ACSM vs NSCA - Tyler read holds up ACSM and NSCA textbooks - which is better

Welcome to my PT Pioneer ultimate ACSM vs NSCA comparison!

I compose this review after taking and passing both CPT certifications, using my experience as a certified fitness trainer for more than ten years.

The PTPioneer team includes fitness professionals certified through all the main organizations and together we give you the most comprehensive comparison of NSCA and ACSM

If you need additional guidance on the range of best personal training certification options, I suggest you take the quiz to figure out the best cert for your career aspirations.

ACSM vs NSCA! What certification is right for you?

We developed this critical quiz to help you find the best certification for you and your goals.

I address these key aspects:

  • Topical info: comparison of pricing, packages, and prerequisites
  • NSCA vs ACSM content deep dive: knowledge and skills
  • Pros and cons of both ACSM and NSCA
ACSM vs NSCA

Alright, let’s dive into my assessment. 

ACSM vs NSCA: Quick Information

CPTACSM vs ACE Quick BreakdownFeaturesPrice
ACE ACE
  • The oldest certification provider with strong research and academic influence across the sports science community
  • A leader in sports medicine and corrective training principles
  • A good platform for immersive professional development 
View on the ACSM website
NSCA NSCA
  • A well-established research and academic authority in health and fitness with a strong legacy
  • Considered the leader in strength and conditioning methodology
  • A good platform for seasoned professionals to expand their knowledge
  • One of the oldest certification providers
View on the NSCA website
Product
Product
ACSM
NSCA
Exam cost
Exam cost
$349
$300 (Members) $435 (Non-members)
Study Material Cost
Study Material Cost
$400-$1000+
$455
Exam Passing Score
Exam Passing Score
Scaled 550/800
70%
Exam Pass Rate
Exam Pass Rate
66% (2018 data)
72% (2019 data)
Average Completion Time
Average Completion Time
3 to 9 months
3-6 months
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
  • Curriculum study preparation
  • Includes text, graphics, and videos
  • 200+ practice questions
  • No exam pass refund guarantee
  • $650 for ACSM starter package
PTPioneer Study Guides
  • Curriculum material overview
  • Complete chapter breakdowns
  • 60 practice questions
  • 130 flashcards
  • Exam cheat sheet
  • Free from PTPioneer

What is ACSM?

ACSM Personal Trainer Certification

ACSM is the American College of Sports Medicine. It was founded in 1954, making it the oldest and one of the best personal trainer certification providers globally.

ACSM focuses primarily on research and development in exercise science publications and sports medicine.

They are, in fact, a non-profit scientific body. Most fitness certifications reference ACSM’s research in their textbooks, from various nutrition certifications all the way to online personal training certifications.

For a deeper look at the top certification providers in the world of fitness, I recommend reading my article that covers the best personal trainer certifications.

Overall, ACSM certifications are among the most influential in the industry. Also, many of the top-tier fitness organizations cite ACSM research or use it in their curriculum.

What is NSCA?

NSCA Personal Trainer Certification

NSCA is the National Strength and Conditioning Association, founded in 1978, making them one of the most established exercise science organizations.

NSCA also functions in a non-profit capacity.

And just like ACSM, they too are a research-based organization focusing on pushing the envelope in the field of understanding exercise science and athletic performance.

Athletic performance and sports coaching programs are the hallmarks of NSCA’s focus, which I’ll talk more about shortly.

Both ACSM and NSCA fall into a similar category of academic research bodies that provide qualifications for dedicated professionals in the exercise science and sports medicine fields.

They are also accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or NCCA.

NCCA accreditation is the gold standard seal of quality and authenticity that you should generally look for, no matter which of the best personal trainer certifications you’re considering.

Pros and cons of NSCA vs ACSM

NSCA vs ACSM - Tyler stands in front of white board  with lettering holding up ACSM and NSCA books - pros and cons of acsm vs nsca

Each certifying agency has its own unique niche, even if it’s a subtle signature.

For example, one cert provider might focus on a number of aerobic training principles, while another might lean mostly towards nutritional concepts.

Understanding the focal areas can help you align the proper personal fitness trainer certification with your career options for personal training.

ACSM-CPT

ACSM logo

As I briefly touched on, ACSM is built and positioned around sports medicine principles.

They tend to focus on clients that have previous medical conditions or injuries.

There is a lot of functional training and muscular corrective exercise in their training methods.

