NASM and ACE are both NCCA-accredited certifications respected by gyms and fitness centers. The NASM OPT and ACE IFT training models are comparable, although NASM’s is more comprehensive. ACE is a more affordable option at the base package, however, NASM has better deals when you bundle specializations.
Read on to learn which of these certifications is right for you.
NASM, ACE, or another cert?
We developed this critical quiz to help you find the best certification for you and your goals.
Welcome to my ultimate comparison breakdown of the ACE and NASM CPT certifications, two of the best personal trainer certifications around.
I write this after studying for and passing the personal training certification exams for both the ACE training program and NASM personal trainer certification.
NASM and ACE certified personal trainers are highly sought after by most gyms and jobs, so whether you choose ACE or NASM will depend on your particular needs.
I have over 10 years of experience as a trainer, and our PT Pioneer team has certified fitness professionals through both fitness certifications. We have combined our knowledge to give you the best possible comparison of the ACE vs NASM certifications.
My review looks at the following key NASM vs ACE certification topics:
- Comparison of pricing, packages, and prerequisites
- ACE vs NASM content deep dive: knowledge and skills
- Pros and cons of the ACE vs NASM certification
- Exam difficulties, preparation timelines, and study material review of ACE personal trainer cert and NASM
While you’re here, I suggest you take the quiz to get a quick idea of which certification is best for you.
Alright, let’s dive into the data and facts, and find out which of these fitness industry organizations is best: the ACE certified trainer or the NASM CPT.
|CPT||ACSM vs ACE Quick Breakdown||Features||Price|
|ACE||Check ACE Pricing|
|NASM||Check NASM Pricing|
- Complete curriculum study preparation
- Audio guide, flashcards, and mnemonics
- 800+ practice questions
- Exam pass refund guarantee
- Cheaper pricing than premium materials
- Curriculum study preparation
- Includes text, graphics, and videos
- 200+ practice questions
- No exam pass refund guarantee
- $899.00 for ACE starter package
What is NASM?
Founded in 1987, NASM has become one of the leading names in health, fitness, and nutrition certification programs.
Google search trends show NASM as the most popular certification institute; this name recognition shows that many people value NASM’s programs.
NASM-certified trainers are among the most successful from a personal trainer salary perspective.
Additionally, gyms across the globe hire NASM trainers.
Is NASM accredited?
The NCCA, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, accredits all the main NASM certifications. An accredited program always stands out over a fitness certification without the gold standard stamp of approval.
Aside from my free NASM study guide, you’ll find many useful prep resources from them when we go through the study materials later.
NASM-CPT General Information
- Exam cost: ~$749
- Study material cost: $749-$2699
- Prerequisites: High School Diploma (or GED), CPR/AED certification from a qualifying provider
- Exam passing score: 70%
- Exam pass rate: 60-75% depending on year
- Average completion time: 3-6 months
What is ACE?
ACE is the American Council on Exercise, a well-recognized non-profit certification provider with a global influence.
Founded in 1985, ACE’s immediate focus is on improving and addressing public health by encouraging people to make exercise a part of their daily routine.
ACE uses its IFT model, short for integrated fitness training, which gives trainers an easy format to follow to be creative with their exercises and workouts.
Is ACE accredited?
The ACE CPT certification is NCCA-accredited, meaning it holds the title of being up to the world-class standards set by subject matter experts in the US.
Good number of gyms and health clubs like seeing NCCA accreditation.
ACE General Information
- Exam cost: $489 (when on sale)
- Study material cost: $489 – $864 (when on sale)
- Prerequisites: CPR/AED, High School Diploma
- Exam passing score: Scaled 550/800 – 90/125 Scored Questions
- Exam pass rate: ~65%
- Average completion time: 3 to 5 months
Pros and cons of ACE Certification vs NASM CPT
Both NASM and ACE programs offer unique benefits and drawbacks with their certifications.
ACE prices its programs extremely reasonably compared to other major trainer certifications.
ACE’s exercise psychology information is unmatched and their study materials remain among the best of any fitness organization.
