Congratulations! You’ve decided to learn how to become a personal trainer.
The next step is to get certified, and there are quite a few personal trainer certification programs to choose from. To help you decide which program is best for you, we’ve put together a comparison of the five most popular training certification programs and their features, benefits, and concentrations. The five programs we’ll cover are:
1. American Council on Exercise (ACE)
2. National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
3. International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
4. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
5. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Below, you’ll find several categories, with notes on each organization’s certification process. And at the end of the article, you’ll see which we think is the overall best personal trainer certification.
Before starting your personal trainer certification program, you’ll need to have completed a few prerequisites. For example, every program requires that you are 18 years or older, and that you have a hands-on CPR and AED (automatic external defibrillator) certification. You can get this certification through a community education program or the Red Cross. For the ACE and NASM certification, that’s all you need.
In addition to these requirements, the ACSM, ISSA, and NSCA require that you have a high school diploma or GED.
Study materials / courses
Each organization offers resources that will help you study for your personal trainer certification, but they have very different materials. We’ll look at them one at a time.
ACE has a number of resources that you can choose from to suit your needs. Whether it’s the Personal Trainer Manual set, the Essentials of Exercise Science Flashcards, or Master the Manual, ACE has you covered. They also offer several online programs that will help you prepare for the test, including an exam review and practice tests. And you can get personalized help from the ACE Resource Center, which allows you to talk to Study Counselors—whether you have questions about a particular topic, want to review some study questions, or you’re just feeling stressed out about the test, they’ll help you out on their free 800 number. You can even schedule weekly check-ins to add some accountability to your training!
The ACSM offers three books: ACSM’s Resources for Personal Trainers, ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, and ACSM’s Certification Review. Also offered are three different workshop options for preparing for the certified personal trainer examination: three-day in-person workshops, one-day in-person workshops, and an online webinar series.
A combination of online, print, and in-person preparation strategies are offered by NASM, including a 9-week online course, study guides, flash cards, interactive discussion questions, and 1-day live workshops.
The ISSA study materials include the standards: a hardcopy and an online copy of the main course text, a study guide and workbook, practice exams, a reference DVD, web support and social opportunities, and an animated online exercise lab that will give you the key information on 250 exercises. It also provides something quite unique in its marketing and business guide, which includes tips on developing a profitable business.
The NSCA offers a wide variety of study materials, including NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training, workbooks, practice exams, multimedia CDs, and audio CDs. The Essentials book contains a huge amount of information from a variety of sources, including safety guidelines, testing protocols, client assessment, modifications for special populations, and full-color photos detailing exercises for resistance, aerobic, plyometric, and speed training programs.
Recertification and continuing education
All of the certifying bodies require that you keep your CPR and AED certification current, and they all require continuing education credits (CECs), though the amount that they require and what counts as a credit differs between them. They generally accept the same types of things for credit, including attending relevant conferences, completing related online or in-person courses, and some webinars. They each also have a fee that you need to pay.
ACSM offers the cheapest recertification at $30 every three years; but they also require the most continuing education, with 45 CECs in the same period. The approximate equivalency is one hour for one CEC. ACSM conducts many conferences around the country, online courses, and webinars, and also accepts CECs from other health and fitness organizations.
ACE requires recertification every two years, and requires a $129 fee. They require 20 CECs, where each CEC is equal to one hour of training. ACE offers online courses, in-person workshops, a number of specialty certifications, and the ACE symposium, a large conference that’s held every year for ACE personal trainers. Though not technically a form of continuing education, the ACE Resource Center is also available on newly graduated fitness professionals, which means you can ask the counselors any questions you have about the industry.
NASM also requires 20 hours every two years, and has a $99 recertification fee. However, when you get certified, you have the option of paying $299, which will cover your recertification fees for life. As this pays off after six years, it’s generally a pretty good deal if you’re planning to be a personal trainer for a long time. Both live workshops and online courses are offered by the organization.
ISSA offers a low recertification fee of $75 every two years, and requires the accumulation of 20 CECs. ISSA offers workshops with online components, meaning you can get study materials and take quizzes at home, and there is a very large number of partner organizations that offer ISSA-accepted conferences, courses, and programs.
NSCA has the lowest fee at $50 every two years, and, like most of the other organizations, requires 20 hours of continuing education per recertification period. Committee membership, conference attendance, and the other standard events contribute to the CEC count, and NSCA offers both home study and live events.
Additional certifications offered
In addition to becoming a certified personal trainer, each of these five organizations offers additional certifications that can move your career forward by helping you gain a number of valuable skills. Some of them are more general, such as the group exercise instructor certifications, while some are more specific, like ACSM’s cancer exercise trainer or NSCA’s tactical strength and conditioning facilitator.
ASCM offers a wide variety of certifications, including group exercise instructor; health fitness specialist, which gives you the skills to work with populations who have controlled medical conditions. Clinical certifications are offered, as are specialty certifications, such as Exercise is Medicine, Physical Activity in Public Health, and Cancer Exercise Trainer.
Through ACE, you can be certified as a group fitness instructor, ACE health coach, or advanced health and fitness specialist. There are also several specialty certifications, including youth fitness, fitness nutrition, functional training, and mind-body.
