Becoming a personal trainer is one of the most rewarding decisions you’ll ever make in your life–both personally and professionally.
If you’re committed to becoming the best personal trainer you can be, attract the highest quality clientele, and work in the most exclusive and professional environments, you’ll need a respected personal trainer certification to back you up.
As of 2020, there are literally over a dozen different personal training certification programs to choose from. However, not all of them carry the same level of prestige or respect in fitness circles and gyms. In this article, we’ll go over the top programs on the market so you can be sure that your career gets started on the right foot.
The five best personal trainer certification programs are:
1) National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
2) American Council on Exercise (ACE)
3) International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
4) American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
5) National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Let’s go over each of these programs in detail.
National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
One of the most respected names in personal training is the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Founded in 1987, NASM’s personal training program is accredited by the NCCA and the organization has certified over 500,000 personal trainers and counting.
NASM is most known for their Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model that expresses the importance of stability training in order to build a foundation for a successful fitness program. Their curriculum emphasizes a few key concepts like functional exercise, performance, corrective exercise techniques, nutrition and special populations.
NASM has four different certification programs to choose from. Each offers a different level of outside support and study materials. Let’s start by breaking down some of the pricing and benefits that each program offers.
Program packages, Cost and Study Materials
Option 1: Self Study
NASM’s self study package is a self-guided program that offers students the complete freedom to learn at their own pace. If you’re looking for the greatest amount of flexibility and control over your time and you are on a tight budget, this will be the ideal option for you. The program includes the following materials:
- NASM-CPT Digital Textbook: The book is 20 chapters in length, broken up into four main sections.
- Lecture videos: These modules reinforce lessons and topics that are covered in the written text. They are presented by top NASM trained professionals.
- Exercise Library: A library of sample exercises with demonstrations on how to both perform and properly implement them into a client’s fitness routine.
- Cueing Library: An extension of the exercise library that shows the trainer how to cue certain moves while working with clients side-by-side.
- Practice Exams: Helpful practice questions that closely mirror what is on the actual exam.
- Quizzes: Quizzes serve as knowledge benchmarks to help keep you on track with new information you’ve acquired.
- Study Guide: A helpful comprehensive guide to follow along with for the length of the course.
Option 2: Premium Self Study
With the premium self study program, students still enjoy the freedom to move at their own pace, but with added study resources offered:
- Anatomy memorization activity: Learning the anatomy of the human body is one vital component for fitness professionals. This activity is another tool to help with the memorization process.
- Learning activities: Creative and fun techniques to help students assimilate the information.
- Flashcard bundles: Flash cards help to quickly self-test your knowledge.
Option 3: Guided Study
NASM’s guided study option offers all of the resources that come with the other self study programs as well as a fully integrated support system. After registering for the program, you will gain instant access to an entire team of certified coaches and specialists who can offer assistance with any questions or concerns about the material. They can be reached by phone or email and usually respond within one business day. You’ll also pair with a personal mentor who will help apply the information you’re learning through their shared professional expertise, online discussion forums, and guided study groups.
Some additional materials that are included with this package:
- Content and Exam prep webinars: Certified professionals dissect difficult topics and concepts in classroom settings that can be accessed from home.
- Access to coaches and mentors: Experts in their field provide outside support.
- Discussion questions: Questions posted in group forums help students openly discuss concerns about the material amongst their peers.
- Live workshops: Live seminars are available at specific on-site locations for those who favor hands-on experience.
- Exam prep guarantee: This perk guarantees a free re-take should you fail your first test attempt. This is equal to a $200 value.
- Hard copy of the NASM textbook: For those who prefer a hard copy, this is included for free.
Option 4: All-Inclusive + Job Guarantee
Also known as the NASM Associate Personal Trainer Experience program, the all-inclusive package works like a personal trainer internship. Students gain real-world, hands-on experience with clients in an actual fitness setting. There is also potential for hire if the health club or gym facility decides the trainer is a good fit for their staff.
The program includes weekly online and practical assignments that incorporate fitness training services, typical facility tasks, and mentoring. With their “job-guarantee” clause, you are promised a job upon completion of the certification.
Here’s how this works in practice:
- Step 1: Complete your NASM certification in 3 months or less
- Step 2: Complete your “Gymternship”: eighty (80) hours of personal, face-to-face training with clients (this is included with the all-inclusive package.)
