The Best Personal Trainer Certification Is...

Figuring out best personal trainer certification can be very difficult, time-consuming, and confusing. I had to go through that when I was choosing a personal trainer program. Which is why I wrote this guide.

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So, why should I know anything about personal trainer certification? In February and early March of 2011 I studied different training programs, thoroughly researched them, and decided on the certification for myself.

So I know where you're standing. And what program did I choose?

In my opinion, the best personal trainer certification is from The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

I give my reasons for choosing this program below, along with reviews of the 7 other major personal trainer certification programs out there. The ACSM was right for me, and it might be right for you - but have a look at all of them.

Choose only the best personal trainer certification when you're learning how to help other people get stronger and healthier!

Best Personal Trainer Certification Program Prerequisites

Unless otherwise noted, all of the programs reviewed below require that prospective personal trainers:

  1. Are at least 18 years of age.
  2. Have a High School diploma.
  3. And are CPR certified.

Also, I've included a little (.com) or (.org) below each training program. This'll give you a good indication of their priorities.

Every single program introduces itself by saying something like,

  • "Organization XYZ only uses the most effective, research-based strength training techniques and is the best personal trainer certification..."


  • "Organization ABC is the best personal trainer certification and uses only the best and most stringent strength training guidelines for teaching our trainers...".

Each one claims to be the best personal trainer certification organization around. I've done my best to get beyond this type of marketing-speak below, so that you get to see how they really are.


The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)


The ACSM is a non-profit, and generally considered to be the "gold standard" in the personal training industry - which is their tagline ;-) This is the program I decided on, and here's why.

First off, its certification is very science-intensive. It addressed physiology, anatomy, calculations of metabolic exertion for calories burned, nutrition, aging, and a lot of information about risk factors and how to correctly perform exercise tests.

The ACSM has been around since 1954 and is the largest exercise and sports medicine organization in the world. They also offer a variety of different certifications (Personal Trainer, Health Fitness Specialist, Clinical Exercise Specialist, etc.).

ACSM's program covers a pretty broad range of subjects, from the regular physiology and exercise programming to motivation and nutrition - which, for some reason, few others programs address.

They have many testing locations all around the U.S. through PearsonVue, the third-party that does ACSM's testing. So it's easy to take the test. And you can take the test in English, Spanish (Castilian or Modern), or Chinese (Simplified).

Expect to pay from around $500 to $750 for the study materials and the test. The test contains 150 multiple choice questions, and you have two and a half hours to take it.

I've written up a guide explaining how I studied for this test (like a demon) and passed it in about a month, and how you can too.

A downside is that while you find out immediately whether you passed their test, it takes them 6 - 8 weeks to get you your 'Congratulations, You're a Personal Trainer!' packet and certificate.

Though, during that time, you can call them up in case you need your certificate number, or direct prospective employers to call them to confirm your accreditation. Simply put, I really think that this is the best personal trainer certification.

American Council on Exercise® (ACE®)


ACE was founded in 1985, it's a nonprofit, and is one of the largest fitness certifying organizations around. They have over 50,000 certified professionals worldwide!

The primary stated goals of ACE are to educate the general public and protect them from phony fitness products - of which there are far too many around. This is the WORKOUT WATCHDOG™ branch of their organization, which does great work evaluating exercise products on the market.

ACE's programs are generally cheaper than the ACSM and they offer 4 different certifications: Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist, and Lifestyle and Weight Management Coach. And their personal trainer exam is less robust than others.

However, their website does have an excellent library of exercises and low-calorie recipes. Even if you're not going to get ACE® certified, it's a great resource. I think they are one of the best personal trainer certification organizations around.

The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF)


The NCSF is a fairly new organization, and they focus on certifying people to become personal trainers. And they are very versatile.

NCSF has partnered with colleges and universities to offer their certification at the college level. They also work with the military, so that servicemen can get their Personal Trainer certification while enlisted (or shortly thereafter) so they can quickly enter the workforce.

And they offer their test in English and Spanish.

You can study for their test via their home study course, weekend workshops, a combination of those two, and/or at colleges.

Their test has 150 multiple choice questions, just like the ACSM test, but you get a full 3 hours to finish it up - a half hour longer than the ACSM. But, if you know your stuff, the extra half-hour won't make a difference.

The National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)


The NFPT was founded in 1988, and focuses on certifying people to be personal trainers. This is the only program that does not require its applicants to be CPR certified (though such certification is strongly encouraged), and it does have the extra requirement of 2 years of some kind of fitness experience - working out, doing sports, or however you self-define that.

They give out free study materials, but you don't really save money since they have higher enrollment and testing fees than most of the other programs. Expect to spend around $500 to $600 for the study materials and testing fee combined.

They do home study, distance learning, and teach courses at many collages. Pretty easily accessible.

They have one of the longer study options. While most other organizations will allow you to take their certification exam whenever you want to (though they recommend that you study first), this program appears to lock you into testing a year from when you enroll.

This may be a drawback, since I know many of you want to get certified fast. I know I didn't want to spend a ton of time studying, revising, and sitting on my butt waiting.

They have many convenient testing locations in the U.S., like the other programs, and you get your test results faster. You find out immediately if you've passed the test, and then your welcome packet comes about 2 - 3 weeks thereafter.

And, as an interesting bit of info, they have no nutrition section on their test. I think this is a definite mark against the NFPT. Not my choice for the 'best personal trainer certification' organization.

