NSCA vs ACE - Which one is Currently the Best in 2022?

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    Welcome to PT Pioneer, your ultimate destination for insight into the fitness industry.

    Maybe you’ve been thinking about becoming a certified personal trainer. You might be wondering about certification. In that case, you’re reading the most complete comparison guide between ACE and NSCA.

    My review contrasts both CPT certifications across the following key aspects:

    Topical information: comparison of pricing, packages, and prerequisites
    ACE vs NSCA content deep dive: knowledge and skills
    Exam difficulties, preparation timelines, and study material review
    Explanation of my expert review process

    My ACE vs NSCA article will help you make the right choice for your fitness career.

    Alright, let’s dive in!

    ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 4

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      Quick Breakdown: ACE vs NSCA

      CPTACSM vs ACE Quick BreakdownFeaturesPrice
      ACE ACE
      • One of the most popular and highly regarded certification providers in the world
      • A non-profit organization that drives many community-based projects
      • A good entry point for new, up-and-coming fitness professionals
      • NCCA accredited
      View on the ACE website
      • A well-established research and academic authority in health and fitness with a strong legacy
      • Considered the leader in strength and conditioning methodology
      • A good platform for seasoned professionals to expand their knowledge
      • One of the oldest certification providers
      View on the NSCA website
      Exam cost
      Exam cost
      $300 (Members) $435 (Non-members)
      Study Material Cost
      Study Material Cost
      $455 (Members) $511 (Non-members)
      Exam Passing Score
      Exam Passing Score
      Exam Pass Rate
      Exam Pass Rate
      Average Completion Time
      Average Completion Time
      3-6 Months
      3-6 Months

      ACE Personal Trainer Certification


      ACE is the American Council on Exercise. They are a stalwart in the health and fitness credentialling space and are considered one of the most popular certification providers alongside names like NASM CPT and ISSA CPT.

      ACE was founded in 1985 and is a non-profit organization. Their primary focus is on improving public health by equipping fitness professionals with the right skills to deal with an ailing general population.

      This mission is exemplified in their IFT model, short for integrated fitness training.

      ACE IFT Model

      This is the main feature of ACE fitness certifications.

      The ACE personal trainer certificate is one of the most popular in the world, producing some of the best trainers.

      NSCA Personal Trainer Certification

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 5

      NSCA is the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

      They’ve been around since 1978, making them one of the oldest certification providers in the world.

      They are also a nonprofit institute focused on improving academic knowledge of strength and conditioning as it relates to sports science and athletic performance.

      NSCA’s legacy has allowed them to build on a wealth of top-tier academic and scientific research, which they use to spearhead new areas of knowledge and skill in fitness instruction.

      This is why NSCA has some of the best certification programs including their certified PT course.

      NSCA’s CPT certification is ideal for beginners in the fitness world but caters better towards seasoned professionals and those with a more profound academic background in sports and exercise science.

      Both certs are National Commission for Certifying Agencies  (NCCA) accredited.

      CPT Prerequisites

      The prerequisites for both exercise trainer certifications are pretty standard within the industry. They are:

      • Be 18 years of age or older
      • Hold a high school diploma or equivalent (GED)
      • Hold current and valid first responder (CPR and AED certification)  certs

      General Focus of the CPT Programs

      As you will learn from the trove of articles I’ve written to help certified trainers understand their academic options. Each certifying agency has its own flavor.

      That is to say, fitness instructor certification has a definable niche or area of focus.

      It’s important to factor this in when deciding on a qualification provider because each PT will have areas they are more passionate about practicing in.

      For that reason, you should ideally enroll in a cert program that expands on your passion and preference of practice.

      So with that said, let’s take a look at what each fitness certificate focuses on.


      As I already mentioned, ACE’s mission is to improve public health in a country and a world where health statistics paint a somewhat gloomy picture for modern populations.

      The surge in obesity and metabolic diseases continues to be a source of concern due to the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of modern society.


      This, coupled with a diet that is more calorically dense and less nutritious, has led to a health crisis that has never been seen in human history.

       in light of this, ACE’s training certification program’s focus is to improve quality of life and optimize health within the general population.

