Personal training is a challenging and rewarding career.
The growth of the fitness industry across the world and the widespread rise in preventable diseases due to sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition means job security is all but guaranteed.
The first step in becoming a personal trainer is earning your Certified Personal Trainer credential from a recognized certification provider. This credential forms the foundation of any fitness career and is a prerequisite for professionalism, job guarantee, and success in the industry.
The decision to choose your certification is consequential for your career.
The following list reviews the five top personal training certificate options in the fitness industry, based on my experience working in the industry, my familiarity with each certification, and doing research from multiple sources like this one on the best personal trainer certifications.
Once you’ve finished the article, you’ll be set to kick off your successful career as a personal trainer.
Best Personal Training Certifications: Quick Roundup
Best overall: Trainer Academy CPT
Best for special populations: ISSA CPT
Best for corrective exercise: NASM CPT
Best for simplified program design: ACE CPT
Best for strength and conditioning: NSCA CPT
1. Trainer Academy Certified Personal Trainer Certification
Introduction to the Trainer Academy CPT
The Trainer Academy Certified Personal Trainer Certification is a fitness certification recently developed by the fitness experts from various universities representing the Trainer Academy certifying organization. Trainer Academy’s mission is to lower the financial barriers for aspiring personal trainers looking to become certified through high-quality, NCCA-accredited personal trainer programs.
Right now, I rank the Trainer Academy CPT program as a strong contender for the best personal trainer certification. From fitness industry beginners to those with experience, Trainer Academy offers an excellent option.
The current high costs associated with both collegiate education and mainstream fitness certifications mean a substantial number of trainers are either unable to get certified or forced into less-reputable non-accredited programs.
Virtually every fitness certification not only has a high exam fee but also charges a separate cost for additional study formats required by non-traditional learners.
Trainer Academy provides a complete solution for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds and learning styles to study with resources catered to their unique needs.
With this goal in mind, Trainer Academy offers their personal trainer textbook curriculum for free to anyone interested directly on their website, so students can dive into the knowledge before paying for additional study materials and testing fees.
Students who opt for the Trainer Academy CPT study programs get access to a custom learning management system built with gamified study plans, turning what was once a slow grind through tough materials into a fun, interactive learning experience.
Their entire learning system and exam fee costs a fraction of most baseline NCCA-accredited study programs.
Anyone who studies with the Trainer Academy LMS will understand immediately why this certification program is at the top of our list and growing in popularity. It also includes flashcards, practice exams, and other study assistance at affordable prices.
On top of this, all Trainer Academy students who take the CPT program and purchase any of the study packages receive access to the CoachesOnline training app. This app gives trainers a seamless way to train clients online through digitally-delivered training programs, workout technique videos, accountability trackers, and more.
The app is fully customizable so trainers can add their own workout videos and programs. However, it also comes pre-loaded with over 1,500 exercises and multiple training templates, providing an out-of-the-box solution to meet the growing demand for online personal training.
With this said Trainer Academy provides all the scientific, technical, business, and interpersonal skills required to be a successful personal trainer
Overall, there is simply no comparison to the Trainer Academy CPT program in terms of price, value, and quality of materials provided for both the certification itself and success in the industry after students pass the exam.
The Trainer Academy CPT is on track to receive NCCA accreditation in fall 2023, which will put it on par with NASM, ISSA, and the other top fitness organizations, but at a much more affordable price. From health clubs to other employers, Trainer Academy-certified trainers can work in many areas of the industry.
Prerequisites for the Trainer Academy CPT include cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification (CPR), AED certification, and a high school diploma or GED.
Trainer Academy CPT Curriculum
The Trainer Academy CPT curriculum and study material spans 30 chapters and as mentioned, is available for free online.