- Step 3: NASM guarantees you’ll land a job within 3 months (90 days), or you’ll get a full refund on your Gymternship payment
For the budding personal trainer who is apprehensive about the job market, this option offers an added bit of peace of mind.
In the all-inclusive program you can expect everything mentioned above in addition to:
- CPT development program: 80 hours of on-site practice.
- NASM business accelerator program: An additional program resource that focuses on the career-building aspect of running a successful personal training business.
Now that we’ve broken down some of the program options, we’ll look at some of the details in regards to NASM’s curriculum.
Areas of focus
As mentioned earlier, NASM’s OPT model is the foundation for the structure of their program. In this model, there are three levels with five different phases.
Stabilization — This level places emphasis on the importance of building a stable foundation so that the client can build strength in a safe and effective way. Simple motor skills like balance, flexibility, and range of motion are taught in this phase.
Strength — The strength level is where trainers begin to implement different resistance techniques in the client’s routine with the goal of strengthening stabilized muscles.
Power — The power phase incorporates all phases with a concentration on adding maximal force and power to previously learned techniques.
NASM’S written textbook is divided into four sections. They are as follows:
Fundamentals of Human Movement Science — Learn the mechanics and anatomy of the human body.
Assessments, Training Concepts, and Program Design — Learn how to implement learned knowledge into actual fitness programs for individual clients.
Nutrition and Supplementation — General nutrition and supplement information that can be used to help guide clients through their new fitness and lifestyle changes.
Client Interaction and Professional Development — Learn how to effectively interact with clients as it relates to running a successful fitness business.
In addition to their basic CPT program, NASM offers three specializations. Let’s briefly take a look at each.
Corrective Exercise Specialization (CES) – Their corrective exercise program is focused on both preventing and reducing muscular dysfunction. Trainers with this specialization usually work with clients who may be susceptible to common injuries and conditions like low-back pain, ACL tears, and spinal abnormalities.
Nutrition Coach – The nutrition coach certification is a comprehensive program that equips students with the knowledge they need to succeed as a health coach. The primary goal is to implement behavioral changes that will influence clients to lead healthier lifestyles.
Performance Exercise – The performance-based program is for those who seek to work with athletes and high-performing individuals on all different levels.
Next, we’ll dive in to some details about the exam, test requirements and recertification options.
NASM’s exam is a closed-book 120-question test. You must score a rate of 64% in order to pass. You will have two hours to complete the exam and you will know whether you passed or failed immediately after you finish. The hard copy of your certification will arrive in the mail about four weeks after the test. There will be a digital copy available on your online member portal immediately.
It’s important to note that unless you purchased the all-inclusive program, there will be a retest fee of $199 if you do not pass on the first attempt.
All tests must be taken at one of NASM’s PSI testing centers. These are located all around the nation in most major cities. You must bring a photo ID and proof of your CPR/AED certification with you before you are allowed to enter the testing facility. The exam must be taken exactly one year from the date of purchase. You must be 18 years or older with a high school diploma (or GED equivalent) in order to be eligible to take the exam.
If you don’t pass the exam on the first attempt, NASM will allow you to purchase a retest by contacting their Member Services Department. They can be reached at 1-800-460-6276. There is a one-week waiting period before you can retest. After the second attempt, you must wait 30 days before retaking the exam again. After the third attempt, students will have to wait one year before they can take the exam again.
NASM requires that you renew your certification every two years. This requires that you complete 20 hours of continuing education credits (CECs). 20 hours equates to 2.0 NASM CECs. The cost for recertification is $99. There is an option to cover the cost of the renewal for the rest of your time with NASM as a certified personal trainer. The cost for this is $329. You will also need to renew your CPR/AED certification as well. This alone will count for .1 CEC.
Live workshops are also a good resource that count toward your continuing education. NASM provides these for an additional $229, but they do earn you 0.8 CECs that can be counted toward your required 20 hours.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
With more than 85,000 trained professionals worldwide since 1985, ACE Fitness is the world’s largest nonprofit health and fitness certification program and one of the earliest pioneers in the fitness industry we know today.
In fact, NASM and ACE are probably the two most widely accepted personal trainer certificates in the world.
