ACSM and ACE are both non-profit personal training certifications that offer fundamental training skills. The ACSM focuses heavily on aerobic exercise and general health, while the ACE IFT Model gives a bigger emphasis on exercise technique and resistance programming and more depth on behavioral change.

Read more to learn which of these certifications is best for your career.

What type of Certification are you looking to get?
ACSM vs ACE - Tyler Read compares the ACSM and ACE personal trainer certifications to decide which CPT is better

Welcome to the ultimate ACSM vs ACE certification review.

By the time you finish reading, you will know which of these is the best personal trainer certification across the different skills needed for personal training.

My ACE vs. ACSM review compares these personal training certifications across the following domains:

  • Topical information: comparison of pricing, packages, and prerequisites
  • ACE vs. ACSM content deep dive: knowledge and skills
  • Exam difficulties, preparation timelines, and study material review
  • Explanation of my expert review process

Welcome to my ultimate comparison of ACSM vs ACE certifications.

This review comes after taking and passing both the ACE and ACSM personal training courses. I also use my experience as a certified personal trainer for over 10 years.

The team at PTPioneer is certified through all main CPT certifications including ACSM and ACE, and together we have compiled our knowledge to give you the most educated comparison of the two training programs.

By the time you finish reading, you will know which of these is the best personal trainer certification across the different skills needed for personal training.

I look at the following: 

  • Comparison of pricing, packages, and prerequisites
  • ACE vs ACSM certification content deep dive: knowledge and skills
  • Pros and cons of ACE or ACSM CPTs
  • Exam difficulties, preparation timelines, and study material review

I also recommend that you take the quiz to find out which PT certification is the best fit for you to obtain.

Let’s compare these two CPTs.

ACSM vs ACE - which Personal Training Certification is Better For You in [year]! 5
ACSM vs ACE - which Personal Training Certification is Better For You in [year]! 6

Alright, are you ready?

Let’s dive in!

ace vs ACSM review - Tyler Read cartoon

Quick Breakdown: ACSM vs ACE

  • Best certification for actual personal training work
  • Complete skillset for training healthy clients
  • ACE IFT® Model provides excellent program framework
  • Mover Model® effective for behavior change
  • No sales skills discussed
  • Weak on corrective exercise
  • Good exercise science, behavior change, and special populations training
  • Covers basic business and sales skills
  • Lacks comprehensive program design framework
  • Weaker coverage of resistance training technique
  • Weak on corrective exercise
Exam cost
Exam cost
Study Material Cost
Study Material Cost
$509.00 – $899.00
CPR/AED, High School Diploma
Exam Passing Score
Exam Passing Score
90/125 Scored Questions
Scaled 550/800
Exam Pass Rate
Exam Pass Rate
70% (2019 Data)
66% (2018 data)
Average Completion Time
Average Completion Time
3 to 5 months
3 to 9 months
Trainer Academy Guides
Trainer Academy Guides
  • Complete curriculum study preparation
  • Audio guide, flashcards, and mnemonics
  • 800+ practice questions
  • Exam pass refund guarantee
  • Cheaper pricing than premium materials
Provider Materials
Provider Materials
  • Curriculum study preparation
  • Includes text, graphics, and videos
  • 200+ practice questions
  • No exam pass refund guarantee
  • $300+ for ACSM textbook and prep course
  • $899.00 for ACE starter package
PTPioneer Study Guides
PTPioneer Study Guides
  • Curriculum material overview
  • Complete chapter breakdowns
  • 60 practice questions
  • 130 flashcards
  • Exam cheat sheet
  • Free from PTPioneer

What is ACE?

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) was founded in the 1980s and evolved into its current organization in the 1990s with a simple mission: get people moving. Since then, it has grown into one of the best personal training certifications.

Exercise professionals know ACE well for its comprehensive motivational psychology coverage and well rounded practical approach to fitness.

ACE uses their Integrated Fitness Training (IFT) program to design exercise programming for both cardiovascular and strength training.

ACE’s personal training certification is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the gold standard for any fitness certification.

In my experience, most gyms like hiring ACE-certified trainers.

ACE also has one of the best group fitness instructor certifications.

