The 8 Best Personal Trainer Certifications of 2020

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Our Top Picks

Our Top Picks

Best for Additional Specializations: American Council on Exercise

American Council on Exercise

American Council on Exercise

Pros
  • Accredited by NCCA

  • Grounded in research

  • Online support and learning opportunities available

  • Prepares you to train specialized populations

  • Training organized around evidence-based IFT model

  • Well-respected organization/certification

Cons
  • Can be more expensive than some other choices

  • No hands-on training

One of the most recognized and respected fitness organizations in the U.S., the American Council on Exercise (ACE) certifies more than 90,000 fitness and wellness professionals each year with programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). In addition to the personal training certification from ACE, you can also opt to earn specialized credentials, including group fitness instructor, medical exercise specialist, senior fitness specialist, function first and pain-free movement specialist, behavior change specialist, and more.

Each of these special certifications builds upon your expertise as a certified personal trainer and prepares you to confidently train a certain population of your choosing. The behavior change specialization, for example, will teach you how to train clients who have a hard time implementing and sticking to new habits. The skills you’d learn in that program would be helpful to people who, for instance, have struggled with yo-yo dieting for years. 

It’s best to get a personal training certification before embarking on a specialization program — that’s the minimum qualification most gyms and fitness studios look for in a new trainer. The ACE personal training certification, like its specialist programs, are grounded in scientific research and functional movement training. You don’t necessarily need to be ACE-certified to do the ACE specialist programs, but it would definitely help, as the ACE specializations also utilize the integrated fitness training (IFT) model that’s central to the ACE personal trainer certification.

Best for Guided Study: National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

 National Academy of Sports Medicine

Pros
  • Accredited by NCCA

  • Coursework organized around easy-to-understand pillars

  • Evidence-based curriculum

  • Highly respected organization/credential

  • Mentor access available

  • Practical experience is an option

  • Various modes of study available

Cons
  • More expensive than many other options

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) is another highly regarded fitness organization in the U.S. The NASM personal training certification course teaches the NASM Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model, which emphasizes five fitness pillars: stabilization endurance, strength endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength, and power. NASM chose these pillars based on longstanding scientific evidence.

For this certification, you can choose from self-study, premium self-study, guided study, or all-inclusive, but the guided study option is the most popular for good reason. This program is great for learners who need extra support and access to a mentor. With the all-inclusive option, you get a guaranteed “gymternship,” where NASM places you at a gym for 80 hours of hands-on, practical experience with personal training clients. This is a bonus that most other certifying agencies don’t offer.

The NASM program is accredited by the NCCA and is known for its evidence-based training model. The program prices range from $40 per month to $136 per month for 11 months, depending on which study option you choose. 

Best for a Deep Science Dive: American College of Sports Medicine

American College of Sports Medicine

American College of Sports Medicine

Pros
  • Community of highly-respected professionals

  • Curriculum based on four evidence-based pillars

  • Organization is widely known for quality research

  • Reasonably priced

  • Rigorous scientific scientific standards

Cons
  • More continuing education is required for recertification

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is known for its scientific rigor and strong membership of scientists, fitness professionals, clinical healthcare providers, athletic trainers, and other health and wellness professionals. ACSM offers a respected personal training certification that covers four essential domains of being a fitness professional: client consultation and fitness assessment; exercise programming and implementation; exercise leadership and education; and legal and professional responsibilities.

The second domain — exercise programming and implementation — makes up 45 percent of the entire certification programming. This section of learning is based on decades of scientific research conducted by ACSM and other research organizations, and it teaches you how to design an effective exercise program based on your clients’ medical history, health and fitness goals, injuries, exercise preferences, and much more.

You’ll learn a great deal about anatomy, physiology, adaptations to exercise, and other important need-to-knows about the human body and fitness training. You know it’s the real deal because other certifying agencies, including ACE, actually use some research, facts, and statistics from ACSM as part of their own certification study materials. The ACSM personal training exam costs $349 for non-ACSM members and $279 for members. You can purchase books and study materials separately.

Best for Performance-Based Training: National Strength and Conditioning Association

National Strength and Conditioning Association

 National Strength and Conditioning Association

Pros
  • Best known for strength conditioning programs

  • Hands-on learning is available

  • More affordable than some other choices

  • Options to learn sport-specific programming techniques

Cons
  • Less emphasis on non-strength based programs

  • Less training for special populations

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) might be best known for its certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) credential, but it also offers an NCCA-accredited personal training certification. 

Because of its emphasis on performance-based training, the NSCA personal training certification is best for people who know they want to work with athletes or performance-oriented fitness enthusiasts. For example, an NSCA certification would serve you well if you want to help student-athletes prepare for college sports or propel a recreational marathoner to their next personal record.

