Personal Trainer Certification Guide

An ACSM certified exercise specialist training women's track team.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re deciding to either become a personal trainer or to supplement your services as an already established fitness professional or health care service provider that’s integrating “Exercise is Medicine” into your patient care model. Whether just starting out or taking the next step looking into areas of fitness to specialize in, you’ll want to learn more about the best personal training certifications and why the organizations that provide these certifications are worth considering.

The ultimate question a lot of people tend to ask is, what exactly is the best personal trainer certification out there? The problem is, it’s quite a subjective question that really doesn’t have an absolute answer – kind of like preference of what car you like to drive or hope to drive one day. 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.

Best Personal Trainer Certification Organizations

The following is a list of organizations offering certifications in personal training, including some background info about each.

ACE (American Council on Exercise)

Website: American Council on Exercise

Emphasizes personalized training programs for all types of people, including special populations, through their patented Integrated Fitness Training (IFT) model. Becoming a certified personal trainer through ACE is a popular choice for individuals interested in working with a wide variety of clients with an emphasis on helping them achieve long-term fitness and health.

One of the most widely accepted CPT certifications among fitness employers. ACE presents a very transparent and structured organization, which is another advantage to take into consideration. Highly recommended for those wanting a certification program that provides a solid, well-rounded personal training foundation with easily accessible learning resources and support.

ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)

Website: American College of Sports Medicine

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.

ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)

Website: International Sports Sciences Association

One of the biggest differences with ISSA is that it has its own College of Exercise Science, officially recognized as a Title IV academic institution. It’s accepted by many popular fitness center chains including Gold’s Gym, Lifetime Fitness, Youfit, and Equinox. Traditionally more geared towards improving body composition/body building and fitness levels in adult clients, the organization’s more recent mission has involved providing education and training to specifically help prevent the continuing spread of obesity in the United States.

NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)

Website: National Academy of Sports Medicine

Based on its proven and successful evidence-based Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model, NASM applies the most current scientific research from the field of human performance and injury prevention into their certification programs. Their OPT model essentially underlines the importance of stability in providing the necessary foundation of a fitness program – for both athletes and non-athletes.

The NASM CPT certification is geared towards integrating corrective exercise into the training of clinical populations, recreational or competitive athletes, and of course general fitness clientele. NASM’s specializations branch out even further into the realm of functional exercise, performance, nutrition and special populations. Recommended for those who eventually plan to specialize in either clinical populations (specifically, clients with orthopedic or musculoskeletal issues) or human performance (e.g. amateur or professional athletes). Also, it’s not uncommon for athletic trainers to be NASM certified due to the organization’s emphasis on injury prevention. High recognition in both the fitness industry and sports medicine field.

NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)

Website: 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 are in the process of finishing their bachelor’s degree and eventually planning to take the NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam and train athletes or become a strength coach for a sports team. Most strength coaches in collegiate and professional sports are NSCA certified.

Certification Quick Comparison

Cost
  •    Certification
  •    w/ Prep Materials
  •    Exam Pass Rate
  •    Recert Fee
  •    Recert Period
  •    Recert CEUs
  •    Requirements
  •    Accreditation

ACE CPT

$599 - $12993 Packages Available
  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • 65%
  • $129
  • 2 years
  • 2.0 (20 hrs.)
  • HS diploma + CPR/AED
  • NCCA

ACSM CPT

$279 - $349Exam Only
  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • 54%
  • $45
  • 3 years
  • 4.5 (45 hrs.)
  • HS diploma + CPR/AED
  • NCCA

ISSA CFT

$799 - $17883 Packages Available
  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • 90%
  • $99
  • 2 years
  • 2.0 (20 hrs.)
  • HS diploma + CPR/AED/First aid
  • DEAC

NASM CPT

$699 - $12994 Packages Available
  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • 64%
  • $99
  • 2 years
  • 2.0 (20 hrs.)
  • HS diploma + CPR/AED
  • NCCA

NSCA CPT

$300 - $435Exam Only
  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • 58%
  • $50 - $75
  • 3 years
  • 6.0 (60 hrs.)
  • HS diploma + CPR/AED
  • NCCA

Basic Exam Requirements

Prior to diving into any of these personal trainer certification programs, you’ll have to make sure you meet a set of prerequisites in order to be eligible to sit for the exam:

1. Be at least 18 years of age
2. Hold a high school diploma or GED
3. Have a current CPR/AED certification

Certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automatic external defibrillator (AED) operation is commonly offered together as a single credential and can usually be earned 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 have this completed by the time you take your test.

