Congratulations! You’ve decided to learn how to become a personal trainer.
Hopefully, coming into this article, you know the basic personal trainer job description and are looking for the top certifications you can pursue.
The next step is to get certified, and there are quite a few personal trainer certification programs to choose from. To help you decide which program is best for you, we’ve put together a comparison of the five most popular training certification programs and their features, benefits, and concentrations. The five programs we’ll cover are:
1. American Council on Exercise (ACE)
2. National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
3. International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
4. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
5. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Below, you’ll find several categories, with notes on each organization’s certification process. And at the end of the article, you’ll see what we think is the overall best personal trainer certification.
Before starting your personal trainer certification program, you’ll need to have completed a few prerequisites. For example, every program requires that you are 18 years or older, and that you have a hands-on CPR and AED (automatic external defibrillator) certification.
You can get this certification through a community education program or the Red Cross. For the ACE and NASM certification, that’s all you need.
In addition to these requirements, the ACSM, ISSA, and NSCA require that you have a high school diploma or GED.
Study Materials / Courses
Each organization offers resources that will help you study for your personal trainer certification, but they have very different materials. We’ll look at them one at a time.
ACE has a number of resources that you can choose from to suit your needs. All of these resources are held together within the ACE University study portal. Whether it’s the Personal Trainer Manual set, the Essentials of Exercise Science Flashcards, or Master the Manual, ACE has you covered. They also offer several online programs that will help you prepare for the test, including an exam review and practice tests. And you can get personalized help from the ACE Resource Center, which allows you to talk to Study Counselors—whether you have questions about a particular topic, want to review some study questions, or you’re just feeling stressed out about the test, they’ll help you out on their free 800 number. You can even schedule weekly check-ins to add some accountability to your training!
The ACSM offers three books: ACSM’s Resources for Personal Trainers, ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, and ACSM’s Certification Review. Also offered are three different workshop options for preparing for the certified personal trainer examination: three-day in-person workshops, one-day in-person workshops, and an online webinar series. A big note is that all that ACSM sells is offered separately, and there are few packages. But, ACSM is also one of the biggest organizations in fitness providing the research used in most major certifiations.
A combination of online, print, and in-person preparation strategies are offered by NASM, including a 9-week online course, study guides, flashcards, interactive discussion questions, and 1-day live workshops. NASM offers many package options, similar to ACE and ISSA, and is a top choice for people entering the industry. NASM has an outstanding OPT model, which I value higher than any of the other teaching models offered in these top 5 certs.
The ISSA study materials include the standards: a hardcopy and an online copy of the main course text, a study guide and workbook, practice exams, a reference DVD, web support and social opportunities, and an animated online exercise lab that will give you the key information on 250 exercises. It also provides something quite unique in its marketing and business guide, which includes tips on developing a profitable business. ISSA has more value than the others in this article, and often bundles its certifications together for a good amount of continuing education. ISSA has the widest variety of certs for trainers to pursue later, like yoga, crossfit, pilates, and other types of workout focuses.
The NSCA offers a wide variety of study materials, including NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training, workbooks, practice exams, exercise videos and instruction, and much more. The Essentials book contains a huge amount of information from a variety of sources, including safety guidelines, testing protocols, client assessment, modifications for special populations, and full-color photos detailing exercises for resistance, aerobic, plyometric, and speed training programs. NSCA is also my favorite choice if you do plan on going for a strength and conditioning training certification, as it is the gold standard organization in this realm of the fitness industry. If you plan to work with athletes in or out of the gym, this is the ideal organization. NSCA, like ACSM, also sells the majority of their study tools separately, so do consider that.
Recertification and Continuing Education
All of the certifying bodies and potential job locations will require that you keep your CPR and AED certification current, and they all require continuing education credits (CECs). However, the amount that they require and what counts as a credit differs between them. They generally accept the same types of things for credit, including attending relevant conferences, completing related online or in-person courses, and some webinars. They each also have a fee that you need to pay.
ACSM offers the cheapest recertification at $55 every three years, but they also require the most continuing education, with 45 CECs in the same period. The approximate equivalency is one hour for one CEC. ACSM conducts many conferences around the country, online courses, and webinars, and also accepts CECs from other health and fitness organizations. The counts for recertification cost and CECs required is going to vary depending on the certifications with ACSM you have, but for other organizations it is rather universal.
