So you want to become a personal trainer. Great! The flexible hours, the potential to change lives, and walking around in sweatpants are all valid reasons to jump into it. Just one thing: you can’t train clients until you’re certified through the "right" personal training certification. But deciding on just one out of the numerous personal trainer certifications is frustrating and confusing--which to choose?!

The best advice I can give you is: Whatever you choose matters less than you think. Just pick one!

When I first started, one of my training mentors told me that my certified personal trainer (CPT) credential gave me just enough knowledge to not kill someone. At the time, it highly offended me, but I now look back and wonder how in the world I was ever allowed to be alone with a client because of how little I knew. (In about 10 years, I’m sure I’ll think the same about my present situation.)

ALSO READ: Top Personal Training Certifications in Canada

Just understand that your CPT is merely the beginning of your career and knowledge base. Your education is never finished, even after you’ve obtained your personal trainer certification. Your certification plays a vital role only in getting into the industry and developing a very basic skill set. Please note the word basic.

In other words, don’t stress too much over the decision of which certification is the “best.” Go with the one that best fits what you want in the beginning.

The quick and dirty cheat sheet for the top three U.S. personal training certifications

The top three nationally recognized personal trainer certifications in the U.S. are NASM-CPT, NSCA-CPT, and ACSM-CPT. (For Canada, check this article: Top Personal Training Certifications: Canada.)

Each of these certifying bodies has a solid reputation for giving you a “baseline skill set” in personal training. They all cover the same basic information and skills you need to essentially keep your clients alive--to a certain extent. Where they differ really depends on:

* How much time you’re willing to spend studying and devote to getting certified
* Your initial funds
* Which types of clients you want to work with

These are all important factors to consider, and we’ve broken down the pros and cons of the certifications based on those factors, below:

The best certification based on types of clients you want to work with:

* The average “want to get into shape” general population clients: NASM is ideal because it’s broad and focuses on corrective exercise, injury prevention, and training strategies for clients that are new to exercise.

* Athlete clients: The NSCA-CPT uses more advanced strategies in their training preparation and adaptation guidelines and are better suited toward specialized programs with athletes.

* Medical/clinical patients: ACSM has the general certification, but it also has several career tracks that bring exercise into clinical settings for clients with cancer and other illnesses.

Keep in mind that even the “specialized” tracks can begin with your basic personal trainer certification.

* The “easiest” personal trainer certification: NASM gears its content toward individuals with little to no background in health and fitness, so it’s easy to digest and adopt.

* The “hardest” personal trainer certification: The NCSA-CPT is the most difficult of the three, as its content is relatively technical and assumes a solid background in the subjects of anatomy, physiology and physics.

* The personal trainer certification with the most usability: NASM is very “plug and play.” You basically walk out with a simple program design methodology that addresses the primary components: flexibility, core stabilization, balance, strength, and power. (They call it the OPTTM Model.)

* The most affordable personal trainer certification: ACSM is the least expensive of the three. However, while NASM is the most expensive ($599 for the exam, not including study materials) they provide interest-free payment plans, which makes it more accessible. The ACSM is the least expensive of the three.

READ MORE: Top Personal Trainer Certifications in the U.S. (Canadian? Check here.)

Keep in mind that this is still all pretty subjective. Some people will agree, others may not; and chances are, your clients don’t know (or necessarily care about) the differences. Despite the overview, the decision to choose your first certification may still weigh heavily on you, but let me tell you that the longer you debate, the longer it’ll take to get things started!

Finally choose your certification in two steps.

Don’t spend all of your time getting a certification based on reputation and bragging rights. Typically, there are only two things clients want to know:

1. The “legitimacy” of your certification.

2. Whether you can produce results.

Your personal training career, where you want to go and be, and your interests will likely change as you build out your roadmap. Just know that any of these can provide you with a solid baseline, and what matters is that you move forward. That said, here are two factors to nudge you along:

1. Base your decision around things that already work in your favor.

I went with the NASM-CPT based on price, the study materials available, and the opportunities to develop and grow beyond the CPT. Since I have a non-science background, I found NASM to be the fastest track to certification in terms of the preparation tools available. I used their online and live prep materials which all felt like a comprehensive collegiate course.

All of these factors sold me on NASM, but these may not apply to you. Your decision should depend on the following things:

* Your existing knowledge
* Educational background
* Available time for studying
* A specific gym or studio in mind because some places prefer certain certifications and may even offer a discount if you are affiliated with that facility.

Your certification process could take anywhere from a few weeks to six months--it all depends on how driven you are and your own resources. You can begin to study for the exam before purchasing it, although this may encourage procrastination. Be sure that once you choose, set a deadline by signing up for a test date to keep you on that study track. Also, flash cards and the Feynman Technique have always been an effective way to study and retain information.

This timeline isn’t set in stone. It doesn’t mean that you have to wait that long to start building your training career. Get your foot in the door early by taking whatever job is available at your “dream” gym or studio. This gives you additional experience and opportunity for higher pay.

2. Apply what you’re learning to really learn your study material.

People often suggest shadowing established personal trainers to familiarize yourself with their day to day and what the job generally entails. Most people do this way before or after they get certified. I encourage you to do this while you are studying for your personal trainer certification. This way you can actually implement or make mental models in your head about what you learn and see how they may or may not apply in the real world, with actual real-world situations.

While I was studying for my NASM exam, I worked as a floor instructor, a position that involved taking gym members through the resistance machines and answering their fitness-related questions. I had the opportunity to build rapport with the personal training director, get mentored by the training staff, “practice” what I was learning in my exam prep, and build a client base that was ready to train with me when I became certified.

Speaking of which, even though you can’t train clients yet, you can build your client base while you study. Don’t underestimate the opportunities available as a housekeeper or front desk employee, as relationships and visibility are profoundly important in building your customer base.

Each of the above certifications gives you the basic knowledge, tools, and skills to help someone on their path to success, so choose the one that most closely matches your current skill set and future plans. In the end, know that nothing is written in blood. Sometimes it’s more important to take the wrong action and correct it than to take no action at all.

Photo Credit: Featured Image by Stock Unlimited images, Image 1 by Flickr , Image 2 by Flickr