Personal Trainer Certifications The Ultimate Guide
This is the ultimate guide to the best personal trainer certifications in 2020.
I compare the top 5 on:
- Study materials
- Certification Focus
- Earning potential
- Much more
Being certified by all 5, I will help you find the one that is right for you.
Let’s dive right in.
Post 3 of 4 in the Starting PT Series
The 5 Best Personal Trainer Certifications
Below is the list of my top five personal training certification organizations.
This certification comparison covers the topics of CPT recognition, study materials, cost, earning potential, exam information, Continuing Education Credits (CECs), and recertification.
All of these are critical when choosing a certification.
Before we start, I recommend that you Take the quiz to find out which personal trainer certification is the best fit for you overall.
This quiz is just an estimation, its important that you read the article to get the full understanding.
I have free study guides and practice tests for all five of the personal training certifications talked about in this article.
Trainer Academy also has fantastic study materials and they offer an exam pass guarantee.
1) NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)
NASM is one of the most well-respected certifications in North America.
It has a strong base in corrective exercise training.
They are well renowned for the OPT training model.
Let’s learn more about his juggernaut.
Afterward, make sure to check out NASM here.
NASM was founded in 1987.
Since it started out, it has been on a steady rise towards becoming one of the prestigious certifying agencies on the market. NASM, among others, is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.
Many people considered it to be the greatest personal trainer certification of all.
NASM is regarded as a corrective exercise focused certification.
This NCCA-accredited certification also touches upon some aspects of performance. The 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 (OPT) model.
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.
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 NASM study materials that are used for learning strongly focus on the stabilization phase of the optimum performance training model.
This is the very first of the five phases of stabilization endurance training that you learn with NASM. It also 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 and specializations courses.
These certifications further apply the OPT training model with the same emphasis on preventing injury and corrective exercise.
Through the specialization certifications such as corrective exercise and performance enhancement, NASM dives deeper into specialized population training.
NASM Recognition and popularity
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 thirty years over 500,000 people have been certified with NASM.
If your main question is: what personal trainer certificate is most respected? NASM is most likely the correct answer.
NASM Study Materials
Here is the comparison chart comparing the four available packages from NASM.
I know what you’re thinking, this is a busload of study materials! I initially thought so as well until I started studying for this monster test and realized all the NASM resources for personal trainers 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: This contains study questions that can help you see how much you have learned.
- Quizzes: Quizzes are important so you can summarize what you have learned after each chapter.
- The official study guide: The study guide is meant to follow along with you as you are going through the textbook. This is an essential part of your personal trainer education.
NASM CPT premium self-study
The premium self-study bundle includes everything that the regular self-study package have 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 contain with the addition of:
- Content/Exam prep webinars: Webinars are a fantastic means to ask questions about confusing material contents. The teachers of these webinars go over difficult concepts and break them down. In other words, you can become a personal trainer online by taking the recommended personal trainer classes via web tools.
- 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 these issues 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 for 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 hardcopy 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 contain with the addition of:
- CPT development program: For the hands-on learners, this provides 80 hours of on-site practice. This includes working with real clients.
- NASM business accelerator program: For the business-minded individuals, this is one of the best personal trainer programs 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! 🤑
Overview of the NASM study materials:
The NASM certification has the most amount of study materials 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 feature.
No doubt, 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.
For those who want additional study materials (and better ones), check out the team over at Trainer Academy. They have incredible study materials for NASM.
I also have my own free NASM study materials that you can check out here on my site.
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 and my discounted price. Readers of my site can use my personal discount code PTP25 to save 25% on all NASM CPT certifications.
$699$524 (25% off) – Self-study package $824 (25% off) – Premium self-study package $1099 $1499$1024(25% off) – Guided self-study package $2199$1649 (25% off) – All-inclusive package
- Check out my special deal for 25% off
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 new trainers and professional trainers the opportunity to practice as well as put to practice the new information that you have just learned in a real fitness environment.
With the 25% 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.
NASM Earning potential
The average salary for a NASM certified personal trainer is $41,000.
The top employers for a NASM certified trainer are Anytime Fitness, 24-hour Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, and LA Fitness.
