Best Personal Trainer Certification [infographic]

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best personal trainer certification

 

To help aspiring personal trainers choose the best personal training certification, we’ve decided to put together a list of (mostly) objective criteria we believe trainers are most concerned with. While there really is no “best personal trainer certification,” there are different factors that may better resonate with certain people.

Thus, we put together the following factors based on feedback from existing personal trainers and found as much data as possible so we could quantify our research:

  • NCCA Accreditation: most gyms only accept personal training certifications that are NCCA-certified so this is an important factor for aspiring trainers. The NCCA is the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, the gold standard for fitness certifications.
  • Price: includes the cost of the test and the cheapest study materials.
  • Pass Rate: the total test takers divided by the passers.
  • Expected Study Time: this is the time you have to take the exam from the time you purchase the study materials.
  • Number of Test Questions: all tests are multiple choice, and we report on the amount of test questions for each exam. We also cover the total time allotted as well as the minimum passing score.
  • CEU Requirements: amount of Continuing Education Units required to maintain certification.
  • Popularity of Certification: indication of the amount of people who have a cert and take the test every year.
  • Primary Focus of Education: while this topic may surprise some, each program varies slightly in what their education process concentrates on teaching you. This information is pulled straight off their catalogs.
  • Average Income: average annual income by certification based on actual user feedback from reputable website Payscale.com.
  • Retake Fee: if you fail the exam the first time, the price to retake the exam again.

Check out our infographic that covers the objective items mentioned above. Below the image is a list of all the items with a breakdown.

(Download)

best-personal-trainer-cert-infographic-fitness-mentors

Best Personal Training Certification: An Objective Look into 10 Key Criteria

Below we summarize the data contained in the infographic, diving into highlights from each section, explaining why some companies vary so much, and giving an honest assessment of why each of the companies ranks where it does.

We also include a “Personal Trainer Takeaway,” from me, a longtime personal trainer who has worked in almost every facet of the business (big box gym, one-on-one, group fitness, business owner, etc.). This section is a bit more subjective, but will help you consider some things that a purely objective analysis might not.

In some instances, we were not able to find data for each of the certifying bodies and we made estimates. This estimated data is not presented in the infographic but we make mention of it here.


NCCA Accreditation

With the exception of AFAA and ISSA, every personal training certification body on this list is certified by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the gold standard for fitness certifications. This is important to trainers because most gyms will only accept personal trainer certs that are accepted by NCCA-accredited agencies. So, if you are like many trainers who want to jumpstart their career by working in a gym, you may want to avoid a cert that is not NCCA-accredited.

AFAA is currently rebuilding their program so that they will be accredited, so they may soon join the list of others. ISSA does have accreditation with Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE), but these are not as highly regarded as the NCCA.

 

NCCA Accredited

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

Be sure to check with your top employment options to find out which certifications they accept, as that may be limit your certification choices. For example, if you have a friend that works at 24-Hour Fitness and says he can get you a job if you get certified, get a list of the certifications they honor so you know you’ll be a shoe-in.

Similarly, if you plan on working at a smaller shop with other personal trainers, inquire with them first if they will accept the personal training certification you are leaning towards. Bottom line, determine where you want to work, then see if those places have requirements on the types of PT certs they accept for employees.

 
Price

The Price includes the cheapest study package and test.

Most of the nine personal trainer certification bodies sit around the $500 price range for the exam and the study materials. NESTA is the cheapest at $477, and ACE ($599), NSCA ($712.80), and NASM ($799) are a full $100 to $200 more expensive.

For ACE and NASM, this is likely due to the popularity of the brands, while the NSCA seems to be expensive in general for these upfront costs as well as the Retake Fee (more on that below).

personal trainer certification price

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

You should determine what matters most to you: prestige or cost? If you want to go with a more recognized name in the industry (NASM, ACE) it will cost more. If you only need an inexpensive NCCA accredited cert for quick employment, look toward the less expensive certifications (NCCPT, NESTA).

However, also consider CEU requirements, income, as well as the above accreditation factors before you pull the trigger. While price may be the most important factor to you, all the factors on this page may influence your final decision beyond your initial investment.

 

Pass Rate

The cert with the best pass rate is ISSA at 89.9%, while ACSM, at 54%, sits on the bottom end. The ISSA has the best pass rate because it is the only open book exam out of the bunch, and there is no time limit on the exam.

There is no data on the Pass Rate for the AFAA because they are rebuilding everything to get NCCA accredited.

personal trainer certification exam pass rate

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

Some tests are much harder than others. If we use pass rate as our main reference point, it would appear that ACSM, NSCA, and NCSF have the most difficult tests. This can mean these tests are the hardest to pass and the people that do pass them may obtain more knowledge and be better trainers because of it.

Or, it could mean these tests tend to focus on more difficult subjects like anatomy, physiology and biomechanics. What matters to you most: passing the test as easily as possible or obtaining the most knowledge and proving that to your clients and future employer?

