Certification/Special Training for Personal Trainers

Personal Trainer Certification is not standardized in the fitness industry. On top of that, your local health clubs (especially if they are national chains) might only recognize one or two certifications as a prerequisite to getting hired.

In other words, if every employer in the fitness industry recognized one certification, your decision would be pretty easy. Unfortunately, that is not the case, so you want to make sure to get certified by the governing body recognized by the most potential employers.

Again, the smartest thing to do is to visit the health clubs and/or wellness centers in your area. For sure, you should visit the ones where you’d like to work. When you get there, ask the management and/or the staff trainers which classes they recommend and which certifications they recognize.

You can obtain Personal Trainer Certification through, among others, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), The National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT), The American Council of Exercise (ACE), The National Personal Training Institute (NPTI), and The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA).

Make no mistake; your choice of Personal Trainer Certification should be based on the recommendation of the potential employers you hope to work for and of successful working fitness professionals in your area. You will likely find, however, that most potential employers recognize certifications with NSCA, NASM, ACSM, and ACE.

Certification/Special Training for Personal Trainers

ACSM Certification Programs

To obtain a Personal Trainer Certification through The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), you must be at least 18 years of age and have a high-school diploma or equivalent. You must also hold a current adult CPR certificate from The American Heart Association, The American Red Cross, or any CPR training program that has a “practical skills” component.

ACSM says it was the first organization to certify fitness professionals. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) accredits ACSM certifications. ACSM also claims to establish the guidelines that all other Personal Trainer Certifications use for testing. In other words, ACSM says its certification program sets the standard in the fitness industry.

In addition to the ACSM Certified Personal Trainer certification, ACSM offers among the widest variety of certifications of any organization. These include Certified Health Specialist, Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, Registered Clinical Exercise Specialist, Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer, Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer, and Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist. Some of these certifications require college education. For example, several require a Bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, exercise science, or another exercise-based degree. Regardless, if your goal is to work in a hospital-related environment, an ACSM certification may be a strong choice.

ACSM memberships, which range from $99 to $230, will include a discount on testing materials and exam registration.

To prepare for the examination, ACSM offers a variety of materials. ACSM’s Personal Trainer Study Kit costs $128.95. ACSM also offers one-day and three-day workshops, as well as webinars. These will offer candidates a chance to receive hands-on or interactive training, including the ability to ask questions, which may make learning easier than learning strictly out of a textbook. Finally, ACSM offers an online learning portal, which includes resources such as practice tests.

Once a candidate has worked through the study materials, it’s time to take the test. Exam registration for Personal Trainer Certification costs $219 for members and $279 for non-members. If you fail the first test, the re-test fee is $150. The exam includes 150 questions and is limited to two- and-a-half hours. Questions cover exercise prescription and programming, exercise physiology and related exercise science, health appraisal and fitness exercise testing, clinical and medical considerations, nutrition and weight management, safety, injury prevention and emergency procedures, human behavior, as well as program administration, quality assurance, and outcome assessment. Testing takes place at Pearson Vue testing centers, of which there are thousands of locations worldwide.

NASM Certification Programs

To obtain a Personal Trainer Certification through The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), you must be at least 18 years of age. You must also hold current adult CPR and AED certificates from The American Heart Association, The American Red Cross, The American Safety and Health Institute, St. John Ambulance, The Emergency Care & Safety Institute, or The Emergency Medical Technician.

NASM says The The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) accredits its Personal Trainer Certification.

In addition, NASM’s certification may the way to go if you want to work for a national health-club chain. According to NASM’s marketing materials, 24Hour Fitness, Bally Total Fitness, Gold’s Gym, Lifetime Fitness, and Town Sports International prefer the NASM CPT certification. Before enrolling, it can’t hurt to verify this with your local Bally, Lifetime, or 24Hour clubs (if these are the employers for which you eventually hope to work).

As with other certification programs, NASM offers a variety of bundled distance-learning packages. The least expensive bundle costs $599 and includes the examination fee and an online practice exam. The most expensive bundle costs $799 and adds a textbook, study guide, online course content, DVD, MP3 audio, iPod video, tuition for a live two-day workshop, exam prep bundle, and a software package and membership enabling you to become a virtual coach.

The time it takes to work through the study materials will depend on the speed of the candidate. Once you have completed the study materials (and attended the two-day workshop in some instances), testing will take place at a PSI/LaserGrade testing center. There are hundreds of LaserGrade testing centers at colleges and local businesses through the country.

To aid in preparing for the exam, NASM offers an extensive “frequently asked questions” section on its web site. Here, NASM provides highly detailed answers to questions pertaining to fitness assessment, exercise technique, program design, nutrition, client relations and administration, and professional development and responsibility. The site also offers helpful study tips, a “test your knowledge” practice exam, and a live chat and/or toll free phone number if you need to communicate directly with someone in the NASM organization.

The site also offers a “certification candidate handbook” for download. This document contains important information regarding exam eligibility requirements and registration and administration procedures.

ACE Certification Programs

To obtain a Personal Trainer Certification through The American Council on Exercise (ACE), you must be at least 18 years of age. You must also hold current adult CPR and AED certificates. These certificates must include a “live skills check component” to the training. This means that at least part of the training was conducted in a classroom and your skills were evaluated in person. Online-only courses will not be accepted.

