Best Personal Trainer Certification

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.

Related: Personal Trainer Courses: 5 Ways to Become a Trainer

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:

  • Accreditation: most gyms only accept personal training certifications that are NCCA, NBFE or DEAC – recognized so this is an important factor for aspiring trainers. These certifying bodies are considered 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.

Personal Trainer Certifications we Analyzed (with links to websites)

  • NASM – National Academy of Sports Medicine
  • ACE – The American Council on Exercise
  • FM – Fitness Mentors
  • NSCA – National Strength and Conditioning Association
  • ACSM – American College of Sports Medicine
  • NESTA – National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association
  • NCCPT – National Council for Certified Personal Trainers
  • NCSF – National Council on Strength & Fitness
  • ISSA – International Sports Sciences Association
  • AFAA – Athletics and Fitness Association of America
  • NFPT – National Federation of Professional Trainers

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

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.

Let’s clear up some Personal Trainer Certification FAQs before diving in.

 

1: How do you get certified to be a personal trainer?

To be eligible for most certified personal trainer exams, you typically need to meet the following criteria:

  1. Be 18 years old
  2. Have a high school diploma or equivalent certification
  3. Have a Emergency Cardiac Care (CPR) or Automated External Defibrillator (AED) certification

These requirements may vary from certification to certification, but these are the basic guidelines for a CPT. From there, you simply register for an exam, study, pass, and begin your career.

 

2: How much does it cost to get certified as a personal trainer?

We cover the specifics of how much each certification body charges for the exam and study materials below, but the range is between $399 and $799.

So, you can figure it will cost you around $500 to get certified as a personal trainer for most certification bodies.

 

3: How long are personal training certifications good for?

The personal trainer certification length is good for life provided you keep up with continuing education requirements of your certification. Another way of explaining this is that you’ll have to understand that each personal trainer certification company has different requirements for their trainers to maintain their certifications. The general rule of thumb is a certification must be renewed every two years and is done so by taking continuing education courses. See our chart and description below to learn more about each certification.

 

4: What is the cheapest personal training certification?

The Fitness Mentors Personal Trainer Certification is the cheapest personal training certification at $399 including the digital textbook, 8 types of study materials, and the exam. This option is completely online and therefore does not have some of the unnecessary costs associated with the others.

 

5: What is the easiest personal trainer certification?

This is very subjective question, however, ISSA is generally considered the easiest CPT as the test is taken online in your own home and has no time limit.

 

6: How long does it take to become a personal trainer?

There are five basic ways you can become a personal trainer and each will vary in the time it takes to start the process to get your certification. You can theoretically get a personal trainer certification in as little as a few hours, but this method, available through unaccredited online companies, would be unlikely to help you get a job or equip you with any real knowledge. Furthermore, this method is not recommended by Fitness Mentors.

The other options and general timelines to get certified are:

  1. Self-study: Certification via Accredited US Company — 6 months +/-
  2. Certification via Vocational College — 30 to 42 weeks
  3. Certification and Degree via University Programs — 4+ years
  4. Certification via Gym Program (usually unaccredited training programs, not certifications) — 90 hours +/-
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Accreditation

Accreditation standards are developed by several third-party credentialing organizations to maintain a level of professionalism within the fitness industry. These designations showcase that a certification body has created a high-quality program that ensures the safety and wellbeing of the public. Fitness certifications that wish to be accredited have to submit their programs and final exam to be evaluated on an individual basis. This ensures that they meet the highest standard and validates that the aspiring trainer has the competency for entry level employment.

With the exception of AFAA and ISSA, every personal training certification body on this list has the option for a National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredited exam, which is the gold standard for fitness certifications. This is important to trainers because most gyms will only accept personal trainer certifications that are accepted by an NCCA-accredited body. 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.

If you are looking for a more entrepreneurial route other than working in a gym, the FM-CPT is known for having the most business emphasis in their education. AFAA is currently rebuilding their program so that they will be accredited, but their main emphasis is their group fitness certification. ISSA does have accreditation with Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE), and is accepted at most gym chains.

Personal Trainer Certifications with the option for NCCA Accreditation:

 

Personal Trainer Certifications with National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) Affiliation

 

Personal Trainer Certification with DEAC Accreditation:

  • ISSA
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Personal Trainer Takeaway:

Be sure to check with your top employment options to find out which certifications they accept, as that may 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 personal trainer certification bodies sit around the $500 price range for the exam and the study materials. Fitness Mentors is the least Expensive at $399, and ACE ($599), NSCA ($712.80), and NASM ($699) are a full $100 to $300 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).



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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, accredited certification for quick employment, look toward the less expensive certifications (Fitness Mentors, NFPT, 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.

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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 or the educational experience provided is not sufficient in preparing students for the subject matter on the test.

Or, it could mean these tests tend to focus on more difficult subjects like anatomy, physiology and biomechanics. The study experience — books, study guides, practice exams, access to instructors, etc. — from fitness organizations can vary widely. The feedback from students is that some study curriculum does not fully prepare a student for a final exam as well as it could, while others find that the preparation materials provided fully prepare them for the final exam. This is why students often use third-party educators like Fitness Mentors to provide education for multiple certification exams like NASM and ACE.

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.

Fitness Mentors: 6 Months with 80 hours of 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.

NFPT: 12 Months 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

Fitness Mentors: 100 questions / 120 minutes / 70% or higher is passing

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

NFPT: 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

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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 whose mind goes blank because of testing anxiety may want to consider the shorter test like Fitness Mentors, NASM or ACSM. Or, if you have an extreme fear of tests consider Fitness Mentors or ISSA as the tests are open book. Just make sure your potential employer approves this certification.

CEU Requirement

The NCSF has by far the least amount of CEUs required at 10 credit hours. 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

Fitness Mentors: 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

NFPT: 10 hours of CEUs and $50 to recertify every year

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

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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.

NASM is by far the most popular of all personal training certifications at over 22,000 attempts per year. 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:

NASM: 22,304 attempts per year

ACE: 13,103 attempts per year

ISSA: 10,696 attempts per year

ACSM: 5,226 attempts per year

NFPT: 2,684 attempts per year

NCSF: 2,455 attempts per year

NSCA: 1,529 attempts per year

NESTA: 1,515 attempts per year

Fitness Mentors: 565 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.

On the other hand, some progressive companies, like Fitness Mentors, have introduced a relatively new certification. For this reason, they don’t yet have the same number of tests taken as organizations that have been around for dozens of years. The benefit of some of the newer certifications, however, is that they are able to fill voids where some of the older organizations lag. Fitness Mentors is 100% online, boasts more study materials than many of the other certifications, offers personal mentorships, and provides access to instructors. ISSA is also a 100% online option, rounding out the more progressive companies that are keeping up with modern demands of trainers who capitalize on online learning and test-taking.

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. Just keep in mind that 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: Behavioral Modification for Fitness Goals

Fitness Mentors: Fitness Program Design and Business Success

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

NFPT: Goal-oriented Program Design in User-friendly Format

 

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
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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 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 eight times more than the cheapest provider Fitness Mentors ($50), while the bulk of the other providers are in the $100 to $200 range.

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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 Fitness Mentors CPT exam may be appealing to you as it is open book and has a nearly 80% pass rate.

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.

If you are interested in two personal training certifications for the cost of one, the NFPT and Fitness Mentors have partnered to provide the best education experience in the industry with the power of earning two CPT Certifications at once.

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.

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