Comparison of NASM, ACSM and ISSA CPT Certifications

Male certified personal trainer with NASM-CPT certification training his female client in the gym.
NASM, ACSM and ISSA CPT certifications each have their own distinguishing features.

When considering what certified personal training (CPT) certification to tackle, it is important to consider your goals, personality type and overall cost. Cost includes initial time and money investment as well as what’s required for continuing education and certification renewal every 2 or 3 years. Cost also involves stepping back, listening to and engaging your client. This will often require you to put your agenda on hold as you begin to realize the dreams, goals and aspirations of your clients.

Personal training on many fronts is about relationships. Connect with your clients and you’ll have a customer for a long time to come. Relate with them – isolation is usually what has shoved them into the less than desirable state of well-being they are now in.

Let’s take a look at three of the most recognized personal training certifications available, all accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM)

The American College of Sports Medicine has long been recognized as one of the most well-known health and fitness certifying organizations, especially among academic circles. ACSM certification tends to attract two types of people with similar goals; those who already have some type of higher education that fits well with personal training/exercise instruction and those interested working in a more clinical setting or role, such as cardiac rehabilitation.

ACSM-CPT Cost

Expect an initial investment of $129 – $375 (plus materials) then $30 for certification renewal and continuing education expenses (45 CEU’s every three years) which can climb to about $800 or more. The required adult CPR/AED certification is another initial and ongoing expense.

ACSM-CPT Prep Time & Exam Details

Study time can vary significantly depending on what you already know. The one day workshop is designed for advanced trainers or those with similar knowledge. The 3-day workshop is for those with less experience. Don’t forget to add in the time invested to earn your emergency care certification.

Exam length is 125-150 questions to answer in 2.5 hours. You can complement your textbook prep for the ACSM-CPT through 1-day ($129) or 3-day ($375) workshops (depending on your current knowledge) or through an individual ($45) or full 6 session ($240) online webinar (again, depending on your needs).

National Academy of Sport Medicine (NASM)

Though NASM seems to more or less run closely along ACSM in terms of recognition, it hails a higher starting salary for its trainers according to SimplyHired.com. As a close competitor to ACSM, NASM tends to attract those with a serious mindset about their career goals as a health professional and keeping up with the latest exercise/sports science research.

NASM-CPT Cost

A convenient variety of certificate packages range from $599 (exam only) to $999 (includes free retest, job guarantee, study materials, etc.). An optional 9-week online eTeach course is available for $349 to help you study, answer questions, take practice exams and guarantee NASM-CPT exam success (or your money back). Renewal fees of $99 (with an optional $299 certification for life) and 20 hours of CEU’s totaling about $500 every two years keeps learning current. A current CPR/AED certification is required prior to exam.

As a limited time offer, the National Academy of Sports Medicine is offering their online IPT (Introduction to Personal Training) course for $99 to help you make sure a career as a Certified Personal Trainer is right for you. The best part is that $99 will be used towards any of the NASM-CPT exam packages if you choose to go ahead with this certification. This basically means the IPT course not only comes out to being free, but is valuable preparation for the exam.

NASM-CPT Prep Time & Exam Details

The NASM-CPT exam covers 120 questions in about 2 hours. Prep time is always up to the individual, however the NASM eTeach program guarantees you can become a CPT in 3 months. If workshops are your style, plan on 2 days. And, if you happen to not pass the test, you have 180 days to retake it (for $199) or get an additional 90 days for $75.

NASM Personal Trainer Certification Enrollment

International Sports Science Association (ISSA)

The International Sports Science Association makes it super simple to obtain a certified personal trainer certification online. While they have workshops available, you must still purchase the ISSA course material before attending any workshops. All of ISSA’s Personal Trainer Certification programs fully qualify for Armed Forces Tuition Assistance and Military Spouse Financial Assistance. As a medium to highly recognized entity in the fitness and strength training industry, ISSA hails recognition as the Trainer’s Trainer for 24 years and makes certification convenient with an all-inclusive home study course.

While ACSM is very well balanced towards strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health, ISSA tends to weigh heavily on the weightlifting/body building end of the fitness spectrum. Because of this, the ISSA CPT may appeal more to those seeking to build and train others primarily for mass and competition. Although all three organizations will give you the knowledge and skills on how to train for building muscle mass, ISSA’s focus seems most skewed towards this area.

ISSA-CPT Cost

The initial investment cost with ISSA is $599 for everyone, period. Cost includes course material, guided study, audio lectures and free shipping. Don’t forget to factor in your required high school diploma and adult CPR/AED certification. Recertification will cost you $75 and 20 CEU credits over 2 years (varying in cost) averaging about $600 for recertification cost and CEUs.

ISSA-CPT Prep Time & Exam Details

You can become a CPT in 10 weeks through ISSA, but must complete the home study course in 8 months. The online test covers 168 questions with no time limit and no additional cost. ISSA offers a wide variety of practical resources online for study help as well as optional 2 day workshops ($149 each). You get two free exam re-takes if you do not pass and $50 per re-take after that.

Conclusion: NASM vs. ACSM vs. ISSA CPT Certifications

It is difficult to say which of these three organizations is the best for you as you’ll be seeking certifications based on your personal interests/goals. Simply put, it’s important to select the organization that suits your mission and career goals best. While the pay can be great, it takes a lot of motivation, energy and some business savvy to be successful in this field.

Similar to other health professions, you’ll be required to spend additional time and money on continuing education to keep your knowledge current. Getting a personal training certification is relatively inexpensive compared to earning a college degree and also an inexpensive way to complement your education if you already do have a degree. Personal training in one of the few health professions where you can make a good living without having to go to college. The fulfilling responsibility and intrinsic reward of training clients into better, and often life-saving lifestyles, should also be in the forethought of anyone seeking to become a personal trainer.