This guide has everything you need to know about the top 5 personal trainer certifications.
I compare these 5 certifying agencies on 7 critical factors.
I understand it can be challenging to pick the right certification.
Bottom line: If you want to discover the certification that suits you perfectly, you will love this personal trainer certification comparison.
The 5 Best Personal Trainer Certifications and Their Focus
As personal trainers, we completely change our client’s outlook on physical activity.1 The style or general focus of each personal training certification should be the most significant factor towards which one you eventually pick. At the end of this section, there will be a visual graph of each certification and their focus.
1) NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)
NASM was founded in 1987. Since it started out, it has been on a steady rise towards one of the prestigious certifying agencies on the market. Many people considered to be the greatest personal trainer certification.
NASM is regarded as a corrective exercise focused certification.
It also touches upon some aspects of performance. It’s training principles you learn from NASM can be applied to a wide variety of clients.
They are well-known for their famous optimum performance training model or OPT. This training model lets’ personal trainers advance their clients in a safe yet effective manner that is not dependent on the level of fitness of the client.2
This is one of the big reasons why NASM is so popular.
The OPT model was created from the most recent scientific research in the field of kinesiology, injury prevention, and human performance.
A lot of the material you learn with NASM focuses strongly on the stabilization phase of the optimum performance training model.
This is the very first phase of five total that you learn with NASM and has significant implications for athletes, average clients as well as rehab or clinical population clients.
NASM uses this optimum performance training model for the majority of their personal training certifications.
With NASM specialization certifications such as their corrective exercise specialist or performance enhancement specialist dive deeper into specialized population training.
These certifications further apply the OPT training model with the same emphasis on preventing injury and corrective exercise.
2) ACE (American Council on Exercise)
The ACE personal trainer organization is one of the most well-known agencies in the industry. This certifying agency was created just a couple years before NASM in 1985. ACE is considered by every employer as a top personal trainer certification.
The ACE CPT is a general personal training certification.
Similar to the OPT training model with NASM, ACE has their own IFT (integrated fitness training) model.
Much like the OPT model, the IFT focuses on progressing clients systematically through a workout program while keeping a high priority on safety and injury prevention.3
Their IFT model also touches upon corrective exercise and performance training as well, but not as much is NASM.
The IFT has a slight emphasis on functional training and cardiorespiratory training making it an excellent certification for weight loss (which happens to be a huge market).
The ACE CPT is a fantastic choice for people that are planning on training the typical sedentary American client. This is one of the reasons why ACE personal trainer cert is so popular is because it focuses on the general population where there is a large market.
Another reason why ACE is widely recognized is due to the way the program is structured. Its information is extremely informative but easy to digest at the same time.
This is a very well-rounded CPT certification that will be a strong base to build your personal training business from. I also recommend seeing my comparison article NASM vs ACE.
3) ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
The American college of sports medicine certification is one of the oldest certifications to date starting in 1954.4
It has gained a ton of recognition due to its influence and innovation in progressing the field of exercise science.
Although it is a very good personal training certification, at times it seems outdated regarding the style/design of the study materials, not the actual curriculum itself.
The ACSM CPT is categorized as a corrective exercise certification.
It is well-known for being one of the most prominent exercise science and sports medicine organizations. This certification is preferred in the hospital setting and wellness centers.
ACSM is one of the leading pioneers in exercise science research.5 In addition to being a training certification, they are also a scientific body.
A ton of their research is referenced in almost every single personal training manual.
They have a firm emphasis on corrective exercise similar to NASM.
I recommend this certification to anyone who is planning on working in a healthcare setting such as a clinic or wellness center. ACSM is an NCCA certification.
4) ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)
The ISSA personal trainer certification is one of the unique organizations on the market. I call it the international certification.
The international sports sciences Association was founded in 1988. Currently, there are over 200,000 trainers in 91 different countries that are certified with ISSA.6
ISSA is a general certification with a slight emphasis on performance/body composition training.
Sadly, ISSA does not have a certification summary video 🙁
This is one of the only options for a personal trainer certification online. That’s why it’s so internationally recognized.
ISSA is not only a personal training certification, but it is also known as in academic institution. If you notice their website has a .edu ending to it which are usually reserved for colleges and universities.
ISSA delivers a solid base of information to start as a personal trainer without diving into one area specifically. The textbook is enormous, and there’s a lot of information to be absorbed.
If you plan on training the average American, the ISSA personal trainer certification might be the perfect fit. This is especially true if you are looking for a personal training certification online.
Over the last five years, ISSA has been showing the world that it is in the running for the best personal trainer program.
5) NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
The NSCA is another popular certification that has been around for a long time. They were founded in 1978. Since that date, they have widely been recognized as a very reputable agency.
In fact, they were the first certifying agency to be accredited by the NCCA7 (I’ll talk more about NCCA certifications later).
The NSCA is a performance-focused personal training certification.
The national strength and conditioning Association is widely considered to be a top leader in performance-based training.
They are one of the leading researchers for human performance training.
This is a fantastic certification if you are planning on working with athletes trying to reach peak performance. There is a strong emphasis on power output, speed and agility training.
This certification is geared toward individuals that are finishing up a degree in exercise science or kinesiology.
Most people go on to complete their CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist) certification which is preferred for working with athletes as a strength and conditioning coach.
For you visual learners out there, I have put together a Venn diagram to show the distribution of focus for each of the personal training certificate programs.
Yes, that’s right, you heard me, a Venn diagram! You probably haven’t seen one of those since seventh grade 😉
Visual of the Personal Training Certification Types
The diagram is simple, if the logo is large in its respective category, the stronger the emphasis is on that type of training. If the logo is small, it touches on that style of training slightly.
Some of the certifications like NSCA and ACSM are only in one group because they have such a strong emphasis on one style of training (performance and corrective), While others are found in two sections or three sections.
