you submit the form online or through mail. The required 20 continuing education credits (1 hour equivalent to 1 credit) can be picked up through various ACE affiliated live and online courses or workshops and through attending the ACE Symposium, a 3-day event held annually featuring presentations and demonstrations by fitness industry experts. You also receive CECs when you become certified in any of ACE’s 10 specialty fields.
Recertification for ISSA is also required every two years at a reasonable $75 price tag. You’ll be expected to collect 20 CECs during this time. ISSA offers online workshops, learning modalities and quizzes – all for credit – which is very convenient since you can earn a large number of CECs from home. Also, they accept credits from many different outside sources, making easier to fulfill your continuing education requirement.
NASM also calls for 20 credit hours per 2-year period to keep your CPT credential current with a recertification price of $99. For those of you planning to be NASM-CPT certified for the long run, there’s good news. Once you get the certification, you can choose to pay $299 up front and that’ll cover the biennial recertification cost forever. This means the one-time fee will pay for itself in 6 years, which makes a lot of sense if you plan on being a NASM certified personal trainer for years to come. A variety of in-person workshops and online training courses offered by the National Academy of Sports Medicine are primary avenues of gathering continuing education units for recertification.
With a relatively low recert cost of 50 dollars every 24 months, the National Strength & Conditioning Association, similar to NASM, ISSA and ACE, wants you to complete 20 hours of continuing education. Attending various learning symposium clinics, state, regional and national conferences, webinars and online courses will add to the required CEC tally. A broad scope of web-based continuing education classes are available through Human Kinetics, including courses related to exercise science, athletic training, coaching, nutrition and physical education.
You may have noticed the term “accredited” attached to various personal trainer certifications and wondered about its significance. If you’re not totally clear on the meaning, then rest easy – you’re not alone. Accreditation is when a certification program goes through a review process by a credentialing agency – an organization that establishes specific criteria for certifying credentials. Being accredited indicates that the structure, purpose, management, and administration of the certification satisfies the requirements put in place by the accrediting organization. Simply put, if a certification is accredited, it shows that it measures up to the high standards established by an organization whose job it is to review professional credentials like those found in the fitness industry.
National Commission for Certifying Agencies
ACSM, ACE, NASM and NSCA
Accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is most often considered the benchmark for health and fitness certifications. Organizations require thorough assessment and routine renewal periods to maintain this accreditation from this agency, which was founded in 1987. The personal trainer certifications offered by NSCA, ACSM, ACE and NASM are accredited by the NCCA.
Distance Education and Training Council
Established in 1926, the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) is officially acknowledged by the Department of Education as a national accrediting agency. The DETC performs extensive credential evaluations that includes polling of peers and students as well as analyses of educational programs by experts in the field. Like the NCCA, being DETC-accredited involves re-accreditation on a regular basis. It’s worth noting that DETC does not accredit the actual certification, rather accreditation is extended to the educational curriculum or program that prepares you for certification. ISSA’s distance learning program for their personal trainer certification is accredited by DETC.
NCCA vs. DETC
The NCCA and DETC are highly regarded and largely acknowledged/recognized accrediting bodies, which suggests all the programs outlined in this guide are basically comparable – at least in this respect. For example, IHRSA (International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association), the primary trade association of the fitness and health industry, doesn’t favor a particular agency in recognizing both the DETC and NCCA.
Other Certifications and Specializations
William Cowper, an 18th century British poet, penned the famous line “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor”, a phrase that definitely comes to mind given the variety of specialty credentials the best certification organizations offer. ACSM, ACE, NSCA, ISSA and NASM not only offer their respective PT certs, each organization has a number of different health- and fitness-related certifications as well. Building up your credential portfolio is one of the best ways to advance your career and additional certifications will help by increasing your knowledge, skills, abilities and ultimately marketability in specific areas. Some of them are more broad in scope, for example, group fitness instructor certifications, while some are more targeted towards specific populations, like NASM’s Performance Enhancement Specialist or ACSM’s Inclusive Fitness Trainer.
ACSM groups their respective credentials into three main categories:
Health and Fitness
- Personal Trainer
- Group Exercise Instructor
- Health Fitness Specialist
- Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist
- Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist
- Exercise is Medicine Credential
- Certified Ringside Physician
- Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer
- Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer
- Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist
Here is the breakdown of certifications from American Council on Exercise:
Health and Fitness
- Personal Trainer
- Group Fitness Instructor
- Health Coach
- Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist
- Fitness Nutrition
- Functional Training
- Group Exercise Leadership
- Mind Body
- Orthopedic Exercise
- Senior Fitness
- Sports Conditioning
- Therapeutic Exercise
- Weight Management
- Youth Fitness
- Peer Fitness Trainer
Here is the complete list of their credentialing programs:
- Personal Trainer
- Elite Trainer I
- Elite Trainer II
- Master Trainer
- Exercise Therapy
- Fitness Nutrition
- Senior Fitness
- Sports Nutrition
- Strength and Conditioning
- Youth Fitness
- Personal Trainer
- Group Personal Training
- Weight Loss
- Fitness Nutrition
- Performance Enhancement
- Corrective Exercise
- Golf Fitness
- Women’s Fitness
- MMA Conditioning
- Senior Fitness
- Youth Exercise
- Personal Trainer
- Strength and Conditioning Specialist
- Special Populations Specialist
- Tactical Strength and Conditioning
National Academy of Sports Medicine
NASM actually offers free trials for 7 of their most popular certifications and credentials. The best part is there’s absolutely no payment or credit card info required during checkout and you’ll never be billed.
These trials are truly FREE.
You get access to online instructional books, manuals, exercise technique video libraries, quizzes, and various example templates and forms – basically an entire online course – which cannot be found anywhere on the internet. And it’s a lot more than one can fully absorb or study during the short trial period.
However, the main purpose really is for you to browse over and get an in-depth look at the teachings and training principles behind each NASM certification/credential to help decide whether or not it’s right for you.
Here’s a current list of NASM’s free trials:
Being the only “free” (we’ll explain the quotation marks in a second) and recently NCCA-accredited personal trainer certification, we wouldn’t be surprised if you heard more about ACTION in the near future. Their CPT cert, which is the only cert ACTION currently has available, covers pretty much the full spectrum of training from exercise science to business. It’s a well-rounded cert for otherwise healthy populations of all ages.
Now, to the “free” part.
Long story short: ACTION has two certification exam versions – one that you can take wherever online and one that’s taken on-site at a PSI testing center. The former version is not NCCA-accredited and should be used as a warm-up before taking the “real” NCCA-accredited one at a test location.
Whether you take one or the other or both, study materials are provided for free in the form of a 300-page online textbook. ACTION also does not charge an exam fee for either. However, PSI charges a $60.00 fee for taking the exam (the accredited version), which you’ll have to pay. Lastly, as a study option, live teaching and support is available from ACTION for $65 – making the most you’ll pay come out to $125. Still by far the least expensive option out of all accredited CPT certifications.