I would put ACSM in the category of an exercise certification geared towards those interested in exercise research.

ACSM provides strong exercise science foundations in their CPT. 

Additionally, they are one of the more inexpensive training certifications, if you just take the exam without the study materials.

On the negative side, ACSM neglects to include enough programming tools in my opinion. They also don’t go in-depth when it comes to exercise technique, which is one of the most important aspects to learn as a new trainer.

NSCA-CPT

NSCA's approach to exercise science shines a spotlight on topics such as training adaptations to aerobic and resistance training

As mentioned, NSCA has a performance-based focus.

They have a more advanced certification called the certified strength and conditioning coach or CSCS, which is firmly centered around sports performance and sports coaching.

The NSCA CSCS requirements are also more stringent (Bachelor’s degree in a fitness related field), but that’s a discussion for a different article.

Their general certified trainers’ certification is a precursor to their more advanced certifications.

And just as with ACSM, you can determine the direction the NSCA curriculum points towards by taking their name into account.

NSCA does an excellent job overall with their CPT. The textbook is extremely thorough and the programming and periodization sections are among the best of any basic training certification.

One minor drawback in the NSCA curriculum is that because there’s so much detail to the content, it might feel a bit overwhelming to go through if you’re new to learning about exercise and the human body.

The only other downside to the program is the lack of business skills coverage, which other certifications like the ISSA CPT or NASM’s program include. 

Certification Popularity and Recognition of ACSM vs. NSCA

As for popularity, ACSM has a wider popularity margin than the NSCA.

They are much older and also have a further-reaching influence within the fitness industry.

Based on this Google trends chart, NSCA doesn’t even have enough search data to post in the graph for evaluation.

But popularity is one thing. The next important consideration is recognition.

While there are no measurable metrics to point out what the reputation and recognition of a cert are, I can say through my experience that both ACSM and NSCA sit on par with each other in that regard.

They are both research-driven academic pillars that exude a sense of prestige based on their respective legacies.

They are also delivered in a similar fashion, both having internet-based study materials to view and online personal trainer certifications.

CPT certs from both are accepted almost universally among gyms and facilities.

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NSCA and ACSM packages and study materials

Each certification program presents options for learning the curriculum and preparing for the exam.

I want to help you take a peek at what both ACSM CPT and NSCA CPT bring to the table in terms of study materials, as well as what they will cost you.

ACSM Certification Cost and Materials

ACSM, unlike many other certs, including NSCA or ACE, doesn’t come with prepackaged study kits.

You purchase the exam, and then you mix and match your exam prep resources separately and to your own discretion.

Overall you can purchase three different books to help you study for the ACSM test.

Two primary books help you get acquainted with the material.

The 3rd booklet helps you review their primary textbook.

This booklet for a personal trainer costs approximately $30 on their website.

The primary textbook will cost roughly $48.

Again, you can probably find a cheaper used version on Amazon.

This textbook teaches you the basics of exercise science, exercises, and routine development.

The 2nd book, ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, focuses strongly on prescribing routines for specific individuals as well as exercise testing.

If you purchase it from their website, it will cost you approximately $40.

Unlike NSCA, they offer a prep class to get hands-on experience.

This workshop costs $270.

Although it is a pricey workshop, it helps you get prepared to work one-on-one with an actual client.

ACSM is one of the more challenging exams to pass compared to others in the field.

The best advice I can give is to study all three books as much as possible.

The textbook and the test are purchased separately, just like NSCA.

All the costs I’ve just mentioned are discounted upon subscribing to an ACSM membership.

The test will cost approximately $349 for non-members.

Expect to spend around $600 for the test and all textbooks.

Third party materials are always an option, such as this free ACSM Study Guide and Practice Exam.

Speaking of which, my students highly rate the Trainer Academy ACSM CPT Prep Course. Different classes are right for different people, so check it out to see it might be the best route for you. 

Whichever option you choose, don’t forget to stop by the official ACSM site for up to date pricing and specials on courses.

NSCA Certification Cost and Materials

NSCA study materials come in three package offerings, with each option having different study material quantities and being priced accordingly.