Similar to NASM’s OPT training model, ACE has their own integrated fitness training (IFT) model. This model prioritizes safety and injury prevention, while leading clients through progressive and organized workout plans. They also place an emphasis on specialized areas like performance training and corrective exercise.
With their added focus on functional and cardiorespiratory training, the ACE certification is ideal for trainers seeking to work with most of the general population. The majority of their clientele base may include those who lead sedentary lifestyles and have the desire to make long term behavioral changes.
Program Packages and Cost
ACE offers two simple programs, each structured a little differently than NASM because they offer the study program and exam voucher separately.
It’s important to note that neither of their study program options include the exam voucher itself. This can be purchased separately for $399. This option is best if you want to pace yourself and learn the material first. It’s also a good opportunity to space out the length of time in between payments.
If you include the exam at the time of purchase, they will honor a $100 discount, making the cost $299. Whatever you decide, all of the options are provided with specific details at the time of checkout.
Let’s explore their two programs in a bit more detail.
Basic Study Package
This package simply includes the key fundamentals needed to pass the exam. It consists of a complete digital curriculum that is best suited for those who may have some prior knowledge in exercise science or who are seeking a self-guided experience with minimal outside support.
Cost — $199
Study materials that come with the basic package include:
- ACE Academy Elite: An interactive online study guide that features video lessons, informative articles, expert resources, and quizzes that help break down some of the challenging topics.
- Textbooks: Two core resources: the ACE Personal Trainer Manual and ACE Essentials to Exercise Science for Fitness. Offered in digital format only.
- Study Companion: A comprehensive resource that summarizes key concepts found in the ACE Personal Trainer Manual. Intended for easy review and quick reference.
- ACE Answers: A mix of extra resources and support that includes Q&A’s, Facebook groups, live webinars and video learning.
- Practice Tests: Digital samples tests that prepare students for the real exam.
Plus Study Package
Cost — $299
This option includes everything that comes with their basic study program in addition to hard copies of the two textbooks listed above. For more comprehensive study, the plus package also includes the ACE Exercise Science Workbook. The workbook features 24 unique real-world scenarios that challenge students by letting them apply what they’ve learned.
For each of the two package deals ACE has interest free payment plans for those who wish to pay in monthly installments. Students can choose four monthly payments of $74.75 for the plus package or three monthly payments of $66.33 for the basic package.
Exam Content and Areas of Focus
ACE’s study material is broken up into four different domains.
In the beginning of their content outline they mention conducting what is called a role delineation study (RDS) every five years to update the material of their CPT program and exams. From the results of this study, they are able to develop a theoretical outline for a curriculum that clearly defines the relevant content appropriate for aspiring fitness professionals.
For the exam, expect to recognize a significant amount of information from each of these categories:
Domain I: Interviews and Assessments — 23%. This section teaches students how to build rapport with clients so that they may obtain the relevant health and lifestyle information necessary for designing a successful fitness program.
Domain II: Program Design and Implementation — 31%. Learn how to build and design individualized programs that promote healthy behaviors through exercise and nutrition.
Domain III: Program Modification and Progression — 26%. Here you will learn the process behind evaluating and monitoring programs to promote client adherence. You will also identify potential barriers and provide solutions to establish consistent client engagement.
Domain IV: Professional Conduct Safety and Risk Management — 20%. The last domain focuses on fulfilling professional responsibilities so that trainers are adhering to industry standards and proper conduct. This is very important as it will aim to protect clients, facility operators and the personal trainer.
In addition to the personal trainer program, ACE has a wide variety of specialty certifications available that can be used to pursue different areas of interest. Some of these include:
- Weight Management Specialist: Acquire industry expertise in fat loss and muscle gain.
- Sports Conditioning Specialist: Become a useful resource for athletes or clients in the sports medicine field.
- Orthopedic Exercise Specialist: Work with clients who may have muscle imbalances or musculoskeletal impairments.
- Functional Training: Focuses on injury prevention, efficient movement and improving flexibility.
- Mind Body Specialist: A mind body specialist provides industry knowledge and expertise on holistic wellness.
- Senior Fitness Specialist: Promote the prevention of bone deterioration and teach clients how to boost longevity.