What is ACSM?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has been around since 1954 with the premise of advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine.

Interestingly, most risk assessment and exercise guidelines used in the ACE CPT and other major fitness certifications stem from ACSM research-backed guidelines.

Again, ACSM is NCCA-accredited, meaning it holds up to the rigors and standards needed as a top fitness certification.

ACSM vs ACE comparison

Pros and cons of ACE and ACSM

Pros and cons of ACE and ACSM - Tyler Read holds up the ACE and ACSM personal trainer textbooks

ACE and ACSM both provide great CPT options for anyone looking to become a personal trainer. 

ACE gives you great behavior coaching, along with some of the newest exercise psychology information out there. ACE also has a nice structure for both resistance training and cardiovascular programming with their IFT model, which is a great template to follow for new trainers.

Additionally, most of the content covered through the ACE training certification provides practical, real-world ways to implement the information covered in the text.

On the negative side for ACE, they don’t give you the best exercise science background, glossing over some of the body systems you might want to know about for a foundation in how the human body operates.

ACSM does the exact opposite. They have great coverage of exercise science principles, and go deeper in that direction than you might even need. ACSM is, after all, a research institution, so it makes sense that they cover these concepts in depth.

Another negative is that neither of these programs has the best exercise technique coverage, which I find a super important topic to cover in a CPT. 

ACE vs ACSM certification packages and study materials

ACE and ACSM certification packages and study materials. ACSM and ACE textbooks compared side by side on table.

Both ACE and ACSM have a range of study packages available directly from the organizations. In both cases, the study materials are of decent quality but are very overpriced for their value.

ACSM Study Materials

In terms of ACSM CPT study guides and other resources, the ACSM has the following options:

  • Online practice questions through PrepU – $89.99
  • ACSM CPT Prep course – $270.00
  • ACSM CPT Facebook Group – free
  • ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer Textbook – $81.99
  • ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription textbook – $52.99
  • Exam only – $399.00
  • Exam retake – $199.00
  • ACSM membership – $30-$260 annually, depending on the tier

Common ACSM test prep materials include:

  • ACSM online learning
  • ACSM practice test
  • ACSM exam prep questions & answers
  • ACSM personal trainer manual

You can also check out my free ACSM study guide and practice exam right here on PTPioneer.

For high quality premium materials at a cheaper cost than the ACSM materials, my students report amazing success using the Trainer Academy ACSM CPT Prep Course.

Online guided study reduces how long it takes to become a personal trainer.

Furthermore, Trainer Academy also offers a course pass guarantee which takes some of the pressure off as you know you won’t lose money if you fail your first attempt.

You always have the option to purchase the full study guide directly from the ACSM organization as well.

ACE Study Materials

Regarding ACE test prep, the three main ACE CPT packages include the exam and various study materials.

Overall, the packages contain very high-quality study materials. Even the Basic study package has an impressive array of videos, practice materials, and textbook materials.

The packages are as follows:

ACE Basic Study Package – $489.00

  • ACE University
  • ACE Certification Exam
  • ACE Practice Test
  • ACE Personal Trainer Textbook (digital only)
  • ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion
  • ACE Answers (basic)

ACE Plus – $574.00

  • Everything in ACE Basic
  • ACE Personal Trainer Textbook (digital and hard copy)
  • ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion
  • ACE Answers (plus)
  • Exercise Science 101 Course

ACE Advantage – $864.00

  • Everything in ACE Plus
  • Facilitated Study Groups
  • Exercise Science 101
  • Dedicated Advantage Team

ACE is cheaper if you only want to take the exam without purchasing study materials from the organization.

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Overall, ACE is average regarding the cost of becoming a personal trainer.

As a student, you’re never limited to in-house study packages. For example, this free PT Pioneer ACE CPT Study Guide and ACE Practice Test has many of my readers and students raving.

Home study courses for each personal trainer program typically involve reviewing the ACSM or ACE exam content before taking practice multiple-choice questions. The best courses provide exam pass guarantees.

If you want to pay for premium third-party study guides with exam pass guarantees, my top students recommend the Trainer Academy ACE CPT Prep Course

There are many different online study preparation options from other providers as well, and learners can always purchase materials directly from ACE to help support their studies.