NASM and ACE both touch on each of the three training focus but with a stronger emphasis in some compared to others. ISSA focuses mostly on a general certification but with some focus on performance training as well.
The more styles of training that a certification prepares you for, the broader range of clients you will be ready to train once you get certified.
Recognition and Certification Popularity
In the first part of this section, I will be talking about how each of the five certifications are recognized within the personal training industry and how popular they are with the personal trainers.
High industry recognition is essential because some employers prefer specific certifications over others and this is not standard throughout the industry.
Some gymnasiums prefer that their trainers are NASM certified, while others might prefer ACE, ACSM or another one.
Let’s talk about the industry recognition of all five of the personal trainer certificate programs.
Over the last ten years approximately, the NASM CPT has been one of the most talked about certifications in the United States. It is clear that every single employer recognizes NASM as a valuable certification to own.
If you browse the Internet, you will see the same thing; everyone is talking about how to get NASM certified.
According to the NASM website, in the last ten years over 190,000 people have been certified with NASM.8
ACE is another extremely popular certification that is right up there with NASM. If you went around asking personal training employers who they preferred over NASM and ACE, it might be a 50-50 split.
This is a test I should do some time soon!
According to the ACE website, they certify over 75,000 individuals in the health and fitness industry.9 They also claim that being ACE certified will get you in the door for an interview at a lot of big name gyms such as 24-hour fitness, anytime fitness, crunch fitness and many others.
Being one of the oldest certifications, the ACSM CPT has received and maintained its reputation in the fitness industry for a long time.
I highly doubt that there is in the employer that does not recognize the ACSM certification as one of the best CPT certifications. Unfortunately, I can’t find exact numbers on how many individuals are certified with them.
The ISSA CPT as I mentioned before, is what I consider one of the most significant international certifications. This is mainly because you can do everything remotely from using their study materials online to taking the test.
Because of this, ISSA has certified over 200,000 people in 91 different countries according to their website.
Not only is ISSA a CPT program that is recognized around the world, but it is also very prevalent here in the United States.
The NSCA CPT is one of the leading certifications that is used by colleges and universities as study materials for some sports performance curriculum.
This certification along with the others is instantly a certification that will be recognized by employers. Unfortunately, I am unable to find the number of NSCA certified trainers.
People certified by NSCA as well as their advanced CSCS certification are extremely sought after in the sports performance industry.
Let’s compare how these five certifications have been trending over the last 12 months:
NASM and ACE are neck and neck regarding recent popularity according to Google trends.10
The ACSM certification comes in third place, slightly edging out ISSA and NSCA. But since ISSA has so many people certified through them, I have them taking the 3rd place for recognition and popularity.
Winners for Certification recognition and popularity within the fitness industry:
Due to being neck and neck, NASM and ACE tie for first place in this comparison.
The certifications that I will be discussing on this website are either accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC formerly the DETC) or the National Commission for certifying agencies (NCCA). If you choose to get a different personal trainer license, make sure they are accredited by one of these two organizations. This is very important!
The link above will take you to my full NCCA list of nationally accredited personal training certifications.
I only trust certifications that have either one of these two accreditations.
National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
NASM, ACE, NSCA, ACSM
Many people, as well as employers in the personal training industry, consider the NCCA to be the preferred certifying agency for certifications.
The accreditation process with the national commission for certifying agencies is very rigorous. Certifications agencies are frequently required to renew their accreditation to ensure they are up to standard.
This accreditation agency was started in 1987. Out of my five top certifications, ACE, NASM, ACSM, and NSCA are NCCA accredited organizations.
Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC formerly DETC)
The distance education accrediting commission was initially founded in 1926 as the distance education and training Council. They recently changed names a few years ago.11
The DEAC also has a rigorous credential process that involves taking polls of students, peers, and experts in the field when analyzing certifications/programs.
Just like the NCCA, the DEAC requires their organizations to frequently renew their accreditation to make sure they are up to snuff with their standards.
One of the significant differences between the DEAC and NCCA is that they do not get directly accredit the certification, but rather the curriculum that the certification offers.
Which in my mind, is the same thing. They accredit the study materials and the information that you will be absorbing for the certification. The ISSA CPT is the only five on this list that is accredited by the DEAC.
NCCA vs DETC/DEAC
Both the DEAC and NCCA are recognized as top accreditation agencies, although some might argue that NCCA is the standard for personal training licensure (accrediting).
In reality, the most important thing is that both accreditation agencies are recognized by the International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Association (IHRSA).
The IHRSA is the principal trade association for the personal training and fitness industry. They view both DEAC and NCCA accredited certifications as equals.12
This makes all five of the certifications on my list even in regards to accreditation.
Quality of Study Materials
Now it’s time to get nerdy 🤓 on it! The study materials that each certifying agency provides this extremely crucial towards the learning process and how well you retain the information. Let’s compare the top five CPT programs in regards to what they provide alongside the examination.
For certifications that have different available packages with varying materials of study, I will be including a comparison chart.
Here is the comparison chart comparing the four available packages from NASM.
I know what you’re thinking, this is a time of study materials! I initially thought that as well, until I started studying for this monster test and realized all the study materials were essential towards my learning process.
Let’s go over each of these packages.
NASM CPT self-study
The self-study package includes:
- A digital copy of the textbook: The textbook is 20 chapters long and overall is 720 pages.
- Lecture videos: The lecture videos are great for visual learners. A significant portion of the textbook is covered through video as well.
- Exercise library: An extensive exercise library with the most important exercises, how to perform them and how to progress and regress them for different clients.
- Cueing library: Teaches you how to correct people’s exercise form.
- Practice exams: Practice exams so that you can see how much you have learned.
- Quizzes: Quizzes so you can summarize what you have learned after each chapter.
- The official study guide: The study guide is meant to follow along with as you are going through the textbook.
NASM CPT premium self-study
The premium self-study bundle includes everything that the regular self-study package does with the addition of:
- Anatomy memorization activity: Memorizing the anatomy section is one of the hardest parts of studying for any of the certifications. This memorization activity makes it much easier to stick.