The ACE fitness certification certainly gives you plenty to work with in terms of study options too.
NASM also provides an easy to use online learning platform and superb corrective exercise coverage for a CPT.
NASM has the best online exercise video library of any fitness organization; as mentioned before, the popularity of this organization cannot be understated. NASM remains the biggest fitness certification provider in the US.
On the negative side, the ACE personal trainer course doesn’t have the strongest exercise science content. The ACE Personal Trainer Certification glosses over exercise physiology in favor of education on the benefits of exercise.
This goes back to ACE’s primary goal; to get people moving. They’re concerned about access to exercise more than providing too much of the science that might confuse or overwhelm a new trainer.
NASM provides more science regarding the human body and how movement impacts body systems but fails to offer complete special population information.
Also, experts rate the NASM test a bit more challenging than the ACE, and of course, the NASM test costs more than the ACE Personal Training Certification.
The best personal training certification for you depends on the specifics of what you’re looking for, so let’s look at each package available.
ACE and NASM Certification Popularity
Both ACE and NASM are among the best personal trainer certifications in the fitness industry. NASM and ACE certifications are popular among employers and clients who know about the industry.
NASM is more popular and respected than ACE on account of the fact that the exam is more difficult, and the NASM-OPT (Optimum Performance Training) model is often regarded as better than the ACE-IFT (Integrated Fitness Training).
However, NASM is a bit more expensive, and the difficult NASM exam can be counterproductive depending on what you specifically need for your career.
ACE vs NASM Certification packages and study materials
Study materials determine the quality of your learning style and experience.
The best personal trainer certification program for you needs to fit your budget and give you the best possible course resources so you can pass the exam.
Both NASM and ACE offer extremely comprehensive study materials and options, and each bundle gives you more or less based on the price of these CPTs.
ACE Certification Cost and Materials
ACE has three packages: the Basic, the Plus, and the Advantage.
The Basic package contains the essential study materials, but only at a bare minimum level.
The ACE Basic Package costs $979 and you get the following:
- ACE Practice Exam
- ACE Answers (Basic)
- ACE Certification Exam
- ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion
- ACE Personal Trainer Textbook
- ACE University
The ACE Plus Package costs $1,149 and provides a more rounded approach, offering most of what you need to prepare to score well on the final exam.
- 2 ACE Practice Exams
- ACE Answers (Plus)
- ACE Certification Exam
- ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion
- ACE Personal Trainer Textbook
- ACE University
- ACE Exercise Science 101
The final tier, the Advantage package, costs $1,729 and includes all the basics and necessities plus a few extra bells and whistles.
In my opinion, the ACE Advantage program works best for most people, but the Advantage option gives you all the factors you need and more opportunity to succeed.
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- 4 ACE Practice Exams
- ACE Answers (Advantage)
- ACE Certification Exam
The Basic package costs $979, the Plus is $1,149, and the Advantage package is $1,729.
To take the ACE exam only without additional materials costs $499.
If you want to start your ACE CPT test prep as soon as possible, take a look at my free ACE CPT study guide and practice exam.
My students regularly lean on third-party resources such as the Trainer Academy ACE CPT Prep Course, which includes flashcards, study guides, practice questions, and an exam pass guarantee.
You can always consider purchasing the higher-priced official ACE study materials directly from the organization itself as well.
Every person learns differently, so having a wide variety of study materials can be a game changer, or even workshops.
NASM Certification Cost and Materials
NASM takes a similar approach to ACE in that they offer a range of study package tiers.
NASM offers four packages as opposed to ACE’s three.
These packages are: Self-study, Premium Self-study, Guided Study, and All-inclusive.