NASM Exam Information
The NASM consists of 120 multiple-choice questions. This is not an open book test. Let me quickly break down each section of these 120 questions. 1
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 wait 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.
These are located around the United States and most major cities. You must bring photo identification and proof of CPR and 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.
For NASM personal trainer certification renewal, you need 20 hours of continuing education credits. This equals 2.0 NASM continuing education credits.
You are required to get recertified every two years, and the cost for recertification is $99.
You also have the option to pay $329 to cover the cost of recertification for the rest of the time you recertify with NASM.
So, if you plan on being a NASM personal trainer for more than six years, it is worth the $329.
Take note that this does 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.
You can also attend the live workshops where you meet and learn from the master fitness instructors in the industry.
The workshop will cost you $229 and earn you 0.8 CEUs.
2) ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)
ISSA is the only certification on this list that is 100% online.
They have a strong reputation for fantastic support.
ISSA offers great package deals with other specialization certifications.
Stick to the end to see if this is the one for you.
Afterward, make sure to check out ISSA here.
The ISSA personal trainer certification is one of the unique organizations on the market. I call it the international certification.
ISSA certification is accredited with Distance Education Accrediting Commission, DEAC and not the common NCCA. ISSA certification is well recognized in the industry.
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.
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 program. ISSA offers online courses, which is best for individuals from other countries that love to study from the comfort of their homes.
That’s why it’s so internationally recognized.
ISSA is not only a personal training certification, but it is also known as an academic institution. If you notice their website it has a .edu ending to it which is usually reserved for colleges and universities.
This online personal trainer certificate 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 fitness certifications have been showing the world that it is in the running for the best personal trainer program trophy.
I also highly recommend checking out their Elite trainer and Master trainer programs.
This is where you can get three excellent certifications cheaper than anyone individually. The ISSA elite trainer package consists of their trainer certification, nutritionist certification and specialty certification of your choice.
If ISSA is running this deal, it’s hard to pass up. There are other certifications offered, I typically recommend the corrective exercise certification or their strength and conditioning certification, but you can choose from any of the following:
Exclusive PTP Offers
|Gold Standard Cert||Most Popular Cert||Online Trainer Course|
|Best Study Materials||Our Elite Career Course||The Top PT Software |
ISSA Recognition and Popularity
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 while 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.
ISSA Study Materials
The ISSA CPT has recently beefed up its 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 questions 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 contents 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 business and marketing aspect of Personal Training is as important as the job itself. You will learn how to be a successful brand in the industry.
I also have my own free ISSA study guide and other study materials that I recommend you check out.
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)
- ISSA elite trainer package (3 certifications) for $999 (When they run this deal, don’t miss it)
When ISSA runs its CPT + Nutrition certification deal, you get their nutritionist certification for free ($799 value). Holding a nutrition certification is the best supplementary certification for any trainer, and ISSA has one of the best nutrition certs on the market.
Even if you don’t plan on getting a nutrition certification, you would be glad to know that you have the option. Trainer’s can earn significantly more money by offering their nutrition counseling to their clients.
This combo deal gives the best overall return for one’s money.
I generally say this 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.
ISSA Earning Potential
The average pt salary for an ISSA certified personal trainer is $46,000.
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.
ISSA Exam Information
The ISSA CPT 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. 1
The ISSA pass rate is approximately 90%, making it the overall easiest personal trainer certification.
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 also 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 houses the 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.
A good place to start studying is my free ISSA study guide here.
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.
It is an online exam, making it the only fully online personal training certification on this list.
The best way to prepare for the ISSA test is to use the practice exam from Trainer Academy.
Just like with ACE and NASM, ISSA continuing education credits or CECs require 20 units every two years. There are continuing education unit courses offered by ISSA for personal trainers that are willing to upgrade their certification with ISSA.
The cost for ISSA recertification is $75 which makes it one of the cheaper options available.
3) ACE (American Council on Exercise)
ACE is probably the most popular nonprofit organization on the list.
It’s widely accepted in North America and parts of Europe.
They use their popular IFT training model for progressing clients.
Let’s dig in to see if it’s right for you.
Afterward, make sure to check out ACE here.
The ACE personal trainer organization is one of the most well-known agencies in the industry. This certifying agency was created just a couple of years before NASM, in 1985. ACE personal training certification is considered by every employer as a top personal trainer certification amongst the rest.