- Learning activities: NASM incorporates lots of different learning activities and tricks so that you can grasp the material.
- Flashcard bundles: For me, flashcards work exceptionally well for memorizing things. If you are like me, you’ll get great use out of these.
NASM CPT Guided study
The guided study contains everything that the self-study and premium self-study do with the addition of:
- Content/Exam prep webinars: Webinars are a fantastic way to ask questions about confusing material. The teachers of these webinars go over difficult concepts and break them down.
- Access to coach and mentor: You also have access to contact expert coaches so that you can ask them questions.
- Discussion questions: Similar to having access to coaches and mentors, thought-provoking discussion questions are provided in an online forum so that you can discuss with your peers and mentors.
- Live workshop: For those who like to learn by doing, a live seminar is available for the guided study package.
- Exam prep guarantee: If you don’t pass the NASM test the first time, this package lets you retake it for free. You will be very thankful of this if you don’t end up passing the first time. NASM retest costs are $200!
- A hard copy of the NASM textbook: Having a hard is personally essential for me. I like to highlight and add sticky notes everywhere! But seriously, everywhere, it’s nothing but sticky notes by the end. 😅
NASM CPT All-inclusive
The all-inclusive package includes everything that the previous three did with the addition of:
- CPT development program: For you hands-on learners, this provides 80 hours of on-site practice. This includes working with real clients.
- NASM business accelerator program: For you business-minded individuals, this is a great program that will help you maximize your time, money earned and value as a trainer. This is extremely valuable because most certifications don’t talk too much about the business side of things and how to make that cash money! 🤑
Overview of the NASM study materials:
The NASM certification has the most amount of study material available to their students hands-down.
No matter what learning style you prefer, NASM has a way for you to master their curriculum.
Some unique features that I found incredibly helpful were their webinars, interactive learning activities and the anatomy memorization. NASM has some of the best CPT certification study materials.
I do wish that they offered the hardcover book with all of their packages. You will have no problem with the e-book though. I found it completely comfortable to read on my smartphone, tablet or laptop.
The ACE certification does not have quite the abundance of study options that NASM does, but it is no slouch. Here is the comparison chart for their three packages.
ACE CPT pro essential package
- Practice tests: Essential practice tests to study what you have learned.
- ACE study coaches: Access to ACE-certified professionals so that you can clarify concepts and ask questions.
- The textbook in e-book format:
- The training manual study companion e-book: A study guide to go through as you are reading the manual.
- Fitness professionals e-book: This e-book covers the fundamental knowledge of exercise science that you need to provide practical yet safe workout routines.
- ACE Academy elite: The Academy allegiance is a guided study course that covers difficult concepts through instructional video. This is a solid study blueprint.
- Access to personal trainer resources: These resources include fitness tools and calculators, fitness assessment forms and additional study tips.
ACE CPT pro plus package
The Pro plus package includes everything the essential program package does with the addition of a hard copy of the three books
- A hard copy of the personal trainer manual
- A hard copy of the study companion manual
- A hard copy of the ACE essentials of exercise science for fitness professionals
ACE CPT Pro Advantage Package
The ACE pro advantage includes everything that the previous two packages did, with the addition of:
- Fitness math online course: Some of the more complicated things to learn are the concepts regarding math. Such as V02 maximum, body composition, energy expenditure and others. This course helps you master these concepts, especially if you are not a math wiz like me! 😵
Overview of the ACE study materials:
The study materials for ACE are pretty solid overall. I would put them just a notch below NASM on what they offer.
The ACE Academy and personal training resources are handy to concrete the information in your head.
It’s a shame you can’t get the hardcover textbook without upgrading, but the e-book is just as good and much easier to study from on the go.
The ACSM CPT does things much differently than ACE or NASM. There are not too many study materials available, and you can pick and choose which ones you want to purchase for your individual study needs.
There are five basic options that they have to aid you in your studying.
- ACSM’s resources for the personal trainer: This is the primary textbook for ACSM and is 632 pages long.
- ACSM’s Guidelines for exercise testing and prescription: This handbook provides the essential knowledge for exercise prescription and testing for clients that are both diseased and healthy. This textbook is 472 pages long.
- ACSM’s certification review book: The review book is to go along with the primary textbook. The review textbook alone is 288 pages.
- Workshops and webinars: ACSM provides hands-on learning with their seminars and webinars. You need to be relatively close to a big city to attend one.
- PrepU: This is a personalized approach to studying for the ACSM. It prepares a study plan for you based on your current knowledge on exercise science.
Overview of the ACSM materials:
ACSM’s study materials are overall lacking because they don’t have an e-book version of their textbooks.
Their workshops and seminars are fantastic, but unfortunately, you need to live close to one of the large cities in the United States, or you’ll have to fly to one.
The lack of interactive learning material and video instruction leaves a lot on the table for ACSM.
The ISSA CPT has recently beefed up their study materials that are available. There is only one package that is offered by ISSA and here are all the study materials that it includes.
- A hard copy of the textbook: A hard copy of the book is always great. This substantial 759-page textbook covers everything you need to know.
- Study guide and workbook: This is a study guide to work along with as you go through the textbook.
- Marketing and business guide: Something that makes ISSA stand out is that they are very business oriented. This guide teaches you what you need to know about making more money and utilizing your time efficiently as a trainer. Overall, very handy!
- Practice exam and quizzes: No study material would be complete without full exams and quizzes for each chapter.
- Exercise reference guide DVD: DVD that contains exercises and how to perform them correctly. The only question is, who uses DVDs anymore? 🤔
- Online student Forum: This is something unique to ISSA, and I think it works very well when you are studying. Having access to other people that are studying the same material and being able to bounce ideas off of them is a fantastic way to learn.