The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)


The ISSA was also founded in 1988, and is a respectable organization. They also put a lot of their energies into certifying personal trainers.

For one, check out the tons of ISSA Google ads to become a personal trainer. They put a lot of effort into marketing.

They are the only one of these 8 personal trainer certification organizations that is NOT approved by the U.S. National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). That appears to be by design, though, not accident.

They are instead approved by the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Thus, for whatever reason, they are trying to set themselves apart from the other personal trainer certification organizations.

This is one of the few courses that you can take completely online, though they do offer hardcopy materials to study. So, it's extremely convenient to study for. Also, when you purchase a personal trainer certification package you must take the exam within 8 months, or it will expire. This is more then enough time to study, and the time limit might help you feel more under-the-gun to study.

Finally, I don't like this organization for their weak final test. Take a look at the paragraph describing the final exam (copied from their website):

  • "The Examination is open book, non-timed that consists of two sections.
    Section I: Consists of 100 total questions of which 50 are multiple choice and 50 are true and false questions.
    Section II: Consists of 60 practical, illustrated multiple-choice and matching questions, 2 Case Studies and 6 long essays."

While I like the addition of essay questions, the test is un-timed and open book. I don't know what you would have to do to make that an easier final exam - give you a free lollipop?

I don't think this is one of the best personal trainer certification places out there, and I don't think its standards are very high.

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)


The NSCA is one of the best personal trainer certification organizations out there. As of March 2011, there were only 9,600 certified NSCA personal trainers - possibly a testament to the quality of their program.

Their test covers, "client consultation/assessment, program planning, exercise techniques, safety/emergency procedures and legal issues." Cool, though I would still like to see them include a nutrition section.

You can take their exams either online or with old-fashioned pencil and paper. The test has 150 questions and is 3 hours long.

Expect to spend about $500 - 900 for their personal trainer exam and the associated packages. This depends on what package/study materials you buy, whether you join the NSCA, and whether you have to take a re-test.

NSCA recommends that you spend 3 - 9 months going over the study materials before you take the test, depending on how much time you have to study and whether or not you have a background in exercise. Thus, you can take the test whenever you're prepared.

The International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA)


The IFPA was founded in 1994 by Dr. Jim Bell, in response to what he saw as the sub-par standards in the health and fitness industry. But you'll notice it's a .com...

They are a pretty large organization. As of March 2011 they had 100,000 certified fitness professionals of some description.

The IFPA focuses on practical knowledge, skills, and abilities that a personal trainer can put to immediate use, rather than just on theory. And, in addition to being certified by the NCCA, they are also certified by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET).

Their personal trainer course covers exercise physiology and anatomy, biomechanics and safety, program design, fitness testing and evaluation, nutrition (yay!), and client consultation and assessment. And they have different specialized certifications for coaching/training for different sports, flexibility, military trainers, and even a certification for Tai Chi instructors (hmmmmph…).

IFPA's primary method of instruction is distance learning. You will be spending from $399 to $999 depending on which certification 'package' you choose.

$399 is for their Bronze Package (study guide, textbook, exam, and 2 day workshop if available). However, for $999 you can get their Platinum Package (training logs, alternate books, over 20 CDs and DVDs, and a laundry list of other materials).

However, I don't know if you get a set of steak knives if you order before midnight ;-) For me personally, I don't like this 'heavy-metals-package-system', though it seems a coherent way to bundle the test and study materials. Not my choice for 'best personal trainer certification' around.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)


NASM is a non-profit and was founded in 1987. In 1989 it set up its personal trainer certification program, which has been very successful - thanks in no small part to World Gym requiring that all its trainers get NASM Personal Trainer certification.

Also, over 90% of NBA trainers have some sort of NASM certification, be it as a Personal Trainer, Performance Enhancement Specialist, or Corrective Exercise specialist. I think this really speaks to the quality of their program, and shows that they are one of the best personal trainer certification organizations around.

They require prospective trainers to obtain CPR certification, and also to know how to use an AED (Automated External Defibrillator). Also, you renew your Personal Trainer Certification every two years, so you can do that at the same time that you renew your CPR and AED certification.

You can take NASM courses online, super convenient, and as of 2009 they were called a 'military friendly' organization. They offer discounts to veterans, active members of the military, and their families - and the online courses make it convenient to study anywhere in the world.

Their testing and study-material packages range from $599 - $799, while their 'standard' on is $649. This is a little more expensive than some other organizations, but (again) the online study makes it very convenient.

NASM makes a big deal about training their Personal trainers to use 'Optimum Performance Training' (OPT). This is a protocol that assesses the trainee and then guides him or her through exercises appropriate to his or her level.

A beginner would do mostly stabilization exercises, intermediates would focus on raw strength, and advanced trainees would focus on power (exerting strength in a short period of time). Of course, there are many more nuances to the OPT.

Which is The Best Personal Trainer Certification For You?

I don't know how much time, energy, and money you have. Or what your goals are for getting certified.

The eight organizations summarized above are the most reputable ones that I found. While I think the American College of Sports Medicine is the best personal trainer certification - the best balance of knowledge for your money and time - it might not be right for you. The one that fits all your needs will really be the 'best personal trainer certification' out there for you.

Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!

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The Best Personal Trainer Certification Is...

My Own Experience And Research Searching For The Best Personal Trainer Certification Around!

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