- Group Exercise Leadership: Get certified to teach group classes at health clubs and gym facilities.
- Therapeutic Specialist: This specialization’s area of focus is with individuals suffering from different musculoskeletal disorders who seek rehabilitative assistance.
A study conducted in 2016 showed that trainers who completed an ACE specialty program enjoyed a 20% pay bump compared to their generalist colleagues.
Beyond increased pay, it makes sense to specialize. As a client, you want to know that the professional you’re working with doesn’t just understand fitness, but specifically the kind of fitness you’re looking to achieve. When looking for a pro to work with, specialists will win out over generalists nearly every time.
If you have more questions about earning a Specialty Certification, you can contact ACE Educational Services at 888-825-3636.
Exam Breakdown and Test Requirements
The ACE certification exam is closed book and consists of 150 multiple-choice questions. There are three general sections that require students to assimilate their knowledge in different ways:
Before heading into the testing center, keep in mind that ACE focuses more on the application and analysis of the information learned. (Only about 15 to 30 percent of questions will fall under the “Recall” category.) This means that beyond engaging with the information, students must also know how to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios.
ACE grades on a scaled score because some versions of the exam are more difficult than others. There are 25 sample questions that do not count towards the score of your test, so you will officially be graded on the remaining 125 questions. A passing grade equates to about 90 questions answered correctly.
The passing rate for the ACE PT exam is about 65%.
Students have six months from the date of purchase to take the exam. The allotted time for the exam is three hours. If you do not pass the exam on the first attempt, there is a retest fee of $199.
You must be at least 18 years of age at the time of registration and hold a high school diploma (or GED equivalent). Like NASM, ACE requires you to show proof of your CPR/AED certification prior to taking the exam.
Recertification with ACE happens every two years. Similar to NASM, this requires 20 CECs. One hour is equivalent to 1 credit. You can receive CECs through ACE affiliated online courses or workshops. ACE Symposium, an annual 3-day event with presentations by fitness experts, will earn students CECs as well. You can also receive credit if you decide to certify with any of ACE’s specialty programs.
International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
Commonly known as the “International Certification,” the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) is the only personal training certification program recognized by the U.S. Department of Education through their accreditation by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).
Founded in 1988, ISSA has certified over 200,000 trainers worldwide, and they are the first international certification to accept eligibility from aspiring trainers all over the world. Though they are not accredited by the NCCA as is the case with ACE and NASM, ISSA has firmly established itself as one of the most respected names in fitness.
Their main areas of focus include improving body composition and fitness levels in adult, non-athlete clients. ISSA is also recognized as an academic institution for the extended education they provide at the collegiate level. They offer both associate and bachelor’s degree programs in the field of exercise science.
Program Options, Certification Types, and Pricing
ISSA offers four different levels of certification, each offering different levels of commitment and expertise. Special financing and payment options are also available for most of these options.
The four classifications are:
- Certified Personal Trainer
- Fitness Coach
- Elite Trainer
- Master Trainer
Certified Personal Trainer: The first program level is ISSA’s most standard package that demonstrates the fundamental skills needed to function successfully as a fitness professional. Students will learn about many concepts like the general anatomy of the body, human physiology, and basic nutrition as it relates to program implementation. This program is ideal for anyone looking to build a solid foundation as a personal trainer.
The cost for a standard personal trainer package, including all study materials is $599. If registration is completed online, the installment plan option will include 12 payments of $66.56.
Fitness Coach: Under the fitness coach level, students will specialize in a particular area of fitness in order to work with clients in special populations. In this program, students will cover the same information in the basic training package, but will also need to choose one of the following areas to specialize in:
- Transformation Specialist
- Corrective Exercise Specialist
- Group Fitness Specialist
- Senior Fitness Certification
- Youth Fitness Certification
- Strength and Conditioning Certification
- Bodybuilding Specialist
- Exercise Therapy Certification
- Sports Nutrition Certification
This program option will cost one payment of $999, or 12 payments of $83.17.
Elite Trainer: With the Elite Trainer program, students will have a chance to gain a deeper understanding of both general and special populations. Potential clients who wish for more expert knowledge and guidance may seek out trainers with this certification. As an Elite Trainer, students are required to learn the basic CPT curriculum, specialize in one other area, and become an ISSA Certified Sports Nutritionist by completing the ISSA Certified Sports Nutrition Course.
