Welcome to the PTPioneer breakdown comparison between the NASM and ACSM CPT certifications.
This compare and contrast article will break down the specifics of the two organizations and the similarities and differences between their study programs. The basics we will cover are:
I also recommend that you take the quiz to find out which PT certification is the best fit for you to obtain.
Let’s start by looking at the quick breakdown below and then diving into the organizational comparison between NASM and ACSM.
Which of these is the best personal trainer certification?
Quick Breakdown: NASM vs ACSM
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NASM vs ACSM: Comparing the Organizations
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) are two of the top fitness certification providers in the industry.
The CPT programs offered by these organizations are both viable options in terms of becoming a personal trainer.
For a complete look at the best organizations in the fitness industry for getting certified as a trainer, take a look at my breakdown of the best personal trainer certifications.
Between NASM and ACSM, NASM probably is a hair more recognizable than ACSM, but let’s look more in detail regarding these two organizations.
NASM has been around since its creation in 1987, which is a reasonable amount of time in the industry.
NASM certifications are almost all NCCA accredited, and this, of course, includes the gold standard NASM CPT course.
In fact, both NASM and ACSM are NCCA accredited certifications. The NCCA stands for the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.
For more help choosing from the best NCCA accredited certifications, I highly recommend you take my quiz below to find out which CPT is right for you.
NASM offers many specializations, even some as obscure as golf specialization.
Since 1987, the NASM has worked to become an established organization throughout the realm of fitness and wellness. NASM is well-known for their NASM PT certification, as well as the PES and CES that they offer as specializations.
NASM-certified individuals are quite successful in the fitness industry.
The NASM, National Academy of Sports Medicine, is a for-profit organization, which is a big difference from the ACSM.
NASM teaches exercise programming with the OPT model, and it is among the best teaching methods in the industry. This is a tremendous value for future personal trainers.
OPT stands for Optimum Performance Training model and it is a key differentiator in the quality of personal trainer study programs.
ACSM stands for the American College of Sports Medicine, and this is one of many non-profit organizations in fitness. ACSM has many fitness certifications for people to pursue in different specialization areas.
ACSM has still been around longer than NASM since 1954, to be exact. Their mission has always been to advance and integrate scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine.
ACSM, as I stated, is accredited with the NCCA. This means they are both backed by the gold standard in the fitness industry. All of the best CPT certifications have this NCCA accreditation.
While ACSM has nearly 30 more years in the industry, they have been pioneers in the research of fitness and health. NASM doesn’t skimp on their research, but the years of experience can be a deciding factor for some.
Now, let’s look at how well the study programs cover the main domains of skills and knowledge for certified fitness trainers. Only one can be the best option for your future personal training business.
Skills and Knowledge Covered in ACSM and NASM Certification
Both of these great certifications are accredited and contain skills and knowledge that may overlap with one another and differ in some significant ways.
You won’t get the same knowledge and skills from them, so it is a good idea to read through this comparison and contrast for the two organizations.
The main topics we will be comparing are the general domains covered in all of the CPT certifications: exercise science, behavior change, consultation, screening, program design, and special populations.
This will cover most of the main text and study materials offered with the basic packages for both of the organizations’ CPT certs.
We will start with NASM as it is the slightly more popular certification for personal training.
The NASM training certification is my personal favorite choice among all personal training certifications, and as such, it has the best exercise science coverage in the industry. NASM not only receives a 10 out of 10 when it comes to exercise science, but it also has an outstanding application to corrective exercise.
Exercise science and kinesiology will be covered throughout the main text’s domain, the Fundamentals of Human Movement Science.
The textbook will cover all of the essential information when it comes to anatomy, physiology, and other basics of exercise science. It is nearly as detailed as a bachelor’s degree course for exercise science.
The basics of nutrition are covered well and go into great detail regarding the main topics of macronutrients, micronutrients, and the structure and function of these many types of molecules.
The NASM study portal and textbook all feature many informative infographics and charts, with which the visual style learners will significantly benefit. They also have some videos to help teach this information.
ACSM works to match this excellent personal trainer certification program put forth through NASM.
The ACSM has a very well-organized exercise science coverage. They go into great detail when it comes to the main topics of anatomy, biomechanics, bioenergetics, and these transfer well into the future topics on personal training skills.
ACSM also does a good job of handling visual learning with their infographics and charts to aid students. It doesn’t quite equal the offering of NASM, but it is still at the top of all certifications in personal training.
Either way you go, NASM or ACSM, you will learn all of the necessary exercise science information.
Behavior Change Coaching Skills
Behavior change includes things such as client interaction prior to entering into a program, and all the way to how to implement goal-setting into set programs. Properly done client interaction will ensure there is no problem with setting up personal training contracts and building your client base.