 

Expected Study Time

The expected study time is inferred from the time the certification bodies give you when you buy the study materials until the time you have to take the exam.

NCCPT: As long as you need. 80-100 hours recommended study time.

NESTA: Study as long as you need but must complete the test within 90 days of requesting the exam voucher.

ACSM: 3, 6, 12, or 24 month options.

ACE: Schedule test before 6 months of purchase ends but can take it before 9 months.

ISSA: 6 months to complete.

NASM: Must complete in under 6 months.

NCSF: Must complete in under 6 months.

NCSA: 120 days after purchasing exam.

AFAA: N/A

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

The timeline you have to complete the test matters depending on your situation. Are you currently unemployed and need a training job as soon as possible? You would then want the shortest study time and easiest test. Are you looking to become certified without the need for immediate employment? Maybe a longer study time would be needed since you are less motivated for immediate results. Also, keep in mind how much time you have to put toward your studies? If you only have two hours a week, you may not be able to complete your studies in the allotted time.

The main takeaway here is to not just look at the exam with the least amount of study time and say, ‘that’s for me!’ Instead, take an honest assessment of your current financial situation and the certification you really want and make the best decision for your future.

 
Number of Test Questions

Below: Number of test questions / total test time / minimum passing score

NASM: 120 questions / 120 minutes/ 70% or higher is passing

ACSM: 120 questions / 120 minutes / 68.75% or higher is passing. 800 points available based on scaled questions, 550 points needed to pass

AFAA: 120 questions online exam / 120 minutes / 70% or higher is passing

NESTA: 125 Questions / 120 minutes / 69% or higher is passing

NCCPT: 140 Questions / 120 minutes / 72.7% or higher is passing

NCSF: 150 questions / 180 minutes / 62% or higher is passing

ACE: 150 questions / 180 minutes / 62.5% or higher is passing. 800 points available based on scaled questions 500 points needed to pass

NSCA: 155 questions / 180 minutes / 70% or higher is passing

ISSA: 160 questions / unlimited time / 75% or better is passing

personal trainer certifications number of exam questions

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

What type of test taker are you? A confident test taker will not need to worry about the length of test or number of questions. Someone who walks into the test center and their mind goes blank because of testing anxiety may want to consider the shorter test like NASM or ACSM. Or, if you have an extreme fear of tests consider ISSA as there is no time limit for completion and the test is open book. Just make sure your potential employer approves this certification since it is not NCCA accredited.


CEU Requirement

The NCSF has by far the least amount of CEUs required at 10. At the other end, NSCA trainers are required to obtain 60 CEUs. However, these numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, you should also consider the time periods in which these hours are required, as well as the costs to recertify.

NCSF: 10 hours of CEUs and $50 to recertify every 2 years

AFAA: 15 Hours of CEUs and $99 to recertify every 2 years

NASM: 20 hours of CEUs and $99 to recertify every 2 years

ACE: 20 hours of CEUs and $129 to recertify every 2 years

ISSA: 20 hours of CEUs and $99 to recertify every 2 years

NCCPT: 20 Hours of CEUs and $75 to recertify every 2 years

NESTA: 40 hours of CEUs and $149 to recertify every 4 years

ACSM: 45 hours of CEUs and $30 to recertify every 3 years

NSCA: 60 hours of CEUs and $50 to recertify every 3 years

ceu requirements personal trainer certifications

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

Recertification is required by all certifying bodies. The process of recertification varies slightly, but one common ground is that they require you to continue your education and show proof of this newly obtained knowledge via CEUs or Continuing Education Units.

Also, there are typically 1,000s of courses to choose from to continue your education and we have compiled a list of our favorites here. Another consideration is that the more CEUs that are required by a provider the more money you will spend on recertifying (roughly $20 per contact hour) which makes NSCA (60 hours) and ACSM (45 hours) less appealing financially. Hopefully, this will not matter if you are successful in your personal training career. To ensure that you are successful check out this highly recommended business and sales course for personal trainers.

 

Popularity of Certification

The popularity of a certification is based on the number of trainers with a specific cert in the field as well as the number of test takers per year. Not reported in the graph is the number of tests taken per year.

When we called NASM to discuss this they said they don’t publish the number of trainers with the certification. However, they did tell us that they said they have twice as many as their competitors combined. Rather than publishing some huge number, we put NASM at 50,000, about 5,000 more than ACE and 12,000 more than ISSA.

NSCA, who is also the second-most expensive certification, has the least amount trainers with their cert. This is a bit odd considering NASM, a brand with lots of interest, can justify this interest by charging more.

AFAA said they have 350,000 certified but for a different group fitness certification. Thus, we didn’t include it on the reporting of the infographic.

The number of tests taken per year is provided below:

ACE: 13,103 attempts per year

ISSA: 10,696 attempts per year

ACSM: 5,226 attempts per year

NCSF: 2,455 attempts per year

NSCA: 1,529 attempts per year

NESTA: 1,515 attempts per year

NCCPT: 355 attempts per year

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

The way that we look at this statistic is mainly by determining the recognition for each certification body. It is assumed that the more people that take a certification the more well-known that certification is. Popularity can be seen as a reputation builder meaning that more people trust that company, but it also can be determined by the volume of marketing and advertising a company puts in.