Study Materials

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.

Preparing for Certification

ACSM

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, 5th ed. (633 pages) w/ access to PrepU (an online quiz platform), ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 10th ed. (480 pages), and ACSM’s Certification Review, 5th 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. In addition to these books, ACSM also has available optional courses designed specifically to prepare for their ACSM-CPT exam: a 2-day in-person workshop or a 6-session (9 hours total) online webinar.

ACE

Core study materials included with any of the three ACE CPT packages are ACE’s Personal Trainer Manual, Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals, and the innovative ACE Academy Elite – an interactive online study program that includes video lessons and quizzes with scheduled learning that puts students on track to be prepared for the exam in 4 months.

ISSA

Included in both ISSA’s 10-Week Self-Study and 4-Week Fast Track CPT packages is a digital copy of Fitness: A Complete Guide (coming in at a whopping 759 pages!), which is also available as a physical textbook for the cost of shipping & handling only, an accompanying study guide and workbook, practice quizzes and tests, a large exercise video library, access to a web-based interactive exercise technique analysis lab (Exercise 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.

NASM

Prep resources for the NASM-CPT certification range from a 20-chapter study guide to their 10-week online course. There are two self-study packages and two guided-study packages to choose from. Click here to learn more about NASM and it’s CPT exam options.

NSCA

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. NSCA Exercise Techniques, 3rd ed. and closely simulated practice questions round out the rest of the main study materials. For those wanting closer guidance in studying for the NSCA-CPT, there is an option to attend a live in-person exam prep clinic which helps you get most out of Essentials book and includes hands-on learning modalities and clear emphasis on the specific knowledge areas covered by the exam.

Pricing

Acquiring certification in personal training is a relatively low- to moderate-cost venture, considering that in return it can potentially help you earn a pretty good living. Most organizations offer certification packages that include everything you need to sufficiently prepare for the exam. Here is an overview of the costs involved with each.

Certification and Study Materials Cost

ACSM

ACSM has available the latest editions of their 3 textbooks as an ‘ACSM Personal Trainer Book Kit’ package for $155.89. For those looking to build upon their practical and applied knowledge in the exercise sciences, an in-person 2-day workshop (around $200-$300) is available. Web-based seminars (webinars) are also available for around $200. The CPT exam itself, which is not included with purchase of ACSM study materials or textbook bundles and needs to be purchased separately, is priced at $279 for ACSM members and $349 for ACSM non-members. Some self-learners choose the book package only bringing the total to about $450 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 2-day workshop or some webinars, which would end up costing you around $700.

ACE

In offering up one of the more straightforward exam prep options, ACE makes it relatively simple to choose between their Basic, Plus or Advantage study packages priced at $599, $799 and $1,299, respectively. All 3 study bundles include the cost of the exam itself and all essential study materials, making it a convenient one-stop signup process. 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 $599 Basic plan would cost over $800 if you bought them individually.

ISSA

ISSA has moved away from their single study package to now offering 3 different options:

  • Self Guided Study for $799
  • Fast Track for $1,188
  • Full Training Experience for $1,788

The Self Guided option is designed to prepare you for the ISSA-CPT in 10 weeks and the Fast Track option, as the name implies, in less than half that time at 4 weeks. You might be wondering why the Fast Track costs more, but it includes an accelerated study program and access to tutoring from an ISSA expert. All 3 packages include a job guarantee or your money back, which shows how confident ISSA is in offering one of the best and most recognized personal training certifications out there.