The cheapest package from NASM, Self-study, includes the following::
- The final certification exam
- A series of lecture videos
- NASM exercise library
- NASM practice test or practice exam access
- NASM exam answers
- Online CPT cert quizzes
- Comprehensive NASM study guide and handouts
The Premium Self-study includes everything in the Self-study package in addition to:
- Job Guarantee
- One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus
Next, we have the Guided Study package, which in addition to everything you’ve already seen, includes the following:
- Unlimited Access to NASM Fitness Experts
- Certification Exam Retest
- NASM-CPT Hardcopy Textbook
- Bonus Course: Motivational Interviewing for Coaches
I like this last package specifically for the inclusion of a hard-copy textbook. I personally prefer being able to flip through a physical book. You can also highlight and bookmark essential sections in the book for permanent retrieval.
Also, as a trainer, it’s always good to review the textbook occasionally for any questions you have as you start to coach clients.
Lastly, we have the all-inclusive package, which includes everything.
In addition to everything the other packages have, All-inclusive also contains:
- NASM’s Edge CPT Exam Prep
- Recertify for Life
- CPR/AED Certification Online
The All-inclusive package will be overkill for most people. Perhaps if you consider the recertify for life feature, you can rationalize spending your money on that package.
Speaking of price, NASM is often considered one of the more expensive certification providers.
The NASM Self-study package costs $999, while the Premium Self-study, Guided Study, and All-inclusive cost $1,399, $1,799, and $2,699, respectively (when not on sale).
Note that you can take the NASM-CPT exam only for $599 by itself, but that’s only recommended for people who have a strong exercise science background.
Whichever of these you choose, third-party study materials always help. I notice a lot of success with students using my Free NASM CPT study guide and practice exam or the Trainer Academy NASM MVP Study System. It’s always good to get some extra help.
Of course, other options are available as well.
Don’t forget to check out the pricing on the NASM official site, as they often have specials and discounts running.
NASM often has deals on certifications, so be sure to check out the NASM website for the latest pricing.
ACE vs NASM CPT course layouts
When comparing the ISSA and NASM content, I like to break down my review by looking at a few key topics both certifications cover.
Exercise Science Principles
Exercise science principles are crucial for personal training education, forming the foundation for all other topics.
These basic principles even build the foundation for establishing a mind-muscle connection through understanding body systems and how they operate.
Both ACE and NASM take different approaches to exercise science.
NASM tackles exercise science in Chapter 5: The Nervous, Skeletal, and Muscular Systems, Chapter 6: The Cardiorespiratory, Endocrine, and Digestive Systems, and Chapter 7: Human Movement Science.
These chapters start with physiology before you start learning movements.
On the other hand, ACE combines human body science with exercises that train the muscles in Chapter 11: Integrated Exercise Programming: From Evidence to Practice.
Chapter 9: Muscular Training: Foundations and Benefits, also digs into many exercise science-related topics.
In my opinion, in the ACE method, exercise science isn’t expanded on in any fundamental detail and leaves a lot to be desired.
NASM definitely takes the cake when it comes to this topic.
NASM covers topics like biomechanics more thoroughly, where you learn how the joints in the body operate, along with more detailed content on muscle fibers and energy systems.
Behavior Change Coaching Skills
To motivate your clients and help them achieve results, you need to know how to catalyze a shift in behavior.
Change psychology delivers practical and usable personal training tips for beginners and those who are thinking about improving their fitness but haven’t quite taken that leap in the right direction.
In my opinion, ACE does an excellent job of highlighting this topic in Chapter 3: Basics of Behavior Change.
ACE describes environmental influences on behavior, the health belief model, and self-determination theory.
I also like how ACE offers practical scenarios you may encounter with a client and how to approach each situation.
You can learn the theory of these methods, but knowing how to apply them gives you the key to success in this area.
The NASM training certification certainly gives you enough to be successful, but the ACE chapter is next-level.
This makes sense considering ACE’s focus on an inspiring change of attitudes within the general population, motivating people to even engage in at-home workout routines to build self-efficacy.
If motivating people to exercise seems like a topic you want to master, the ACE-CPT is your best bet.
Consulting and screening clients to reduce risk of injury
Before engaging in a workout with your client, you need to understand that client’s strengths and limitations so you can plan accordingly.
You also want to know if any circumstances or conditions need to be specifically accommodated to prevent aggravation of medical conditions and serious injuries, such as muscle displacement.
