A certification doesn’t make you a good trainer. But it is the baseline qualification that allows you to work.
Many gyms won’t hire you unless you’re certified. And if you plan to train actual clients, you should be able to pass an entry-level training exam.
But passing the exam can seem easy compared with deciding which one to take in the first place.
That’s why we’ve assembled this master list of the top 16 personal trainer certifications in the U.S., weighing the pros and cons of each, to bring you the most comprehensive roundup of certifications you can find.
All are accredited by reputable organizations, suitable for beginners, and recognized by major commercial gyms. But that’s where the similarities end. You’ll find a wide range of price tags, study materials, exam requirements, and recertification needs.
We’ll take a deep dive into these criteria, highlighting some of the standouts from our list as we go. Finally, we’ll compare all the certifications in a handy chart at the end of this article.
What qualifications do you need to get a personal trainer certification?
While many of these certifying bodies offer advanced and specialized certifications, our focus here is entry-level certifications. They’re best for those just starting their personal training careers. None require any degree or experience beyond high school.
If you do have a college degree, you could consider a more advanced option. For example, we list the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s personal trainer certification—the NSCA-CPT—which requires a high school diploma. But if you do have a bachelor’s degree (even if it’s not in an exercise-related field), you can go straight to the better-known and more prestigious CSCS.
Eligibility requirements vary from one program to the next, as you’ll see in our chart below. But in most cases, you’ll need to meet some or all of these prerequisites:
At least 18 years old
This makes sense, since most insurance companies won’t cover trainers who aren’t yet old enough to vote.
High school education
Nearly all want you to have your high school diploma or a GED.
These are commonly combined into one program and easily attainable in one day.
Valid photo ID
You’ll need it to get into the testing center to take your exam. But if you’re 18 and don’t already have one, you probably shouldn’t consider a career in personal training.
How much does a personal trainer certification cost?
Getting certified can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000, if you include study materials and other bells and whistles. And if you intend to stay certified, you’ll also want to factor in those costs. (More on that in a moment.)
The National Academy of Sports Medicine offers the most expensive study package on our list; its $1,999 all-inclusive package includes a 90-day job guarantee, 80 hours of hands-on experience with clients, and a step-by-step program to help you get started in the industry. But while the NASM is one of the most credible certifying bodies, paying more doesn’t guarantee prestige. You can get the priciest study packages from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or NSCA—arguably the two most recognized organizations—for much less.
And with many of the certifications, you don’t have to pay for any study materials beyond the textbook.
A lot of the certifications offer payment plans, and many run regular promotions. For example, the National Council on Strength & Fitness (NCSF) has sales with as much as 40 percent off its $500 sticker price.
If price matters to you, check online for special offers. Many offer discounts for college students, health club members, and military members and veterans.
How long does it take to get a personal trainer certification?
Certification programs can take weeks, months, or even years to complete, depending on the program and your personal pace.
ACSM and NSCA let you study as long as you like. Academy of Applied Personal Training Education (AAPTE) and National Personal Training Institute (NPTI) courses have pre-established schedules, so you go at the program’s pace. Others give you a time limit before your exam voucher expires (typically three months to a year), and you can take as long as you want within that window.
A tip for procrastinators: Commit to a date
“Knowing myself, I would have procrastinated and made excuses to avoid studying,” says Francis Neric, the ACSM’s national director of certification. “So I registered for an exam on a specific date, and that helped me prioritize my time and efforts.”
What are the personal trainer certification study programs like?
Do you prefer to study at home or in a classroom? Are you a bookworm or a hands-on learner? Do you like the convenience of digital or the tangibility of print? Answering these questions honestly can help inform your choice.
For example, the ACSM’s PrepU identifies your weak areas and adapts the study guide to focus on them. The American Council on Exercise offers a one-of-a-kind program called ACE Answers in which you get real-time help from study coaches through multiple channels, including live events and a Facebook group.
For a full-blown college experience, the AAPTE offers a six-week course culminating in a certification exam on an actual campus in New York. Students split their time between the lecture hall at Hofstra University and a nearby state-of-the-art fitness center, where they implement what they’ve learned.
Another unique option is the NPTI’s six-month course combining classroom instruction with hands-on practical experience at various locations around the country. CPR and AED certifications are included, so you don’t need them going in. And unlike every other organization on our list, NPTI graduates earn a diploma, not a certification. If you really hate exams, this is the pick for you.
What are the personal trainer certification exam requirements?
Most exams are done on a computer and proctored by a third party. However, some can be done online from home. Typically, you’re looking at 100 to 150 questions and about a two-hour time limit (give or take).
One test, however, is very different. To get certified by the American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA), you must first complete 25 “assignment questions” with scenarios you might face as a trainer (such as program design), before moving on to some 250 to 300 questions. Luckily, you have 28 days to complete the online exam.
How long are personal trainer certifications good for?
For all but the NPTI, certifications must be renewed every one to four years. Recertification requires a specified number of CECs (continuing education credits) or CEUs (continuing education units), which are the same thing. Each organization has a different formula for figuring out how many you need, and how to calculate them.
You can fulfill them in multiple ways—attending seminars and events, taking quizzes, writing books or journal articles, or getting additional certifications.
Does it matter if the personal trainer certification is accredited?
Almost all the certifications on our list are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, which is considered the most credible. But even if a credential doesn’t have the NCCA stamp of approval, it should be accredited by a reputable third-party organization. If it isn’t, it probably doesn’t meet objective standards for an educational program.
What’s the best personal trainer certification?
What matters is which one is best for you. If, for example, you want to work for a particular facility or company, find out which credential they require or prefer. If you know you want to get into a specialized type of training, or work with a specific population, find out which certifications you need to get started.
Otherwise, think of certifications as stepping-stones. Each helps you gain knowledge, and proof that you acquired it. But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which one you have. Clients certainly don’t care. What matters is what you do with it.
READ ALSO: 7 Questions to Ask Before Starting a Gym
Top Personal Trainer Certification Comparison Chart
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