The subjects covered and chapter breakdown are as follows:
- The Skeletal System
- The Nervous System
- The Muscular System
- The Cardiorespiratory System
- The Endocrine System
- Biomechanics and Kinesiology
- Communication Skills for Fitness Professionals
- Applied Elements of Behavioral Coaching
- Health History and Anthropometric Assessments
- Posture, Movement, and Performance Assessments
- Cardiorespiratory Fitness Assessments
- Principles of Aerobic Training Programs
- Principles of Flexibility Training Techniques
- Adaptations to Resistance Training
- Resistance Training Protocols and Systems
- Resistance Training Technique
- Program Design
- Principles of Plyometric Training
- Principles of Speed, Agility, and Quickness Training
- Principles of Balance Training
- Corrective Exercise
- Special Populations Considerations
- Basic Nutritional Concepts
- Macronutrients and Hydration
- Exercise, Mental Health, and Lifestyle Considerations
- Legal and Professional Guidelines for Personal Trainers
- Client Safety, Injuries, and Emergency Situations
The first five chapters have a heavy focus on the fundamentals of anatomy and exercise physiology as it relates to exercise and personal training. In particular, I found the detailed diagrams in the textbook incredibly helpful for reinforcing the written materials.
Following the deep anatomy sections, the Trainer Academy CPT covers communication skills for interacting with clients before doing a deep dive into behavioral coaching.
From my experience, behavioral coaching is as vital as exercise technique and program design regarding successfully training clients. I’ve created the most in-depth programs and studied exercise techniques to the point where I know the client will get results, only to have the client be so inconsistent that the results effectively become impossible to achieve.
Trainer Academy covers the following specific skills and knowledge points in regard to behavioral change:
- Principles of Motivational Interviewing
- Building Rapport with OARS
- SMART Goal Setting
- Psychological Benefits of Exercise
- Types of Support
They also include great standout color graphics throughout the textbook highlighting the various key knowledge points.
Moving forward, the Trainer Academy dives into screening clients for medical history, anthropometric assessments, and screening for movement dysfunctions.
Trust me when I say that most clients coming into the gym will have some form of movement issue or postural distortion.
After the assessments section, the Trainer Academy CPT dives into the nuts and bolts of actual training, including the following topics:
- Aerobic training principles and technique
- Resistance training program design and exercise technique
- Flexibility training
- Plyometric training
- Speed, agility, and quickness training
- Balance training
- Corrective exercise training
- Training modifications for special populations
In all cases, Trainer Academy covers the responses and adaptations that occur on an acute and chronic level, respectively. By the time I got through this section of the curriculum, I had a very comprehensive understanding of all aspects of these training methods.
Overall, the Trainer Academy CPT curriculum does an exceptional job of covering the overall skills needed for success in the industry.
I found the breakdowns on exercise techniques and guidelines for the various training types incredibly valuable.
Trainer Academy CPT Exam
The Trainer Academy final certification exam comes in both an online and in-person format with 125 total questions. Test takers have the option for each regardless of which Trainer Academy study program they choose.
The online exam involves a remote proctor, so you do need to schedule it ahead of time and there is someone observing your screen while taking the exam, so it is not something that you can just do on your own time and pace.
If you want to take your exam in person, you can schedule it with a testing center. Candidates can choose which option they want after enrollment in the program.
Most major cities have at least one testing center that serves Trainer Academy CPT exams, so if you do prefer an in-person appointment or do not have an adequate setup to take the test from home, the in-person test is a good option.
I found the exam reasonably difficult compared to the other NCCA exams, roughly on par with NASM, but definitely much harder than ISSA.
Trainer Academy CPT Salary
While it’s hard to peg an exact salary for Trainer Academy-certified trainers, the average trainer can expect to earn anywhere from $36,000 to $76,000 per year per ZipRecruiter data. This varies substantially based on location, employment setup, and experience levels. The specific certification is a lesser factor in your salary as compared to location and employment setups. In addition, starting your own training business or opening a gym offers the potential to make much more money than finding a standard personal trainer job.
Trainer Academy Continuing Education
Like every gold standard NCCA-accredited certification, the Trainer Academy CPT program requires 20 hours of continuing education credits every 2 years, which includes the cost of CPT recertification.
You can complete your Trainer Academy CEUs through a variety of approved providers, including some of the courses offered by other NCCA-accredited certification organizations.
Trainer Academy CPT Summary
Regarding overall value and setting up trainers for success following their certification, I find the Trainer Academy CPT program to be among the best in the game.
The Trainer Academy CPT is ideal for trainers who want a truly comprehensive approach to general fitness training that integrates well with modern technology and training methods, including online training, program design, delivering workouts through apps, and up-to-date curriculum. Due to its more recent development and upcoming accreditation status, the Trainer Academy CPT is truly at the cutting edge of the fitness industry.
