Becoming a personal trainer is an excellent way to build a self-made business and turn your passion for fitness into a lucrative career. With so many certification options available, it can be daunting to know which program is best for your specific learning style and goals. Not only that, but each program offers different price points and program offerings that may or may not be geared toward the specific brand of personal trainer you wish to become.
The ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association) and NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) programs are both worthy of consideration, whether you are exploring personal trainer certification as a side hustle or you want to dive in headfirst and make it a full-time career right away.
So let’s compare ISSA vs. NASM in a comprehensive, head-to-head evaluation. The following factors highlight each program’s offerings and benefits and will help you determine which program is the best fit for your unique situation.
ISSA pricing is simple and straightforward. Typically, you can choose to pay the full amount upfront, or you can opt for a12-month payment plan. There are four trainer certification levels available within the ISSA program. They are:
- Certified Personal Trainer – $599 (the ISSA Nutrition Bundle add-on is an extra $200)
- Fitness Coach – $999
- Elite Trainer – $1,995
- Master Trainer – $2,997
Course materials are included in the pricing for all certification levels. This includes a study book, over 250 3D animated exercises, and more. Additional perks and resources that you have access to as part of the purchase price of the program include access to a professional website template once you complete the program as well as unlimited ongoing educational support.
The NASM provides four different pricing tiers ranging from $699 to $2,199.
By providing such a large variety of price points, the program truly meets each individual where they are at so that they can partake in a program that works for their specific budget. You can pay in full for your enrollment, or you can opt for a 12-month payment plan. The pricing tiers are as follows:
- $699 – Self Study package
- $1,099 – Premium Self Study package
- $1,499 – Guided Self Study package
- $2,199 – All-inclusive package
Overall, the NASM program is widely known to be one of the most expensive programs available. However, they have built up an incredible reputation and consistently provide some of the best training and materials in the industry. Not only that, but their top-tier option also comes with a mind-blowing job guarantee, which is a huge advantage to those looking to launch a career as a personal trainer as soon as possible. There is also a retest voucher included in the enrollment price.
Additional resources and benefits that come with no additional charge include membership in the NASM Gymternship Program (which allows new trainers to gain valuable real-life experience with clients at partner gyms) and access to the Business Accelerator Program, which gives trainers access to things like digital marketing and personal branding assistance.
When comparing the ISSA and NASM personal trainer certification programs, you need to understand that you are not comparing “apples to apples.” While the programs do have a lot of overlapping training and materials, they also have distinct offerings and features that cannot be compared straight across the board. Depending on your end goals, you need to make sure that you are taking a big-picture view of what makes each program unique. Both of these programs are highly regarded in the personal training industry, and no matter what program you end up selecting you can rest assured knowing that you are learning from world-renowned educators and will walk away with a certification that is well respected.
The ISSA certification is typically considered to be a general training certification, which makes it an excellent option for those that are new to the personal training industry, or that want to be able to offer a broad spectrum of professional services to their clients. In terms of accreditation, the ISSA is accredited by the DEAC. It has a pass rate of nearly 90%, which means that almost 9 out of every 10 students pass their certification exam on the first try.
The program has a minor focus on powerlifting, or “peak performance training,” which is great for trainers looking to help high-performance athletes or individuals with specific fitness goals.
Another unique advantage that the ISSA program gives to trainers is the fact that the program is international. It is available completely online and definitely lives up to its full name: the International Sports Sciences Association. It was the very first such program to provide prospective trainers in countries other than the United States access to a completely accredited personal training certification program. Not only that, but those that receive certification from the ISSA will also find that their credentials and training experience are accepted and respected worldwide.
There are four training levels available, and they include the following:
Certified Personal Trainer
This entry-level program offers students the chance to gain a base knowledge of anatomy, kinesiology, and personal training best practices. Prospective trainers learn how to properly assess a client and provide detailed nutrition, movement, exercise, and rehabilitation plans that meet that client’s specific needs. If you are just starting your personal trainer journey, this is an excellent option. You can also add on the ISSA’s Nutrition Bundle if you want to add another level of knowledge to your training so you can better counsel your clients on diet and nutrition in the future.
This program offers everything the first program offers but takes things to the next level by providing targeted, niche training to those that want to specialize in a specific personal training area. For example, if you want to specialize in corrective fitness or injury rehabilitation, you can select this program and receive training that focuses specifically on how to work with clients that are injured or that have a specific health goal. Another example would be if you wanted to become a group fitness instructor; taking this program would provide you with specialized training that would equip you to work with small or large groups to assess their fitness levels and provide both group and individualized training for that specific group’s needs. If you decide to go this route, you will need to complete all of the first tier’s coursework as well as successfully complete one of these special certifications:
- Transformation Specialist
- Group Fitness Specialist
- Corrective Exercise Specialist
- Youth or Senior Fitness Certification
- Sports Nutrition Certification
- Exercise Therapy Certification
- Strength and Conditioning Certification
- Bodybuilding Specialist
This program builds off of the Fitness Coach tier and requires prospective trainers to complete all base-level training while also selecting and completing a specialized training program. Additionally, those pursuing an Elite Trainer certification will also need to become a certified nutritional specialist. Those that spend the additional training and practice time needed to complete this level of certification often find that their experience and expertise allows them to charge higher rates and work with unique, high-performance clients.
If you want to become a personal trainer for elite clients or for those that have unique rehabilitation needs and bring with them challenging health problems that require a deep knowledge base to solve, then this certification tier is perfect for you. You will receive deep, focused training that will equip you to tackle tough cases and to help people reach incredible levels of personal fitness.