The Elite Trainer package will cost one payment of $1,995, or 12 payments of $166.25.
Master Trainer: Master Trainers fulfill all of the above-mentioned requirements but must also obtain four other areas of specialization. Trainers who certify at this level are considered industry experts and, like elite trainers, work with general and special populations. They are usually qualified to engage in public speaking or presenting at big industry conferences because they demonstrate top knowledge and expertise in virtually all aspects of health and fitness.
The Master Trainer package will cost $2,997, or 12 payments of $249.
One other important note: ISSA also has a bundle package for those who only want the basic certification but also wish to add on a nutritional component. This package is $799 if purchased altogether.
Here we’ll take a look at some of the study materials that are included in the personal training package.
- ISSA Fitness: A Complete Guide: A hard copy of their complete written text.
- Study Guide and Workbook: A comprehensive guide that is ideal for following along with the written text.
- Marketing and Business Guide: One of their most unique and useful resources. This guide provides helpful information on the necessary steps to effectively promote your business and gain clients.
- Practice Exam and Quizzes: Test your knowledge and skills with questions and activities that will help you identify how much you’ve learned.
- Online Student Forum: A safe online environment with access to fellow peers who are studying the same materials and preparing for the same exams.
- Online Exercise Lab: 250 animated exercises that show how to properly model them for clients.
- Unlimited Educational Support: Certified ISSA fitness professionals ready to help with any questions or concerns.
Now let’s break down some of the focus areas in ISSA’s study curriculum.
Areas of Focus
ISSA’s core text curriculum is broken up into six unique sections.
Anatomy and Physiology — Learn the physical anatomy and make up of the human body in regards to components like metabolism and the musculoskeletal system.
Kinesiology and Biomechanics — This section covers the human body as it relates to physical movement.
Health and Physical Fitness — Strength, Cardiovascular and Flexibility Training.
Program Development — The basics and fundamentals of designing programs for individual clients.
Nutrition — Gain basic nutrition and dietary knowledge that can be used to implement healthy suggestions for clients on unique fitness routines.
Fitness For All — Exercise as it relates to all potential clients with any and all special conditions.
Program Requirements and Exam Expectations
There are two types of self-paced programs that ISSA offers. One is 6 months in duration, the other is 12 months. If you don’t complete the program within the allotted time, you can request an additional extension for a nonrefundable fee of $99. Completing the program beyond the final extension granted will require complete re-enrollment.
In order to register for the exam you must be 18 years or older, hold a high school diploma (or GED equivalent) and hold a valid CPR/AED certification from an approved provider.
ISSA is one of the only certifications that offers an open book exam. There is a little more content to this exam and it is broken up a little differently. There are 160 questions that are divided into four different sections:
- Multiple Choice
- Six Short Essays (250 Words Each)
- Case Studies
You will need to score a 75% or higher in each of the four categories as well as a 75% overall in order to pass the exam.
Job Promise Guarantee
One added benefit of an ISSA certification is their Job Promise Guarantee.
To ensure success in the fitness industry when seeking employment, ISSA offers a money back job promise guarantee to any of their newly certified trainers. This option is only open to U.S. candidates.
There are a few things you will need in order to qualify:
- You must have purchased the program on or after June 1, 2018.
- You must have completed all course requirements for the CFT program.
- You must be a certified fitness trainer.
- Within 60 days of passing your exam, you must have applied to at least three employers within 50 miles of your residency who hire, employ, and have open positions at the the time of application.
- You must submit one of their request forms with job application details within 90 days of completing your exam.
Trainers must re-certify with ISSA every two years. The cost for recertification is $75. Conveniently, ISSA offers their own unique continuing education courses as well as online workshops, learning modalities and quizzes that can all be completed from home.
At an additional cost, ISSA grants a 90-day grace period after the date your certification expires. Keep in mind, any credits earned after this grace period will not be counted toward recertification. Once the initial grace period passes, trainers are required to re-take the original exam in order to keep their credentials.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
One of the oldest and most established fitness institutions, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) was founded in 1954 and is accredited by the NCCA.