- Online exercise lab: This lab includes 250 animated exercises. You get a full 3-D view of how to properly do the exercises. This is a very cool feature.
- Unlimited educational support: Having access to ISSA professionals is one of the best study materials that they provide. If you have any question regarding the study materials, they are there for you.
Overview of the ISSA study materials:
The study materials for ISSA are overall excellent. They have a ton of different content for people with varying types of learning.
It’s great how you get the textbook in e-book format as well as hardcover for no additional cost.
Their exercise lab is exceptionally cool to use and much better than learning exercises out of the book.
Throwing yourself on the online student forum is also a fantastic learning experience. It has a feel like you are on Reddit. There’s a ton of information and hidden gems there.
Their strong focus on business-oriented personal training is a big attraction and has excellent information.
The NSCA CPT offers study materials in the same way that ACSM does. You can pick and choose which study materials you would like to use to prepare you for the exam.
- Essentials of personal training: This is the primary textbook for NSCA and is 696 pages long.
- Exam content description booklet: This booklet is to help you prepare for the exam and should be followed along as you read the book.
- Complete practice questions bundle: This is a practice exam.
- Exercise technique manual for resistance training: This is a manual with 70 resistance training exercises with step-by-step instructions.
- Live clinics: For those who want hands-on experience, a live clinic is a great learning tool. Once again, the problem with life clinics is that they are held in larger cities only.
- Strength training anatomy (recommended resource)
- Sport nutrition (recommended resource)
Overview of the NSCA study materials:
The textbook has a ton of information and is very informative. Overall, the study materials are severely lacking for NSCA because they have no interactive learning material or e-book version (Don’t know how this is possible).
The only way to learn is by reading their textbook which can be unbearable for some people.
Winners for Best Study Materials:
Like any decision, money often plays a significant role in the choices we make. Overall, the personal trainer certification costs are relatively low compared to the return you can earn as a personal trainer. 💲
Something else to note is that the price differences usually have a strong correlation to how many study materials you receive from the certifying agency.
Let’s see how much these certification programs for personal trainers cost.
NASM Certification Cost
The pricing for the NASM certification all depends on which study package you purchase as I talked about above. Since there is a wide variety of the different study materials they offer, there is also a significant variation in the price.
Here are the current prices. NASM frequently has deals for up to $125 off. The current deal is $125 off which you can find here.
$699$574 ($125 off) – Self-study package $999$874 ($125 off) – Premium self-study package $1299$1174 ($125 off) – Guided self-study package $1999$1874 ($125 off) – All-inclusive package
- Check out the current price with the $125 off here
Although NASM is considered to be one of the more expensive personal training certifications, it provides the best study materials. It is the best bang for your buck for what you receive.
The all-inclusive package might seem expensive at first, but it comes with NASMs “job guarantee” which is a guaranteed internship at a health and fitness club that NASM organizes.
This is so crucial to get your foot in the door shortly after getting certified. This gives you the opportunity to practice as well as concrete the new information that you have just learned in a real fitness environment.
With the $125 off discount, it makes NASM a relatively cheap personal trainer certification.
The personal trainer certification cost for the all-inclusive package is one of the highest in the industry, but it is also one of the most helpful.
The NASM exam cost without the study materials is usually $499. Unfortunately, the option is not available currently.
ACE Certification Cost
As you most likely saw in this section on study materials, ACE has three separate packages to choose from. Compared to NASM, ACE has a much simpler cost structure.
- $599 – Pro essentials package
- $699 – Pro plus package
- $799 – Pro advantage package
With the price of each of these packages, you receive entrance into the exam as well as the study materials that I listed in the study materials section.
The most significant advantage to the pro-advantage package is that ACE will let you pay off your certification in four separate payments with zero interest.
This comes down to four payments of $199.75. This can be very helpful especially if you don’t have that chunk of change lying around. I know that I never did! 😬
The ACE exam cost without study materials is usually $399. This option is also not currently available through ACE fitness.
ACSM Certification Cost
The pricing for ACSM can be slightly tricky because it depends on how many study materials you choose to purchase.
- Three textbook package – $134.99
- One day CPT workshops – $130
- Three-day CPT workshop – $375
- The six-course webinar series – $240
- The ACSM exam – $300
There are some caveats to the prices. For example, if you purchase the three-day workshop, you get $50 off the exam.
Overall the cheapest way you can go is if you somehow already had the knowledge to pass the test and just purchased an exam voucher. This would only cost you $300.
This could also be the price if you are lucky enough to know someone that already has the textbooks.
If you decide to get the textbook package as well as the exam, the total will come to $435. In this list, this is the cheapest personal trainer certification.
If someone wants to take full advantage of all the study materials offered, the cost is $760 for the whole shebang!
Check out the price for ACSM here.
ISSA Certification Cost
The price for the ISSA certification is very straightforward and simple since they only have one package to choose from.
- The one package will cost you between $499 and $$799 (typically)
I generally say because they frequently have promotions going on their website. The most expensive I’ve ever seen it was $799, but they always have specials bring it down to $499.
I love the simplicity of the cost of ISSA. You also get the full hardcover textbook which I think is very valuable. Overall, this is the second cheapest personal fitness trainer certification.
NSCA Certification Cost
Similar to ACSM, the NSCA CPT has a complicated cost because you can pick and choose the study materials you need to prepare for the test.
Overall two different study packages can be purchased with NSCA. Not one of these three packages will include the examination, that needs to be purchased separately.
On top of that, the price of each package depends on whether you are a member or a non-member with the NSCA.
Let’s break down the study material prices first and then the exam prices separately.
NSCA study material pricing
- The basic option – $277 for nonmembers and $179 for members. (includes the core essentials of personal training textbook, practice exams, and exam content booklet)
- The standard option – Approximately $486 for nonmembers and $287 for NSCA members (Contains everything in the basic option with the addition of the exercise technique manual and bonus materials)13
NSCA membership costs
If you are somebody who is adamant about becoming NSCA certified, it’s a smart decision to become a member with the NSCA.
