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Top Personal Training Certifications: United States

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

Top Personal Training Certifications: United States is a chart comparing the top personal trainer certifications from an unbiased view so you can choose the best personal training course that’s right for you!

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Here’s the truth about personal training certifications: They’re not all valuable. At least, not for the reasons you think.

You should know a few things about personal training.

Personal training is an industry with very little to no regulatory oversight. This means that your 90-year-old grandmother or that guy beside you on the bus playing games on his phone can both become a personal trainer in a weekend. And with so many personal training certification options, it can be difficult to compare the many certifications or even tell them apart. Some can hold more weight than others, or can be less useful or unnecessary.

That’s why it’s important for you to understand how a top personal training certification can enhance your personal training career. Your choice for your certification impacts how you’ll spend your valuable education dollars, time, and energy as you grow your personal training business within the industry. We’ll go into why certifications aren’t everything and then do a comparison of the many available personal training certifications.

Before we go any further, please note that thePTDC is in no way affiliated with any personal training certification. It is an independent blog dedicated to the improvement of the fitness industry and the success of the trainers who work within it.

–> IN CANADA? We also have Top Personal Training Certifications: Canada

Your Clients Don’t Care About Your Certification

Sure, they might nod their heads when you extol the benefits of your certification, but remember the number one value you offer them: their results. Clients don’t care about how hard you worked to get certified; they only care about the results you can get them.

Your successes, or failures, are dependent solely on delivering the goods, results, to your clients. It doesn’t matter how good you are at sales and marketing. You have to help your clients achieve the results they want. To that end, the best personal trainers have combined both knowledge and passion to provide a high-quality service that changes lives and has results to show. A piece of paper doesn’t give you anything like that.

Rather, a certification is a means to get your foot in the door. It’s the starting line. Most gyms won’t even hire you without one. If you’re independent, many insurance companies won’t cover you without one. Depending on which gym you want to work at, you may be asked to get a specific certification. When you’re applying for a personal trainer position, ask if the employer has a preference (many do). But also make sure the certification can be applicable to many other places and bolster your expertise.

Being Certified Does Not Mean That You Are Qualified

Certified personal trainers are a dime a dozen. A certified personal trainer that’s actually worth his or her salt, on the other hand, is a diamond in the rough. Simply put, a certification will not prepare you for training clients. You might have textbook knowledge and applications, but real human beings aren’t going to behave exactly like what you learned or read about online, or in books.

In reality, personal training is no different from any other profession. In order to do a great job with a variety of clients, you’ve got to develop tons of practical and varied experience. An accountant, for instance, isn’t ready or skilled enough to take on a wide variety of cases right after graduating. No, he or she ideally goes to work at a firm under the supervision of a mentor or manager.

Because the barrier-to-entry is a lot lower in personal training, many new trainers may be optimistic and have high expectations of their abilities and outlook. Little do they know that without proper guidance and plenty of experience, there is no way that they would be ready to train a 15-year-old boy who wants to put on muscle; or help a 70-year-old woman with arthritic fingers and a torn ACL. These can be complicated cases that require years of wisdom.

Certainly, years of experience with your own fitness regimen and reading related material have their merit—I’m not dismissing that kind of important first-hand experience. At the same time, understand that your experience is vastly limited—to yourself. Up until the point you start training other people, your “research” has likely been focused on making your own workouts better or healing from your own injuries.

So, unless you’re going to be training your clones, then it’s going to take continuous work to learn, to adapt, to improvise, and to respect the profession. Further, you’re likely to no longer think as a beginner does that you forget how it feels to be uncomfortable and lacking confidence in the gym. (This is such an important point that I expound on it in the entire first chapter of my book, Ignite the Fire: The Secrets to Building a Successful Personal Training Career).

–> Want to be a better personal trainer? Find out how.

If you don’t know something, always remember that it’s OK to say that you don’t know as long as you follow it up with: “…but I’m going to find out.”

Let Your Passion Dictate Your Education

Your continual education is the best investment you can make. After all, you are the product and the resource. So, spend as much as you need to be the best you can be, and don’t ever stop. It can be on seminars, conferences, classes, and things of that nature, but don’t be so hyper-focused on whether this education will have a certification tag attached to it.

Remember what I said before about personal training being unregulated? That means that anybody and his dog can create a certification for fitness professionals. Save your money from expensive, meaningless certifications and instead put it towards books, training, workshops, mentorships, and internships. Seek out the best resources on whatever topic it is that you’re interested in.

Don’t be a cheapskate when it comes to your education. Your knowledge is how you become more qualified, not with a piece of paper. Perhaps more important than choosing “the best” certification is finding a place to work that has the best opportunity for growth. In other words:

  1. There’s a manager or mentor who can support you and allow you to ask questions.
  2. You get the opportunity to get your hands dirty and work with a ton of different clients.

Above all, stop following somebody else’s template to develop your skills.

However…There is One Main Benefit of a Certification

I might’ve harped on certifications for a bit there, but there is a huge upside.

Information overload is a serious issue these days. The information is often disjointed or so confusing that it’s hard to figure out what to do with what we learn.