Simply put, receiving certification at the Master Trainer level requires an intense amount of time and dedication. Not only do you need to complete all of the requirements of the previous 3 tiers, but nut you also need to receive certification in 4 additional training areas. Those that receive certification as a Master Trainer are widely considered to be absolute experts in the field, and are often looked to for advice and assistance from others. Often, those that have this level of training and knowledge end up speaking or teaching professionally, as opposed to working with clients on a daily basis.
If you receive this certification, you will be able to work with both the general population and with specialized groups of people, whether that is in rehabilitation or elite fitness.
The NASM certification program, on the other hand, offers a focus on “corrective exercise.” Muscle imbalance, injury prevention and recovery, and more are all focus areas that trainers in the program have a chance to learn about and master. The NASM is accredited by the NCCA and typically has a certification exam pass rate that is lower than the ISSA –on average, 6.5 out of 10 students pass on the first try.
Because of the rehabilitation focus, many trainers are able to work with clients in niche areas but are not going to be specifically equipped to work with high-performance athletes. If that is something you wish to focus on, the NASM does have an advanced certification called the PES (which stands for “performance enhancement specialist”). The NASM also has four different study packages available at varying price points that make it simple to target your learning to exactly what interests you and fits your budget and lifestyle.
- Their Self Study option is an online learning program that walks students through a basic knowledge of everything they need to become a general personal trainer.
- Their Premium Self Study option provides everything the first tier does and also gives students access to additional study support, flashcards, memorization exercises, and more.
- Their Guided Study option offers everything the previous two tiers do, and also gives students access to myriad other resources like coaching, mentorship, live workshops and training sessions, a training exam book, and more.
- Their All-Inclusive option is the ultimate training bundle, offering everything the previous programs provide as well as things like a job guarantee, enrollment in the NASM Gymternship program, access to a business accelerator program, and so much more.
Additionally, the NASM offers students individual feedback on their training style and provides specific training with regards to how trainers can best connect with their clients through things like word choice, exercise selection, vocal tone, and more. This focus on interpersonal relationships, body language, word choice, and personal presentation sets trainers up for success once they are faces with real-world personal training opportunities.
If you were hoping that gaining a personal training certification could be achieved with minimal reading and study time, the truth may disappoint you. With so much of your personal training success relying on your knowledge of the human body and kinesiology, you will need to spend quite a bit of time memorizing not only body parts and muscle groups but also the relationship they have to specific movements. This is especially true of those looking to step into a role that has them helping people recover from injury or reach incredible personal fitness milestones.
Below you will find some of the learning materials included as part of each training program.
When you enroll in the ISSA certification program, you will have access to a slew of training materials, including:
- A textbook with nearly 800 pages
- A workbook
- A study guide
- Practice quizzes and exams
- Online student forum and exercise lab access
- Resources to help you market and build your business
The materials you will receive as part of the NASM program will vary depending on the enrollment level you select. The basic set of materials that is included at every price point features a digital textbook that is over 700 pages long, video lectures, practice exams and quizzes, and a comprehensive study guide. Beyond that, other materials, digital assets, and training opportunities that are available at the other enrollment levels include:
- Flash card bundles
- Anatomy memorization guides
- Coaching and mentorship
- Live workshops
- A hard copy of the textbook
- Access to the CPT program, which offers over 80 hours of on-site training
- Access to a business growth and management program
Testing and Certification
In order to begin working as a certified personal trainer, you need to complete (and pass) a certification exam. While there are several different exams and types of training certifications out there, the ISSA and NASM programs are widely known to be among the best available. They have consistently proven to prepare their trainers exceptionally well for the certification exam, and – thanks to the practice exams and quizzes that are included as part of the materials provided by both programs – students have ample opportunity to practice before the exam day arrives.
Even if some of the sections on the exam are open book, it is vital to commit as much of the material to memory. Once you gain certification and find yourself face to face with clients, you will need to be able to recall information at the drop of a hat, without always being able to refer to your textbook.
The ISSA Exam
The ISSA exam is comprised of multiple sections, including a multiple-choice section, an essay question section, and more. There is also a section on case studies that require trainers to come up with unique, targeted 12-week exercise routines for 2 pretend clients. Those taking the ISSA personal trainer certification exam need to score at least 75% in each category in order to pass the exam and become a credentialed personal trainer. It is interesting to note that although the grade requirement in order to pass this exam is slightly higher than the NASM exam, a higher percentage of ISSA students pass the exam on their first try than those that take the NASM exam.
The NASM Exam
Students are given a maximum of 6 months to take the NASM personal trainer certification exam once they enroll in a program of study. To sign up for the test, each individual will have to register for a specific date and time with a local testing facility; they are located in many of the major cities around the USA. The test is made up of over 100 multiple-choice questions, and students can take up to 2 hours to complete it. Results are provided to students immediately after completing all exam sections. In order to pass the exam and become a credentialed trainer, students have to receive a 70% or higher.
ISSA recertification takes place every two years. Trainers will need to prove their ongoing education in order to be eligible for rectification; luckily, the recertification fee is minimal, ringing in at just $75. You will need to take a test, but if you have consistently maintained ongoing education, you should be able to pass the test with flying colors.
NASM recertification happens every two years and costs $99. You need to have at least 20 hours of ongoing education under your belt within that timeframe, and if you have diligently completed this training you should have no problem passing the recertification test.
Whether you select the ISSA or the NASM personal training certification, remember that you are in excellent hands. Becoming a personal trainer – whether you want to specialize in a specific training area or provide generalized care – it is a line of work that is rewarding, financially freeing, and extremely flexible. Working with others to help them achieve their fitness or rehabilitation goals is incredibly satisfying and rewarding, and both of these certification programs are well equipped to help you become a well respected and highly knowledgeable trainer.