The ACSM does well covering all things behavior coaching, as does the NASM.
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I would put these two certifications side by side when it comes to behavior coaching. The primary coaching skills taught through ACSM and NASM are:
- Active listening
- Developing rapport
- Appreciative inquiry
- Motivational interviewing
Both ACSM and NASM do well teaching these topics, but they do not have their own models like ACE or some competing CPT certifications.
The two do great teaching different models of behavior change. The NASM focuses a lot on the stages of change model.
This is also touched on in the ACSM, but not as heavily.
The stages of change model implements five steps, and through techniques, you can learn to bring clients through the stages to inevitably reach the maintenance stage.
What both certifications do well, is that they both teach the framework well and then apply them to case studies and real-life examples.
Other main behavior change topics for both certifications will be goal setting, like using the SMART goal methods to enhance your clients’ behavior change.
You even get some assistance on working with groups all at once, as you would as a group fitness instructor.
Next, let’s look into the screening of clients.
Client Health and Movement Screening
The NASM certified personal trainer certification handles the screening of clients excellently. They have the OPT model, which is one of the reasons they shine when compared to other certifications.
The OPT model with NASM starts out by implementing some of the assessment methods. This happens before actually designing programs.
There will be a tremendous amount of health screening and movement screening, and the text does an excellent job teaching these screening methods. The OPT model builds and allows trainers to design individualized programs for their clients from the use of screening methods.
There is also an extensive library of exercises, including the assessments that we need to give our clients.
Video references and lectures are some of the most significant ways to teach and nail down the challenging personal training information.
When we look at the competitor, ACSM, we see that they match the amount of health screening protocols discussed in their study materials.
They do not quite match the level of detail NASM puts into their posture and movement screening assessments.
This might be due to some of the specializations that NASM has, like the PES and CES. They are excellent certifications offered, and perhaps their CPT benefits from it when it comes to these screenings and assessments.
All in all, the upper hand goes to NASM for the screening of clients prior to program design.
Let’s look into program design aspects next.
Program Design and Resistance/Aerobic Exercise Technique
Whether you are making a program in the gym or a client program based in the home, program design will be fun and creative and use a lot of knowledge of exercise.
This program design area is going to be another place where the NASM excels past the ACSM. The reason behind this win would be the OPT model, which is the best program design teaching method in the industry.
The NASM OPT training model is based on scientific evidence and principles that progress clients through 5 critical training phases.
The model does most of its work in the resistance training aspects of fitness training. By using this model, trainers can make their programs simple, safe, effective, and productive while achieving the results they want.
These are the phases of the OPT model:
- Phase 1: Stabilization Endurance
- Phase 2: Strength Endurance
- Phase 3: Hypertrophy
- Phase 4: Maximal Strength
- Phase 5: Power
The idea behind this training model is that one must master the first phase to be strong enough to work on the next one. It is what most programs teach, but the model makes it easy to apply to program design, and the NASM gives many examples of programs that trainers can use to help understand.
These areas are reinforced within the exercise library that NASM has in their online study portal. The exercises are put into their appropriate stages within the online study materials.
Aerobic training gets its focus within a chapter of the NASM text. With aerobic exercise, we see the detailed modalities and training methods described and taught extremely well.
The OPT model is not implemented as much in the aerobic training portions, but the same level of detail is given for aerobic training guidelines. Personal Trainer will be able to make well-crafted programs with the aerobic and resistance training design taught in NASM.
ACSM does not handle the program design as well as NASM. Specifically, resistance training is lacking in detail. The ACSM does not do a great job with teaching and describing exercises to their personal trainers.
They have the acute variables and some principles taught well, so trainers will be able to implement sets, reps, weights, rest time, and things of this nature. But, when it comes to the exercises and designing programs, ACSM lacks.
An online portal of exercise videos could be a simple fix to that, and perhaps it will launch in the future to cover the glaring hole in resistance program design.
Thankfully, ACSM is not as lacking within the training program design for aerobic training.
The slight use of the OPT model and NASM’s presentation of new information means that the NASM does beat out the ACSM still, but not to as big of a degree.
ACSM could start doing better in program design for both of these training styles if they started a model similar to NASM.
Let’s look at special population training next.
The two organizations safely tie in this domain, as they both teach special populations really well.
The importance placed on special populations is evident in both certifications. They both receive a near 10 out of 10 in this domain.
Special population training includes looking at the following populations:
- Pregnant clients
- Clients with chronic ailments
- Obese clients
- Senior clients
- Clients with disability
- Clients with other long term injuries
- And a few others
Both ACSM and NASM do an excellent job setting guidelines for each population. It will be easy for personal trainers to adjust their typical programming to meet the needs of people outside of the general public.