To give a brief example of this, NASM advertises on TV and radio in our local area. This leads to more people in general recognizing the NASM brand and name. When trainers say they are NASM-Certified, their clients typically recognize the brand name because of the abundant advertising and that makes the trainer more reputable, even though the client knows nothing about the quality of education NASM provides.

The question you must ask is ‘do I care if my clients recognize the name of my certification?’ If so, choose a certification with more popularity. Note: Most clients don’t know and don’t care what certification you have, but employers do so make sure your chosen employer accepts the cert.

 

Primary Focus of Education

This information was taken straight off the catalogs of the certification bodies.

NASM: Exercise technique and training instruction

ACE: Program Design, Implementation, and Modification

NSCA: Techniques of Exercise

ACSM: Exercise Leadership and Client Education

NESTA: Business Applications

NCCPT: Exercise Application

ISSA: Program Design

NCSF: Exercise Prescription and Programming Considerations

AFAA: N/A

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

Most of the certifying bodies will be very similar in their balance of educational topics, due to the NCCA regulation that forces companies to do a Job Task Analysis. This Job Task Analysis determines the most important knowledge to have to be successful in the field and is typically the same across the board. Therefore, each company is required to have the same topics of education. ISSA is the outlier here as they are not required to stick with NCCA’s guidelines, but the balance of educational topics does not stray too far from the others.


Average Income

While the personal trainer certification bodies don’t publish this information, we are able to average data from self-reported data on reputable websites.

At the top tier of income is NASM and ACE, at $41,598 and $41,546, respectively. NCSF comes in at $35,061, the lowest of incomes we were able to find data on.

For NESTA, NCCPT, and ISSA, we were unable to find data but are able to estimate based on the popularity of each certification and the income reported for that cert. We estimate that these individuals, on average, make:

  • NESTA: $37,531
  • NCCPT: $35,101
  • ISSA: $36,235

average income of personal trainers by certification

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

These incomes are averages of about 30+ different people holding the same certification working as fitness professionals. We know trainers that make $200,000 per year as well as $20,000 per year all of which have the same and/or different certifications. Your success as a business person is determined by your drive, knowledge of key business and sales techniques, location and various other things. To find out how to be optimize your success we recommend this online course.


Retake Fee

Should you fail the exam the first time around, all the certifications bodies charge to retake it. NSCA, the provider with the most expensive retake fee ($435), charges almost six times more than the cheapest provider AFAA ($75), while the bulk of the other providers are in the $100 to $200 range.

personal trainer certification retake fee

Personal Trainer Takeaway:

The takeaway here is to prepare for whatever test you take, and make sure you pass the first time around!

 

Who to Pick for the Best Personal Training Certification

Again, choosing a personal training certification is a very subjective decision and certain factors may weigh more heavily with specific individuals. For example, if price is a factor, then NASM may not be the best option for you. However, when you look at income, NASM personal trainers tend to make the most, showing that this is likely the best investment in your future.

If you are a terrible test taker, the ISSA exam may be appealing to you as it is open book and has a nearly 90% pass rate. However, the ISSA is not NCCA Accredited and this means your local gym may not recognize it should you try to get a job there.

The amount of CEUs required, as well as the recertification fee, are also an important consideration as this is required by all the certification bodies.

The point is, you should be objective in your selection and determine what factors are most important to you. Talk to some other trainers and ask them what cert they have, if they like it, and if they’d recommend it to you. But remember, any trainer you ask advice for will likely be partial to whatever certification they have.

I hope that this post has helped you make the decision to choosing the best personal training certification for you that much easier. If you have any questions, or would like to see anything else added to this list, please leave a comment below.

Eddie Lester is a personal trainer from Los Angeles and the Founder and CEO of Fitness Mentors. With over 10 years experience and 8 different certifications and specializations, as well as multiple years teaching training at a vocational college, Lester loves sharing his knowledge of practical training experience as well as how to study for PT exams. Lester is the author of Business and Sales: The Guide to Success as a Personal Trainer.

3 Comments

  1. […] help personal trainers answer these mostly subjective questions about the best personal trainer certification, we provide objective details on some major criteria. Use the attached infographic to quickly […]

  2. Robert Stephens says:

    Thanks for the update if just had acl replacement 1/19/17 and wanted to go forward with PT .I’m a USATF level 1 coach so on my downtime this information will be helpful

  3. Nick says:

    I am NASM myself and I loved the program I really learned a lot! I would just like to say though if anyone is reading this and you choose a program based on the easiest pass rate of the exam you should not be a trainer! The last thing we need are more poorly informed certified trainers out there. If you care about the people you’re going to train you’ll learn as much as possible! If you read the material and really apply yourself to learning it the tests should be easy.

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