With one of its main focus areas in corrective exercise, it is recognized for its revolutionary influence in exercise science research and sports medicine organizations. ACSM’s training certification is most ideal for those wanting to work in healthcare settings like hospitals, clinics, or wellness centers. Their core mission is establishing fitness and body composition guidelines–for both healthy and diseased populations–which makes the program appealing to large clinical settings and medical universities.
ACSM’s study program design is very different from the previous three certifications discussed. Because they do not require nor endorse any specific path to acquiring the knowledge needed to pass the exam, there’s a bit more freedom in choosing the ideal package for you. ACSM offers all of their program materials separately and lets students choose what materials will work best for them.
Let’s take a look at what they have to offer.
PrepU: An interactive personal approach to learning the information. PrepU takes an inventory of what the student is already learning and builds unique study plans based on current knowledge.
Exam Prep Workshops: For hands-on learners who prefer an immersive experience, ACSM offers one, two and three day live workshops led by experienced industry experts and instructors.
Exam Prep Webinars: On the contrary, for those who are satisfied with the virtual approach, ACSM offers 6-week online sessions.
Textbooks: ACSM offers three essential print materials that can be purchased both in eBook and hard copy format.
ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription: A guide containing recommended procedures for exercise testing and prescription in both healthy and diseased patients.
ACSM’s Certification Review: A study tool equipped with case studies and sample questions that will help students identify their strengths and weaknesses.
ACSM’s Health-Related Physical Fitness Assessment Manual: This is a comprehensive text that focuses on the five health-related components of fitness: body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and cardiorespiratory endurance.
Now that we’ve covered some of the tools and resources that ACSM provides, let’s discuss how they break down the pricing for the exam.
Access to PrepU is offered in different increments of time. This gives students the freedom to decide how long they plan to spend preparing for the exam.
- 3 months: $64.99
- 6 months: $74.99
- 1 year: $84.99
- 2 years: $94.99
ACSM’s one day workshop: $130
ACSM’s three day workshop: $375
The 6-course webinar series: $240
The ACSM exam: $349
Depending on what exam preparation tools you choose to purchase, ACSM has a few ways to bundle and save a bit. For example, if you purchase the three day workshop along with the exam, there is a discount of $50 that ACSM offers.
Because of their unique emphasis on exercise as a vehicle to optimum clinical health, ACSM has a few specialty certifications that prepare its students to work with people who may have controlled health issues.
- Exercise is Medicine® Credential: Work closely with patients in the medical field who may already be healthy, have health-related conditions that are cleared by a physician or who require clinical support and monitoring.
- Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer: These trainers will work with those who are challenged by physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities.
- Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer: Develop programs for clients who are making lifestyle changes caused by cancer or other related illnesses.
- Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist: Promote physical activity in public health settings for clients all over the nation.
Exam Breakdown & Requirements
Like ACE, ACSM divides their exam content in four different domains. They are:
- Domain I: Initial Client Consultation and Assessment
- Domain II: Exercise Programming and Implementation
- Domain III: Exercise Leadership and Client Education
- Domain IV: Legal and Professional Responsibilities
To be eligible for the exam you must be 18 years or older, hold a high school diploma (or GED equivalent), and show proof of your CPR/AED certification. The exam consists of 120 multiple choice questions. You are given 2.5 hours to pass the exam. If you do not pass the exam the first time, there is a $150 retest fee. Registration for the exam is always done at one of their Pearson VUE testing centers. There are over 5,000 locations all around the United States.
Recertification is required every three years with ACSM.
Not quite as expensive as its counterparts, there is a fee of $30 to re-certify. While this fee isn’t nearly as much as what some of the other certifications charge, they do require students to complete 45 CECs in the three year time frame. This is more than double the CEC requirements for ACE and NASM. There are a variety of conferences, webinars, workshops and seminars held all over the nation for those pursuing continuing education.
National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Founded in 1978, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) was the very first certifying agency to be accredited by the NCCA. NSCA is nationally recognized as a leader in human performance research and their personal training program is ideal for those aspiring to become strength coaches or train athletes at the collegiate or professional level.
The program curriculum has a very strong emphasis on power, speed, and agility training. Though NSCA’s training certification is geared most toward active and healthy individuals, their core curriculum is comprehensive enough to prepare trainers to work with a wide variety of clients.
