Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win!

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    Welcome to the best PTPioneer review featuring ISSA vs NSCA!

    My ISSA vs NSCA review compares both personal training certifications across the following domains:

    ISSA vs NSCA topical information: pricing, packages, and prerequisites
    ISSA vs NSCA content deep dive: knowledge and skills
    ISSA vs NSCA exam difficulties, preparation timelines, and study material review
    Explanation of my expert review process

    When you finish reading, you’ll be able to compare ISSA vs NSCA across essential knowledge and skills for personal trainers.

    Let’s dive in!

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      Quick Breakdown: ISSA vs NSCA

      CPTACSM vs ACE Quick BreakdownFeaturesPrice
      • Great customer experience and support
      • It goes in-depth into the business aspect of personal training
      • It tests you on a wide variety of skills
      • You can take the test anywhere in the world
      • Possibly the most international certification
      • Relaxed testing and retesting criteria
      • In-depth, robust main text and study guide
      • No live instruction
      • Black and white textbook
      View on ISSA Website
      • NSCA accreditation
      • Huge NSCA network
      • NSCA clinics
      • NSCA accredited schools
      • Great CEU opportunities
      • Fair NSCA membership costs
      • Membership discounts and benefits
      • Access to the NSCA Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
      • Lacks coverage on the personal training business, marketing, and sales
      • Some CPT exam prep material is inadequate
      View on NSCA website
      Exam cost
      Exam cost
      $300 (members), $435 (nonmembers)
      Study Material Cost
      Study Material Cost
      18 years of age, CPR/AED, high school diploma
      18 years of age, CPR/AED, high school diploma
      Exam Passing Score
      Exam Passing Score
      Exam Pass Rate
      Exam Pass Rate
      Average Completion Time
      Average Completion Time
      3-6 months
      6 months

      ISSA vs NSCA: comparing the organizations

      Join me for a brief introduction on ISSA vs NSCA!

      Firstly, the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) is dubbed as a general fitness trainer certification with a slight emphasis on powerlifting and athletic performance.

      Founded in 1988, ISSA is a non-profit fitness certifying agency that has been successfully certifying fitness professionals for many decades.

      Secondly, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is a worldwide authority on strength and conditioning founded in 1978.

      NSCA focuses more on athletic performance than ISSA does.

      While ISSA is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), NSCA is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

      However, there is now a choice to take an NCCA-accredited exam with ISSA through their NCCPT-CPT Certification Program.

      I’ll elaborate more on this later!

      Both accrediting bodies, DEAC and NCCA, are well recognized in the USA as a gold standard for quality education and for professional certification programs, respectively.

      But NCCA accreditation remains the best.

      Now let’s cover both the good and bad aspects of skills and knowledge taught in ISSA vs NSCA.

      Skills and Knowledge Covered in ISSA vs NSCA

      Exercise Science

      Although the ISSA Certified Personal Trainer (ISSA-CPT) certification is mostly a basic certification, it’s not easily obtainable.

      ISSA exceeds expectations with its sharp focus on the “average” client’s needs regarding program design.

      And, it builds a solid base of knowledge for entry-level trainers.

      The moderate emphasis on corrective exercise makes sense because average clients typically want to lose weight and avoid injury.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 4

      ISSA only includes a small emphasis on sports performance and powerlifting.

      I like how ISSA has a rich depth of both scientific and practical principles of health and fitness.

      But undeniably, the appliance of practicality is highlighted more.

      NSCA’s approach to exercise science mostly highlights training adaptations to aerobic and resistance training.

      This aligns well with the organization’s overall focus on performance and conditioning.

      Of course, NSCA is more focused on athletes and athletic performance, so their exercise science coverage is very strong compared to ISSA’s and other personal trainer certifications.

      ISSA vs NSCA on exercise science clearly puts NSCA on top.

      While ISSA has great exercise science content, NSCA goes much more in-depth.

      Behavior Change Coaching Skills

      To be a successful personal trainer, you must be cognizant of behavior change coaching skills.

      ISSA covers behavior surrounding lifestyle, fitness, and nutrition very much in-depth.

      For example, when clients learn to prioritize exercise and avoid processed junk foods, it makes their life outside the gym very much in their control.

      ISSA’s strong emphasis on behavior and how it impacts clients’ overall health is crucial for trainers to know and apply.

      Moreover, chapter 8 in the NSCA personal trainer textbook is dedicated to behavior change coaching skills.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 5

      NSCA utilizes the following concepts to cover this topic:

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

      Fitness is one hundred percent mental; your body follows what your mind tells you.

      And once you control your mind, you master your body.

      As far as ISSA vs NSCA on behavior change coaching skills, it’s a tie!