Be sure to check the ACE website for the latest pricing on the ACE packages.

For both ACE personal training and ACSM personal training, the study packages will prepare you for each respective personal trainer exam.

If you plan to purchase an expensive study package, it becomes a toss-up in price, depending on your purchase.

For both ACE and ACSM, third-party study guides offer an excellent combination of value for much lower prices than the main organizations will offer.

ACSM A Better Life for All
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) Brand Anthem
ACSM vs ACE - which Personal Training Certification is Better For You in [year]! 5
ACSM vs ACE - which Personal Training Certification is Better For You in [year]! 6

ACE vs ACSM certification course layouts

ACE and ACSM certification course layouts. ACE personal trainer textbook and ACSM textbooks placed side by side with table of contents

Although ACE and ACSM trainer certification programs are both NCCA fitness certifications with overlapping skills and knowledge, truthfully, you don’t learn the same exact content on the page with each certification.

The following knowledge and skillset areas form the base of professional fitness training. The most important considerations for picking ACE vs ACSM stem from these differences in content coverage.

If you want to jump into studying for ACE, you can take a look at my free ACE CPT Study Guide.

Exercise Science

Most fitness certifications cover basic exercise science. When becoming a personal trainer, this is important knowledge to understand the underlying mechanisms that result in fitness improvement.

Training clients and making real-time coaching decisions is much easier if you have enough knowledge to know why you would assign a certain exercise or set and repetition scheme.

Furthermore, your clients will trust you more if you can explain the reasons for your program choices based on their stated goals.

Overall, the exercise science coverage in each certification is more than sufficient to meet the demands of individual and small group personal training.

The diagrams in each certificate are comparable to one another, although the labels may differ slightly.

The one advantage of the ACSM exercise science coverage is the organization of the curriculum.

The ACSM book has a much better organized section that covers anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and bioenergetics before moving into personal training skills.

ace curriculum photos showing scapular movements

On the other hand, ACE mixes up hardcore exercise science in the same section as practical skills.

Although the knowledge is roughly the same, I think learning exercise science is easier before moving into skills-based work, so ACSM wins out here.

Behavior Change Coaching Skills

You can have the best programming, exercise technique, and business administration skills in the world, but if you can’t keep clients consistent and committed, they will not see any results.

Enter behavior change coaching.

Behavior change coaching skills are the social and psychological conversation methods to keep your clients motivated inside and outside the gym.

Unlike the more concrete skills of program design and exercise technique, behavior change coaching revolves around the give-and-take of social interaction in the context of keeping your clients consistent in their training. When motivation wanes, you must keep that fire alive. 

Depending on your innate social abilities, these skills may be easier or harder.

However, the good news is that, regardless of your baseline social skills, both ACE and ACSM have excellent chapters on coaching behavioral change.

ACE stands out with its Mover Method®, which is hands down the most comprehensive branded behavioral change system in any of the CPTs I’ve reviewed.

The nice thing about the Mover Method® is that you get step-by-step methods for the behavioral change process without having to parse a ton of science yourself, although you certainly can.

The ACSM framework and case studies provided give you the needed concepts to become better at coaching behavior change with all the steps laid out for you.

ACSM does not have its own branded behavioral change model but does cover the latest science on behavioral change fairly well.

The key behavior coaching skills in ACSM are:

  • Active listening
  • Empathy
  • Developing rapport
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • Motivational interviewing

Each skill includes a brief description that helps you integrate it into your coaching services.

Overall, both ACE and ACSM do an excellent job of teaching key behavioral change skills, but I give ACE a slight edge. 

Consulting and screening clients to reduce risks of injury

Screening clients for health history, fitness, and movement patterns is a key skill for trainers to minimize the clients’ risks and optimize program design for each client.

The ACSM and ACE match each other regarding subjective and objective health screening processes and fitness assessments.

The ACE cardiovascular risk screening protocols come from the ACSM, which are identical.

ACE has better information regarding movement assessments to view muscular imbalances and weaknesses.

ACE has far more posture and movement screening assessments in the curriculum than ACSM does and, as such, completely dominates ACSM in this regard.