Packages and Study Materials
Similar to ACSM, NSCA sells their study materials separately from the exam. There are three official study packages that students can choose from:
NSCA-CPT Essential Package: This package is ideal if you already have a background or degree in the field. These are very basic study aids.
- Textbook: Essentials of Personal Training, 2ed
- NSCA-CPT Exam Content Description E-book
- Over 200 practice questions
NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package: Ideal for candidates who do not have any prior training knowledge or background. This package provides the most study resources.
- Textbook: Essentials of Personal Training, 2ed
- Exercise Technique Manual, 3ed
- NSCA-CPT Exam Content Description E-Book
- Over 200 Practice Questions
NSCA-CPT Digital Package: The digital package familiarizes students with the type and difficulty of the questions on the exam.
- NSCA-CPT Exam Content Description E-Book
- More than 200 Online Practice Questions
Before diving into pricing information, it’s important to get familiar with some of the membership options that NSCA has to offer its candidates. Being a member unlocks special benefits that give trainers access to resources like evidence-based publications, tools for professionals, and the online strength and conditioning community.
NSCA has three membership options:
Professional Membership: $120/year
Student Membership: $65/year
CPI Membership: $349/year (includes up to $5 Million Total Liability Coverage)
Pricing for both the study materials and the exam are different for members and non-members. Here we’ll break down some of those numbers.
NSCA-CPT Essential Package — Members: $240.70. Nonmembers: $290.40.
NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package — Members: $455. Nonmembers: $511.
SCA-CPT Digital Package — Members: $144. Nonmembers: $193.
Exam vouchers – Members: $300. Nonmembers: $435.
Exam Breakdown and Test Requirements
There are 140 multiple choice questions on the NSCA exam. The allotted time for the test is three hours. You must score at least a 70% to pass the exam. Students have exactly six months from the date of registration to take the exam. Should you fail your first exam attempt, nonmembers must pay a fee of $435 to retake the test. Members are required to pay a fee of $300 for retakes.
Some of the focus areas for the exam include:
- Client assessment and consultation
- Program design and planning
- Exercise technique
- Emergency procedures and safety
Like ACSM, NSCA’s exam must be taken at one of their Pearson VUE testing facilities. To be eligible you must be 18 years or older, hold a high school diploma (or GED equivalent), and show proof of your current CPR/AED certification.
NCSA requires recertification every two years. The cost to re-certify is $45 for members and $70 for non-members. Similar to NASM, ISSA and ACE, NCSA requires the completion of 20 hours of continuing education. Luckily, there are plenty of learning clinics, national conferences, webinars and online courses that NCSA offers to count toward your CEC tally.
Just like choosing which college to attend, deciding which personal training certification program to enroll in is a complicated one. The best way to make the right decision is by starting with the following two questions:
- Which training programs are the most respected?
- Of those, which program fits best with my specific goals?
In this article, we’ve sought out to answer Question 1. These five programs–NASM, ACE, ISSA, ACSM, NSCA–are the most respected training programs in the world, and any of them will adequately prepare you for a career as a personal trainer.
Of these, you’ll need to choose the program that is most aligned with your goals. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
- For the best overall personal trainer certification, go with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). While not the most affordable training program out there, the NASM name is recognized as one of the premier names in fitness. Regardless of where you plan to train and who your target audience is, you can’t go wrong with a NASM certificate.
- If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, the best training program for the money is the American Council on Exercise (ACE). For less than half the cost of NASM, you receive a world-class fitness education and you will obtain a certificate that accepted nationwide (and growing internationally, as well).
- If you’re planning on working internationally, or if you suffer from test anxiety and would prefer an open book exam, or if their Job Placement Guarantee is especially appealing to you, certification from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) is probably the best fit for you. ISSA has made tremendous strides in recent years to reach the same level of authority as NASM and ACE in the fitness industry, and their certificate is one to be proud of.
Regardless of which program you choose, you’ve already taken a huge step toward becoming a certified personal trainer by educating yourself on the best programs out there. Once you’ve decided on a program, it’s time to take the next step by giving them a call and confirm that the care and attention you receive on the phone matches everything you’ve read online.
Once that’s taken care of, it’s time to enroll and officially begin your career as a personal trainer. It will be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.