Credentials offered by NASM include mixed martial arts conditioning, golf fitness, women’s fitness, youth exercise, and fitness nutrition.
ISSA provides certifications in fitness nutrition, exercise therapy, senior fitness, youth fitness, strength and conditioning, and sports nutrition. You can also gain increased personal trainer credentials through the elite trainer and master trainer certifications.
Because the NSCA is primarily focused on strength and conditioning, they offer certifications related to this field, including strength and conditioning and special populations certifications. They also offer a credentialing program for tactical strength and conditioning facilitators, who train military, law enforcement, fire and rescue, and other specialty fields.
If you’re a bit confused by accreditation, you’re not alone. To become accredited, a program undergoes a review by an accrediting body, which is an organization that sets standards for certification programs—this means that the development, implementation, maintenance, and governance of the program meets the levels set out by the accrediting body. In short, if a program is accredited, it means that it’s been shown to meet the high standards set by a review organization.
ACSM, ACE, NASM, and NSCA are all accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). NCCA accreditation is generally held as the standard for the field—certifying bodies must undergo comprehensive evaluation and regular renewals to keep this accreditation.
The ISSA is accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), which is recognized by the Department of Education, as well as other high-level education organizations. The DETC conducts comprehensive reviews that include student surveys and expert curricula evaluations, and requires regular re-accreditation.
Both the NCCA and the DETC are rigorous and widely accepted and recognized accreditations, meaning the five programs listed here are essentially equivalent in this regard. The International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (an international organization that many health clubs belong to) has no preference on accrediting bodies, and recognizes both the NCCA and DETC.
Getting certified as a personal trainer is generally a semi-expensive proposition, but each organization offers bundles that will help you pay for the study materials and the test fee without breaking the bank. Becoming a personal trainer does require a significant investment of time and money, but once you get certified and start taking your own clients, you’ll realize that it was all worth it!
ACSM offers their three test-preparation resources in a bundle for $135, as well as three different workshop options for preparing for the certified personal trainer examination: in-person 3-day workshops ($375), in-person 1-day workshops ($129), and online webinar series ($240). The test itself costs $299, but attending a 3-day workshop gets you a $50 discount. If you go with the study bundle and a 3-day workshop, you’ll be paying a little under $900 for the whole thing.
Several study bundles are available ACE, and they range in price from $499–$799, with the $699 option being the most popular. This price also includes the fee for taking the certification exam, which is convenient for calculating your total expenditure. Free financing is available on the $799 plan, meaning you don’t have to pay for the whole thing up front, which can make paying for your certification a bit easier. If you take the exam without getting an exam voucher in one of the study bundles, you’ll be looking at a $399 test fee. You can also buy the study materials individually, but you save a lot of money going with a bundle. For example, you’ll have to pay $110 for the ACE manual, and $169 for the online test review.
NASM’s 9-week online course costs $349, and offers a test pass guarantee, meaning you’ll get your money back if you complete the course and don’t pass the test (though, according to the website, students who complete this course have a 95% pass rate). The half-day certification test prep workshop costs less at $199, but doesn’t offer the guarantee. The CPT super bundle, which includes online flash cards and information on exercise techniques and program design, can be purchased for $79. The test itself costs $599—the most expensive test, but with a test-pass guarantee and 95% pass rate on the 9-week course, you don’t have to worry about re-taking the test! The online course plus the test will run you about $950.
ISSA makes pricing for study materials and the test very easy: you get it all for $499, making this one of the most affordable options. You get the main course text in hardcopy and online forms, the study guide and workbook, and everything else listed in the Study Materials section above.
The study packages from NSCA range from $177 to $361 for members of the NSCA, and from $285 to $530 for non-members, making membership a big bonus if you’re planning on getting this certification. Depending on how you take the exam, you’re looking at between $235 (for the paper exam, if you’re a member) to $420 (for the online exam, non-member status). Strangely, it’s cheaper to the take the paper exam.
Our #1 Pick for Best Personal Trainer Certification Program
We’ve presented a lot of information above, and it can be tough to take it all in. To help you out, we’ve compared all of the above programs and come up with a recommendation.
Who offers the best personal trainer certification? The American Council on Exercise (ACE).
What went into the final decision? First, study and support. The simply priced training packages, online support, and industry-leading over-the-phone Resource Center can’t be topped. You can get the answers to your questions, encouragement when you need it, and weekly accountability calls. No one else offers this level of support. And it doesn’t stop when you graduate; even new graduates can call the Resource Center. Second, the wide variety of additional certifications and specializations; group fitness instructor, health coach, and advanced health and fitness specialist are all very valuable certifications, and the more specialized certs can help increase your value to potential employers. Finally, the non-profit nature of the organization played a role. ACE isn’t guided by investor or profits, and is committed to training the best possible fitness professionals.
With an ACE certification, you’ll be well-trained, highly employable, and you won’t spend all of your money getting it.
In close second comes NASM due to its 20+ year history in the industry as well as its highly-respected CPT program. Like ACE, NASM is one of the most widely-accepted certifications available.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with any of the above programs, but these two are the ones most trainers choose before starting their careers as personal trainers.