NASM

Just like ACE, the National Academy of Sports Medicine offers a selection of study packages that all include both the personal trainer exam and various prep resources. Where NASM differs is how they go the extra mile in offering a money-back job guarantee within 90 days of becoming certified. This guarantee comes with all study bundles except for Self-Study.

Here are the 4 packages NASM currently has available:

  • Self-Study – $699
  • Premium Self-Study – $1099
  • Guided-Study – $1499
  • All-Inclusive – $2199

The last package includes training experience referred to as a “Gymternship”, which is basically an 80-hour internship that is coordinated by NASM with one of its affiliate health club or gym facilities. With this you get the opportunity to gain experience in an actual fitness setting with the possibility of being hired if your a good fit for the facility and vice-versa. You also do have the option of purchasing the exam voucher by itself for $599 and any 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

NSCA-CPT exam prep packages are available (3 total), however they do not include the exam – which costs $300 for members or $435 for non-members. 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 or member status as follows:

  • NSCA-CPT Essential – $240 for members/$290 for non-members
  • NSCA-CPT Essential Plus – $455 for members/$511 for non-members
  • NSCA-CPT Digital – $144 for members/$193 for non-members

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 ‘Essential’ package is sufficient enough for many with an exercise science background to prepare for the NSCA-CPT. The ‘Essential Plus’ package includes all ‘Essential’ package contents in addition to the ‘Exercise Technique Manual for Resistance Training’ (around $70 alone). The ‘Exercise Technique’ book is ideal for those without much formal education in the science of fitness or needing a refresher on correct lifting specifics. The ‘Digital’ package is the most bare bones package and contains only an outline of exam content and practice questions.

There are 3 different National Strength & Conditioning Association membership options:

  • Student – $65 per year
  • Professional – $120 per year
  • CPI (Certified Professional w/ liability insurance) – $349 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 like access to their industry-leading strength & conditioning journals, designed to aid/further your knowledge, education and career – not to mention discounts on NSCA study material and certification exams.

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). One CEC is equivalent to around 10 hours of continuing education. ACE, NSCA, NASM and ISSA all require 20 CEC’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 web-based or in-person classes, and even attending online seminars. Most of the time there is a cost associated with the continuing education medium, though free opportunities are available here and there. This entire process is called recertification and needs to be taken care of every 2-3 years depending on the organization.

Recertification Requirements

ACSM

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.

ACE

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.

ISSA

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

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 organization are primary avenues of gathering CECs for recertification.

NSCA

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.

Accreditation

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 Accrediting Commission

ISSA
Established in 1926, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission or DEAC (formerly known as the Distance Education and Training Council or DETC) is officially acknowledged by the U.S. 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, which is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education (CHEA).

NCCA vs. DEAC

The NCCA and DEAC are highly regarded and largely acknowledged/recognized accrediting bodies, which suggests all the certifications outlined in this guide have in common an overall legitimacy. For example, IHRSA (International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association), the primary trade association of the fitness and health industry, doesn’t seem to favor a particular agency in recognizing both the DEAC 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 specializations the best certification organizations offer. ACSM, ACE, NSCA, ISSA and NASM not only offer their respective CPT certs, each organization has a number of different health- and fitness-related certifications and programs 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.

Specialty Certifications

ACSM
With a clear emphasis on clinical exercise, American College of Sports Medicine has available 10 different certification credentials, including CPT. Clinical certifications are obtainable which specifically prepare you to work with people who have controlled health issues, as well as specialty certifications, which prepare you for a highly specific clinical or health advocate role.

ACSM groups their respective credentials into three main categories:
Health Fitness

  • Personal Trainer
  • Group Exercise Instructor
  • Exercise Physiologist

Clinical

  • Clinical Exercise Physiologist (CEP)
  • Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP)In 2018, ACSM stopped offering the RCEP certification so that only a single clinical exercise physiologist certification (CEP) would be offered, in part, to avoid confusion by employers between CEP and RCEP.

Specialty

  • Exercise is Medicine Credential
  • Certified Ringside Physician
  • Inclusive Fitness Trainer
  • Cancer Exercise Trainer
  • Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist
ACE
ACE offers 16 programs overall, 4 “core” certifications and 12 specialty credentials. The organization really makes an effort in presenting a full line of educational options that appeal to all kinds of health/fitness professionals.