2. National Academy of Sports Medicine CPT
The National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer Certification (NASM-CPT) is a very well-known certification in the fitness industry.
As an organization, NASM provides a range of certification training courses relevant to various professions in the fitness industry. These include everything from nutrition coaching, athletic performance, corrective exercise, and many others.
The NASM CPT program is the flagship program that made NASM famous across the entire industry.
The NASM CPT is particularly famous for its Optimum Performance Training model (NASM OPT). The OPT offers trainers a complete framework for progressing clients from a deconditioned state through stability, hypertrophy, strength, and power training with its complete 5-phase training model.
While the OPT model does lose some efficacy when applied to more advanced athletes, it is arguably one of the most effective programming models for most general fitness clients.
NASM also offers an amazing corrective exercise certification (CES) and other excellent specializations.
Overall, the NASM OPT model set a standard that forced many other certifications to develop their own proprietary models for training clients.
NASM CPT Curriculum
The NASM personal trainer curriculum covers 23 full chapters across 6 different sections, as well as 3 appendices.
NASM starts by diving into professional development for personal trainers, including an overview of the modern fitness industry and employment landscape.
This section is incredibly helpful for new trainers who do not fully understand all the different markets and employment opportunities that make up the modern fitness industry.
Moving forward, NASM discusses the behavioral and social aspects of coaching fitness clients. Topics covered include:
- Barriers to exercise
- Social Influences of Exercise
- Psychological benefits of exercise
- Stages of change
- Motivational interviewing
- Strategies for exercise adherence
Of course, these concepts are an absolute must-know for all personal trainers who want to successfully deliver results. I would put NASM as among the best when it comes to these skills, second to Trainer Academy in terms of direct applicability to the needs of modern fitness clients.
Following the behavioral change and psychological aspects of fitness, NASM dives into the hard science of anatomy and physiology.
I really appreciated how the learning management system in NASM gives the dropdown menus in combination with the diagrams themselves.
This makes it super easy to fortify the different aspects of the curriculum without being excessively distracting or requiring long walls of text to deliver the information.
Once NASM wraps up the anatomy section, the curriculum dives into assessment, exercise technique, and program design, which make up the remaining knowledge points in the NASM curriculum.
This is where NASM truly shines. The OPT Model seamlessly melds the assessment results with the base program design, bringing together multiple modalities including flexibility, balance, SAQ, plyometrics, aerobic training, and of course, resistance training. Beginning with stabilization and progressing through endurance, muscular development, maximal strength, and power, the NASM OPT is very comprehensive.
Generally speaking, program design that incorporates multiple modalities tends to be the most effective at delivering overall results for clients.
However, traditional programming often focuses on single modalities, for example, lifting weights for bodybuilding or powerlifting, doing agility work for field sports, or doing aerobic training for people who tend to focus on endurance-based activities.
With the OPT model, you can leverage the benefits of multiple types of training within a single program to deliver complete fitness results. This includes improved movement, balance, coordination, muscle growth, strength, and explosive power.
The combined adaptations lead to much better health outcomes for the vast majority of the population compared to being excessively focused on singular training modalities.
NASM CPT Exam
The NASM CPT exam is among the most difficult CPT exams in the industry. Although I was able to pass the exam on my first try, I definitely do not recommend taking it lightly.
As far as the NASM exam pass rate goes, it fluctuates between 60 percent on the low end to 70 percent on the high end. This effectively maintains the credibility of the exam and avoids giving it a reputation as an ‘easy exam.’ However, it is still very manageable if you prepare properly through coursework.
As I discussed, the personal trainer’s salary depends on far more than just the certification you choose. However, given the longstanding existence of the NASM certification, we do have specific data on the NASM CPT typical salary, which ranges from $30,000-$80,000.
As you can see, this roughly matches the average personal salary overall, so I would not get too hung up on the NASM salary specifically. Your best bet is deciding where you want to work, then checking on whether the NASM CPT would allow you to work in that location or arrangement.
NASM CPT Continuing Education
As is standard, NASM requires 20 continuing credit hours every 2 years. This includes 1.9 CEUs that come from fitness-related coursework and another 0.1 CEUs that come from the CPR/AED recertification.