Depending on the membership type, you can receive a discount on continuing education credit, study material, and access to member-only research in exercise science.
- $47/year – Associate membership
- $65/year – Student membership
- $120/year – Professional membership
- $337/year – Liability insurance + certified professional
NSCA Exam Voucher Costs
- $300 and $345 – Depending on which membership you have.14 The $345 option is for nonmembers. The price of the exam also depends on whether or not you want to take the computerized version or the pencil and paper version!
I know right, that probably just scrambled your brain. I know I sure did for me just trying to explain it! 🙄
It’s clear that the cost of NSCA has the most factors that need to be considered if this is the certification you want to go for.
The cheapest option would be to sign up for the associate membership for $47 a year. Then you can get the exam for $279 and the most affordable study package for $177. The total for this is $503, but you have a yearly membership.
The cheapest cost for NSCA for nonmembers is $349 for the test and $277 for the study materials. The total comes to $626. You can see the NSCA here.
Conclusion on the Price of Personal Trainer Certifications
I’m basing the winners of the price category based on the overall cheapest price without anything else in consideration.
With the ACSM certification and the NSCA certification, you will get very bare minimum study materials with their most economical options.
They are some of the cheapest personal trainer certifications but don’t come with the best certification study materials.
The winners for personal trainer certification costs:
Earning Potential of Each Certification
Another important aspect of each of the personal fitness trainer certifications on this list is how much you can earn once you are certified!
I know what you’ve been thinking, “Tyler, can we get to how many dolla bills I’m going to be raining!”. 🙌🏼
In this section, you will learn how much money you can make as a personal trainer with these different certifications. I will also talk about the top employers for each certification, as this indicates excellent employment opportunities for each certifying agency.
One word of caution though, I would take these figures as a grain of salt. These figures are taken from two websites with relatively small sample sizes.
The most important factor when it comes to income as a personal trainer is where you work as well as how hard you hustle to make that money!
I was able to find the average income of NASM, ACE, NSCA, and ACSM all on Payscale. Unfortunately, they did not have ISSA listed on that site, so I had to use another site (paysa) for their income information. (possibly why ISSA is slightly lower).
The average salary for a NASM certified personal trainer is $41,000.15
The top employers for a NASM certified trainer are Anytime fitness, 24-hour fitness, Lifetime fitness and LA fitness.
The average salary for an ACE Fitness certified personal trainer is $41,000.16
The top employers for an ACE certified trainer are 24-hour fitness, Anytime fitness, the YMCA, and Golds gym.
The average salary for an ACSM certified personal trainer is $41,000.17
The top employers for an ACSM certified trainer are the YMCA, LA fitness, and RedBrick Health.
The average income for an ISSA certified personal trainer is $37,000.18
The income information I got for ISSA was from a separate site than the other four and therefore did not show the top employers category.
Based on the info from the ISSA website, their top partnered fitness centers are: Bally Total Fitness, Curves, Equinox, Powerhouse gym, Lifetime fitness and 24-hour fitness.
The average income for an NSCA certified personal trainer is $40,000.19
The top employers for an NSCA certified trainer are LA Fitness and Bayview Retirement Community.
Like I said before, take these averages with a grain of salt. For example, the most financially successful personal trainer that I have ever known is ISSA certified.
He merely hustled harder than anyone else, and that’s why he is so successful. Plain and simple.
Winners for earning potential: A three-way tie at 41k
Test Info and Requirements
In this section, I will be talking about how each CPT programs test is designed, the pass rates as well as the requirements one needs to take the test.
Let’s Learn all about these personal trainer certification exams and personal training certification requirements!
The NASM consists of 120 multiple-choice questions. This test is not open book. Let me quickly break down each section of these 120 questions.20
The pass rate for the NASM exam is 64%.
- There are 15 questions on applied sciences
- There are 15 questions on fitness assessment
- There are 20 questions on training instruction and exercise technique
- There are 25 questions on program design
- There are 12 nutrition questions
- There are 10 questions related to administration and client relations
- There are 8 questions on professionalism and responsibility
- There are 20 pretest questions
Because there are several different types of the exam, your score is a scaled score. This accounts for varying difficulties of the exams. You need a scaled score of 70 to pass the NASM test.
You will have two hours to complete the NASM exam, and you will know whether you pass or not immediately. If you pass the NASM test, the certification will be mailed to you and arrive approximately 4 weeks after you take the exam.
If you fail to pass the exam on the first try, you need to weigh at least 24 hours to apply to retake it. 😭 The cost to retest will be $199 unless you purchased NASM all-inclusive package that includes a retest voucher.
NASM Test Requirements
All tests must be taken at a PSI testing center. The is are located around the United States and most major cities. You must bring photo identification and proof of CPR/AED certification to the testing center.
You must take the NASM examination within
180 days 365 days of enrollment in the certification program.
To take the test, you must be at least 18 years of age and have a valid CPR/AED certificate. You need a high school diploma or equivalent for the NASM CPT.
The ACE exam consists of 150 multiple-choice questions. This test is not an open book. Three general sections make up the ACE test. The three parts are the application, analysis, and recall.21
The pass rate for the ACE exam is 65%.
The application and analysis section build the majority of the ACE fitness examination with approximately 70 to 85% of the questions coming from this section.
The application and analysis section will test your ability to make decisions and solve problems through real-world scenarios. The recall section is all about your ability to remember factual knowledge from the textbook. 🤔
Similar to the NASM exam, 25 sample questions don’t count towards the score of your test. This leaves the remaining 125 questions that you will be graded on.
To pass you will need to answer approximately 90 of the questions correctly which equates to about 500 points which is a passing grade. Just like NASM, ACE grades on a scaled score because some versions of the exam are more difficult than others.
After purchasing the ACE certification, you have six months to take the test. You will be given three hours during the exam to answer the questions.
