The 5 Best Personal Trainer Certifications

There’s no shortage of programs offering a personal trainer certificate. However, to ensure that you get your money’s worth, you really want to choose a program with a high pedigree, such as one of the five training certification courses listed below.

These programs are all lead by venerable fitness institutions, combining cutting-edge fitness science and methodologies with the convenience of distance learning. Additionally, many include professional guidance, internship placements and other assistance to get you out of the classroom quickly—and into your first fitness training position. Here’s a closer look at some of the best personal trainer certifications available today.

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) empowers trainers and fitness experts with one simple directive: get people moving. The training course and resources are built on that straightforward foundation, offering teaching that meets clients at their level, whether that means a walk in the park or a high-performance triathlon.

And that singular mission seems to have results; the personal trainer program boasts over 53,000 graduates, with over one million client sessions all over the globe. ACE offers separate certification programs for Personal Trainers, Group Fitness Instructors, Health Coaches and Medical Exercise Specialists. The personal training program consists of the following:

  • Curriculum. The curriculum for personal trainers revolves around the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® model, which emphasizes customized training programs to meet various individual challenges and goals. The training cycle for each program falls into four phases: function, health, fitness, performance. Each phase emphasizes different aspects of health: mobility and stability training, aerobic exercise, endurance and efficiency training, and more. The ACE certification teaches trainers how to rank clients into one of the four phases, and how to design a customized training program around each group’s goals and abilities.

  • Prerequisites and Eligibility Requirements. In order to sit for an exam, candidates must hold a valid CPR/AED certification at time of registration with live skills check (not online only). Candidates must be over 18.

  • Testing. The program culminates with an in-person exam covering the lessons outlined in the ACE Academy Elite 2018 guide and the ACE Personal Trainer Manual eBook. Find out more about testing in the free Certification Exam Candidate Handbook.

  • Continuing Education and Career Resources. ACE offers a robust library of resources for certified trainers, including recertification programs, a career center, online courses, workshops and events, and live webinars.

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National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) is a respected organization of sports and fitness professionals. For over thirty years, the academy has been offering training and resources for those involved in the fitness training, with the goal of offering an elite, science-based approach to personal training.

Thanks to that extraordinary pedigree, they have turned out over 190,000 personal training certifications in the last 10 years, making them one of the most popular programs in the industry.

  • Curriculum. NASM’s certification relies on the organization’s proprietary Optimum Performance Training™ (OPT™) model. Using the latest scientific research as a basis, the program explores a wide variety of fitness and health predictors, including flexibility, core stabilization, balance, strength, power, and cardiorespiratory endurance. NASM offers both self-guided and guided instruction programs with a digital textbook, video lectures, practice quizzes, exercise library and study guides, designed to help fitness professionals build training routines and guidance that employ evidence-backed research.

  • Prerequisites and Eligibility Requirements. In order to become a NASM-CPT, individuals must have earned a high school diploma or GED, and current CPR/AED Certification prior to sitting for the exam.

  • Testing. Like all PT certification programs, NASM-CPT candidates must pass the Certified Professional Trainer exam with a grade above the cut score. To learn more about NASM-CPT testing, review the organization’s Candidate Handbook.

  • Continuing Education and Career Resources. Trainers who receive certification through the NASM are eligible for placement in their Gymternship™ program, which gives personal trainers hands-on experience, and the potential to earn a permanent spot at a fitness facility. Certificate holders can also continue their education by pursuing the organization’s Advanced Specializations, including courses in Fitness Nutrition, Group Training, Weight Loss Training, Senior Fitness, Women’s Fitness and more. The NASM also hosts live workshops and an annual conference for certified professionals.

International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)

The International Sports Sciences Association is another option, particularly for those students who require distance education. The ISSA bills itself as “the trainer’s trainer,” offering a huge variety of self-paced distance courses in many different fitness and health-related topics. They even have an Associate’s Degree program in Exercise Science, for those interested in improving their knowledge.

The Personal Trainer Certificate, while not an undergraduate degree, nonetheless provides fitness instructors and trainers with the skills they need to provide comprehensive fitness training.

  • Curriculum. The ISSA’s professional trainer certification is built around the philosophical and scientific aspects of fitness—anatomy, health assessment, and movement principles—with an eye toward applying those skills in a practical, day-to-day environment. Therefore, the curriculum also includes sections on business management and marketing, as well as tailoring programs to meet the diverse requirements of the general public. Coursework can be completed alone or through instructor-led classes.

  • Prerequisites and Eligibility Requirements. The self-paced curriculum is divided into quizzes, each of which is graded. Certificate candidates must pass all quizzes with a minimum grade of 75% or higher in order to take the final exam. Candidates also need a high school diploma or equivalent and a current adult CPR/AED/First Aid Certification.

  • Testing. The ISSA exam is an untimed, open-book test available online. You can find out more information about courses and testing by downloading the Certification Course Catalog.

  • Continuing Education and Career Resources. Students who pass the ISSA’s exam are eligible for a free business guide and professional website to kickstart their employment. ISSA also offers a wide range of additional certification programs and continuing education courses, covering everything from acne to ZMA.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is a well-respected professional organization among fitness pros across the globe. ACSM boasts an impressive membership of over 50,000 fitness professionals, with chapters in 90 different countries.

ACSM holds itself and its candidates to what it calls its “gold standard,” which the organization describes as “setting the bar a little bit higher” than other professional organizations/certifications. The organization has a scientifically-minded bent, encouraging members to drive fitness science research forward.

  • Curriculum. ACSM’s personal trainer certification courses prepare students for a variety of different fitness settings, including gyms, universities, and other fitness facilities. The curriculum is a combination of practical knowledge and scientific research, instructing students to create individual training programs for individuals across all walks of life.

  • Prerequisites and Eligibility Requirements. In order to take the ACSM PTC exam, you must be 18 or older, have a high school diploma (or equivalent) and hold an adult CPR/AED Certification.

  • Testing. All exams are scheduled with Pearson VUE, and covers the information outlined in the Personal Training Exam Content Outline.

  • Continuing Education and Career Resources. ACSM offers many opportunities for advanced learning and professional development, including recertification programs, regular events and conferences, and several specialist certifications for working with special populations.

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

As you might imagine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) focuses primarily on strength and conditioning training. Their CPT course prepares future fitness professionals to assess, motivate, educate and train clients using an individual approach. With research-backed course materials, this certification is a good fit for anyone pursuing a future in fitness training.

  • Curriculum. The NSCA CPT exam covers four main areas: Client Consultation/Fitness Assessment, Program Planning, Exercise Techniques, and Safety/Emergency Issues. These topics cover how to assess client needs based on health history, fitness level and nutrition. They also teach students how to design a comprehensive training program using client goals as a benchmark. They also address special needs clients, and teach students how to train clients safely and how to respond to emergency issues.

  • Prerequisites and Eligibility Requirements. In order to sit for the NSCA CPT exam, candidates must be at least 18 years old and hold a high school diploma or equivalent. Candidates must also hold a current CPR and AED certification.

  • Testing. The exam consists of 140 scored questions and 15 non-scored multiple-choice questions, covering material outlined in the NSCA Certification Handbook.

  • Continuing Education and Career Resources. The NSCA has many opportunities for continued studies, including additional training programs for the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified Special Population Specialist and Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator. The foundation also produces regular publications and journals. Membership in the NSCA offers access to a job board and career development resources as well.

Regardless of which program you chose, you know you’ll be getting a quality education if you select one of the courses above. Best of luck to you in your studies!

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