ACE requires recertification every two years, and requires a $129 fee. They require 20 CECs, where each CEC is equal to one hour of training. ACE offers online courses, in-person workshops, a number of specialty certifications, and the ACE symposium, a large conference that’s held every year for ACE personal trainers. Though not technically a form of continuing education, the ACE Resource Center is also available on newly graduated fitness professionals, which means you can ask the counselors any questions you have about the industry.
NASM also requires 20 hours every two years, and has a $99 recertification fee. However, when you get certified, you have the option of paying $299, which will cover your recertification fees for life. As this pays off after six years, it’s generally a pretty good deal if you’re planning to be a personal trainer for a long time. Both live workshops and online courses are offered by the organization. NASM definitely sets themselves apart from the others with the inclusion of recertification for life.
ISSA offers a low recertification fee of $99 every two years, and requires the accumulation of 20 CEUs. ISSA offers workshops with online components, meaning you can get study materials and take quizzes at home. If you also get your continuing education units from ISSA, then the fee is waived and therefore it costs nothing to recertify. There is a very large number of partner organizations that offer ISSA-accepted conferences, courses, and programs. A recent addition to match the NASM offering is a recertification for life from ISSA. This will likely be offered in some form from all fitness organizations in the future.
NSCA has the lowest fee at $60 – $90 for a non-member and $35 – $65 for a member every two years and, like most of the other organizations, requires 20 hours of continuing education per recertification period. Committee membership, conference attendance, and other standard events contribute to the CEC count, and NSCA offers both home study and live events. They also have various setups to explore for professional members and CPI members. This is definitely the more complicated organization of the 5.
Additional Certifications Offered
In addition to becoming a certified personal trainer, each of these five organizations offers additional certifications that can move your career forward by helping you gain a number of valuable skills. Some of them are more general, such as the group exercise instructor certifications, while some are more specific, like ACSM’s cancer exercise trainer or NSCA’s tactical strength and conditioning facilitator.
ASCM offers a wide variety of certifications, including group exercise instructor; health fitness specialist, which gives you the skills to work with populations who have controlled medical conditions. Clinical certifications are offered, as are specialty certifications, such as Exercise is Medicine, Physical Activity in Public Health, and Cancer Exercise Trainer.
Through ACE, you can be certified as a group fitness instructor, ACE health coach, or medical exercise specialist. There are also several specialty certifications, including youth fitness, fitness nutrition, functional training, and mind-body. They even partner with great organizations which focus on areas of fitness to pursue like strength dn conditioning certifications with The Biomechanics Model, or health coach and wellness certifications with precision nutrition and other organizations.
Credentials offered by NASM include mixed martial arts conditioning, golf fitness, women’s fitness, youth exercise, and fitness nutrition. They have expanded their arsenal of certificate offerings to allow for experience in just about any field or specialty training courses that a trainer could desire, much like ISSA. NASM also offers one of the best corrective exercise certifications in the industry.
ISSA provides certifications in fitness nutrition, exercise therapy, senior fitness, youth fitness, strength and conditioning, and sports nutrition. You can also gain increased personal trainer credentials through the elite trainer and master trainer certifications. ISSA not only offers some of the best value for learners earning fitness certificates, but the most variety, with something for everyone.
Because the NSCA is primarily focused on strength and conditioning, they offer certifications related to this field, including strength and conditioning and special populations certifications. They also offer a credentialing program for tactical strength and conditioning facilitators, who train military, law enforcement, fire and rescue, and other specialty fields.
If you’re a bit confused by accreditation, you’re not alone. To become accredited, a program undergoes a review by an accrediting body, which is an organization that sets standards for certification programs—this means that the development, implementation, maintenance, and governance of the program meets the levels set out by the accrediting body. In short, if a program is accredited, it means that it’s been shown to meet the high standards set by a review organization.
ACSM, ACE, NASM, ISSA and NSCA are all accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). NCCA accreditation is generally held as the standard for the field—certifying bodies must undergo a comprehensive evaluation and regular renewals to keep this accreditation.
The ISSA is accredited by the DEAC and the NCCA, optionally, which is recognized by the Department of Education, as well as other high-level education organizations. The NCCA is the gold standard, and this type of testing is offered by ISSA, but it is nice that they give students the options to take a slightly easier and lower accredited version of the exam.
Both the NCCA and the DEAC are rigorous and widely accepted, and recognized accreditations, meaning the five programs listed here are essentially equivalent in this regard. The International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (an international organization that many health clubs belong to) has no preference for accrediting bodies, and recognizes both the NCCA and DEAC.