Three hours is plenty of time, and you should have no problem finishing before then. ⏰
There is a retest fee of $199 in the case you, unfortunately, do not pass the first time.
ACE Exam requirements
The ACE test must be taken in a computer-based exam location.
To take the ACE fitness test, you must be at least 18 years old and hold a valid CPR/AED certificate. The academic requirements are that you must have completed high school or have the educational equivalent.
The ACSM test is comprised of 120 multiple-choice questions. 30 of these questions are unscored questions and are for research only. This test is not open book.22
The ACSM test pass rate is the lowest with only 54% of people passing on the first time. 😳
- 28% – Exercise programming and prescription
- 24% – Exercise physiology and exercise science
- 13% – Fitness exercise testing
- 10% – Medical and clinical considerations
- 9% – Weight management and nutrition
- 8% – Injury prevention and safety
- 4% – Outcome assessment and program administration
- 4% – Human behavior
ACSM also grades on a scale due to difficulty. The scale ranges from 200 to 800, and you need a 550 to pass.
You are given 2.5 hours of test time to answer all the questions.
If you don’t pass the ACSM the first time around, there is a $150 test retake fee.
ACSM exam requirements
To take the ACSM exam, you need to register for the test at a Pearson VUE testing center. There are over 5000 locations.
You need to be 18 years of age, have a high school diploma (or equivalent) and have a valid CPR/AED certification.
The ISSA exam is much more unique compared to the other fitness trainer certifications on this list. They don’t merely have a multiple-choice section. This test is an open book.23
The ISSA pass rate is approximately 90%.
There are four separate sections you will need to pass to get certified through ISSA. There is a true-false portion, multiple-choice portion, six short essays and to case studies.
You need to receive a 75% in each of the four categories as well as 75% overall to pass the ISSA test.
There are approximately 160 true and false/multiple-choice questions on the test. There are six essays of 250 words each. The last section is to case studies where you need to create a suitable 12-week workout program for two imaginary clients.
You will be given six months from your purchase date to take the ISSA test.
If you don’t pass the ISSA test on the first try, no problem, the second attempt is free! 😎 If you don’t pass on the second time, each additional retake will cost $50.
ISSA exam requirements
ISSA requires its personal trainers to be at least 18 years old, hold a high school diploma (or equivalent) and have a current CPR/AED accreditation.
The NSCA exam consists of 140 multiple-choice questions. 15 of these questions are not scored. This is not an open book test.24
The NSCA pass rate is 58%. Let’s take a look to see how the test is broken down.
- 35 questions (25%) – Client assessment and consultation
- 43 questions (31%) – Program design and planning
- 43 questions (31%) – Exercise technique
- 19 questions (13%) – Emergency procedures and safety
- 15 questions – non-scored for research purposes
The NSCA test is based on a scaled rating, and you need to score at least a 70 to pass.
After signing up for the NSCA certification, you have exactly 6 months to take the test. For the test itself, you have three hours to answer the questions and submit it.
The NSCA is pretty brutal with their retake policy. It will cost you $300 to retake the test if you are a member and $435 to retake the test if you are not an NSCA member.
This, coupled with their low pass rate, can end up being very expensive if you are not adequately prepared for the test. 😒
NSCA exam requirements
The NSCA test must be taken in a Pearson VUE testing facility. You need to be at least 18 years old, hold a high school diploma or equivalent, and have a current CPR/AED accreditation.
Overview of the Personal Trainer Certification Requirements
All in all, each personal training certification is pretty unique in regards to exam requirements, exam content and how challenging it is to pass.
I like the uniqueness of the ISSA exam and the different aspects it tests you on compared to purely multiple-choice questions.
ISSA adds a lot of real-life applications to the test which I think are very important. It is also great that the retest fee is free.
ACE and NASM have a great balance between test questions and pass rate. They are challenging but not impossible. For this reason they tie for second place.
ACSM and NSCA both have an excellent curriculum, but their tests seem unfair at times. I remember some questions that looked like they were trying to trick me purposefully.
Winners of the personal trainer exam:
Recertification and CEUs
These personal fitness trainer certifications are not valid forever. Every few years you will need to show proof of continuing education to maintain your certification. You will also need to renew your CPR/AED certificate as well.
Each fitness certification agency has slightly different requirements when it comes to continuing education and how often you need to recertify.25
These are usually called continuing education credits (CEC’s) or continuing education units (CEU’s). In general, one continuing education credit is approximately ten hours of continuing education.
Most fitness certification agencies require 20 hours every couple of years.
There are many different ways you can receive CEC’s. You can attend life workshops, get a separate certification, attend a class (or web class), or go through qualified fitness programs.
Continuing education is not only required by every fitness certification organization but Is also very important in becoming a competent and successful trainer.
Continually advancing your knowledge in exercise science is something we all like to do otherwise we probably wouldn’t be adamant about our jobs. 💪
The cost for these continuing education credits varies greatly. Every certifying agency on this list offers continuing education options through them, but they are not always the best deal.
For the most part, they accept a wide variety of continuing education providers that may have better content at lower prices. Let’s talk about each of the recertification requirements.
To recertified with NASM, you need 20 hours of continuing education credits. This equals 2.0 NASM continuing education credits.26
You are required to get recertified every two years, and the cost for recertification is $99. You also have the option to pay $299 to cover the cost of recertification for the rest of the time you recertify with a NASM.
So if you plan on being a NASM personal trainer for more than six years, is worth the $300.
Take note that this is not cover the continuing education cost themselves, just the recertification cost with NASM.
The renewal of your CPR/AED certification is worth .1 CEC’s. You will need to get the rest of your continuing education through a NASM qualified continuing education provider or through NASM themselves.
One of the recommended routes for recertification with NASM is to obtain their prestigious CES, PES or FNS certifications.
The value of ACE continuing education credits is slightly different than those with NASM. With ACE you will need 20 continuing education credits, where each credit is worth one hour instead of .1 CEC like it is with NASM.27
Don’t worry; this still comes out the same amount of time, 20 hours total.
