THE BLOG
11/02/2016 05:36 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2017

Personal Trainer Certification: Here Are The Best Programs In America

As the number of people looking to get in shape continues to grow at a rapid pace, the number of personal trainers has grown along with them. For those who love to stay active and would enjoy making a living by helping others achieve their fitness goals, becoming a personal trainer is the perfect career choice. It's motivating, it's fun, and with the right kind of business savvy it can be quite lucrative as well.

While it may be clear to you that personal training is the perfect fit for a career, finding the best personal trainer certification program can be overwhelming. The truth is that even though there are hundreds of certifying programs out there, only a handful of programs have stood the test of time and are guaranteed to offer you a solid foundation upon which to build your personal training career. These programs have established themselves as leaders of the pack, distinguished for their academic rigor, decades of experience, and commitment to excellence.

In this article, we'll offer a comparison of these top programs and discuss in detail how each of them goes about certifying the next generation of personal trainers.

The best personal trainer certification programs, ranked in order of popularity:

American Council on Exercise (ACE)
National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)
American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA)

Let's discuss each of these in a bit more detail.

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

Ask ten fitness professionals what they believe is the gold standard of personal training certification, and there is one program you'll likely hear recommended more than any other: ACE Fitness.

ACE is the largest non-profit health and fitness certification organization in the world, and it has certified more than 60,000 fitness professionals since its inception in 1985. The three key advantages to choosing ACE as your certifying program are (1) the breadth of specialization, (2) the accountability you'll receive during your education, and (3) the competitive advantage during the hiring process.

First, ACE offers a wide breadth of specialization for all kinds of fitness professionals. Whether you're looking to become a personal trainer, a group fitness instructor, a health coach, or a medical exercise specialist, ACE has dedicated certification programs for all of these specializations.

Second, ACE also offers unparalleled one-on-one support throughout your entire certification process via the ACE Resource Center. As an ACE student, you'll have access to their team of study counselors who can help you with any study questions you encounter, and you can even request a weekly check-in with a counselor to keep your goals and deadlines on track.

Finally, there is possibly no other name in personal training that is as respected as ACE, and listing ACE certification on your resume is a mark of distinction. Gold's Gym, for example, the largest full-service gym chain in the world, selected ACE as their exclusive professional fitness certification provider across all of their 700+ locations worldwide.

While they're not the cheapest program on this list, ACE loves to run promotions where you can take at least $100 off the regular price, bringing their actual price in line with all the other main certification programs.


National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

Founded in 1987, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has established itself as a science-based leader in the world of health and fitness certification.

Their flagship Optimum Performance Training (OPT) Model is a rigorous training system that sets the foundation for their certification program and seeks to maximize levels of physical fitness for a broad range of clientele. Like ACE, the NASM personal trainer certification is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the gold standard for training certification accreditation.

NASM reports that 95% of test takers pass the training exam and they even offer an Exam Pass Guarantee as well as a Job Guarantee under certain conditions. That's a combination that's hard to top.

International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)

For those looking for online personal trainer certification, the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) offers an excellent and widely accepted certification program and exam that you can take from the comfort of your own home. Additionally, their all-inclusive pricing of $499 comes with everything you need to get your career started, including a complete study guide, a marketing and business guide, a sample exam, and even a free professional website.

While not as recognizable or widely accepted as ACE or NASM, certification from ISSA is great for those who prefer a completely online experience and who would like to save a bit of money as well.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

The oldest program on this list, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) was founded in 1954 by a group of doctors and educators who were concerned that the American public's love of smoking and lack of exercise was at the root of poor physical health. Since then, it has certified over 45,000 health professionals in 44 countries, making it one of the most trusted names in the business.

For those looking for an academically inclined training program that looks and feels much like a college physiology and anatomy course, ACSM has that program. Test takers have reported that their exam is one of the most difficult of any on this list; about one half of applicants fail the exam on their first try! Generally, ACSM demands a much more in depth understanding of human bodily function than most other programs. For some, this is a welcome challenge. For others, the coursework may be excessively technical and they may be best served by a more practical approach.

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

As implied by their name, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a focus on strength and conditioning, and is a favorite certification for those looking to work with professional athletes or bodybuilders. Their certification is one of the toughest on the market, and like ACSM, about half of test takers fail on their first try. Not coincidentally, NSCA and ACSM are also the only two certifying organizations that publish their own peer-reviewed scientific journal. We're talking serious business here.

If you're looking to work with clients who are already in great physical shape looking to reach peak performance, NSCA is a solid choice. If you're more inclined to work with the general population, other certifications may be more suitable.

National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)

Virtually all personal trainers will recognize each of the organizations on this list thus far. The National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT), however, may be new to some. Even though the program is NCCA-certified and has been in existence for 30 years, it hasn't quite yet reached the acclaim of all the other top programs.

There is one major advantage to NFPT however: price. They are the most affordable personal trainer certification on this list and they offer attractive payment plans to soften the financial blow even further. Even better, their continuing education credits (CECs) are free for all graduates of their program.

American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA)

The American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA) is the newest organization on this list. The AFPA was founded in 1994 and offers over 30 different certifications, including programs in personal training, nutrition, injury prevention, longevity, and posture analysis. They also offer a choice of an online or mail-in certification exam. Interestingly, the AFPA is veteran owned, so current and former members of the military are eligible for reimbursement.


Conclusion

The general consensus among fitness professionals is that ACE and NASM certifications will sufficiently cover the vast majority of aspiring personal trainers--those looking to work with the general public. For those looking for a more specialized education, it is encouraged to call some companies or organizations where you'd like to work and simply ask if they have any preferred programs. As mentioned previously, a place like Gold's Gym will recommend ACE, but other certifications will be appropriate for different settings.

Whichever program you choose, your path to become personal trainer doesn't end at certification--it's just the beginning! Your most valuable education will start the day you work with your first client, and no amount of training and education will ever replace real world experience.

So stay fit, work hard, and remember to have fun!