      That means many of the principles and concepts outlined in the ACE CPT curriculum fall within the general category, thus imparting candidates with an all-rounder approach to fitness instruction.

      Despite this, ACE does touch on special populations training.

      ACE leads this initiative with its IFT model.

      The Integrated Fitness training model is a fitness training methodology based on the core principles of basic human movement.

      By tackling fitness in phases that go from fundamental function and basic health all the way up to optimized performance.

      This is one of the strong aspects of ACE training programs.


      If the name doesn’t already indicate the area of focus NSCA takes, then allow me to explain in detail.

      Being an organization with certified strength and conditioning as its calling card, NSCA takes on the mantle of an athletic performance-focused organization.

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 6

      Sport and athletic activity play a big role in modern culture with millions of careers and the healthy development of the youth relying on correct deployment of sports science principles.

      One of the cornerstones of sports performance is strength and conditioning.

      While skills and talent shape the athlete, it is strength and conditioning that hold them steady, ensuring progress and longevity.

      But strength and conditioning aren’t just crucial on the sports field. From a generalist perspective, they are also important for people who need to correct biomechanical deficiencies as well as help with injury and disease recovery.

      ACE vs NSCA: Popularity and Recognition

      In this section, we will look at how popular and well regarded the different certifications are.

      This will allow you to choose better on the basis of preselection bias where popularity with previous candidates is concerned and on the basis of industry preferred qualifications.


      ACE is one of the most popular certifications amongst candidates rivaled only by NASM and ISSA when it comes to popularity statistics.

      They have become something of a household name when it comes to fitness credentials and is often on the tips of many tongues when any discussion of certifications crops up.

      As for industry recognition, ACE holds plenty of sway in the fitness world globally and is almost universally accepted wherever positions for personal trainers are open.

      This recognition is possibly why ACE is so popular with prospective candidates since they recognize the acceptance in the industry and the associated career prospects.


      NSCA is popular amongst fitness and sports industry professionals owing to the legacy and depth of academic quality.

      The general fitness crowd is far less known and is lower in popularity with new and prospective trainers.

      That’s probably because it is so specialized and geared towards a more serious, seasoned conditioning specialist crowd.

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      For this reason, it is very highly regarded within the industry and academic spheres of professional exercise science.

      That means although it’s less popular from a general or mainstream perspective, it still has a high degree of acceptance within the pillars of the fitness community.

      In fact, NSCA can be considered a more prestigious cert with an honored heritage that gives a sense of authority.

      Popularity Verdict

      ACE has not been around for quite as long as the NSCA certification, but it certainly holds its own in terms of popularity and industry recognition.

      Like the NSCA certification, ACE will be recognized by any employer you want to work with within the United States and Europe, and other parts of the world.

      There is only one other certification that is recognized in Europe as well, and that is the NASM CPT certification,  the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

      According to ACE’s website, they have certified over 75,000 candidates with the ACE personal training certification, making some consider it to be the best place to get personal training certifications.

      Here is a screenshot of the last 12 months of Google trends comparing the ACE certification and the NSCA certification.

      Skills and Knowledge Covered in NSCA and ACE

      Let’s take a look at all of the specific domains of content that these certifications.

      The primary domains that I consider for these CPT certifications will be: Exercise Science, Behavioral Coaching, Client Health Screening, Program Design, Resistance Training, Aerobic Training, Special Populations, and Nutrition.

      Exercise Science Foundations

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 7

      Both NSCA and ACE cover the essentials of exercise science perfectly well, and this should be expected from these top-tier organizations.

      There will be coverage of the main topics in exercise science, such as biomechanics, bioenergetics, physiology, and more. 

      ACE handles these teaching within the same section as practical skills, and this would be the only complaint regarding this domain of knowledge.

      It may be a tad confusing for some of the newer trainers in the industry, but it generally isn’t as the coverage is that solid.

      All of the information ACE has in exercise science will merge very easily into their state-of-the-art model, the IFT Model. Everything from anatomy to technique will be touched on and apply when it is touched on in the following domains.

