So you want to be a trainer…or, you’re already training people, and you want make it official with a personal training certification (hey, you have to start somewhere). Fitness has become— or always has been—your passion, and you want to make it your job. Or maybe you’re already good at it and want to start training as a side business.
But where do I start? Which certification do I pursue? Which one will take me the furthest? Which one can I finish the fastest? Which one can I afford? Will my clients even care?
These are some of the most common questions among aspiring personal trainers. With dozens of different certifications out there, each backed by one of the multiple accreditors, an aspiring trainer can be easily overwhelmed when trying to decide which certification is the best choice.
In an attempt to clear up this confusion, we put together this Certification Guide.
But here’s the catch: there is no “best” personal training certification.
Unless they’re looking for a specific type of certification (i.e., yoga, power lifting, elder training), your clients won’t care where you were certified. They care about the results you help them achieve.
To lift the veil of over-stimulation, we’ve explored a few of the more popular and affordable certification options to see how they stack up.
To start us off, we’ll take a look at the most popular of them all, the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
In an unofficial Facebook poll on certifications within a group of fit pros, NASM lead the pack with over 50% of the votes. With exclusive programming like their Optimum Performance TrainingTM (OPT), and their in-depth, up-to-date study materials, NASM gives you plenty of resources to not only pass your exam, but apply that knowledge in the real world.
With prices ranging from $699 for the self-study package to $1,999 for the all-inclusive package with an exam pass and job guarantee, NASM definitely isn’t the cheapest option (but you can get 25% off here!). Each package gives you a 180-day window to learn the material, study, and take the exam. NASM requires 20 hours of continuing education and a $99 recertification every two years, which is about average in comparison to the rest.
While NASM is generally regarded as the one of the more respected certifications, that doesn’t make it the best for everyone!
NASM’s education and testing focuses on the general majority of personal training clients; clients that are sedentary, overweight, and lacking any kind of physical exercise training.
This preparation is going to give you the tools to help the out of shape get back in shape, which is what most of the population looking for one-on-one training will be seeking. Their program even focuses on building a business as a personal trainer, rather than getting a training job with a big box gym.
Bottom line: If you’re looking to obtain a widely recognized, well-rounded certification that will help you bring clients out of their sedentary lifestyle, NASM is a significant option.
The Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) personal training program has been around for 33 years, but has struggled with recent popularity due to its lack of accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). AFAA, like ISSA (which we’ll get to shortly), is accredited by the Distance Education Training Commission (DETC). Many will argue that DETC is superior to NCCA, but in an industry dominated by NCCA-backed certifications, it is definitely at a disadvantage in terms of industry recognition.
However, AFAA provides specialization in one of the most profitable and under-emphasized regions of the training market: group fitness training.
Training one-on-one is still a valuable and high-demand technique, but some simple math brings the advantages of group training to light:
- $75 per one-on-one session, times a conservative 5 training sessions per day, equals a daily revenue of $450
Of course, these are only theoretical numbers, as every trainer has their own system when it comes to session length and frequency. But, once broken down, it’s clear how much more profitable group training can be with the same amount of time spent!
In a surprising turn of events, AFAA was acquired by NASM in August of 2015. While this doesn’t change their accreditation status, it does mean that NASM’s world-renowned training methods are now combined with AFAA’s special teaching technologies, providing even more credibility.
Bottom line: If you’re interested in group training, AFAA is worth checking out.
Another certification program accredited by DETC is the International Sports Science Association (ISSA). ISSA has over 200,000 students and alumni, but has superior popularity when compared to AFAA due to the more relaxed open-book test. While open-book testing is an attractive option to an aspiring trainer looking to fast-track their journey to certification, many gym owners and employers see this as “unfair” compared to the more challenging exams of other certifications. As previously mentioned, their DETC accreditation is viewed as inferior to NCCA by some people. These disparities are some of the reasons certain training facilities don’t accept the ISSA certification.
But that definitely doesn’t mean a certification from ISSA will leave you jobless! While some employers aren’t fans of the ISSA cert, on the other end of the spectrum are thousands of facilities that prefer it. Additionally, many of the comments in the unofficial poll stated that ISSA training is geared less towards the general “out of shape” public like NASM, and more in the direction of training current athletes. Best of all, once a member of ISSA, you gain access to their private website with an ISSA-specific section of job listings, as well as CEU opportunities and many other helpful resources.
Bottom line: If you plan on training as a side job, training athletes, or are looking for a more affordable and less rigorous “foot in the door,” so to speak, ISSA should be taken into consideration.
Another certification with growing popularity is the National Association for Fitness Certification. NAFC was founded in 1992, and is another certification not backed by the NCCA, but rather, by the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE). While the NAFC isn’t the most popular certification around, their credibility stems from their strong science-based and injury-preventative training. Even though the majority of their students complete the program entirely online, they have one of the most thorough examination systems in the industry!