Nevertheless, both certifications fall short in corrective exercise compared to other comparable certifications like NASM or NSCA. 

Program design and resistance exercise technique

Exercise technique and program design are an area where ACE absolutely blows ACSM completely out of the water.

The ACSM is sorely lacking in exercise technique information.

This is a glaring hole because teaching exercise technique is arguably among the most important skills for personal trainers.

While the ACSM has a few exercises in the textbook’s pages, there is not enough information or pictures to actually coach these movements.

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On the other hand, ACE has an excellent discussion of different exercise types in the curriculum textbook and provides an amazingly well-organized video library of thousands of exercises on their main website to easily learn and add new exercises to your training arsenal.

It’s worth noting you can access the ACE exercise video library for free regardless of whether you purchase ACE study materials. So, technically, you can watch these videos as an ACSM student.

ace personal trainer certification technique diagram for the chest press

However, the ACE library is organized based on the ACE IFT Model, and as such, it will be far easier to “plug and play” exercises into a program if you are doing the ACE CPT.

Speaking of program design, ACE has the excellent IFT Model for both resistance training and aerobic training.

ACE IFT Model diagram showing the mover method and integrated fitness training model

This makes it exceptionally easy to integrate the programming variables such as sets, reps, weights, rest time, and rest into a comprehensive and periodized training plan for clients of all fitness levels.

The ACSM does discuss programming variables and has example programs for different goals and clients.

However, they do not give you any bigger model or framework for custom building fully-flushed out programs that progress clients from sedentary and deconditioned to fit and athletic.

Without a broad vision for long-term fitness with a step-by-step method for integrating program variables, you will have a harder time delivering long-term, major transformative results for your clients.

Truthfully, because these skills are so core to what it means to be a personal trainer, I put ACE ahead of ACSM based on this content area alone.

Additionally, due to its adaptability, the IFT framework makes getting creative and innovative with exercise programming much easier. This is because the IFT framework allows for the integration of multiple elements, such as strength training, cardiovascular exercises, and flexibility training, into a single program. Furthermore, the IFT framework also allows for the integration of other activities such as yoga, Pilates, and sports-specific drills. This comprehensive approach to fitness can help individuals achieve their goals in a shorter amount of time.
The IFT framework is based on the principles of periodization, which makes your workouts far easier.

Aerobic training program design and technique

ACE also beats out ACSM on aerobic program design, although the difference is not as stark as it was in the resistance training section.

It’s tough to beat the IFT Model on aerobic and resistance training without developing your own model for progression.

To be clear, nothing is inherently “special” about branded training models such as the IFT. The scientific programming principles remain the same regardless of what you call them.

However, ACE put a ton of effort into creating a streamlined system that allows you to go from almost no knowledge to having a decent understanding of scientific program design.

This effort pays off when you study the IFT system because it is backed by the latest science while providing new trainers with a relatively straightforward way to custom build an exercise program.

Helping Special Populations with Fitness

Coaching special populations almost always has its own section in CPT curricula.

As a new trainer, you will quickly learn that many general population clients fall into a “special population” category of one form or another.

Special populations include the following:

  • Pregnant clients
  • Clients with chronic disease
  • Clients with obesity
  • Youth clients
  • Senior clients
  • Clients with long term injuries

The good news is that both ACSM and ACE emphasize the guidelines for training these populations.

ACE has very clear guidelines for all these major special population categories that make it very easy to adjust your programming.

ACSM similarly has excellent guidelines for all these populations, which makes sense given its overall clinical focus.

This type of skill is important if individuals want to specialize in something like personal training for seniors, for example.

I do think ACSM gives you a bit more information for special populations, but both certifications do a good job here. 

Thinking Long-Term: Business Skills for Personal Trainers

All the fitness training knowledge in the world is useless if you cannot structure it into a business and successfully sell training to prospective clients or get a job somewhere that feeds you prospects.

That’s where business skills come in.

All the fitness training knowledge in the world is useless if you cannot structure it into a business and successfully sell training to prospective clients or get a job somewhere that feeds you prospects.

That’s where business skills come in.

Both ACSM and ACE have a business skills section.

Generally speaking, these sections are adequate for getting started in the industry.