The ACE CPT is a general personal training certification.
Similar to the OPT training model from NASM, ACE has its 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.
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. 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.
ACE Recognition and Popularity
ACE is another extremely popular certification that is right up there with NASM. If you went around asking personal training employers who they preferred between NASM and ACE, it might be a 50-50 split. ACE certified personal trainers are well sought-after in the industry.
The test you will encounter at the end of your certified personal trainer course will be my focus below!
According to the ACE website, they have certified over 80,000 individuals in the health and fitness industry. 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.
ACE Study Materials
The ACE certification does not have quite the abundance of study options that NASM has, but it is no slouch.
Let’s see what both packages offer.
ACE CPT Basic Study 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: Simple, but very functional too.
- 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 Plus Study Package
The Plus package includes everything the Basic program package contain 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
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 for people on the go.
For those who want additional ACE study materials (and better ones), check out the team over at Trainer Academy. They have incredible study materials for the ACE CPT.
I also have a free ACE study guide, practice test, and flashcards that you should definitely check out.
If you do not have the time to go to Personal Training Schools, Check out the ACE study materials here on their site to get a good idea of what their personal trainer courses are like.
ACE Certification Cost
As you most likely saw in this section on study materials, ACE offers two separate packages to choose from.
Compared to NASM, ACE has a much simpler cost structure.
- $199 – Basic Study package
- $299 – Plus Study 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 of these packages is that ACE will let you pay off your certification in four (or three, as the case may be) separate payments with zero interest.
The ACE personal trainer exam cost without study materials is usually $399. This option is also not currently available through ACE fitness.
ACE Earning Potential
The average salary for an ACE Fitness certified personal trainer is $42,000.
The top employers for an ACE certified trainer are 24-hour Fitness, Anytime Fitness, the YMCA, and Golds Gym.
ACE Exam Information
The ACE certification 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. 1
The pass rate for the ACE exam is 65%.
The application and analysis section form 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 mimicking 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 you with 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 case you, unfortunately, do not pass the first time.
ACE Exam requirements
To take the ACE fitness test, you must be at least 18 years old and hold a valid Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation /Automated External Defibrillator certificate. The academic requirements are that you must have completed high school or have the educational equivalent.
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.
Don’t worry; this still comes down to the same amount of time – 20 hours total.
You are required to recertify every two years with ACE, and the cost is $129.
4) ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
ACSM has deep clinical and scientific roots that are easy to pick up on in their study materials.
It has the longest history and is the oldest personal training certification.
Let’s take a deep dive to see what it’s all about.
The American College of Sports Medicine certification is one of the oldest certifications to date starting in 1954. The ACSM personal trainer certification is accredited by the NCCA.
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 considering 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 professional fitness certification is preferred in the hospital setting and wellness centers.
ACSM is one of the leading pioneers in exercise science research.
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 program manual.
They have a firm emphasis on corrective exercise similar to NASM.
I recommend this certification to any physical trainer who is planning on working in a healthcare setting such as a clinic or wellness center.
ACSM is an NCCA certification, and that counts for a lot.
ACSM Recognition and Popularity
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.
ACSM Study Materials
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.
ACSM offers 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 in-person 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. I 100% recommend checking out the ACSM study materials at Trainer Academy.
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
- 3-day workshop – $375
- The six-course webinar series – $240
- The ACSM exam – $349
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 $349.
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.
ACSM Earning Potential
The average salary for an ACSM certified personal trainer is $40,000.
The top employers for an ACSM certified trainer are the YMCA, LA fitness, and RedBrick Health.
ACSM Exam Information
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. 1
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. That’s why I recommend the full exam prep from TA to guarantee that you pass the exam. Or, that you check out my free study guide to help you pass!
ACSM exam requirements
You need to be 18 years of age, have a high school diploma (or equivalent) and have a valid CPR/AED certification.
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.
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.
5) NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
The NSCA Was the very first personal training certification to get accredited by the NCCA.
It has a very strong focus on strength and conditioning.
Most notably recognized or it’s Advanced certification the CSCS (kind of like the sequel to The NSCA CPT).
I’ll show you why this is a popular option.