NASM CPT Summary
The NASM CPT’s reputation in the industry rests on its proprietary OPT Model. The OPT Model is effectively a streamlined way that trainers can integrate the various aspects of exercise science and program design into their clients’ training programs.
While there is nothing inherently unique about the application of exercise science within the OPT Model, it does make it much more efficient, especially for new trainers, when it comes to quickly designing effective programs that cater to the specific needs, goals, and fitness levels of general population clients.
Additionally, NASM has a great learning management system for delivering the information, allowing a fluid experience.
The NASM exam is fairly difficult, but doable if you commit to learning. NASM-certified trainers can expect to earn the average personal trainer salaries, which vary substantially based on location, employment arrangement, and experience.
3. International Sports Sciences Association CPT
The International Sports Sciences Association is a premier global fitness certification provider offering a range of training certification programs and continuing education options for personal trainers and fitness professionals in a wide range of niches.
The organization was established in 1988 by Dr. Sal Arria and Dr. Frederick Hatfield (colloquially knowns as ‘Dr. Squat’) with a mission to improve the quality of personal training and fitness education in the nascent industry.
Overall, ISSA is among the pioneering organizations that played a role in the development and emergence of the fitness industry in the U.S. and other countries as we know it today.
With that said, the ISSA offers an incredible personal trainer certification catered to individuals who have little or no background experience in fitness.
Additionally, unlike other certifications, the ISSA offers an NCCA-accredited version as well as a non-NCCA-accredited version. This allows students who just want the knowledge and title a quicker path to getting certified.
Students who need an NCCA fitness certification for employment or career purposes can opt for the harder, proctored exam that is in-line difficulty-wise with the rest of the industry’s top personal training credentials.
I should add that the standard ISSA certification is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), which does enforce scientific standards on their accreditation.
ISSA also offers nutrition certification, bodybuilding certifications, kettlebell, and yoga certifications.
ISSA also offers a great discount when you bundle certifications.
ISSA CPT Curriculum
Like any of the best personal trainer certifications, the ISSA curriculum is fairly comprehensive in terms of coverage. ISSA breaks down differently than the Trainer Academy CPT and NASM and does have a slightly different focus overall with more emphasis on special populations as compared to Trainer Academy and NASM.
The ISSA breakdown is as follows:
Section One: Anatomy and Physiology
2. Basic Anatomy and Physiology
3. Musculoskeletal Anatomy and Physiology
Section Two: Kinesiology and Biomechanics
4. Kinesiology of Exercise
5. Biomechanics of Exercise
6. Musculoskeletal Deviations
7. Muscle Mechanics
Section Three: Health and Physical Fitness
9. Cardiovascular Training
10. Flexibility Training
11. Body Composition
Section Four: Program Development
12. Drawing-In Phase
13. Basic Assessment of Fitness Participants
14. Training Principles
16. Determining Training Loads
Section Five: Nutrition
17. The Big Picture of Nutrition
18. Nutrition and Physiology
19. Nutritional Science
20. Nutritional Coaching
Section Six: Fitness For All
21. Exercise and Older Adults
22. Exercise and Adaptive Fitness
23. Exercise and Our Youth
24. Exercise and Hypertension
25. Exercise and Diabetes
26. Exercise and Arthritis
27. Exercise and Coronary Heart Disease
28. Exercise and Pregnancy
29. Exercise and Asthma
30. Sports Medicine in the Trenches
31. Basic First Aid
As you can see, there is a substantial section devoted to the special populations sections of the curriculum.
Truthfully, this is appropriate for a general fitness population certification. The fact is, most ‘general population clients’ will fall into some form of special population category. Many people seek personal training after uncovering a health problem or deciding to make a change to improve their health. The average conditioned individual without existing health problems is the exception rather than the rule regarding personal training. Unless you specifically train athlete populations, most clients you encounter will be managing at least one chronic health problem.
With that said, ISSA still gives the traditional topics of program design, exercise technique, and other key fitness training topics their due.
Overall, I find that the strongest aspect of ISSA is its special population coverage given how deep it goes into the training guidelines for each condition.