You are required to recertify every two years with ACE, and the cost is $139.
ACSM continuing education credits are much cheaper to obtain compared to NASM or ACE.
Overall the cost to recertify is only $30, and you have to recertify every three years.28
The only caveat is that you are required to complete 45 hours of continuing education credits.
That comes out to approximately 15 hours of continuing education per year as opposed to only 10 hours of continuing education with NASM or ACE.
Just like with ACE and NASM, ISSA continuing education credits require 20 units every two years.
The cost for ISSA recertification is $75 which makes it one of the cheaper options available.
Obtaining NSCA continuing education credits is one of the cheaper options out there.
NSCA requires you to recertify every two years, and it only costs $50. You are required to complete 20 hours of continuing education.29
One of the most common routes for continuing education is to obtain their advanced CSCS certification (although it requires a bachelors degree).
Conclusion on recertification and continuing education
Being able to pick the winner in the recertification category is mostly dependent on price and how much time is required.
NSCA is purely the cheapest option when it comes to the recertification cost of only $50.
NASM’s option to pay $300 as a one-time fee and not have to pay them to recertify in the future.
ACSM is good because you don’t need to think about re-certifying until every three years instead of two. They also are the cheapest to recertify with costing only $30.
On the other hand, they do require more than twice the amount of hours of continuing education, which ends up costing more money because you have to pay for more continuing education hours.
Winners on Recertification and Continuing Education:
The next two sections of this guide are going to talk about the 5 runner-up personal training certifications as well as advanced specialization certifications.
Skip to the conclusion of this article if you want to see the best personal training program between NASM, ACE, ACSM, ISSA, and NSCA. 🥇🥈🥉
5 Honorable Mention CPT Certifications
Although the certifications did not make my top five on my list of top personal trainer organizations, they’re still very legitimate certifications that are widely accepted, and NCCA/DEAC accredited.
If one of the five certifications above does not seem like a good fit for you, check out these other five options.
NFPT (National Federation of professional trainers)
NFPT focuses on the fitness enthusiast turned start-up trainer and started in 1988.30 NFPT trainers aren’t required to have a previous formal education related to exercise science; they only expect that the certification participant is 18 years or older and have a high school education.
They used to require that you have 2 or more years of ‘practical hands-on experience’ with exercising and training, but this an unenforceable requirement so instead they note that those who lack this type of real-world experience will not be in an excellent position to gain employment after certification.
Most NFPT trainers are people who have a lot of gym experience but are just starting out as a personal trainer.
The NFPT is one of the less expensive certifications on the market right now. The tests that they provide are not the most difficult by comparison, but not the easiest either.
Their tests are reviewed and re-developed each year to maintain a consistent level of difficulty at about 70% passing. This is a perfect entry-level personal trainer certification. The NCCA accredits them.
Check out my full article about NFPT here.
NPTI (National personal training Institute)
NPTI is one of the most special certifications on the market as well as the most expensive. When you complete their course, you receive a diploma!
The total course consists of approximately 500 hours throughout a six-month time frame. This includes 50 hours of practical training sessions with a qualified instructor.31
It is one of the most intense courses in the personal training industry. They dive deep into biomechanics, physiology, nutrition, and anatomy. I guarantee you that by the time you finish their course, you will know the material inside and out.
The intense course curriculum and testing procedures make it a credible certification/diploma.
Although it does seem much more detailed than the universal certification, NPTI is still not nearly as complete as a four-year degree in kinesiology.
And because it is kind of in the middle ground of what is required to get hired as a personal trainer, I usually recommend going with a cheaper yet still highly recognized certification.
Check out my full review on NPTI here!
NCSF (National Council on strength and fitness)
NCSF is one of the few certifications that does not require you to be CPR or AED certified before you can take their test. This is unusual because most employees will need each of their trainers to be CPR and AED certified before working with clients.
This certification focuses strongly on progressive resistance training.
They are approved by the accreditation agency NCCA.32
Although I do believe that they have useful information in their curriculum I think they should require their test takers to be CPR and AED certified.
Here is the full review on the NCSF!
NESTA Certification (National exercise and sports trainers Association)
The NESTA certification is one of the more unique ones on the market right now. Staring in 1992,33 they are trying hard to push the use of technology and its integration into the personal training industry.
They have been gaining a small following within the fitness industry because of this methodology.
The one piece of technology that they are pushing is a heart rate monitor. When you purchase the certification and study materials, it comes with a heart rate monitor.
Throughout the textbook, it refers to how you should incorporate this technology when monitoring and progressing your clients through an exercise program.
I think that this technology helps you understand how hard you are pushing your clients during their workout!
This is a certification that should be paid attention to in the coming years. They are NCCA accredited. In a few years, they might be a top personal trainer organization.
Here is the complete review on the NESTA certification
AFAA (Aerobics and Fitness Association of America)
AFAA has long been recognized as one of the fastest ways to get certified as a personal trainer. The majority of everything is done entirely online. The only thing you are required to do is attend two-weekend workshops. You can access the whole textbook online.
After you have completed the weekend workshops, you will be given access to take the test. The test consists of two portions. There is one practical section and one written section. As you may be able to tell from the certifications name, they have a strong emphasis on aerobic fitness training.34
There is a proper focus on cardiovascular training compared to other certifications.
They are NCCA accredited.
My opinion is that you cannot learn all of the most critical information for personal training in one weekend. I learned more from my other certifications.
Check out my full review on AFAA here!
I like to talk about some of my favorite specialization certifications.
If you’re going to recertify, these are the best options to advance your career as a personal trainer and become specialized in one area or another.
Most of these advanced personal trainer certifications require a general CPT certification to obtain them.