      Both ISSA and NSCA personal training certifications cover this very well.

      Consulting and screening clients to reduce risks of injury

      Below is a comprehensive outline of ISSA’s Basic Assessment of Fitness Participants section.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 6

      First, ISSA covers GXT, which stands for Graded Exercise Test.

      GXT is a treadmill or cycle ergometer test that delivers heart rate, ECG, and other data.

      Note that these tests do require medical supervision.

      The workload is gradually increased until an increase in workload is not followed by an increase in oxygen consumption.

      This phenomenon identifies the individual’s maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 Max).

      The GXT test is important for trainers to develop a very accurate and more tailored aerobic fitness routine.

      I like this because it weeds out estimations and guessing, and makes it much more effective.

      ISSA covers stress tests, blood pressure basics, using Target Heart Rate (THR), the Borg RPE Scale, using MET equivalents all in sufficient depth.

      You’ll also cover the following assessments in sufficient depth:

      • Cardiovascular endurance
      • Muscular strength
      • Flexibility
      • Muscular endurance

      NSCA covers health assessments, fitness assessments, and the norms and protocols of continuous fitness testing in great depth too.

      The charts and diagrams provided make it easy to understand while very descriptive.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 7

      As you can see above, NSCA prioritizes sequencing and week-by-week training, something ISSA only faintly touches upon.

      ISSA vs NSCA on fitness assessments remains a tie, as they both cover this topic in a similar fashion.

      Program design and resistance exercise technique

      In my perspective, ISSA’s main priority seems to be teaching trainers how to develop great programs.

      Their strong focus on programming and the practicality of personal training make ISSA stand out from other fitness certifications.

      While ISSA has a very rich coverage of this topic, NSCA has a more extensive take, given its strong focus on strength and conditioning.

      For example, Part IV of the NSCA textbook starts with an entire section on resistance training.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 8

      NSCA teaches you the application of specificity, overload, variation, progression, and sequencing principles in a detailed, but easy-to-understand way.

      Most trainers from this program consider it second nature to select exercises, determine training frequency, and arrange exercises in a specific sequence.

      Also, you learn loading through the appropriate use of 1-repetition maximum, body weight, or repetition maximum testing.

      This is great information for you to use to assign training loads, volumes, and rest periods based on clients’ needs.

      I think it’s really important to have variation between training sessions, training days, and training weeks.

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      This topic is covered flawlessly!

      So what’s the best personal training certification for program design and resistance exercise technique?

      In the case of ISSA vs NSCA, NSCA takes the crown!

      Although ISSA covers this topic in a decent manner, NSCA has a clearer, heavier focus without a doubt.

      Aerobic training program design and technique

      When it comes to aerobic training program design and technique, ISSA does fairly well.

      You learn a great deal of aerobic training in the ISSA-CPT curriculum, and cover the following:

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 9

      ISSA touches upon the above topics in easy-to-understand detail, with common terms and definitions thrown your way.

      One thing I like best about ISSA’s aerobic training section is its broad focus on the techniques of movements such as cycling, rowing, rope training, and more.

      NSCA highlights aerobic training concepts in a high-quality fashion, both from a general perspective and a performance enhancement perspective.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 10

      NSCA covers the proper design of aerobic training programs based on the principle of specificity and individual goals.

      You also learn how to determine aerobic training intensity, frequency, and duration and understand their interactions and effects.

      Another thing I’m fond of is the emphasis on proper warm-ups, cool-downs, and stretches.

      If anything, these are the most important parts of an exercise routine!

      Overall, it’s fair to say that ISSA vs NSCA covers aerobic training well, but once again, NSCA wins.

      For NSCA vs ISSA on the depth of aerobic training coverage, NSCA just throws more at you than ISSA does.

      Helping Special Populations with Fitness

      The ISSA-CPT curriculum covers special populations very descriptively and provides examples of what a typical fitness routine would be based on the client’s condition.

      For instance, you’ll cover youth fitness, senior fitness, considerations during pregnancy, and guidelines for those with other complications, such as diabetes.

      Aside from NSCA being known for its sharp focus on athletes, it also highlights the special populations as well.

      NSCA has an entire section dedicated to special populations.

      ISSA vs NSCA on special populations?

      Here, it’s a tie!

      Both certifications cover this topic similarly and don’t miss any information.

      Thinking Long-Term: Business Skills for Personal Trainers

      A feature ISSA definitely got right is its emphasis on business and entrepreneurial strategies.

      According to most, ISSA’s business guide, Fiscal Fitness, is a complete game-changer.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 11

      It helps you develop a fundamental idea of the strategies and business acumen required to succeed in the fitness game.

      A business guide is certainly an uncommon fixture with most of the other big-name certifications, like NSCA or ACE.