Keep in mind that when you register for a certification, no matter how specialized it may be, an expert has taken the time to consider the methodology, gather all appropriate research, and combine everything together into a platform for education. In essence, that can save you time, which is your most valuable asset.

What is the Best Certification for Trainers?

Here’s where I finally give you the answer to what you’re likely looking for. Unfortunately, I’m going to give you the answer you probably don’t want to read: There is no “best” certification.

I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and I’ve yet to come across any cert that truly stands out. Having spent $10,000-$15,000 of my money on my education each year during my active personal training days, I can say that my best recommendation is to simply views certs as stepping stones for future knowledge acquisition.

Knowledge begets more quality knowledge.

Instead of just telling you to get a specific cert, I’ve provided a handy reference chart below that compares the many major certifying bodies. You’ll see that there is a wide variety in cost, location, required contact hours, and testing. Choose based off of what works best for your position. For many, the best choice is to get a certification, get your foot in the door, get experience, and let your passion dictate your qualification moving forward.

Do I Get CEUs For That?

In order to be re-certified, certifications require continuing education units (CEUs), or also known as continuing education credits (CECs). Almost every personal training certification allows you to get CEUs for outside and unsanctioned events. This means that any event you attend counts towards your requirements whether they say so or not.

So, attend a seminar if you think it will help you or your clients, but don’t think twice about going just because they haven’t applied to count as CEUs with your certification. Go because you want to learn and to help your clients, not because you want a piece of paper.

–> Start building your dream fitness career now.

Top Personal Trainer Certification Comparison: United States

Note that this is a comparison of the American certifications. If you live in Canada, we did a sister post comparing the personal training certifications in Canada. You can check it out here.

There are are a lot of certifications so the chart has been split into 3 segments.

personal trainer certification comparison

U.S. Certifications

Certification ACE NSCA NASM ACSM NFPT
Full Name American Council on Exercise National Strength and Conditioning Association National Academy of Sports Medicine American College of Sports Medicine National Federation of Personal Trainers
Website acefitness.org nsca.com nasm.org acsm.org nfpt.com
Year Established 1985 1978 1987 1954 1988
Is there a required membership? No Yes No No No
Membership Cost NA Student: $65 Professional: $120 NA Student: $10 Professional: $230 NA
Length of the Training 6 Months (exam voucher purchased with study materials expires in 6 months) NA – study materials do not include exam voucher and have no expiration date 180 days (exam purchase expires after this time) NA – self-study, though workshops and webinars are available 1 year (exam must be taken within 1 year of program purchase)
Program Cost Exam Only: $399 Exam Only: Members: $285 Nonmembers: $420 Exam Only: $599 Exam Only: Members $219 Nonmembers: $279 Exam Only: $329
Material Cost Standard: $599 Premium: $699 Premium Plus: $799; all include exam $20-$449; does not include exam Study Packages range from $699 to $2399 Study Guides from $46 to $143.48 $479-$569, including the exam
Prerequisites 18 Years Old, Valid ID, CPR/AED 18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED 18 Years Old, Valid ID, CPR/AED 18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED 18 Years Old, HS/GED, 2 or more years personal fitness experience
Test Procedure 3 hour exam; 150 questions 3 hour exam; 150 questions 2 hour exam; 120 questions 2.5 hours; 120 questions (+30 unscored) 2 hours, 120 questions
Exam Location Computer-based; over 500 US and Canadian test sites Computer-based; over 160 assessment locations in the US; limited paper-based testing in US Computer-based; scheduled through 3rd party for US & Canada Computer-based; over 5000 locations Computer-based; over 350 locations
Retest Cost $299.00 Members: $235 Nonmembers: $370 $199.00 $150.00 $119.00
Approximate Time to Complete 6 Months (exam voucher purchased with study materials expires in 6 months) NA – study materials do not include exam voucher and have no expiration date Online prep options last 9 weeks, but program can be completed at own pace up to 180 days NA – self-study, though workshops and webinars are available 1 year (exam must be taken within 1 year of program purchase)
Recertification requirements (how often and what’s needed) Every 2 years; 20 hours CECs† 2 years; retake exam or up to 6 CEUs‡ (which equals 60 contact hours) 2 years; 20 hours of continuing education 3 years; 45 CECs Annual, 2 CECs per year
Recertification Cost $49-$139 Up to $50 $99 for two years or $299 for lifetime certification (must still submit CEUs every 2 years) $30.00 $85 per year
CEC: Continued education credit
CEU: Continued education unit

U.S. Certification Comparison (continued)