After the two-to-three months average time of completion, you’re subjected to not one, but four exams! Each exam is 100 questions, and you’re given 90 minutes to complete each one. You must score a total of 80% to pass, which may sound intimidating, but, according to NAFC, 95% of their students pass. If you take the research upon yourself, the exam alone can be had for $150, and most expensive option is $700, including a job guarantee. Additionally, this is another school that helps you develop your business skills alongside your training skills, with an emphasis on running your own business rather than working for someone else.
Bottom line: If you want to be your own boss, and you’re looking for an affordable, accessible, and in-depth training curriculum based on science and injury prevention, check out NAFC.
Returning to the realm of NCCA accreditation, our next certification is the National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT). NCCPT has been around since 1995, but just recently began gaining traction in the industry. Similar to NASM, NCCPT focuses on corrective exercise training that addresses the muscular imbalances of sedentary clients. Both certification programs source much of their material from ACSM research, but NCCPT has much more accessible pricing options.
Starting at $279 for only the test (including $79 test proctor fee), with five tiers of pricing capping out at $579, NCCPT is one of the more affordable NCCA-accredited certifications. They offer one and two-day optional workshops in major U.S. cities, but the majority of the material is available digitally, making studying for the exam even easier! Right around the mark of the rest of the pack, it takes two to three months on average to study for the test. You’ll need to score a 73% or higher on the 140-question exam to pass, which is taken digitally at PSI-proctored locations across the country. The proctored exam enhances NCCPT’s credibility compared to those that test online from home. While they don’t offer a package including a “job guarantee” like many others, they do offer a $29 “Business and Marketing” DVD geared towards fit pros as well as a free ProFit Jobs account.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a well-rounded NCCA-accredited certification and are not too worried about industry recognition, this is your most affordable option.
One of the first credentials to receive accreditation by the NCCA, the American Council of Exercise (ACE) is another quite popular, NCCA-backed PTC. ACE Has some similarities to ISSA, like their emphasis on the basics of training for those new to the industry, and a less brutal and time-consuming program than many others. However, their final exam has been generally regarded as more difficult, and the NCCA accreditation provides a stronger industry recognition.
Established in 1985 and holding over 50,000 certified trainers, ACE leads the industry in popularity secondary to NASM. Yet, as with all the certification options available, it has its woes. Many reviews of ACE state that it was a great base platform for their personal training knowledge, but that the general certification limits itself to being a stepping stone for those who wish to train outside of the “out of shape” or elderly demographic.
Bottom line: ACE is considered by a clear majority as a low entry-cost choice for those looking to step into the world of personal training.
Now that we discussed a couple of the popular and affordable options for obtaining a training credential, we’ll take a look at a more in-depth and time-consuming alternative: the National Personal Training Institute (NPTI).
Established in 2000, NPTI is very different from the rest of the options out there. Being fairly new, NPTI’s industry recognition is not the highest, and it is the most expensive route, with program and material costs climbing upwards of $6,000. On top of that, there is no online option for the course or test. In fact, you must attend minimum of 500 hours in a classroom setting to take the exam, making it a difficult choice for those with minimal free time.
But with those substantial downsides comes an even bigger upside: you graduate with a diploma in personal training rather than a certification. This diploma not only enables you to teach strength and conditioning classes at high schools, colleges, and universities (unlike certifications), but you are also never required to recertify! That’s right, a diploma sticks with you for life.
The reasoning behind this is that over the six-month course, NPTI provides hundreds of hours of hands-on, situational teaching, similar to a college course. When we reached out to NPTI about the differences between their program and the rest, Chief Operating Officer Casey McIlvaine had this to say:
“We actually prepare you by training you for 6 months, not a few days it takes to study for a test. We also incorporate a business/marketing background.
We are actually [an] Education, not a test you study for. Hands on training every day in a classroom.”
On the same token, 100 of the 500 hours are dedicated to physiology, biomechanics, and anatomy, and another 100 for nutrition, which is why many fit pros consider an NPTI diploma as the middle-ground between a certification and a kinesiology degree.
Most certifications provide you the tools and knowledge for the basics of personal training, but still require a “break in” period of real-world experience to be a proficient trainer. NPTI bridges that gap. Many NPTI graduates even go on to use their knowledge to fast-track an additional certification for industry recognition’s sake. With 30 schools nationwide (and one in Canada) and no online option, it isn’t the most accessible program, but it provides you with the hands-on, practical experience to hit the ground running.
Bottom line: If you want to pursue a career in physical education or simply want to have a comprehensive understanding of the human body and the mechanisms that make it work—and have the time and money—NPTI is a great option.
So…Which Certification Will You Choose?
With more than 66% of Americans overweight or obese, there’s no doubt that a personal training certification will give you the knowledge and skills you need to land a personal training job. What the decision ultimately comes down to is how much time, energy, money you’re willing to spend, and where you want to focus your training.
Keep in mind that many accredited PTC programs offer specializations in place of, or after completion of, your general certification! So if you want to pursue a specific style of training but are stuck on a specific organization, chances are they offer a program to fit your needs.
If you love training, you love helping people, and this route will make that a staple of your professional career!
If you still have unanswered questions, check out our comparison chart below to see information about each program side by side.