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All this lies in your ability to conduct initial assessments with your prospective clients.
NASM covers screening extensively in Chapter 11: Health, Wellness, and Fitness Assessments and Chapter 12: Posture, Movement, and Performance Assessments.
As for ACE, Chapter 10: Muscular Training: Assessments, Chapter 8: Cardiorespiratory Training: Physiology, Assessments, and Programming, and Chapter 7: Resting Assessments and Anthropometric Measurements expand on fitness and health assessments.
This segment of the ACE curriculum even covers how forming a positive bond with a client (Building Rapport) is important in conducting accurate initial assessments, an essential aspect of how personal trainers get clients.
Both programs have decent implementation and give good examples of postural, health, and strength assessments.
However, neither of these certification programs covers cardiovascular assessments in much detail, which can be trouble for some.
ACE describes zone training in detail but they gloss over VO2 assessments in favor of using the Talk Test. While this exam format is very applicable and great for beginners, I wish ACE gave you another method for training athletes or the very fit.
In NASM’s case, they provide a walking cardiovascular assessment, and that’s about it.
Of course, you can always learn more about these assessments on your own, but if you’re going to be coaching high level triathletes or runners, maybe look at the ISSA-CPT or NSCA-CPT or maybe a strength and conditioning certification.
Program design and resistance exercise technique
Both ACE and NASM have their own patented periodization model and criteria.
The ACE Integrated Fitness Training system covers both cardiovascular and resistance programming.
Regarding muscular training, ACE recommends you begin with “Functional” training, which prioritizes balance and muscular endurance.
After that, you move to “Movement” training, where you strengthen the body’s main movement patterns (pushing, pulling, rotating, etc.).
Finally, once you complete these two phases, you move to “Load/Speed” training, which emphasizes either power, hypertrophy, or whatever goals you have after the two preparatory phases.
This system’s fundamentals certainly work and I like the emphasis on movement pattern training. I use movement training with many of my clients who want a better quality of life and with some of the athletes I work with.
My only gripe with this whole system is that while it does work, this form of periodization is a bit cookie-cutter, and not every client will be as patient with you as you guide them through each phase. Which means a bit of system modification could be in order.
ACE also gives some basic progression guidelines, but I wish they were more comprehensive.
NASM uses its Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model, which is actually pretty similar to ACE.
You move from a “Stabilization” phase to “Strength” to “Power.”
Neither of these organizations goes too deep into higher-level periodization techniques.
I think of the two models; I like the NASM-OPT model because it’s a little more flexible, although I would recommend using the functional movements that ACE gives you in their second phase.
The NASM personal trainer certification also comes out on top regarding exercise technique guidance.
ACE has an online exercise library, but the actual textbook lacks coverage of technique. I find this extremely disappointing when you compare ACE to NASM.
The NASM text has an entire chapter devoted to all the major exercise movements.
Beyond that, the NASM online exercise demonstration library is considered probably the best of any certification organization. The videos provide excellent advice and comprehensive visual coverage.
NASM edges out ACE when it comes to resistance techniques and strength training.
Aerobic training program architecture and technique
The ACE training program again uses its IFT model when it comes to this topic: with the three stages being Base, Training, and Performance.
You begin with “Base” training, in which ACE recommends steady-state training that increases in volume and intensity throughout the training block.
Then you move to “Fitness” training, which incorporates intervals into your cardiovascular programming.
Finally, the “Performance” block includes a mixture of steady-state and intervals to help achieve a particular cardiovascular endurance goal.
Again, I think this model will work well for most novice clients but doesn’t provide the in-depth coverage needed for an advanced endurance athlete. This isn’t an advanced athletic performance certification, so it makes sense that ACE gives you this model for training clients in the general population.
NASM does have some coverage of types of aerobic training but doesn’t give you a periodized program like ACE, so ACE is certainly the winner regarding cardio programming.
Helping special populations with fitness
ACE has one of the best, most comprehensive chapters on obesity I’ve seen in a CPT. They describe possible causes of obesity, both physically, environmentally, and psychologically.