Certification NESTA ISSA NETA NCSF NCCPT
Full Name National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association International Sports Sciences Association National Exercise Trainers Association National Council on Strength & Fitness National Council for Certified Personal Trainers
Website nestacertif… issaonline.edu netafit.org ncsf.org nccpt.com
Year Established 1992 1988 1977 1995 1995
Is there a required membership? No No No No No
Membership Cost NA NA NA NA NA
Length of the Training 90 days (exam must be taken within 90 days of exam or program purchase) 8 months (exam must be taken within 8 months, but most students complete it within 10 weeks) NA – self-study, though 14-hour weekend workshops are available NA – self-study, though workshops are available 6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with weekend workshops available
Program Cost Exam Only: $249 $499, including exam Exam Only: $349 Exam Only: $249 Exam & minimal materials: $299
Material Cost $449, including the exam $499, including exam $79 for study materials; $399 early bird fee for workshop programs (includes exam fees) Home study starting from $485; workshops starting from $485 (both include exam fee) Standard study package: $399 Online Deluxe package: $495 Workshop package: $598
Prerequisites 18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED CPR/AED CPR/AED 18 Years Old, HS/GED 18 Years Old, CPR/AED
Test Procedure 2 hours, 125 questions 160 multiple choice; 2 case studies; 6 essays 2 hours, 120 questions 3 hours; 150 questions 2 hours; 140 questions
Exam Location Computer-based; scheduled through 3rd party for US & Canada Online testing; paper & pencil available Computer-based; 3rd party proctored Computer-based Computer-based; 3rd party proctored
Retest Cost $149.00 1st online retake free; $50 thereafter $99 within one year $99.00 $139.00
Approximate Time to Complete 90 days (exam must be taken within 90 days of exam or program purchase) 8 months (exam must be taken within 8 months, but most students complete it within 10 weeks) NA – self-study, though 14-hour weekend workshops are available NA – self-study, though workshops are available 6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with weekend workshops available
Recertification requirements (how often and what’s needed) Every 4 years; 4 CEUs Every 2 years; 20 CEUs Every 2 years; 20 CEUs Every 2 years; 10 CEUs Every 2 years, 2 CEUs
Recertification Cost $149.00 $75.00 $45.00 $50.00 $75.00

U.S. Certification Comparison (continued 2)

Certification IFPA Cooper AFAA AAPTE NPTI
Full Name International Fitness Professionals Association The Cooper Institute Aerobics & Fitness Association of America Academy of Applied Personal Training Education National Personal Training Institute
Website ifpa-fitn… cooperi… afaa.com aapte.org nptifitne…
Year Established 1994 1970 1983 1996 1997
Is there a required membership? No No No No No
Membership Cost NA NA NA NA NA
Length of the Training 6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with limited workshops available NA – self-study, though live classes are available 3-day live workshop or online study Onsite course includes 12 3-4 hour lectures, plus required intensive anatomy course if needed 6 months on-site training ends in diploma award; certification exam through an outside agency is student’s responsibility
Program Cost Exam Only: $349 Exam Only: $289 $499 for workshop, $297 for online study, includes exam Exam Only: $295 Tuition varies based on campus location
Material Cost Study guide packages, include exam, range from $399 to $999 Live course: $595 Online Course: $695 (neither includes exam) OR Online Course with Exam: $899 Additional optional materials start at $20 Manual: $95 Onsite Personal Trainer Course: $975 Tuition varies based on campus location
Prerequisites 18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED 18 Years Old, CPR/AED 18 Years Old, CPR/AED 18 Years Old; Valid ID; Human Anatomy coursework; CPR/AED 18 Years Old; HS/GED; $75 plus application
Test Procedure 1 hour 40 minutes; 105 questions 2 hours; 100 questions 2 hours, 120 questions, plus practical portion Multiple choice Prepares student for NASM-CPT exam; student can opt to take any certification exam
Exam Location Candidate sets up proctoring (test is mailed to you and must be proctored by an approved proctor) Computer-based; 3rd party proctored Online testing monitored by 3rd party; requires microphone and webcam Onsite at Hofstra University NA
Retest Cost $75.00 $195.00 Unclear $195.00 NA
Approximate Time to Complete 6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with limited workshops available NA – self-study, though live classes are available 3-day workshop or online study; recommended 1-3 months of prep time; exam eligibility expires in 1 year Onsite course includes 12 3-4 hour lectures, plus required intensive anatomy course if needed 500 hours
Recertification requirements (how often and what’s needed) Every 2 years, 24 CEUs Every 3 years; 30 CEUs Every 2 years; 15 CEUs Every 2 years; 15 CEUs NA
Recertification Cost Varies based on cost of CEUs; up to 6 can come from outside IFPA $55.00 $75.00 $85.00 NA

Please note that I don’t promise 100% accuracy from this chart. It is meant to give an unbiased comparison. For all up to date info on certs visit the website listed or call the organisation directly.


What to Do Next?

Becoming a confident and profitable personal trainer is just like learning to drive. It’s one thing to pass the test and be let out into the wild, but it’s another thing to be confident and effective every single day.

Whether you’re just doing research, just got certified, or have been certified for a year or two and still feel you haven’t reached your potential, then you will find untold benefit in the “From Certification to Qualification” program.

This 10-part audio series will blow away the cobwebs of confusion, leaving clarity on how to fast track towards your personal and professional potential. This is stuff that you won’t get in any certification

Learn more here:
–> From Certification to Qualification

About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

As the creator and head coach of thePTDC, I'd have to say that this thing is pretty awesome. If you're interested in my brand new book, it's called Ignite the Fire (revised, updated, and expanded). Feel free to come hang out on my Facebook page where I explore the perfect balance between fitness, business, and living an awesome and fulfilling life.