The packages are:

  • NSCA-CPT Essential Package
  • NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package
  • NSCA-CPT Digital Package

The Digital package is a bare-bones package with all the training wheels removed. This package is ideal for seasoned sports medicine academics who don’t require much guidance. It includes:

  • Study Guide
  • Over 200 digital practice tests

The Essential package has some guidance but not too much hand-holding. It’s best for people who have a good grasp of sports science principles but want to expedite the study process. It includes:

  • Essentials of Personal Training course textbook
  • Study Guide
  • Over 200 digital practice questions

Lastly, we have the Essential Plus package, which is all-inclusive and ideal for newbie personal trainers:

  • Essentials of Personal Training course textbook
  • Exercise Technique Manual
  • Study Guide
  • Over 200 digital practice exams
  • And much more

Just remember that your study package is a separate purchase in addition to your exam registration, which means your total cost is a combination of the two.

Along with this is the fact that pricing changes based on your membership status are all things to consider 

Members pay less than non-members, so let’s see what pricing looks like with or without it.

Non-member pricing:

  • NSCA CPT exam cost: $435
  • NSCA-CPT Essential Package: $314.45
  • NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package: $541.50
  • NSCA-CPT Digital Package: $201.40

Member pricing::

  • Exam registration: $300
  • NSCA-CPT Essential Package: $255.55
  • NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package: $479.75
  • NSCA-CPT Digital Package: $152

So membership cuts your costs considerably, but what does membership entail, and what does membership itself cost?

Membership with NSCA comes in three possible plans. Those are:

  • Student Membership: $70.00
  • Professional Membership: $130.00
  • NSCA- Certified PT Digital Package: $299.17

In my opinion, the membership is totally worth it.

The additional cost, especially with the student membership, is canceled out by the savings you make on your other purchases.

You also have access to several extra benefits which you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Overall, neither of these is the cheapest personal trainer certification, but the price matches the value in both cases and it’s still pretty low compared to other certs like NASM.

You can start your NSCA exam prep without spending any money by checking out my free NSCA CPT study guide and practice test

For a premium option at an affordable price, third-party study materials such as the Trainer Academy NSCA CPT MVP Study Guide offer flashcards, audio guides, practice tests, and an exam pass guarantee at much lower cost than official materials.

Of course, you are always free to purchase the full-price materials directly from NSCA.

ACSM and NSCA certification course layouts

NSCA vs ACSM - textbooks for ACSM and NSCA open to page on muscle tissue

ACSM and NSCA have a lot of heritage between them. They are both highly regarded in the exercise and sports science communities.

Regardless, their coverage of important topics and concepts in fitness for personal trainers vary tremendously.

Let’s breakdown how each covers crucial topics differently.

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Exercise Science Coverage

Both certification providers give a fully comprehensive and detailed account of exercise science, adequate for any successful personal trainer.

So with little to separate the two in this department quality-wise, let’s see how they differ in their approach.

ACSM’s take on exercise physiology and science highlights key concepts such as biomechanics, bioenergetics, and anatomy, thus paying credence to the sports medicine and corrective exercise angle they approach with.

NSCA’s approach to exercise science shines a spotlight on topics such as training adaptations to aerobic and resistance training, all which fall in line with the organization’s focus on performance and conditioning.

In the case of exercise science, it’s a tie between ACSM and NSCA.

Behavioral Coaching Principles

Helping your personal training clients remodel their behaviors and habits is tantamount to them achieving their goals. 

It is your duty as a trainer to motivate your clients inside and outside the gym by instilling effective habits.

Having the skills to assist clients in psychologically rewiring their approach to fitness, nutrition and lifestyle not only pays off for them, but it pays off for you, providing a good track record and reputation, important factors in personal trainer marketing and everything else you do as a trainer.

When it comes to behavioral coaching, NSCA has an entire chapter, Chapter 8, dedicated to highlighting this topic.

The concepts NSCA uses to expand on this are:

  • Goal setting
  • Motivation
  • Influences and adaptations of mental health around exercise

ACSM on the other hand goes a bit more in-depth in terms of quantity of coverage on this topic.

The ACSM curriculum has a whole section, Part III, solely focused on behavioral principles which are covered in three chapters.

These chapters discuss concepts such as:

Consulting and Screening Clients to Reduce Risks of Injury

Before you even begin training someone, you need to assess their capability and current state for any special considerations or contraindications.

Firstly, you want to assess their current fitness level so you have a good understanding of where to begin and measure results. You must set initial standards. 

Secondly, you’ll want to clear your clients of any medical complications that may hinder normal training, allowing you to factor this criteria into your personal trainer workout programming and exercise prescription. 

ACSM goes through this principle in Part IV: Initial Client Screening.