So if you are not yet certified, you can skip over this section and come back to in a couple of years when you are ready to recertify 🙂
All of these NASM specializations can help you stand out from the personal trainers with general certifications.35
NASM CES (Corrective exercise specialist)
The corrective exercise specialist with NASM is one of the most popular specialization certifications on the market. In my mind, it is the most helpful one.
It helps you identify and assess lousy movement patterns and muscle imbalances within your clients and be able to design a routine to fix these imbalances.
This is very important for safety and injury prevention as a personal trainer. For an advanced specialization, this is the best personal training certification in my opinion.
NASM PES (Performance enhancement specialist)
The performance enhancement specialist certification from NASM is also a very informative certification. This is a beneficial certification if you are going to be working with high school, collegiate or professional athletes.
Although it does not apply to the same quantity of personal training clients compared to the CES certification, it is still filled with excellent information for athletic training.
NASM FNS (Fitness nutrition specialist)
As personal trainers, most of us are already giving a clients diet and nutrition advice. The NASM FNS certification makes sure that there is a quality standard for the information we are providing in regards to nutrition.
This is a fantastic specialization certification because you can now promote your nutrition services to your already existing clients.
Is a fantastic way to make extra money as a personal trainer, in addition to the workout sessions.
ACE Fitness Specializations
Ace specialist certifications help you gain expertise to reach special populations.36
ACE group exercise specialist
The group exercise specialist from ACE is my favorite group exercise certification. It is filled with awesome information about how to lead and motivate group personal training sessions.
This can be a fantastic way to earn more money as a personal trainer. Imagine if you have 10 clients that are willing to pay $10 each for an hour session. That could be $100 for only one hours time!
Your clients are also happy because they only paid $10 instead of the typical 50 or $60 for one-on-one training sessions.
Plain and simple, group exercise is a lot of fun and energetic for you as well as your clients.
ACE Health Coach Certification
Health coaching is more of a recent trend, but I have found that the ACE health coach certification is beneficial for personal trainers.
It focuses on the blend of lifestyle habits, nutrition, and exercise to live a well-balanced, healthy life.
The focus on habit changing and habit building is what brings value to personal trainers. Is our responsibility to help motivate and change the habits of our clients. Sometimes this can be very difficult.
ISSA corrective exercise specialist
The ISSA corrective exercise specialist certification is a very new certification for the international sports sciences Association.
It is a very similar certification to the NASM CES. Although it is not entirely on the same level as the CES, It is quite impressive for coming out recently in 2017.
I am sure that they will continue to make improvements on it. If you are ISSA certified, this might be the route to go.
ISSA strength and conditioning certification
The strength and conditioning certification is a similar certification to ACSM’s CSCS certification as well as NASM’s PES certification.
It is fantastic for peak performance training for athletes. You’ll learn all about reactive training and how to improve speed, agility, and quickness in your client athletes.
ISSA fitness nutrition certification
Another top-of-the-line fitness nutrition certification. You’ll learn all about macronutrients, micronutrients and calories and their role with your personal training clients.
You will learn how to create unique nutrition programs that suit your client’s needs and goals. Because of this, there results with personal training will multiply.
ACSM CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist)
The certified strength and conditioning specialist certification from ACSM is probably one of the most prestigious certifications in the industry.
The only problem is that you need to have a minimum of a bachelors degree to take the exam.37 It is also one of the most rigorous courses I have been through and the most challenging test I’ve taken.
The CSCS is a very well recognized certification for athletic and peak performance training. The certification has been around for a long time. I do think however that the NASM PES is on par at this point.
Bonus Content: Promo Codes!
Yes, that’s right, even more, content for you guys! But don’t worry, you will have to do too much more reading. 🤓
I have special promotion codes for some of the certifications so that you don’t have to pay full price! Yay for promo codes! 💯
Personal trainer certification promo codes
Right now you can get $125 off the NASM certification by clicking through this link
Here is the promotion to get $100 off the ACE certification
You can get up to $300 off the ISSA certification right here
Conclusion on the Top Personal Trainer Certifications
So, what is the best personal trainer certification? As you can see, it all depends on what type of clients you want to train once you become a personal trainer.
Before I get started with the breakdown of the article if you could please share this article using one of the social media buttons down below.
I would be very grateful. Also, don’t forget to comment if you have any question regarding any certification. I will get back to you soon as I can!
Both of these certifications have great screening processes that allow you to pinpoint muscular imbalances.
You will learn a great deal of anatomy and biomechanics from both of these certifications.
If you want to be working with clients that have a primary goal of losing body fat, the certifications that I would recommend are NASM, ACE, and ISSA. Overall these three at my top choices for anyone just starting out.
Both of these advanced performance certifications are fantastic. And both of these necessary certifications lead into them thoroughly.
If you want to check out the older video I made on the top ten certifications you can watch it here. Some things have changed since then and this article is the most up to date by far.
If you want some more specific comparisons to check out some of my articles such as ACE vs NASM, NASM vs ACSM, ACE vs ISSA, NSCA vs NASM and ISSA vs NASM! Or just my main section on comparison articles!
I hope that the breakdown of my top 5 certifications was helpful for any personal trainer that is just starting out.
Remember that the most important thing is to learn what type of clients you want to work in the future.
If you are still confused about which one would be the best certification for you, I suggest checking out the ACE website, the NASM website or the ISSA site because you really cannot go wrong with either of those.
Now get out there and start studying!
Personal training is the most rewarding career, and I am so glad that I get to do every day!
Please like or share my article on social media using one of the buttons if this article was helpful to you.
If you like articles that talk about the best certifications, make sure to check out the best group exercise certs, the top corrective exercise certifications, the most recognized strength and conditioning certifications and the best nutrition certifications for personal trainers.
Tyler Read has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. Tyler is also a certified personal trainer with NASM, ACE and CSCS. Tyler’s main goal is to help people get started in the personal training industry and to become successful personal trainers. Tyler is the owner of Personal Training Pioneer which helps people get started in the personal training industry and become successful.