ISSA CPT Exam
The ISSA CPT final exam difficulty varies depending on whether you take the NCCA-accredited version or not. The non-accredited exam is effectively open book, and boasts a nearly 90 percent pass rate.
While this exam will earn you the title of “ISSA Certified Personal Trainer,” it won’t carry the same weight as taking the NCCA-accredited, proctored version of the exam.
ISSA CPT Salary
According to ZipRecruiter, the average ISSA CPT salary is $65,555 across the United States. With that said, I am always skeptical regarding listing specific salaries for individual certifications since the biggest factors for determining CPT salary are always location, employment arrangement, and experience as opposed to the specific certification.
However, if we do take the ZipRecruiter data at face value, this does put the ISSA CPT at a higher salary rate than other certifications.
ISSA CPT Continuing Education
The ISSA CPT requires 20 hours of continuing education every 2 years, regardless of whether you have the NCCA-accredited version or not. You can take a wide variety of CEC courses to recertify with ISSA, so it is a good platform for a variety of careers.
ISSA CPT Summary
The ISSA CPT is best for trainers who plan to work with special populations and do not necessarily need NCCA accreditation. You do have the option to get the NCCA version of the ISSA CPT if you want, but more often than not ISSA trainers simply do the regular exam for ease of passing.
The ISSA CPT does go a great job of prepping you for training clients in various arrangements. As I mentioned, most clients have some form of special population consideration, so the deeper focus on this clientele is not something to overlook.
4. American Council on Exercise CPT
The American Council on Exercise is a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 by Dr. Ken Cooper. The organization promotes physical fitness and healthy lifestyles through research, education, and public health advocacy.
At the time of its founding, ACE was heavily focused on aerobic exercise training, with a big focus on the “New Aerobics” phase of the fitness industry during the 80s.
However, the ACE certification has done an excellent job of staying with the times and now incorporates science-based resistance training protocols into its curriculum, as well as additional training methods.
To compete with NASM, ACE created the Integrated Fitness Training Model (ACE-IFT), which provides a progressive framework for training clients on aerobic fitness, strength, hypertrophy, and power.
The ACE IFT is commendable in terms of its ability to give new trainers a practical and realistic toolkit for guiding most fitness clients towards fitness goals and health outcomes in a safe and effective manner.
ACE is also renowned for its group fitness instructor certification (GFI), ACE health coach, and fitness nutrition specialist (FNS).
ACE CPT Curriculum
The ACE Curriculum spans the following chapters, broken into 6 separate sections
Section I: Introduction
- Role and Scope of Practice for Personal Trainers
- The ACE Integrated Fitness Training Model
Section II: A Client-centered Approach to Personal Training
- Basics of Behavior Change
- Effective Communication, Goal Setting, and Teaching Techniques
- Preparticipation Health Screening
- Nutrition for Health and Fitness
Section III: Assessments, Programming, and Progressions
5. Resting Assessments and Anthropometric Measurements
6. Cardiorespiratory Training: Physiology, Assessments, and Programming
7. Muscular Training: Foundations and Benefits
8. Muscular Training: Assessments
9. Integrated Exercise Programming: From Evidence to Practice
Section IV: Program Modifications for Clients with Special Considerations
10. Considerations for Clients with Obesity
11. Considerations for Clients with Chronic Disease
12. Exercise Considerations across the Lifespan
13. Considerations for Clients with Musculoskeletal Issues
Section V: Professional Responsibilities
14. Legal Guidelines and Business Considerations
Overall, the ACE curriculum is structured somewhat differently compared to other certifications in that the anatomy is covered throughout the chapters focused on the practical aspects of training.
For example, ACE covers the muscle locations, insertions, and origins in their chapter on Muscular Training, whereas Trainer Academy, NASM, and ISSA cover anatomy in a separate section before diving into exercise technique and program design for muscular training.
This can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it and your learning style. In some ways, combining anatomy knowledge with hands-on practical aspects can help learners contextualize the information.
However, from a logical progression standpoint, it can be helpful to learn all the anatomy to lay the groundwork before diving into the skill components. It does seem a bit odd that ACE begins its “Muscular Training” chapter with an overview of skeletal system anatomy, although the diagrams and content are still useful overall.