      NSCA covers exercise science across eight chapters that take up about a fifth of the text. This shows that it receives a great amount of focus for future personal trainers.

      NSCA has a slightly tougher exam process, so if you went with the NSCA CPT, I would place even more focus on this exercise science domain.

      The basics of exercise are essential for personal trainers, and both of these organizations will do a great job teaching their learners, but NSCA ensures trainers know it is more critical by testing a bit more intensely.

      Behavioral Coaching

      This domain sees a greater difference in quality and amount of focus placed on the CPT certifications from both organizations.

      We will start with ACE, as their coverage is top of the line and not matched by many certifying organizations.

      ACE implements an amazing Mover Method which helps this domain stand above many CPT certifications.

      The Mover Method is a philosophical approach that believes healthy lifestyle behaviors begin with empowering clients to take on their personalized journey where they will achieve self-efficacy. 

      This happens due to the empathy and trust set up through the personal trainer, as well as proper communication and collaboration as a team with the client. 

      It is a model that will place them above NSCA when compared.

      When it comes to NSCA, the least valued domain will be behavioral coaching. They put in enough to get by, but it definitely could use some improvement in the future.

      The behavioral coaching section connects closely with their following section on client screening but is just lacking in the basic behavioral coaching necessities like goal setting and coaching techniques.

      Chapter 9 is the location of this information in the NSCA textbook, and it is just too bare to receive more praise.

      ACE is the clear winner in behavior coaching.

      Client Health Screening and Movement Screening

      ACE and NSCA both do incredible jobs when it comes to screening clients prior to and during their programs.

      Health screening seems to be nearly standard across the board for all CPT certifications. There will be inclusions of all basic risk screening and medical screening that personal trainers need to go through with their clientele before starting a program.

      Both organizations include many example forms to go through and get a feel for all necessary questions to check off as you meet your client.

      These sections should not be avoided in certifications as they are essential to making safe and effective individualized personal training programs.

      When it comes to movement screening, both certifications are great and at the top of the industry, but NSCA might get a slight win.

      NSCA is known for its gold standard certification for strength and conditioning certification, the NSCA CSCS.

      They definitely benefit in their CPT program and borrow some of the very detailed aspects of the CSCS.

      Even when it comes to just the written aspects of the study programs, the NSCA is a bit more detailed and this helps the learner in the long run.

      Both ACE and NSCA offer online study materials which emphasize these two areas, specifically the movement screening with the use of video teaching.

      Altogether, the slight edge leans toward NSCA as superior in screening clients.

      Program Design and Resistance / Aerobic Exercise Technique

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 8

      ACE and NSCA place a great amount of importance and time into their chapters on program design for both of the primary modalities of training: Resistance and Aerobic Exercise.

      Resistance Training technique and program design are covered throughout more chapters than aerobic exercise as it simply has more information and need for in-depth training with clients.

      There are complete teachings for the principles of resistance training, as well as everything from acute benefits to the many variables of training.

      There are emphases put on the types of training and the stages that clients need to pass through in order to properly benefit and progress in fitness.

      ACE has the IFT model that they use to nail down this information, and NSCA does not have a model, but it does still manage to perfect program design for both styles of training.

      Both certifications even go as far as separating the general public from athletes, with more athletic focus found in the NSCA certification.

      Aerobic Fitness receives equal treatment in these two certification programs, also. There is a good amount of info into the many styles of cardio training, as well as all of the variables required to build a quality program.

      A difference maker would be whether or not someone wishes to work with the general public or athletes primarily. If a trainer wishes to work with more of the athletic population, then they would likely prefer the NSCA’s coverage of this domain.

      Special Population training

      The specific special populations that certifications will cover include groups like: 

      • Pregnant clients
      • Clients with chronic ailments
      • Obese clients
      • Adolescents
      • Senior clients
      • Clients with disability
      • Clients with other long term injuries

      This information is essential for trainers to master, so that they can make their programs properly individualized and detailed.

      All certifications place importance on this domain of knowledge, as it is vital to being a personal trainer.

      Both ACE and NSCA devote multiple chapters to these special populations. They detail all of the issues and go through the many changes that should happen when designing a program specific to these clients.