Getting certified as a personal trainer is generally a semi-expensive proposition, but each organization offers bundles that will help you pay for the study materials and the test fee without breaking the bank. Becoming a personal trainer does require a significant investment of time and money, but once you get certified and start taking your own clients, you’ll realize that it was all worth it!
ACSM does not offer much as far as study materials go, and typically the main study resource will simply be the ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription textbook, with the current edition being the 11th. ACSM The test itself costs $299, but attending a 3-day workshop gets you a $50 discount. If you go with just the exam to certify, the cost is now $399.
Several study bundles are available ACE, and they range in price from $499–$899, with the $699 option being the most popular. This price also includes the fee for taking the certification exam, which is convenient for calculating your total expenditure. Free financing is available on the $899 plan, meaning you don’t have to pay for the whole thing up front, which can make paying for your certification a bit easier. If you take the exam without getting an exam voucher in one of the study bundles, you’ll be looking at a $399 test fee. You can also buy the study materials individually, but you save a lot of money going with a bundle. For example, you’ll have to pay $110 for the ACE manual and $169 for the online test review.
NASM’s standard CPT certification basic package comes in at a base price of $999, with deal prices often around 40$ off. There are four different packages that all have increasing levels of offerings, and the final package comes in at a premium price of $2,699. This includes in-person experience, which can be invaluable for the future of a person’s career in health.
ISSA makes pricing for study materials and the test very easy: you get it all for $999. ISSA becomes the most valuable and affordable certificationwhen you consider the deals and bundles they offer for new people entering the world of fitness certification. These bundled certs also help cover the recertification need for credits and the fee. You get the main course text in hardcopy and online forms, the study guide and workbook, and everything else listed in the Study Materials section above.
The study packages from NSCA range from $152 to $480 for members of the NSCA, and from $201 to $541 for non-members, making membership a big bonus if you plan on getting this certification. Depending on how you take the exam, you’re looking at between $300 (if you’re a member) to $435 (non-member status). Strangely, it’s cheaper to the take the paper exam.
The #1 Pick for the Best Personal Trainer Certification Program
We’ve presented a lot of information above, and it can be tough to take it all in. To help you out, we’ve compared all of the above programs and come up with a recommendation.
Who offers the best personal trainer certification? The American Council on Exercise (ACE).
What went into the final decision? First, study and support. The simply priced training packages, online support, and industry-leading over-the-phone Resource Center can’t be topped. You can get the answers to your questions, encouragement when you need it, and weekly accountability calls. No one else offers this level of support. And it doesn’t stop when you graduate; even new graduates can call the Resource Center.
Second, the wide variety of additional certifications and specializations, group fitness instructor, health coach, and advanced health and fitness specialist are all very valuable certifications, and the more specialized certs can help increase your value to potential employers. Finally, the non-profit nature of the organization played a role. ACE isn’t guided by investors or profits and is committed to training the best possible fitness professionals.
With an ACE certification, you’ll be well-trained, and highly employable, and you won’t spend all of your money getting it.
In close second comes NASM due to its 20+ year history in the industry as well as its highly-respected CPT program. Like ACE, NASM is one of the most widely-accepted certifications available.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with any of the above programs, but these two are the ones most trainers choose before starting their careers as personal trainers.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are the best certifications to partner with personal training certification?
The best choice in my opinion is going to be ACE and their excellent CPT offering. They are also non-profit, which makes them earn even more trust from users. For some other top certification not detailed in this article, make sure to check into NCSF, NESTA, and Fitness Mentors.
What are the benefits of becoming certified?
Personal training certifications are beneficial to get into as they show to a company or employers that you have a grasp on the main aspects of fitness and lifestyle to help enact change in your clients. You do not need a degree from the top universities to show experience in fitness. Certifications ensure that the certified professional knows all of the exercise science, communication and professionalism, program design for client workouts, and more topics like this.
Who offers the best personal trainer certification?
The best personal trainer certification in my view that provides the best user experience and services to learners is going to be the ACE CPT certification. The other 4 certifications within this article from ISSA, NASM, ACSM, and NSCA are all offering quality content that may suit specific businesses or learners more than another. Make sure to call around and check with local gyms or ideal workplaces to get an idea of what is best for you. All of these will give the best skillset for a high personal trainer salary.
Is certification required to work as a personal trainer?
Certification is not technically required to work, and neither is a degree in an exercise-related field. But, for the employers, they will be looking for education like certifications or degrees to show experience and completion of a program in the field. On top of that, it is often required to carry personal trainer insurance to make sure you are covered in you day to day work.