      While it isn’t quite as comprehensive as taking a business course, it’s a major step up from what you’d normally expect from a fitness training certification.

      One drawback is that the marketing strategies are somewhat dated and exclude online fitness and social media protocols.

      Regardless, Fiscal Fitness can help tremendously with building a successful personal training business.

      On the other hand, NSCA totally lacks a business section in its textbook.

      Something I find detrimental, especially for those seeking successful careers in this industry.

      It’s very difficult to manage, in any career, without business smarts.

      So ISSA vs NSCA on business coverage – ISSA no-brainer!


      Choosing the best personal trainer certification may keep you between a rock and a hard place for quite a while.

      But that’s why after comparing ISSA vs NSCA on a multitude of aspects, it should become easier for you to decide.

      I can tell you right now that ISSA has its strengths and weaknesses, but so does NSCA.

      Although you’ll wind up choosing one, you probably could learn a little from each.

      ISSA vs NSCA Certification Requirements

      Both ISSA and NSCA, as well as most other fitness professional certifying agencies, have the following requirements:

      • At least 18 years of age
      • High school diploma, or the equivalent (GED)
      • Current and valid CPR/AED certification

      Furthermore, NSCA offers additional certifications, one of which is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

      Their strength and conditioning certification is the gold standard and certainly can help you increase your earning power.

      To be eligible for the CSCS, you must have a bachelor’s degree in a related field or a higher degree in Chiropractic Medicine or similar fields to qualify for the NSCA-CSCS exam.

      Study Materials: Quality and Price

      ​​Most online personal trainer certifications provide you with an ebook and the option to purchase a hard copy.

      Some people, such as myself, prefer a physical textbook.

      It’s easier to leave bookmarks and sticky notes, and just have the satisfaction of a physical object to supplement your studies.

      ISSA’s main textbook, Fitness: The Complete Guide, comes free with your purchase of its certified personal trainer certification.

      The ISSA-CPT book has a conversational tone that makes it accessible while still expanding on technical aspects and terminology.

      The cohesion between a lighter read, hard facts and science-backed knowledge makes absorbing information much easier.

      Also, the sidebar footnotes give ISSA’s textbook an almost skimmable appeal.

      I’d strongly advise you to read it thoroughly for a proper understanding.

      The most common price for ISSA personal trainer certifications is $699.

      You get their textbook, entrance to the ISSA certification test, and extra online study materials and practice tests to go with your online courses.

      Prices are subject to change, so always check the website for updates!

      Want to test-only?

      Well, you can!

      The ISSA Certified Personal Trainer NCCPT Exam Only option costs $599.

      And if you want the textbook, that’s another $40.

      Although this option is clearly less expensive, it’s not recommended unless you are very prepared to write your exam, and/or have the background knowledge and/or experience.

      Now let’s explore the NSCA certification cost and NSCA study materials, which includes three distinct package offerings:

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

      Although there is some guidance offered in the Essential Package, there is not too much hand-holding.

      It includes the following:

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

      In my perspective, this best suits those who have a good grasp of sports medicine principles and want to expedite the study process.

      Secondly, there’s the Essential Plus Package, which is all-inclusive and ideal for newbie personal trainers and includes:

      • Essentials of Personal Training course textbook
      • Exercise Technique Manual
      • NSCA Study Guide
      • Over 200 digital practice exams
      • Much more!

      This is best for those who want extra engagement while studying.

      Lastly, NSCA’s Digital Package is a very simplistic, basic package with all the training wheels removed.

      If you are experienced and/or don’t require much guidance, then this is totally for you!

      This package comes with the NSCA study guide and access to over 200 digital practice tests.

      The total NSCA-CPT cost is a combination of the study package and your exam registration, and prices differ based on your membership status.

      Let’s take a look below:


      • Exam cost: $300
      • NSCA-CPT Essential Package: $240.30
      • NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package: $455
      • NSCA-CPT Digital Package: $152


      • Exam cost: $435
      • NSCA-CPT Essential Package: $290.70
      • NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package: $511
      • NSCA-CPT Digital Package: $202

      Clearly, having an NSCA membership cuts your costs considerably while offering other perks.

      Furthermore, NSCA membership comes in three possible options, which include the following, along with their respective annual fees.

      Shocking ISSA vs NSCA Review 2022 - May the Best Win! 12

      Depending on where you stand in your career, you can make your choice of membership option.

      Student memberships are for full-time undergraduate and graduate students.

      Professional memberships are great for those in the field, and they include:

      • Full access to five strength and conditioning journals
      • NSCA online content
      • Discounts

      And lastly, the CPI membership is the juiciest yet, including full member benefits plus liability insurance and much more!