Nevertheless, the ACE business section, in particular, has a glaring issue.

ACE does not discuss sales.

That’s right.

ACSM, on the other hand, does have a basic discussion of the sales process, although it still leaves a lot to be desired from an overall sales skills standpoint.

Learning how to sell personal training is arguably the most important skill when making a living as a CPT but it is not mentioned in the ACE textbook.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the business skills section, ACSM does a better job than ACE, especially for personal training marketing ideas and tips of that nature.

It is worth noting that no entry CPT covers sales skills with enough depth that you can go from zero to one hundred in terms of closing new sales.

acsm business skills tables showing sample personal trainer compensation models

Expect to spend many painful conversations and consultations perfecting the art of selling during your time as a trainer!

Additionally, tangential skills such as time management during personal training sessions, structuring your personal training contracts, and dealing with client cancellations are vital for your success in the fitness industry.

If you plan to build your own fitness studio, mastering the business side of fitness is very important.

Finally, consider the important personality traits for personal trainers to maximize their rapport and engagement with your clients.

Summary: ACE vs ACSM CPT Content

Overall, the ACSM and ACE are quite similar in content.

However, the ACE CPT is much better at actually preparing you to train clients on day one with comprehensive protocols.

ACSM has more in-depth exercise science, special population training, and sales skills.

Nevertheless, from a skills standpoint, the ACE CPT is better at actually preparing you to be a trainer.

So, in the ACE vs ACSM battle, ACE wins out by a narrow margin.

Both certifications roughly take the same length in terms of how long it takes to become a personal trainer, so you can’t expect the same time based on your CPT choice.For more in-depth coverage of each certification, be sure to check out my deep ACE review and my ACSM review.

CPT prerequisites

ACE and ACSM have identical personal trainer requirements to sit for the exam.

You must be CPR/AED certified, have a high school diploma equivalent, and be 18 years of age with a valid government-issued ID.

Basically, every CPT program for exercise professionals requires a CPR/AED certificate before sitting for the trainer certification exam.

CPR/AED certification is important to ensure you know exactly what to do if one of your clients has a cardiac emergency.

Average income of ACSM vs ACE certification

Average income of ACSM and ACE certification. ACSM and ACE personal trainer certification textbooks on table with coins.

Since becoming a personal trainer is an investment in your financial future, knowing your expected personal trainer salary is very important information to consider before choosing your CPT.

Becoming a successful personal trainer depends on your ability to earn a living, so salary is a vital consideration.

According to ZipRecruiter data, an ACSM CPT can earn between $33,000 and $78,000 annually, averaging $49,020.

On the other hand, an ACE CPT can expect a salary of anywhere from $15,905 on the lowest end to $124,493 on the highest end.

Note that your location, experience, and personal trainer employment situation greatly impact your salary more than the specific CPT you choose.

The personal trainer job outlook looks good overall, so do not obsess over which CPT pays the most, as you can find a job with any reputable cert.

ACE and ACSM final exams

ACE and ACSM final exams. The ACE and ACSM textbooks on table in preparation to take each personal trainer certification exam

Statistically speaking, the ACE and ACSM exams are roughly of equal difficulty.

According to ACE, roughly 70% of first-time test takers pass the ACE CPT exam. The ACE passing score is a scaled 500 of 800, requiring 90 correct answers from a total of 125 scored questions.

The ACSM reports a pass rate of 69%, requiring a scaled 550/800 to pass.

I personally do not consider the ACSM or ACE certifications among the easiest personal training certifications. However, they are doable for most people.

ACSM vs ACE recertification details

All CPT certifications with NCCA accreditations require continuing education credits (CEU or CEC) credits every few years to renew your fitness trainer certification.

CEUs are a great opportunity for fitness professionals to advance their careers with specialty certifications for all career goals.

If you plan to be a career personal trainer, then you must embrace continuing education. Learning how to be a good personal trainer requires a commitment to constant improvement.

The ACSM CEU requirement is 45 contact hours every 3 years.

ACE requires 20 contact hours every 2 years.

As such, ACE has a slightly lower CEU requirement, but they are still similar overall.

Both ACE and ACSM have a long list of approved CEC providers.