This is a bit of personal preference, and ultimately, ACE still covers the same level of anatomy as Trainer Academy, NASM, and ISSA.
Moving into the program design framework, the ACE IFT provides an exceptional level of detail for progressing your clients. Additionally, it is fully integrated with the ACE exercise library, allowing you to “plug and play” exercises directly into your clients’ programs, removing much of the guesswork associated with exercise program design.
Although more experienced trainers will be able to program and coach without the need for this level of template, it’s super helpful for newer trainers to have an out-of-the-box solution for delivering effective workout programs.
ACE CPT Exam
The ACE CPT is among the easiest NCCA-accredited exams in the industry. You need a scaled score of 550/800, equating to roughly 60 percent, to pass the ACE exam.
If you need an NCCA-accredited certification and tend to struggle with exams, then the ACE CPT might be worth considering.
On the flip side, most people in the industry are aware that the ACE exam is easier, so consider whether the tradeoff of an easier exam is worth having a certification that may command less respect.
Ultimately, your best bet is to check with the gym where you want to work to determine if they accept the ACE CPT.
Most clients do not particularly care which certification you have, so the bigger issue will be whether the ACE personal training certification allows you to work in the location you want.
ACE Personal Trainer Salary
ZipRecruiter pegs the average ACE CPT salary at $53,838 per year, putting it on par with the industry average for personal training.
The gym you work with and the clientele you serve ultimately play a much bigger role in how much you earn as a personal trainer as opposed to which certification you earn.
With that said, your best bet is to determine where you want to work ahead of time and see if the ACE CPT would allow you to work in that arrangement.
ACE CPT Summary
The ACE CPT is best for personal trainers who need a straightforward NCCA-accredited option with an easy-to-use training framework and an exam with a high pass rate that requires less hard studying than other CPT certifications.
5. National Strength and Conditioning Association CPT
The National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) is a personal trainer program with a heavy emphasis on exercise science as it related to strength and performance.
The NSCA is a non-profit organization that’s primary focus is on athletic strength and conditioning, offering a number of certifications that focus on improving performance in sports and tactical populations.
The NSCA was founded in 1978 with a mission to advance strength and conditioning and related sport science professions around the world.
NSCA CPT Curriculum
The NSCA offers a more traditional curriculum format with the textbook forming the primary basis of the study materials, although you can purchase guided study courses separately for an additional cost.
The overall breakdown is as follows:
Part I: Exercise Science
- Structure and Function of the Muscular, Nervous, and Skeletal Systems
- Cardiorespiratory System and Gas Exchange
- Resistance Training Adaptations
- Physiological Responses and Adaptations to Aerobic Endurance Training
- Nutrition in the Personal Training Setting
- Exercise Psychology for the Personal Trainer
Part II: Initial Consultations and Evaluation
9. Client Consultations and Health Appraisal
10. Fitness Assessment Selection and Administration
11. Fitness Testing Protocols and rms
Part III: Exercise Technique
12. Flexibility, Body Weight, and Stability Ball Exercises
13. Resistance Training Exercise Techniques
14. Cardiovascular Training Methods
Part IV: Program Design
15. Resistance Training Program Design
16. Aerobic Endurance Training Program Design
17. Plyometric and Speed Training
Part V: Clients with Unique Needs
18. Clients Who Are Preadolescent, Older, or Pregnant
19. Clients with Nutritional and Metabolic Concerns
20. Clients with Cardiovascular and Respiratory Conditions
21. Clients with Orthopedic, Injury, and Rehabilitations Concern
22. Clients with Spinal Cord Injury, Multiple Sclerosis, Epilepsy, and Cerebral Palsy
23. Resistance Training for Clients Who are Athletes
Part IV: Safety and Legal Issues
24. Facility and Equipment Layout and Maintenance
25. Legal Aspects of Personal Training
The NSCA curriculum covers exercise science more in-depth than some of the other certifications, especially with regards to the technical jargon and biological terminology.
The exercise technique and program design sections are solid overall as well.
Each exercise gets broken down very well with technique, muscles targeted, and common errors. You can also access the NSCA exercise technique library, purchased as part of their packages, which includes videos.
Many of the other certifications include a free exercise library, so it is somewhat disappointing that you cannot access an NSCA version with the standard purchase, unlike NASM and ACE, for example.