The CPT program includes thorough guidelines and strategies for working with the obese.
ACE also covers clients with CVD, hypertension, stroke, PAD, metabolic disorders (diabetes, metabolic disease, etc.), pulmonary disorders (asthma, bronchitis), cancer, osteoporosis, and arthritis.
The ACE training certification also includes an entire chapter on training different age groups, from children to the elderly.
ACE even includes a section on training women postpartum, an additional specific to ACE, as I’ve not seen it in other certifications.
The only issue I have with this chapter is in the guidelines for training pregnant women; there is no mention of avoiding supine or prone positions in the second and third trimesters, which is covered in almost any other certification.
NASM also covers special populations, but the chapter doesn’t provide as much real-world advice as the ACE training certificate.
Perhaps the lack of focus NASM holds in this category comes from having several dedicated special populations certs such as the NASM Senior Fitness Specialization program.
In conclusion, ACE has a superior take on special populations training than NASM.
Both the ACE and NASM programs shine in different areas of nutrition.
ACE gives you the best practical tips to share with your clients regarding making healthier choices within the current MyPlate food guidelines.
NASM tells you a bit more about the science of nutrition and you learn about each macronutrient and its particular function.
I’d say, when it comes to nutrition, it’s a tie.
If you’re working with a client who struggles to change their lifestyle habits, the ACE content will probably help you more.
If you have a client with a specific performance goal, NASM’s science-backed information is the way to go.
Thinking long-term: business skills for personal trainers
When it comes to business skills for personal trainers, ACE doesn’t really give you much.
ACE has a chapter on business skills, but this mostly deals with liability and negligence, valuable things but not necessarily tips to build your business and make money as a trainer.
NASM, on the other hand, includes marketing skills in its certification.
The NASM CPT mentions how to write a resume, interview, and approach potential clients. These are integral skills needed as a new fitness professional to help you make money as a personal trainer.
Besides this information, I’d still recommend a good business course, but NASM is the clear winner over the ACE certified personal trainer.
What are the prerequisites to getting a personal training certification?
Most courses or education programs have a list of requirements that prospective students must fulfill to be granted access.
These prerequisites also apply to personal training certifications.
The NASM certification requirements are the same as ACE: you must be 18 years or older, hold a high school diploma or GED equivalency, and hold a current CPR/AED certification.
The average income of ACE vs NASM personal trainers
Whether you choose ACE or NASM, you stand to make a similar income. In my experience, most full-time trainers can expect to make around $40,000 a year at first, which increases over time as you build client relationships and a good reputation in your market.
Personal Trainer Career Roadmap
NASM and ACE are both great starting points for becoming a personal trainer. While there is no single route to success, every roadmap for a successful fitness career includes an ongoing commitment to education, especially pursuing fitness specializations on top of your CPT and always providing exceptional service at every client interaction.
If I had to advise on a personal trainer career roadmap, it would be to get multiple specializations as quickly as possible to dial in your niche in the industry.
NASM vs ACE final exams
Pass rates of ACE & NASM certification exams
To pass the ACE CPT exam, you must achieve a scaled score of 500 out of 800, equivalent to 90 out of the 125 scored questions, around 72%.
About 70% of ACE test takers pass the exam and become certified. This passing rate is about average for CPT tests.
The current pass rate for candidates taking the NASM exam is 64%, making the exam difficulty considerably more challenging.
How many test questions on the ACE vs NASM exam
The ACE certification exam gives you a maximum of three hours and consists of 150 multiple-choice questions.
The NASM certification exam lasts two hours, and consists of 120 questions.
NASM vs ACE recertification details
As for recertification, you must submit 2.0 CEUs of continuing education credits every two years to maintain your cert with ACE. There is a fee of $129 to renew.
NASM recertification occurs every two years at the cost of 2.0 CEUs and a $99 recertification fee for on-time recertification.
Other offerings from NASM and ACE
Both ACE and NASM have some great options regarding other courses and programs that give you both CEUs and extra qualifications to add to your name.
