Best Personal Trainer Certifications

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If you’re considering a career in fitness, having the proper credentials is the first step to success. Personal training certification programs educate and prepare you to work with people in various settings like a health club, gym, college, or rehabilitation program. Each certifying body has different criteria, study materials, and testing procedures to earn a personal training certification. 

The best personal training certification is one that matches your skill level and time commitment. It’s also affordable and comes from an accredited certifying body. Here, we explain the pros and cons of different personal training certifications, factors to consider before signing up, and go over some frequently asked questions. We also provide a comparison table to help you decide which certificate is best for you.

Our Top Picks

Our Top Picks

Best for Additional Specializations: American Council on Exercise

American Council on Exercise

 American Council on Exercise

Why We Chose It: American Council on Exercise (ACE) is our top choice because it offers certification programs in personal training as well as group fitness instructor, medical exercise specialist, and senior fitness specialist.

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

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 can build upon your expertise as a certified personal trainer and prepare 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

Why We Chose It: National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) stands out because of its extensive food database and barcode scanning abilities.

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 $46 per month to $135 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

Why We Chose It: American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is an excellent choice for science-loving trainers who want academic rigor and a strong connection to scientific research and standards.

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

Why We Chose It: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is the gold standard for performance-based training. In addition to a personal training certification, it also offers a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification.

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

Use code Verywell20 for 20% off the ISSA Certified Personal Trainer Program

Why We Chose It: International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) provides newly-certified trainers with a wealth of professional support to kickstart their career.

Pros
  • 6-month 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

Another highly-regarded certifying agency, the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) has certified hundreds of thousands of personal trainers. ISSA is accredited by the NCCA and 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 & 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 6-month job guarantee. 

The study materials include a study guide, textbook, workbook, practice exams and quizzes, audio lectures, written notes, an online exercise lab, a dedicated student success coach, and an online student forum. The price for the package is $66.58 per month for twelve months, or $799 total.

Best for Continuing Education Support: National Federation of Professional Trainers

National Federation of Professional Trainers

 National Federation of Professional Trainers

Why We Chose It: National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) stands out for its commitment to excellence when it comes to providing both fee-based and free continuing education for certified personal 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

Why We Chose It: College-level theory is the foundation of learning, and The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) is a leader in quality education and strong partnerships with top health clubs like 24 Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym. and Equinox.

Pros
  • College-level classes

  • Credentialed teachers

  • Four packages available

  • 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 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. 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 $349 to $449.

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

National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association

 National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association

Why We Chose It: The National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA) earned best for self-starters because all study materials, educational content, and testing is 100% online.

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.

Final Verdict 

The personal training certifications on this list are all recognized by the health and fitness industry. That said, some are considered more rigorous than others. The personal training certification exams from ACSM and NSCA are academically challenging and require a significant amount of studying. A credential from one of these organizations can lead to a wide range of employment and career opportunities. But if you’re looking for a certification that’s slightly less intense, but still carries national recognition, then ACE is an excellent choice. 

Overall, there are many reputable programs and organizations. When researching personal training certifications on your own, always look for the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) seal of approval. This tells you the program and certification are accredited and nationally recognized. 

Personal Trainer Certifications vs Health Coach Certifications

Although a personal trainer certification and health coach certification both prepare you to work with people on health and fitness-related issues, the prerequisites to take the exams and where you use the certifications are very different. A personal training certification allows you to work with people individually or in small groups in a fitness setting. Personal trainers often create and supervise a training program for clients. During a training session, they also educate clients on how to exercise. This includes topics like correct form, cardiovascular and muscular fitness, sets and reps, and how to choose equipment. Personal trainers also assist with setting goals and tracking progress. 

A health coach certification allows you to mentor someone as they make lifestyle changes. In this role, a health coach provides motivation and support around topics like wellness, overall health, fitness, nutrition, and emotional wellbeing. Like a personal trainer, a health coach also works one-on-one with individuals or with groups.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Do Personal Trainers Do?

A personal trainer is someone who instructs, coaches, and assists clients in achieving fitness and health goals. Personal trainers may work in a gym, studio, or fitness center and instruct individual clients or teach group classes.

Using their fitness knowledge and skills, they demonstrate exercises, teach clients how to use fitness equipment properly, or lead group instruction. In some cases, they create personalized workout plans for clients and monitor their progress, while providing support, encouragement, and feedback. They may also give advice to clients about diet and nutrition.

How Do You Become a Certified Personal Trainer?

To become a certified personal trainer, you’ll want to find a certifying organization that’s accredited by an independent third party like the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). If you’ve fulfilled the organization’s prerequisites, you can choose a personal training program and study package, and then you need to study and pass the exam. Once you pass the test, you can start applying for personal trainer jobs, whether at gyms, health clubs, studios, spas and resorts, wellness centers, or with individual clients.

How Much Does a Personal Trainer Charge?

The average cost of personal training is about $40 to $75 per hourly session. Prices vary significantly, depending on the trainer’s experience, level of customization, and frequency of the workouts. Most personal trainers offer discounts if you purchase sessions in packages or do small group training workouts.

Is Hiring a Personal Trainer Worth It?

If you’re just starting with an exercise program, trying to lose weight, or want better results from your fitness routine, you may benefit from working with a personal trainer. Before hiring one, consider the reasons you might want a trainer and the possible benefits.

A personal trainer can develop an individualized plan for you and provide advice, support, and training to help you reach your goals. You’ll also learn the most effective workouts for your needs and how to do them properly to avoid injury.

If you’re someone who needs some extra motivation or accountability to stay on track with an exercise program, you could benefit from working with a trainer. Assuming you’re consistent with your personal training sessions and adhere to the trainer’s advice, the investment in your fitness and overall health definitely can be worthwhile.

Methodology  

To make the list, the certification must come from an accredited organization or certifying body and have national recognition. They also need to have materials available online in addition to paper copies. Beyond this, we considered certifications that offer both in-person and learning and self-paced, at-home study options. Most importantly, all of the personal training certification programs are accredited by the NCCA.

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