You may also be able to help in clinical settings with personal training.
NASM and ACSM handle the topic of nutrition well, but one does so better than the other.
With both of these certifications, you will find they cover the introduction to nutritional science with the basics of macronutrients, micronutrients, and popular supplements.
NASM has a bit more detail and touches greater on the metabolism of these different nutrients.
ACSM is also lacking a bit more when it comes to dietary recommendations. This isn’t awful as far as personal training certifications go, as personal trainers need to go with a less-is-more approach to teaching clients, in order to stay within the scope of practice.
Overall, NASM wins when we consider all of the domains within the skills and knowledge section, but ACSM matches NASM in many of these domains.
Nutrition teachings can even lead to a solid intro to similar certifications like a health coach cert.
Partner these domains with some of the solid tips we give for personal training, and you will be a very successful personal trainer.
All of this can also apply to those who want to work in small group personal training also.
Next, let’s look into the requirements for these CPT Certifications.
NASM vs ACSM Certification Requirements
The requirements for CPT certification are pretty similar across the board throughout the fitness industry. This goes for ACSM CPT requirements and NASM Certification requirements.
NASM is slightly different on just one requirement. They do not formally have it written that you need to be 18 years old to sit for the exam as other organizations do. But, since you must be 18 years old to get personal trainer insurance, which is required for the job, then it is a hidden requirement.
Another requirement for CPT certification through NASM and ACSM is a certification in CPR and AED. It is also present across the board and required for a job in personal training.
CPR and AED certification may be offered already through the organizations for a small charge during select times.
The final requirement for CPT certification is a high school diploma or some equivalent degree, like a GED. You could also show proof of education higher than that, like a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
These are the three main requirements for all CPT certifications and most fitness certifications. Some higher-level certificates in the industry, like strength and conditioning specialist certs, will require college experience.
Let’s look into the price and quality of the study materials and packages next.
Price and Quality of Study Materials
The ACSM and NASM Certification courses handle pricing differently, and we will examine that in more detail.
Let’s start the ACSM vs NASM certification comparison with the ACSM, as it is a bit more unique than how NASM handles its study materials.
The ACSM does not sell packages of items together, instead, they offer their materials separately, and you choose the materials you want to buy, if any.
This is not ideal, especially if you compare it to the study package coming from almost all other competing organizations in the fitness industry. If you wish to buy more than just a textbook, then you will pay quite a bit.
Let’s look at all of the resources that the ACSM offers:
- PrepU online practice ACSM CPT test questions = $64.99 for 3 month access
- ACSM CPT Prep online course = $270
- ACSM CPT Facebook group = free
- ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer Textbook Hard Copy = $80
- ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription Textbook = $87
- ACSM CPT Exam Cost = $350
- Retake / Retest for the ACSM exam = $175
- ACSM Membership = $10 – $240 depending on chosen tier of membership
The typical test prep materials needed to pass the ACSM exam and become certified are the ACSM online learning, practice tests, exam questions and answers, and the personal trainer manual. The whole deal of products may make the ACSM CPT cost quite a bit.
It can be a good idea to look up ACSM CPT study guides and other materials online. These can go well with the ACSM CPT study materials.
Trainer Academy and similar websites can help with this prep work.
For an affordable paid study guide with premium materials and an exam pass guarantee, my students consistently prefer the Trainer Academy ACSM CPT MVP Study Package.
If you do want to pay a premium for the official ACE CPT Study Materials, you are always free to do so.
Now let’s look at NASM and their CPT certification.
NASM takes the approach most other fitness organizations do, and they put their exams and study materials in a package and sell them.
The cheapest program package that NASM personal training certification offers is the self-study package. This comes in at $899, but they sell packages all the way up to $2,699, which is their all-inclusive package.
Let’s look at the self-study package and compare this directly to the ACSM.
The cheapest package from NASM will include many study materials, which brings a lot of value when you add up the price of all the items when bought individually from ACSM. The materials included are:
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- NASM exam
- Official NASM textbook
- A series of lecture videos
- NASM exercise library access
- NASM practice test and practice exam access
- NASM practice test/exam answer packages
- Online Certification quizzes
- Comprehensive NASM Study Guide
All in all, NASM online certification offers more materials in their package and for a better price when you stack up all of the study materials from ACSM.
But, for some people, they may not want all of the materials, and for ACSM, it is entirely a choice just to buy the exam and the textbook separately and study that way.
This can be a better deal for select people, but if you consider the overall bundle NASM offers, along with the effectiveness of their training program studies, NASM will win out.