Like the other certifications on this list, the NSCA certification covers legal and professional responsibilities in addition to essential knowledge about anatomy and physiology. You’ll learn sport-specific exercise programming techniques alongside basic fitness programming. You can choose from a few different study packages based on your learning style and needs. 

Best for Professional Support: International Sports Sciences Association

International Sports Sciences Association

International Sports Sciences Association

Pros
  • 60-day job guarantee

  • Complete online program

  • Free website offered for newly-certified trainers

  • Online support provided through a student forum

Cons
  • More expensive than some other choices

  • Not accredited by NCCA

  • Test is not proctored

Another highly-regarded certifying agency, the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) has certified hundreds of thousands of personal trainers. You should know that the ISSA is not accredited by the NCCA, but it is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and has affiliations with several reputable and recognized organizations around the world. One of them is the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), which helps fitness professionals, health clubs, and gyms establish best practices to uphold industry standards.

Upon passing the ISSA personal trainer exam, you’ll receive tons of assets to kickstart your fitness career. Most notably, you get a free, professionally developed website to showcase yourself as a personal trainer. You’ll also enjoy ongoing unlimited support from ISSA instructors and a 60-day job guarantee. 

The study materials include a study guide, textbook, workbook, practice exams and quizzes, audio lectures, written notes, an online exercise lab, and an online student forum. The list price for the package is $799.

Best for Continuing Education Support: National Federation of Professional Trainers

National Federation of Professional Trainers

National Federation of Professional Trainers

Pros
  • Accredited by NCCA

  • Easy access to primary/continuing education

  • Free continuing education

  • Reasonably priced primary certification

Cons
  • Not as well known as other certifying agencies

All personal trainers must accumulate a certain number of continuing education credits (CECs) to maintain their certifications and stay up-to-date with industry knowledge. The number of CECs you need varies based on your certifying agency, but on average, personal trainers require 20 to 45 hours of continuing education every two years.

The tricky thing is that continuing education often costs a pretty penny. It’s expensive to attend CEC-eligible conferences, especially once you factor in the cost of transportation and accommodations. Even online CEC courses can be pricey. Enter the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT), which offers a suite of completely free CEC options for NFPT-certified personal trainers. You can easily acquire at least 10 hours of continuing education from these free programs if you are certified by NFPT. 

NFPT is accredited by the NCCA and has been inducted into the National Fitness Hall of Fame, which recognizes organizations and individuals who have contributed greatly to the fitness profession. To become an NFPT trainer, choose from two study packages and take the exam within one year of purchasing your study program.  

Best for The Academic: National Council on Strength and Fitness

National Council on Strength and Fitness

National Council on Strength and Fitness

Pros
  • Available at 200 locations

  • College-level classes

  • Credentialed teachers

  • Four packages available

  • Live hands-on teaching

  • Many price-points to choose from for test preparation

Cons
  • Not as well known as other certifying agencies

The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) teaches college-level theory in its personal trainer certification program, a course that’s taught at more than 200 schools nationwide. If you choose the NCSF personal training certification, you will be challenged to hone your critical thinking skills, client communication skills, creative exercise programming skills, and more. 

The NCSF offers four different study packages, two of which include live, in-person workshops to develop hands-on skills. These workshops are taught by master’s- or doctoral-level NCSF-certified instructors and reinforce everything you learn in the at-home study materials. According to the NCSF website, you will “engage in screening and programming case studies, perform assessments, learn proper biomechanics and training instruction, and practice resistance training activities for multiple outcomes.”

The costs for this NCCA-accredited program range from $299 to $599.

Best for Self-Starters: National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association

National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association

National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association

Pros
  • All online coursework

  • Basic curriculum is covered

  • Business kit provided

  • Four-year credential

  • Integrated technology

  • Reasonably priced

Cons
  • Not great for hands-on learners

A 100-percent online program, the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA) personal trainer certification will teach you all of the basics about personal training. The program does so via a handful of key concept areas: exercise physiology, kinesiology and anatomy, biomechanics, nutrition, client assessments, exercise programming, injuries and safety, psychology and behavior, and professional responsibilities. 

The NESTA personal training certification is the only one to stay valid for four years instead of the standard two years, but you’ll still need to complete CECs within that four-year period to maintain your credential. NESTA is also unique in that it’s one of few personal training programs to have integrated technology into its curriculum, dedicating entire sections to things like heart rate tracking and digital exercise logging

This program is best for self-starters and entrepreneurs because of its post-exam kit that includes a business and career system to implement once you’re certified. You’ll learn how to market yourself as a personal trainer, as well as the skills of sales, networking, social media, and more.

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