Consulting and Screening Clients to Reduce Risks of Injury

Here you’ll learn how to conduct fitness and health assessments at the initial stages and throughout your client/trainer relationships.

NSCA does the same in Part II: Initial Consultation and Evaluation.

This section covers health assessments, fitness assessments, and the norms and protocols of continuous fitness testing.

Resistance Training Program Implementation

Resistance training programing and instruction are at the crux of any fitness program.

NSCA, being a strength & conditioning-focused academy, has a more immersive take on resistance training than many other certification providers.

ACSM also gives you a very limited amount of information on exercise technique, which means that NSCA is the leader here. 

Aerobic Training Program Implementation 

Aerobic or cardio training principles are crucial to any fitness protocol. Without a strong cardiorespiratory foundation, other types of training methodologies such as resistance training will suffer.

NSCA does a good job of highlighting aerobic training concepts, both from a general perspective and a performance enhancement perspective, so you can train anyone.

Chapter 6: Physiological Responses and Adaptations to Aerobic Endurance Training, and Chapter 14: Cardiovascular Training Methods both do a good job of teaching these concepts and their implementation.

ACSM does the same, but to a lesser extent in just one chapter, Chapter 15: Cardiorespiratory Training Programs.

Albeit brief, it at least gives you a good idea of how to implement cardio protocols, which is the endgame with aerobic fitness principles.

Overall, the NSCA model has a superior take on program design for aerobic and endurance.

Helping Special Populations with Fitness

Special populations training is an important consideration when it comes to the personal trainer job description.

People naturally have individual needs and preferences, but sometimes those needs and preferences extend beyond what’s considered the norm.

From a personal training standpoint, clients with such needs and preferences are termed special populations.

This can range from anything from training athletes to people with disabilities.

A few examples of special population groups include:

  • Prenatal and postnatal
  • Senior fitness
  • Youth and children
  • People with chronic conditions (e.g: arthritis, hypertension, diabetes)
  • People with disabilities
  • Competitive athletes

NSCA has an entire section dedicated to special population groups.

You’ll find it as Part V: Clients With Unique Needs, a six-chapter section focusing on a variety of training principles for different special client scenarios.

This is very well done, and I can only compare it to ISSA’s take on special populations, which is probably the most in-depth I’ve encountered.

As for ACSM, their take on special populations concepts can be found only in Chapter 20: Special Populations.

acsm-senior-fitness-guidelines

While it does provide some useful insight, it’s not anywhere near as in-depth as the NSCA coverage of this topic.

For a greater look at the content in each of these individual certifications, check out my comprehensive ACSM CPT review and NSCA CPT review.

NSCA vs ACSM prerequisites

As far as prerequisites go, the requirements for both NSCA and ACSM are pretty fundamental and standard.

You have to:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Hold a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Have current first responder certifications ( First Aid. CPR, AED certification)

ACSM vs NSCA salary

 Average trainers certified through the NSCA CPT earn $49,739 according to ZipRecruiter data, while an ACSM CPT salary averages $49,020. This puts two organizations tied on earnings.

Remember that these numbers are just an example. You could make much more with the right skillset and wherewithal. I know many trainers who made a great deal more than this in their first year and some who made less. 

Which exam is harder, NSCA or ACSM

The ACSM final exam consists of 150 multiple-choice questions, with only 120 counting towards the final score.

The other 30 questions are un-scored, used to evaluate viability for future exams.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, let me just skip those questions.”

The thing is, you’ll have no way of telling between the ones that are real and the ones that are “fake,” for lack of a better term.

The exam runs for 165 minutes (2.75 hours).

The content of the ACSM test is centered on four main domains of study. Each domain covers various topics separated into cognitive levels; recall, application, and synthesis.

The NSCA CPT exam consists of 155 questions in total. 140 scored and 15 non-scored questions.

The non-scored questions, just as with ACSM, are impossible to distinguish from those that carry weight, so I suggest you answer every question you can and leave no stone unturned.

The passing grade is 70% which you have 3 hours to achieve.

Based on the most recently available statistics from NSCA themselves, 72% of test-takers manage to pass the exam.

This is quite promising as it shows a test with a reasonable entry barrier and won’t bludgeon you during the process.

This is an outlier situation if you consider how notoriously difficult other NSCA certs are, such as the NSCA CSCS certification exam.

ACSM and NSCA recertification

As with most accredited certifications, ACSM CPT requires renewal after a set period.