ACE courses and specializations:
- ACE Group Fitness Instructor
- ACE Health Coach
- ACE Medical Exercise Specialist
- ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist
NASM certification courses:
- NASM Group Exercise Instructor (AFAA-GEI)
- NASM Certified Nutrition Coach (NASM-CNC)
- NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist (NASM-CES)
- NASM Weight Loss Specialist (NASM-WLS)
Having multiple certifications will place you in a better position to stand out fully as a fitness professional.
ACE vs NASM overall ratings
Rating-wise, ACE scores a 9 and NASM scores a 9.4 out of 10.
Both these certifications do an excellent job of teaching everything you need to be a good personal trainer.
NASM edges out ACE due to the inclusion of some business skills and better exercise technique coverage.
However, I do think ACE proves to be better when it comes to teaching beginner clients. ACE may be the better option if you’re newer to exercise and want an easy framework to use with your students. ACE is also an easier exam.
Personally, I believe that NASM, despite being harder and more expensive, gives you slightly more in terms of knowing the science behind how the body moves and operates from the ground up. This sets you up for a longer-lasting career in the exercise field.
Ultimately, either will work, but you must decide which works better for your needs.
ACE vs NASM CPT (Video)
NASM and ACE FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
How can I become an ACE certified trainer?
You must pass the ACE CPT exam with at least a 72 percent score to get your ACE personal training certification. You must also meet the CPR/AED and high school diploma requirements to sit for the exam.
How can I become a NASM Certified Trainer?
To become a NASM certified personal trainer, you must pass the NASM CPT exam with at least a 70 percent score. You must meet the CPR/AED and high school diploma requirements to sit for the exam.
Is a certified personal trainer credential from the ACE or NASM organizations worth it?
Yes, I can confidently say that ACE and NASM present some of this space’s best and most recognized certification programs.
Not only are you getting a decent education, but you’re also doing it through one of two of the most recognized, revered, and respected certification providers on the planet.
Do fitness trainers need a degree?
No, they don’t; if you want to be a personal trainer, I advise you not to get a degree.
That’s because degrees are a considerable time and money investment.
Unless you want to branch out into a more demanding career field within health and fitness, such as being a sports physician, I’d advise that a degree isn’t necessary.
That said, having a degree as a PT isn’t bad and can boost your credibility, which can be leveraged for more influence and higher earnings.
Programs such as kinesiology and sports science are good examples.
What does personal training look like in future job outlooks?
Personal training is here to stay; however, the way it’s here to stay looks digital.
All roads lead online when it comes to personal training and fitness.
Online courses and coaching has become the fastest way to capitalize on fitness servicing by harnessing the power of scale.
Because your clients are online, you are not limited by session time and can service multiple clients simultaneously, offering services in a global venue.
How long does it take to become a PT?
Both ACSM and NSCA will give you a year to complete your certification.
Within that enrollment period, most candidates certify between 3 to 9 months.
Are NASM and ACE worth it?
If you are serious about being a qualified personal trainer, the ACE or NASM certifications are excellent choices. I think the NASM personal training certification is slightly better than the ACE CPT, but they will launch a great career in fitness for a candidate.
Which is harder, NASM or ACE?
NASM and ACE are very similar in difficulty. According to statistics, NASM is marginally harder. In either case, be sure to spend adequate time preparing for either exam to pass on your first attempt.
- “How to Become a Certified Personal Trainer.” ACE, https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/personal-trainer-certification/how-to-become-a-personal-trainer.aspx
- “Earn Your Personal Trainer Certification.” NASM, https://www.nasm.org/become-a-personal-trainer
- “Salary: ACE-CPT | United States.” Ziprecruiter, Ziprecruiter, 2023, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/Ace-CPT-Salary
- “Certification Renewal.” ACE, https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/recertification
- “Salary: NASM-CPT | United States.” Ziprecruiter, Ziprecruiter, 2023, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/NASM-Personal-Trainer-Salary.
- “Recertify Your Nasm Personal Trainer Certification.” NASM, https://www.nasm.org/recertify/personal-trainer-recertification.