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 NCCA (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 the best personal trainer certificate 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.
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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.
NSCA Recognition and Popularity
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.
NSCA Study Materials
- 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.
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 three 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 NSCA CPT Digital package – $193 for nonmembers and $144 for members. (includes over 200 practice exams, and exam content booklet)
- The NSCA-CPT Essential package-$290.70 for nonmembers and $230.40 for members, (materials includes 2ed of Essentials of Personal Training, over practice questions and Ebook exam content)
- The NSCA-CPT Essential plus package – Approximately $511 for nonmembers and $455 for NSCA members (Contains everything in the first two option with the addition of the exercise technique manual and bonus materials)
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.
- $65/year – Student membership
- $120/year – Professional membership
- $349/year – Liability insurance + certified professional
NSCA Exam Voucher Costs
- $300 and $435 – Depending on which membership you have. The $435 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 student membership for $65 a year. Then you can get the exam for $300 and the most affordable study package for $144. The total for this is $444, but you have a yearly membership.
The cheapest cost for NSCA for nonmembers is $435 for the test and $193 for the study materials. The total comes to $628. You can see the NSCA here.
NSCA Earning Potential
The average income for an NSCA certified personal trainer is $41,000.
The top employers for an NSCA certified trainer are LA Fitness and Bayview Retirement Community. These gyms value certified personal trainer programs and pay top dollar for the services.
NSCA Exam Information
The NSCA personal trainer certification requirements for writing the exams are the same as the others.
The NSCA exam consists of 140 multiple choice questions. 15 of these questions are not scored. This is not an open book test. 1
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.
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 personal trainer certification 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.
If you have a personal trainer degree or anything related to health, fitness, etc., that would be a great advantage given that you would have a good background knowledge already.
Obtaining NSCA continuing education credits is one of the cheaper options out there.
NSCA requires you to recertify every three years, and it only costs $45 for members and $70 for nonmembers. You are required to complete 20 hours of continuing education.
One of the most common routes for continuing education is to obtain their advanced CSCS certification (although it requires a bachelor’s degree).
Personal Trainer Certification Comparison Chart
*If you are on mobile you can swipe left on the table to see the other columns/certifications
|Type of Cert:||Corrective||General||General||Corrective||Performance|
|Exam Pass Rate:||64%||90%||65%||54%||58%|
|Valid for:||2 Years||2 Years||2 Years||3 Years||2 Years|
|CEU's:||20 Hours||20 Hours||20 Hours||45 Hours||20 Hours|
Which certification for personal training is the top-earning? (New Study)
A brand-new survey we did of 600 personal trainers revealed that the top earners hold these four certifications.
The results of the study indicate that people that hold NSCA certifications earn the most money followed by ISSA, NASM and ACE.
Now, these results can be a little tricky because NSCA has two different certifications, their general CPT as well as their strength and conditioning certification the CSCS.
The CSCS certification is not on this list because it is in advanced strength and conditioning certification that requires a college degree. It is not considered a general personal training certification such as the ones I talk about on this list.
Holding a college degree has also shown to increase one’s personal training salary and is most likely why NSCA has won first place on this list. Out of all general personal training certifications that do not require a college degree, the award goes to ISSA.
Visual of the Personal Training Certification Types:
Personal Trainer Certification Infographic
NASM and ACE are neck and neck regarding recent popularity according to Google trends.
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.
Personal Trainer Certification FAQ
What is the Cheapest Personal Trainer Certification?
The cheapest personal training certification on this list is ACE costing only $199. The next is ACSM at $349, NASC costing $435, NASM costs around $699, and finally ISSA at $799. I list all the CPTs from cheapest to most expensive in this article.
What is the best Online Personal Trainer Certification?
There are several online personal trainer certifications out there that claim to be doing the best but from my experience and discussions with other personal trainers in the fitness industry, I would choose ISSA.
The best online personal training certification is ISSA. ISSA offers everything online including the curriculum as well as taking the exam online. The other certifications only offer online personal trainer course curriculum, but you need to go into a facility to take their test. Check out my full list of the best online CPT certification options.
What is the easiest Personal Trainer Certification?