This renewal is necessary after every three years from initial certification.

In order to recertify your ACSM credentials, you will need to submit 4.5 CEUs, which are equivalent to 45 hours of continued education experience.

Along with this, a $45 on-time recertification fee is required. 

If you recertify late, you’ll incur a $75 late recertification fee.

For NSCA, recertification demands submission of 6.0 CEUs after every three years from the initial certification.

The education credits requirement is drastically higher than what ACSM requires.

Most companies ask for renewal after just two years, so I guess that year extra wiggle room is a great thing.

Other offerings from NSCA and ACSM

ACSM and NSCA have several certification options you can take for CEUs. These can be a great way to re-certify and also add a credential to your name. You can also get additional CEUs from other sources, but often the best way is through your own certification organization. 

ACSM:

  • 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

NSCA certifications;

  • Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
  • Certified Performance and Sports Scientist (CPSS)
  • Certified Special Population Specialist (CSPS)
  • Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator (TSAC-F)

I cannot stress enough the importance of continuing education units. This is one of the ways you continue to learn as a trainer, and improve not only the quality of your coaching, but the overall knowledge you have about fitness. 

NSCA vs ACSM overall ratings

As certification providers, NSCA and ACSM are both excellent choices.

But which one is the best personal trainer certification?

As I’ve already expressed, both NSCA and ACSM have their unique area of focus, and both have their merits.

I think NSCA is the winner here in most cases. NSCA has all the detail of ACSM, plus you get better programming and more insight when it comes to strength and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Personally, I have issues with the lack of actual exercise technique instruction in ACSM. 

But, your decision will boil down to what sort of personal training practice you wish to engage in.

For instance, if you want to be an orthopedic exercise specialist, you would go with ACSM, on the other hand, if you wanted to work as a powerlifting coach, you would go with NSCA.

With that being the case, there is no best personal training certification between these two. They are both NCCA accredited and have many similarities in the materials they offer and the exams.

Either will help you along should you decide to open your own personal trainer studio for example or work at a private facility. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How can I become a personal trainer?

Becoming a personal trainer starts with passion which leads to a qualification.

The proper credentials won’t only equip you with the practical skills to conduct yourself professionally as a certified personal trainer. Still, you’ll also have professional and legal leverage in many cases.

How does personal training look like in future job outlooks?

Developing exercise programs for the general population and special populations will never go out of style.

However, the way in which health fitness services will be delivered is evolving.

Nowadays, we see a shift towards an online presence with online training and programming taking center stage with strength training. Fitness professionals are constantly changing their approaches.

Do fitness trainers need a degree?

You don’t need a degree to establish your personal training business.

However, studying through a bachelor’s degree program or higher can open your eyes and open doors to many possibilities in your career as a group fitness instructor or personal trainer.

Which is better, ACSM or NSCA?

Both certifications have a deep and rich heritage in the field of fitness education.

Neither of them is easy to classify as better than the other, so it all boils down to what you want your career to look like.

With that said, ACSM has a more generalist approach, suitable for a larger pool of trainers.

How long does NSCA CPT certification last?

Unlike many NCCA accredited certifications which last 2 years before renewal, NSCA only requires renewal after 3 years.

In order to renew your NSCA CPT cert after the 3 year validity period you will need to submit 6.0 CEUs as well as a nominal recertification fee.

How long does ACSM CPT certification last?

As with NSCA, ACSM CPT requires recertification after every 3 years from initial certification.

However, the difference with ACSM is that you only need 4.5 CEUs in contrast to NSCA’s 6.0 CEUs.

Tyler Read - Certified Personal Trainer with PTPioneer

Tyler Read


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Ask me a question and I will reply ASAP

4 thoughts on “ACSM vs NSCA – The Battle of Certifications 2024”

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time for this detailed comparison — so much faster than trying to dig through their respect websites to figure out which one to study!

    Reply
  2. Thank you for all your insight! I’ve recently decided to get my personal training certification as the gym I currently work out at has a demand for training at a level much less technical than what is provided. Without really knowing where to start, other than a few links sent to me by the gym owner and coach, I came across one of your articles which opened my eyes and provided me with the valuable information I was looking for. I still haven’t gotten through all your articles yet, but at least I now have a direction. Again, thank you!!

    Reply
    • Hey Vonni,
      I am glad that you are enjoying my content. Good luck on the search for the perfect certification for you!

      Reply

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