ACE claims that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) accredits its certification. This may be an advantage if you wish to work in a college environment. The organization also claims that ACE-certified trainers are eligible for discounts on liability insurance if that is not provided through your employer. ACE also offers discounts on equipment, training software, and continuing education to become an instructor of YogaFit.

ACE offers certifications as a Group Fitness Instructor, a Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach, an Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist, and a Peer Fitness Trainer.

The Group Fitness Instructor and Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach certifications have the same basic requirements as the Personal Trainer Certification. The Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist requires 300 hours of work experience plus one of the following: a current ACE Personal Trainer certification or Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach certification, an NCCA-accredited personal trainer or advanced fitness related certification, or a four-year (Bachelor’s) degree in an exercise science or related field. The Peer Fitness Trainer Certification is specifically for firefighters, and is designed to enable firefighters to implement fitness and exercise programs in their local fire departments.

The certification program will require the purchase of study materials costing from $284.95 to $579.95 (depending on the package), and will likely take between three and six months to complete. ACE offers a “Study Coach Program” to help keep students on track as they work through the materials. ACE’s workshops and webinars seem mainly geared toward continuing education. However, for one-on-one interaction, ACE offers an Exam Candidate Discussion Board, an Exam Preparation Blog, an Educational Services Team, and an ACE Resource Center. The latter two are available both via phone and email.

The exam will cost $249 and will entail 150 multiple-choice questions followed by two essay questions designed to simulate situations with real-world clients. The exams are conducted at various colleges and/or testing centers. An online zip-code search on the ACE website enables you to search for nearby testing locations and test times.

NSCA Certification Programs

The Personal Trainer Certification offered through The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is known as the NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT). To qualify, you must be at least 18 years of age and have a high-school diploma or equivalent. You must also hold current adult CPR and AED certificates. These certificates must include a “hands-on training component” to the course. This means that at least part of the training was conducted in a classroom and your skills were evaluated in person. Online-only courses will not be accepted. The NSCA will recognize certifications from organizations including The American Heart Association (Heartsaver), The American Red Cross (including Blended Learning First Aid/CPR/AED Program), The National Safety Council, and St. John Ambulance.

The NSCA says that the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredits NSCA certifications.

In addition to the NSCA-CPT certification, the NSCA offers a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification. In addition to CPR and AED certification, candidates for this program must hold at least a Bachelor's degree or be enrolled as a college senior at an institution that is accredited by one of the six regional college accrediting associations (i.e., the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools).

The cost of study materials ranges from $189.95 to $815.95. The difference in cost depends on whether you purchase paper-and-pencil study materials or computer-based learning guides. Some study packages include the exam registration fee and may be a better deal (so read the product descriptions carefully before making a purchase). The cost of the materials will also depend on whether the candidate holds an NSCA membership. The yearly membership fee, which ranges from $95 to $135, will more than pay for itself through discounts on testing materials and a $135 discount on the exam registration fee.

The study packages may include a combination of textbooks, multimedia symposium CDs, and practice examinations. The time it takes to work through the study materials will vary based on the student.

The test will cost a maximum of $285 with a NSCA membership, or a maximum of $420 without a membership. If you fail the test and need to retake it, the cost is $220 for members and $355 for non-members.

According to the NSCA, the Personal Trainer Certification test entails a three-hour written examination. The exam includes 150 multiple-choice questions that focus on client consultation and assessment, program planning, exercise techniques, safety and emergency procedures, and legal issues. The first 35 questions will be accompanied by a video, evaluating test takers on their knowledge of exercise techniques, functional anatomy, and fitness-testing protocols.

NSCA says candidates can take the exams on computer or by paper and pencil. Computer testing is generally administered at one of 160 AMP Assessment Centers located throughout the country.

Continuing Education

A personal trainer has to remember that his or her Personal Trainer Certification requires yearly upkeep. In other words, continuing education is almost always required to keep your certification in good standing.

Requirements to keep a certification current will vary based on the governing body issuing the certification. Nearly all of the nationally recognized certifications require Personal Trainers to accrue a specified number of Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or Continuing Education Credits (CECs) per year to maintain good status.

The way you earn CEUs or CECs will vary. For many organizations, however, there are three primary avenues.

The first way to earn CEUs or CECs is to attend live workshops and seminars. These could range from a small class containing a dozen students to a conference attended by thousands of trainers. Attending workshops may be expensive in terms of travel and time away from work. However, the training at a workshop is hands-on, and therefore a more effective (and fun) way for many to learn.

Another way to earn CEUs or CECs is to take online courses. These courses could contain interactive and/or video presentations followed by quizzes and tests. This method of learning is not hands-on. It is comparatively convenient, however, because these courses can often be taken from the comfort of your home 24 hours per day.

A final way to earn CEUs or CECs is to earn specialty certifications. An example might be earning a certification such as a Corrective Exercise Specialist or earning a Post-Orthopedic Rehabilitation for Personal Trainers Certification. The upside of earning additional certifications is that you open up new avenues to earning money as a trainer. In addition, possessing more certifications may make you more attractive to prospective employers. The downside is that every new certification you earn will likely require CEUs or CECs of its own. In other words, the more certifications you have, the more work it requires to keep your certifications current.

In a nutshell, the requirement to earn CEUs or CECs will represent an added yearly cost in terms of time and money. The good news is that keeping your Personal Trainer Certification in good standing will also, by design, keep you current with new advances in the fitness industry and make you more attractive to employers.

Last Updated: 05/13/2014

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