      I can’t choose a certification that does it better than the other when looking at these two excellent CPT certs.


      Nutrition is another domain where these two certification both do so well, it would be hard to choose between them.

      ACE and NSCA cover all of the basic nutrient information, metabolism of nutrients, supplementation, and more.

      Other topics like hydration guidelines and diet tips also receive the right amount of focus.

      Altogether, it is hard to choose between the two certifications when we look at their well-covered CPT programs. ACE possibly wins when we consider their coverage of behavioral coaching, but NSCA has a strong focus on athletes that could be better for coaches needing that.

      Next, let’s look at the study materials offered by these organizations.

      ACE vs NSCA: Study Packages

      When deciding between fitness trainer certs, cost is king.

      Along with other essential factors, what you’ll end up paying has an influence on what choice you’ll make.

      After all, money is a finite resource for most, especially those at the genesis of their careers, and added to that, cost needs to match the value proposition as closely as possible.

      So to line up cost with exam prep value, let’s look at how much each cert costs against what is on offer.

      ACE Certification Cost and Materials

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 9

      ACE, like many of its contemporaries, offers a selection of study packages for fitness instructors, each priced according to the study materials on offer.

      There are 3 packages, the Basic package, the Plus package, and the Advantage.

      The Basic package offers the bare minimum in terms of practical study materials. It includes:

      • 1 ACE Practice Exam
      • ACE Answers (Basic) 
      • ACE Certification Exam
      • ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion 
      • ACE Personal Trainer Textbook 
      • ACE University 
      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 10

      The Plus package is a well-rounded offering and is considered the most popular choice for first-time candidates.

      It includes:

      • 2 ACE Practice Exams
      • ACE Answers (Plus) 
      • ACE Certification Exam
      • ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion 
      • ACE Personal Trainer Textbook 
      • ACE University 
      • ACE Exercise Science 101

      Finally, the Advantage package comes with everything the previous two have along with some extra bells and whistles such as:

      • 4 ACE Practice Exams
      • ACE Answers (Advantage) 
      • ACE Certification Exam
      • ACE Personal Trainer Study Companion 
      • ACE Personal Trainer Textbook 
      • ACE University 
      • ACE Exercise Science 101
      • Dedicated Advantage Team
      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 11

      Overall, the only benefit of purchasing the Advantage package is a few extra practice tests and access to the advantage team.

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      The Basic, Plus, and Advantage cost $849, $999, and $1,499 respectively.

      NSCA Certification Cost and Materials

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 12

      Just like ACE trainers certifications, the NSCA certification comes with three package options with different study material densities and is priced accordingly.

      The packages are:

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

      The Digital package is designed for the experienced fitness scholar who doesn’t need any hand-holding and includes:

      • Study Guide
      • Over 200 digital practice questions

      The Essential package is designed for adept fitness professionals looking for some basic study guidance, it includes:

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

      Finally, the Essential Plus package is an all-inclusive study suite that is the best training package for first-timers and newcomers to the world of exercise science academia. It includes:

      • Essentials of Personal Training course textbook
      • Exercise Technique Manual
      • Study Guide
      • Over 200 digital practice questions
      • And much more
      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 13

      An important thing to bear in mind when considering the package options from NSCA CPT is the fact that they are to be purchased separately from your exam registration, unlike ACE which includes the final exam in your study package purchase.

       Added to this, the cost of everything you purchase from NSCA depends on your membership status.

      ACE vs NSCA - Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in [year]? 14

      Members pay less than non-members, so let’s see how costs break down

      First I’ll show you how costs look if you’re not a member

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

      For members, the pricing is as follows:

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

      As you can see, being a member cuts costs significantly and helps you save money while also accessing several annual benefits.

      So is NSCA membership worth it, or it’s just a way to score discounts?

      Firstly, what does a membership give you?

      There are 3 membership plans available. Those are:

      • Student Membership: $70.00
      • Professional Membership: $130.00
      • NSCA-CPT Digital Package: $418.83

      Both the student and professional memberships are a one-year subscription while the NSCA-CPT Digital Package lasts a full year and up to the end of January in the subsequent year.