The other packages offered by NASM will be the premium self-study program at $1,199, the NASM guided study at $1,599, and the all-inclusive study package at $2,699.
Some of the top tier packages include live workshops and webinars. The cost of NASM personal training certification can reach up to that 2,699$, which is a lot, but includes very valuable materials.
NASM also has deals running pretty regularly on all of their programs, so it can be possible to find all of these programs for 15 – 30% off every now and then which means you get the best possible NASM certification cost at the time.
With all that said about the NASM personal trainer certification packages, it should be said that the self-study guide is more than sufficient to pass the exam. The added benefit of tiered programs is more forms of study materials, and in the case of the final package, an internship with a gym to gain experience.
There is also a money-back job guarantee with the All-inclusive NASM CPT package if you do not get a job within 90 days of certification program completion.
That is a pretty solid deal to get all of your money back, and the additional study materials make it impossible not to land a job and pass the certification exam.
For an affordable paid study guide with premium materials and an exam pass guarantee, my students consistently prefer the Trainer Academy NASM CPT MVP Study Package.
If you do want to pay a premium for the official NASM CPT Study Materials, you are always free to do so.
Let’s look at the exam details for both NASM and ACSM.
NASM and ACSM Exam Difficulty
The ACSM reports their pass rate at around 69%, while the NASM one varies between 67 and 70%.
The ACSM CPT passing score will be 550 out of 800, while the NASM exam requires a 73% for a passing grade.
These exams are passable with enough prep and should not be too much of a challenge to new test-takers that thoroughly prepare. They are both multiple-choice exams. It can be a good idea to find ACSM CPT practice questions and NASM certification test questions.
If you were to retake the exam, the cost for the ACSM one would be $175, and for the NASM CPT exam, it would be $199. So, keep these values in mind when you are deciding how much you should study so you may pass the tests on the first try.
It is important to take test preparation very seriously for these two exams, as both the NASM CPT test prep and ACSM CPT test prep are tough processes.
ACSM CPT exam questions, along with NASM, can be tricky and require a good amount of prep time.
Let’s look at how these two organizations handle their continuing education credits and recertification for their certs.
NASM vs ACSM Continuing Education
Both certifications require recertification every set number of years, and this requires that personal trainers keep up their education over this time.
Keeping up with education by taking specialization courses, attending events, or other opportunities will allow fitness professionals to earn continuing education units, or CEUs / CECs.
ACSM is one of the cheapest in the entire fitness industry for recertification, and it comes in at a recertification fee of $55 (starting Jan. 1, 2021).
A significant difference with ACSM is the need for 45 hours of fitness credits to recertify, which is a bit more than others. The good news is that fitness professionals can attain these within three years, as opposed to the usual 2 years. But, it is still more hours than normally requested by organizations if we break it down to a per-year basis.
Then, for NASM, we see the more traditional recertification process. They require recertification to be done every two years. NASM also offers many continuing education opportunities, more so than other
The recertification with NASM will require 20 hours’ worth of continuing education. The recertification process is going to cost $75.
NASM also offers a recertify for life option, which costs $399. You still need to earn the credits for continuing education, but you won’t have to pay the recertification cost. This is beneficial if you plan to personal train for a long time.
The NASM is slightly ahead of the ACSM when it comes to recertification, especially when you consider long-term trainers and their recertification for life options.
Let’s see the review methodology for this PTPioneer review.
For this comparison, I critically reviewed the key areas that each fitness certification covers. I have focused on the overall skillset required for personal trainers and how each of the CPT certifications stacks up to these skills.
I used my years of knowledge in the fitness industry, along with the individual certifications, to analyze the certs for their strengths and weaknesses.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
The two organizations, NASM and ACSM, are of excellent value for anyone looking to enter into the fitness landscape.
They both offer a good amount of study materials, and their value will be rewarded when looking for a career after certification.
Which fitness certification is best?
If you were to choose from these two certifications, I would most certainly go with the NASM CPT, as they edge out as the victor between these two CPT certs. When reviewed, the NASM CPT is often in the top three of all personal training certifications.
The ACSM CPT still holds up and reviews well when we look into its details.
The study materials, the exam, and continuing education opportunities all surpass the ACSM offerings to a slight degree. They are both great, but NASM is at the top of the industry for a reason.
Either way, you are in for a great learning experience. You will undoubtedly enjoy your time as a personal trainer with what either of these organizations offers up.
You can even consider some other certifications like the ISSA CPT.
Make sure to stay tuned here at PTPioneer for more reviews, comparisons, and free study materials.
We also have individual articles for our NASM certification review and ACSM CPT review.
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