The easiest personal training certification is ISSA with a 90% pass rate. The next easiest certification is ACE with a 65% pass rate followed by NASM with a 64% pass rate. NSCA and ACSM are harder Personal training certifications with 58% and 54% pass rates respectively. Check out my full list of the easiest CPT certifications.
Is there such thing as a free personal trainer certification?
To my knowledge, there is no completely free personal trainer certification that is legitimately recognized by potential employers. Meaning I have never seen a free personal training certification that is completely accredited by the NCCA or the DEAC. There are, however, reasonably cheap personal training certifications.
How long does it take to get certified as a personal trainer?
It takes between 3 and 6 months to study for and get certified as a personal trainer. This time could be significantly reduced if you already have a degree in exercise science. It should only take you approximately 1 or two months to study if you already have your bachelor’s degree.
Personal trainer certification requirements/prerequisites?
The majority of personal trainer certifications have the requirements or prerequisites of being a high school graduate (or equivalent), being at least 18 years old, and holding a valid CPR/AED certification prior to taking the personal trainer exam.
Can you do personal training without a certification?
Although it is not illegal to work as a personal trainer without a certification, is severely frowned upon in the personal training industry. Not only will you not be able to get a formal job as a personal trainer, it can be very dangerous for the clients you are training if you are not formally educated on proper exercise techniques, intensities, and other factors.
Is a personal trainer certification worth it?
Getting a personal training certification is definitely worth it. Not only do you gain critical knowledge for helping your clients, but it also opens the door to lots of work opportunities. And since personal training certifications usually cost around $500, this will easily be earned back.
What personal trainer certificate is most respected?
The personal training certificates that are the most respected are certifications that are nationally accredited. These include: NASM, ACE, NSCA, ACSM, ISSA, NFPT and NCSF just to name a few.
How long are personal trainer certifications good for?
Most personal trainer certifications are good for two to three years. All reputable and accredited personal training organizations require a certain quantity of continuing education in order to get recertified after that period.
What certifications do most gyms accept?
Most gyms accept NASM, ACE, ISSA, ACSM, NSCA, NCPT and NCSF. All of these personal training certifications are nationally recognized and accredited by either the NCCA or the DEAC.
Personal training certification accreditation information
In this section, I will teach you about the differences between the various accreditation agencies.
You will learn the difference between the DEAC and the NCCA
let’s see what day is accreditation agencies are all about and why they are important!
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 fitness organizations, consider the NCCA to be the preferred certifying agency for certifications in the health and fitness industry. NCCA is one of the two respected certifying bodies in the health and fitness industry.
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.
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 to 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 of the accrediting bodies, 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.
This makes all five of the certifications on my list even in regards to accreditation.
Which Certification For Personal Training Will You Choose?
Okay guys, I’m going to hand it over to you!
Which personal training certification are you going to choose?
Are you going to go the more corrective exercise route, the strength and conditioning route, or maybe a more General certification?
Check out the free study resources below as well as some awesome deals on all of these certifications that I talked about.
So, what is the top personal trainer certification? From my analysis, personal trainer certificate comparison is a tricky one, you see?
I would say choosing a personal trainer certification depends on what type of clients you want to train once you become a personal trainer.
Overall my top personal training certification programs are ACE, NASM and ISSA due to their industry recognition, the amount you will learn and the excellent study materials that they provide. NASM is the overall most well-known certification, ACE gives you a great base of knowledge and ISSA packs some serious value (especially if they are running their Elite trainer deal For only $999).
If you have not done so already, I recommend that you Take the quiz to find out which PT certification program is right for you if you still cannot come to a decision.
If you want to get started studying right away, here are the free study guides/practice tests on my site:
- Free NASM Study guide, practice test and flashcards
- Free ISSA Study guide, practice test and flashcards
- Free ACE Study guide, practice test and flashcards
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 questions regarding any certification. I will get back to you soon as I can!
If you want to focus on corrective exercise or post-rehabilitation training, which involves additional certifications besides Personal Training, the top two CPT certifications I would recommend are NASM and ACSM.
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.
Also, remember that ISSA teaches personal training business and this help personal trainers to get a good start in the industry.
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 trainer qualifications can indeed open doors for you!
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.
Next thing you should do is check out my massive steps to becoming a personal trainer as well as my article on the average PT income!
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.
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