Here is the breakdown of certifications from American Council on Exercise:
Core Certifications (all accredited by NCCA)

  • Personal Trainer
  • Group Fitness Instructor
  • Health Coach
  • Medical Exercise Specialist

Specialty

  • Fitness Nutrition
  • Behavior Change
  • Functional Aging
  • Functional Aging (Group Exercise)
  • Cancer Exercise
  • Orthopedic Exercise
  • Pain-free Movement
  • Senior Fitness
  • Sports Performance
  • Therapeutic Exercise
  • Weight Management
  • Youth Fitness

Other

  • Peer Fitness Trainer (specifically geared towards training firefighters
ISSA
Similar to NASM, the International Sports Sciences Association’s lone core certification is for personal training with a nice selection of specialty certs – 9 to be exact. What’s unique about ISSA is they have available 3 different levels of advanced personal trainer certifications specifically designed around their core CPT credential.

Here is the complete list of their credentialing programs:
Core

  • Personal Trainer
  • Elite Trainer
  • Master Trainer

Specialty Certifications

  • Exercise Therapy
  • Powerlifting Instructor
  • Weight Management Specialist
  • Kickboxing Instructor
  • Bodybuilding
  • Corrective Exercise
  • DNA-Based Fitness Coach
  • Nutrition
  • Group Fitness
  • Senior Fitness
  • Sports Nutrition
  • Strength and Conditioning
  • Transformation Specialist
  • Youth Fitness
NASM
Offering up their single “core” credential, certified personal trainer or CPT, the National Academy of Sports Medicine also has 11 specialty credentials to choose from. Overall, a broad selection similar to ACE, these specializations range from functional and sport-specific training to special populations:
Core

  • Personal Trainer

Specialty

  • Group Personal Training
  • Weight Loss
  • Fitness Nutrition
  • Performance Enhancement
  • Corrective Exercise
  • Golf Fitness
  • Women’s Fitness
  • MMA Conditioning
  • Senior Fitness
  • Youth Exercise
  • Behavior Change
NSCA
Given that NSCA is predominantly centered on strength training and conditioning, the Colorado Springs based organization provides a total of three certifications pertaining to this area, with 1 credential for all age and ability ranges.

  • Personal Trainer
  • Strength and Conditioning Specialist
  • Special Populations Specialist
  • Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator

Honorable Mention: ACTION

ACTION

Although not listed above in the top 5, it’s worth mentioning that ACTION is a relatively newer certifying organization that offers an NCCA-accredited personal training certification. This is the same accreditation that ACE, ACSM, and NSCA have. The big difference is that ACTION is significantly lower in cost and the least expensive NCCA-accredited PT certification out there. You can get certified for as low as $174 total cost, which includes study materials and testing center fees.

Three certification packages are available: Basic ($99), Professional ($149), and Platinum ($249). (Side note: these prices have stayed exactly the same for the last few years even while additional materials/features have been added, which is pretty cool of ACTION to do). Amount of prep materials and support varies among the packages. Also, the price of these packages do not include the $75 cost charged by Prometric testing centers, which is required when taking the accredited version of the exam (you can opt to take the non-accredited version at home). Even with this fee, ACTION is still the most affordable personal trainer certification (by hundred’s of dollars) that’s accredited by the NCCA. The exam is multiple choice, one-hundred and fifty questions in all, and you have up to 2.5 hours to complete it. A score of 70% or higher is required to pass.

As one of three certs ACTION offers (Group Exercise Certification and Advanced Nutrition Certification are the others), it covers pretty much the full spectrum of training from exercise science to business. It’s a good all-around certification, especially for those needing an NCCA-accredited certification at a relative bargain price. It’s also an option for trainers already certified by a different organization to pick up another cert while getting continuing education credits to fulfill their renewal requirements.

Fitness Certification Promo Codes and Deals

Check out verified coupon codes and limited time deals for the best personal trainer certification packages, other fitness-related and specialty programs that are currently being offered:

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