      As far as study materials and prices go, ISSA vs NSCA remains a tie, as they both provide great packages.

      The only thing is that you get more options from NSCA than from ISSA.

      Which Exam is Harder, ISSA or NSCA?

      The ISSA certification test is open book, with a pass rate of 90%.

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      This makes ISSA personal trainer certifications the easiest to obtain in terms of pass rate statistics.

      Also, a comfortable majority of test-takers pass their first attempt largely due to its loose restrictions placed on how you take the test.

      Firstly, it’s a non-proctored test, which means no one or nothing monitors the integrity or activity of a candidate during an exam.

      Secondly, because it’s an entirely open book exam, you can refer to all your study materials as you do the exam.

      Heck, you can even use the almost infinite knowledge dump that is on the internet during the test!

      Thirdly, your ISSA-CPT certification exam is self-paced, which means there isn’t a time constraint outside of the enrollment period.

      But there’s just one caveat.

      Although it is easier to pass than, say, ACSM or NASM, there are sections of this exam that are relatively difficult.

      The passing score is at least 75% in each area and overall.

      And while most other CPT exams are exclusively multiple-choice, the ISSA exam also includes case studies.

      By far, according to those who have taken this exam, the hardest section is the case studies.

      You will receive two random fictional clients with different challenges and goals.

      You’re then required to come up with an appropriate 12-week individualized program for both clients.

      You need to know how to transition different clients through a routine in order to pass.

      My biggest tip would be to study the special populations and program-design section of the textbook extensively.

      Thankfully, ISSA has a very lenient approach to retakes, where immediately following the failure, you are permitted to retake the exam for free!

      Of course, it’s a one-time deal, so if you fail your free retake, then you must pay a fee of $50 to be allowed another try.

      This fee is still pretty decent compared to what other certifications may charge, which is sometimes as high as $200!

      This makes things super convenient, although some might suggest that it makes them a little too convenient.

      Having a retake fee and stringent policy is a means of quality control.

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

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

      According to a recent survey from NSCA themselves, 72% of test-takers pass their first time.

      Certainly not as harsh as NSCA-CSCS certification, which the pass rate is 63% for first-time candidates attempting both sections of the exam.

      Comparing ISSA vs NSCA on exam difficulty leads to my conclusion that the NSCA-CPT exam is far more complex.

      And comparing ISSA vs NSCA on pricing, ISSA would be less expensive.

      ISSA vs NSCA Continuing Education

      ISSA requires that all their health and fitness professionals renew their certifications every two years.

      In that two-year period, you must obtain 20 hours of continuing education credits (CECs).

      CECs may come from other certifications, such as Group Fitness Instructor, Master Trainer, or nutrition certifications.

      While all CECs from ISSA remain free, any CECs outside of ISSA continuing education courses cost $99.

      On the contrary, NSCA’s recertification process demands submission of 6.0 CECs after every three-year period from initial certification.

      As you can see, this CEC requirement is drastically higher than ISSA’s.

      Most certifications require renewal after two years, so I guess that extra wiggle room could be a good thing for some.

      Though others may argue that three years is too long.

      You may earn CECs through NSCA by doing the following:

      • Attending NSCA events
      • NSCA online course
      • NSCA live workshops
      • Presentations
      • Volunteering
      • Taking college courses
      • And much more!

      Prices vary.

      ISSA vs NSCA for CECs compares pretty well, and overall, this would be a tie for quality.

      And for ISSA vs NSCA on pricing, ISSA is far less expensive.

      However, NSCA offers much more of a variety of options to earn CECs, as well as more hands-on experiences.

      So in the end, you get what you pay for.

      Review Methodology

      For my ISSA vs NSCA review, I critically looked at the key areas covered in each fitness certification.

      I focused on the overall skillset needs for personal trainers and how ISSA vs NSCA stacks up in each skill.

      I used my knowledge of the fitness industry, personal training, and individual certifications to analyze each certification for strengths and weaknesses.

      ISSA vs NSCA Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


      Still, caught up in an ISSA vs NSCA conundrum?

      I recommend ISSA for entry-level trainers trying to build a good base of knowledge to work with the general population.

      NSCA is a great certification if you’re more focused on strength and conditioning and possibly furthering your education to work in a more specialized setting.

      For instance, NSCA better prepares you to work with special populations or professional athletes than ISSA does.

      If you’re still caught between ISSA vs NSCA, I do recommend taking the online quiz to find out which may suit you better.

      Overall, both certifications have the potential to set you up for success!

      I hope that I was able to help you find clarity in choosing the correct certification for you in my ISSA vs NSCA article.

      Thank you for joining me, and may you have a kick-ass fitness career!

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