That being said, from a science perspective, the NSCA does a great job of breaking down how to structure workout programs.
The biggest weakness compared to certifications such as Trainer Academy, NASM, and ACE is the lack of a unified model for progression clients from early to advanced phases of training.
It’s somewhat harder to ‘plug and play’ your workout program and exercises since there is no corresponding model to the NASM OPT or ACE IFT.
That being said, in the long run, it is better to have the tools and knowledge to design programs from scratch as opposed to relying entirely on template-style training that is premade, but may not be fully optimized for every type of client.
NSCA CPT Exam
The NSCA CPT exam is closer to NASM and Trainer Academy in terms of difficulty. Therefore, passing the NSCA and earning the personal training credential does offer a bit more weight than getting an easier certification like ACE or ISSA.
However, because exercise science does go beyond what is needed at the basic level for personal training, you need to weigh the pros and cons of taking a more difficult exam versus what you will actually need on the job.
NSCA CPT Salary
Based on data from PayScale, an NSCA CPT can earn between $50,000 and $61,000 in starting salary. As I have repeatedly highlighted, there is no way to specifically say which certification earns the most money, and the bottom line is that your salary depends on many factors other than your base certification.
NSCA CPT Continuing Education
The NSCA CPT recertification requirements differ somewhat from the other NCCA-accredited personal trainer certifications.
You have a 3-year period to complete your continuing education, but you need to complete credits from at least two categories.
The NSCA recertification categories are as followings
Category A – attendance
These include in-person clinics, seminars, workshops, or live-streamed events.
Category B – sharing expertise
This includes speaking at events or panels, getting published in journals, or volunteering with the NSCA.
Category C – educational activities
These include college coursework, internships, and similar activities. First Aid training also gives CEU credits for category C.
Category D – Quizzes and Assessments
Category D requires you to read and pass various quizzes available through the NSCA and other providers. Each quiz provides anywhere from 0.2 to 1.0 CEUs per quiz.
Overall, the NSCA recertification requirements are more stringent than other certifications given the requirement for multiple categories.
In the long run, you will end up with much deeper knowledge in a range of fitness-related concepts and skills than trainers who opt for the CPT certs with easier recertification options.
NSCA CPT Summary
I recommend the NSCA CPT to students who want a harder certification that goes deeper on exercise science and program design. If you plan to work with athletes as part of your career, the NSCA is an obvious choice.
The following certifications did not quite make my list, but I wanted to highlight them as other decent options for personal training certifications.
Best General Fitness Alternatives
National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF CPT)
American College on Sports Medicine (ACSM CPT)
American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA)
National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA)
National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)
Best Strength and Conditioning Certifications
The following specializations can be stacked on top of your CPT program or in some cases taken as a standalone certification.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA CSCS)
NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist (NASM PES)
Other Expert Opinions on the Best Personal Trainer Certifications
As part of the research for this article, I consulted with Tyler Read, an expert on the best personal training certifications in the fitness industry. Tyler is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from Sonoma State University.
Tyler is the founder of PTPioneer.com, a website that has helped thousands of aspiring trainers determine the best personal training certifications for their careers. Beyond just directing students to the best personal training certifications, Tyler has coached many fitness professionals towards successful and lucrative careers in a range of as well as providing guidance on the best ways for new trainers to succeed in the fitness industry.
Tyler’s input was invaluable in crafting this article, and I highly recommend checking out PT Pioneer for more insights into becoming a successful personal trainer.
Best Personal Trainer Certifications: the bottom line
Determining your long-term career goals out of the gate is tough. However, choosing a personal training certification is the first major step towards advancing your career in the fitness industry.
If you aren’t fully sure about your ultimate trajectory, I do recommend going for the Trainer Academy CPT, which will serve as an effective platform for any career in the fitness industry.
If you have a more concrete vision of what you want to do, you can make an assessment based on my review and select your certification from there.
This article is truly a comprehensive look at the best certifications in the industry based on a ton of research from myself and other experts.
Regardless of which certification you choose, you can be sure that dedication and commitment to constant education and improvement is the surefire route to an amazing and lucrative career in the fitness industry.
M&F and editorial staff were not involved in the creation of this content.