      My verdict: the NSCA personal trainer membership is worth it considering the benefits and the fact that the membership term is quite substantial, running concurrently with your certified personal trainer course duration at the least.

      ACE vs NSCA: Exam Info and Recertification

      Before taking your fitness trainer certification exam, It’s a good idea to understand the structure.

      And once you’ve passed, you will eventually need to recertify.

      In this section, I’ll take a look at the exam and renewal requirements such as CEUs and recertification fees.

      ACE Certification

      The pass mark for the ACE exam demands a scaled score of 500 out of 800, which means answering 90 out of the 125 scored questions correctly leading to a 72% pass mark.

      The pass rate for ACE is about 70%, making it one of the easier exams on the spectrum.

      The exam is structured on 150 multiple-choice questions plus a written section to be completed within three hours. 

      As mentioned, there are 125 scored questions, which means there are 25 experimental questions that don’t count to your final score. 

      These questions are used to test their viability for future exams depending on the outcome across all candidates.

      As for recertification, you will need to submit 2.0 CEUs of continuing education credits every 2 years in order to maintain your cert with ACE.

      NSCA Certification

      The NSCA personal training certification exam consists of 140 scored questions and 15 non-scored questions, giving you a total of 155 questions to complete. 

      Candidates will have 3 hours to complete the test which demands a pass mark of 70% in order to be successful

      According to NSCA, 72% of test-takers passed the exam, meaning the NSCA pass rate slightly edges out ACE by a mere 2%.

      In my opinion, this is surprising since NSCA is considered more academically robust and more of an entry barrier than ACE, especially when looking at other certifications it offers such as the NSCA CSCS.

      To recertify you will need to submit 2.0 CEUs after every 3 year period from the initial certification.

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

      Review Methodology

      Since I had to tackle two certifications and compare them with each other, the process was quite meticulous. Here’s what I did:

      • A deep dive into the study materials and resources from both certs, especially the course textbooks
      • Interviews, and anecdotes from previous candidates, including a few who had experience with both.
      • Archival research on my previous individual reviews of both certs.
      • Comparisons with other similar and notable CPT certs and online courses.

      Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


      It’s hard to say which cert is definitively better because both are well regarded and accepted in the fitness community.

      The popularity metric I feel is irrelevant when debating quality and industry approval, so that won’t be the basis of my final verdict.

      It really all boils down to two things, what sort of personal trainer do you want to be and how much are you willing to pay.

      If price is an issue, NSCA is your best option.

      Both its cheapest and most expensive options are a better deal than the corresponding cheapest and priciest ACE certification cost options.

      If you want to be a strength training, sports, or S&C specialist with good program design, again, NSCA is your best bet, but if you want to have a well-rounded approach and a better personal training business acumen, you’re best of with ACE.

      So when asking which is the best personal trainer certification, the question really is, which is the best personal training certification for you?

      Overall, both have an amazing curriculum and are worthy of their respective reputations, but as a seasoned fitness industry veteran, my bias lies with NSCA.

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      3 thoughts on “ACE vs NSCA – Which one is the Best Personal Trainer Certification in 2022?”

      1. I’m glad I found your articles. I was confused on which route to go since I’m just starting out and don’t really have a mentor or advise readily available to me. Very helpful. I still need to find a mentor but this article really geared me the right starting point. Thanks again

      2. I currently coach and work with young athletes and want to move up and work with adult athletes. I also want to make this a full time career, so assume I will pick up work as a PT. I really want to go straight into the CSCS in the NSCA program, but I don’t have a PT cert. Would that matter? Should I also take a PT cert or will the CSCS cert work for personal training? If I do need to take another PT cert should I take the ACE? I appreciate the help!

        1. You definitely do not need a general personal training certification before you jump into the cscs. That is assuming that you already have the prerequisites which are a four-year degree. If you already have that I would go directly for this certification as it is a fantastic personal training certification as well as strength and conditioning certification. If you are going to go with General CPT first, I would either go with nasm, issa or ace. I hope this helps.

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