In many cases, CEC credits could be used towards both ACE and ACSM CEUs given how many different programs each organization has approved, including popular certs such as ACE group fitness instructor.

If you plan to pursue specific add-on certifications after your CPT, then consider the cert whose organization offers those as additional specialties.

Nevertheless, both certifications have CEU offerings covering most specialties in the fitness industry, such as group exercise, senior populations, and exercise physiologists.

ACE continuing education options include:

  • Overcoming the “I Hate Change” Mentality – 0.1 CEUs
  • Cardiovascular training for clients who have obesity – 0.2 CEUs
  • A Holistic Approach to Managing Diabetes – 0.1 CEUs
  • Training Youth Athletes – 0.1 CEUs

Other ACE CEU courses (which give you a lot more CEUs) include:

ACSM CEU courses include:

  • ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM Ep C)
  • ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist (different from the above) (ACSM CEP)
  • ACSM Group Exercise Instructor
  • ACSM Exercise Specialist

If price is an issue, many cheap CEUs for personal trainers can keep you certified without breaking the bank.

ACE and ACSM overall ratings

ACE and ACSM overall ratings. ACE personal trainer certification textbook next to ACSM textbook with stars for ratings.

Both ACE and ACSM are respected fitness certifications that will get you a job in most commercial gyms.

But when it comes to ACSM vs ACE personal trainer certification, which is the best personal training cert?

I personally think ACE is slightly better than ACSM, simply because it has a much better framework for programming and progression with the IFT Model.

Furthermore, the ACE exercise library functions very well with the IFT Model. It allows you to develop the complete framework for your client’s exercise program, select the best exercises, and then review the technique directly in the video.

With the IFT Model and exercise library alone, you can customize and coach a massive range of exercise programs for clients of all goals and base fitness levels.

Unfortunately, the ACSM does not provide these levels of resources for the actual nitty-gritty skill of being a personal trainer.

Nevertheless, both certifications do a good job of covering the topics needed to start in the fitness industry, and each certification has its own weak points. Regardless of whether you select ACE or ACSM, you can be sure your career in the fitness industry is off to a great start!

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Is ACE Accredited?

Yes, the ACE CPT is accredited by the NCCA.

What personal trainer certificate is most respected?

Both ACE and ACSM are equally respected in most commercial gyms.

Which certification is best ACE or ACSM?

While both are respected, ACE is a better choice for brand-new personal trainers who need the basic CPT skills for on-the-job preparation because it has better exercise technique and programming curriculum.

How long does the ACSM certification take?

Depending on your rate of study and previous experience, you can expect to spend around 3 months studying for the ACSM exam to ensure a passing score.

How long does it take to study for the ACE CPT?

As with the ACSM CPT, the ACE CPT is self paced. Students with no background in fitness should expect to spend 3 to 5 months preparing for the exam.

Is ACE harder than ACSM?

Both certifications are of comparable difficulty in terms of study preparation. However, the ACE curriculum contains more useful information than the ACSM regarding becoming a personal trainer from scratch. Since the curricular of each are not an apples-to-apples comparison, you may personally find one more difficult than the other.

ACE or ACSM 2023? - Which personal trainer certification to choose?

Tyler Read - Certified Personal Trainer with PTPioneer

Tyler Read

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4 thoughts on “ACSM vs ACE – which Personal Training Certification is Better For You in 2024!”

  1. Hello sir
    Thank you for this article it cleared most of my doubts
    Only doubt which is still unclear is the ace study package the basic and the plus…. I am bit confused in that which one will be better in both of them (basic or plus)
    So please help me out in choosing the one.

    • Hey there, I think that the basic plan is sufficient for most people studying. Let me know which one you went for until the studying for your personal training certification is going.

  2. Hi Tyler,
    I’m an ACE CPT & CHC. Do you think the ACE material will helpful for me to do ÁCM CPT exam?
    I’m also looking for a Corrective Exercise Certificate, ACSM CPT can be an option or I should choose from another as Issa, nasm,..

    • Well, there is def some overlap with the general CPT training certifications Enzo. If you are looking for a purely corrective exercise cert I would look into NASM or
      ISSA as they are specialized certifications.


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