Interested in getting into the fitness industry as a trainer but you’re wondering what is the best personal trainer certification in the US?
There are many different certification programs available, but they’re not all created equal.
What’s more, most probably aren’t right for you, depending on your long-term goals.
Let’s discuss the importance of getting certified, the different types of personal trainer certifications available, and which is the right one for your needs.
But first, let’s start with the basics.
What is a Personal Training Certification?
A personal trainer certification is a nationally recognized credential that shows that you have the knowledge and skills to train clients safely and effectively.
In order to get certified as a personal trainer, you’ll need to study with one particular nationally recognized organization then take an exam.
What is a Certified Personal Training Exam?
In order to become certified, you will need to pass an exam provided by the organization you’ve chosen.
The exam will test your knowledge in the following areas:
- Exercise science
- Program design
- Needs of special populations (e.g., pregnant, elderly, etc.)
- Personal trainer scope of practice
- Legal and procedural practice
When I was certified (and for years after), you had to visit a pre-approved testing site to take the exam. This was to ensure you couldn’t cheat.
Since then, things have changed.
All of the most credible and recognized certifying agencies now provide you with a second option if you don’t feel comfortable going into a testing site: the online option.
The online exam is the same as it would be at the testing facility, but you are monitored by a live remote proctor.
What are the Benefits of Getting Certified as a Personal Trainer in the US?
I want to review the benefits of a personal trainer certification, because some might not be as obvious, especially if you want to get into the industry but not in personal training.
For example, I’m a fitness writer but I’ve been a certified personal trainer for well over a decade.
I used to train clients full-time but slowly moved into another niche of the industry: fitness copywriting.
Even though I’m a fitness copywriter, I still maintain my personal training certification and these benefits are the reason I do it.
You’ll Get Hired: Commercial gyms won’t hire you without a personal training certification from a nationally recognized and well-respected organization.
You’ll Know What You’re Doing: An in-depth certification really covers everything you’ll need to know to be a successful trainer. Even if you think you know a lot now through Google searches, you’ll be blown away at how much you’ll pick up when you study for the CPT exam.
You’re More Credible: A certification boosts your credibility and authority as a trainer. Trust me, no one will want to work with a “trainer” who had an education from YouTube.
You’ll Be Able to Network: It’s a great way to network with other professionals in the fitness industry including, but not limited to, other trainers. For example, you might meet a gym owner who is actively searching for motivated trainers.
You Can Make a Job Pivot: You might also discover that training isn’t for you, but you want to stay within the industry (just like with my case). Maybe you start as a trainer but realize you enjoy managing a gym more. Or maybe you use it as a starting point to become a traveling personal trainer, helping people in other countries.
How Can You Go About Getting Certified as a Personal Trainer in the US?
There are a few ways that you can go about getting certified as a personal trainer in the US.
You can find certification programs through community colleges and even some gyms
But the most common way to get certified is to go through the self-study courses provided by one of the most recognized personal training certification organizations.
What Should You Look for in a Personal Training Certification Organization?
When choosing a personal trainer certification, it is important to consider the organization’s reputation and what their program includes.
The best personal trainer certifications will include:
The best personal trainer certification in the US is one that is accredited by a national organization.
This is easily THE most important thing to look for because a nationally accredited program brings with it the assurance that gyms will accept your certification.
There are various organizations that accredit personal trainer certifications.
The ones to look out for are the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the Council for Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
Choosing a nationally accredited certification will ensure that you are getting a quality program.
A Comprehensive Curriculum That Covers All Aspects of Training
When you are looking at certification programs, make sure that the program covers all aspects of personal training.
The best programs will also provide you with an option to gain practical experience such as a workshop or short-term internship. This is a great way for you to put what you have learned into practice.
Hands-On Experience Working with Clients
Continuing with the point above, I’d highly recommend getting in the field before your exam with a workshop or internship.
It’s not required, but it will help you put theory into practice.
But this all depends on which certification you go with.
Some certifications are ideal for the commercial gym setting (e.g., NASM) while others are great if you want to further your education and get involved in the medical field (e.g., ACSM).
Getting into a commercial gym setting for a workshop is going to be easier than getting into an internship for a medical field position.
What Should You Consider Before Making Your Decision?
Here are some things to consider before making your decision on which program to go with:
How much can you afford to spend on a personal trainer certification program?
More importantly, how much does it cost to get certified as a personal trainer?
The cost of certification can vary depending on the organization, but typically costs between $400 and $1,300.
The lower end of that is usually for the exam only while the higher end includes video tutorials, a workshop, and a job placement guarantee.
Thankfully, most personal training certifications offer a payment program.
If budget is a big concern, I’d call the organization sales team and ask about their terms and conditions for getting a refund, if you change your mind after enrolling in their program.
Your Timeline and Schedule
One thing to keep in mind is your own schedule in relation to the duration of the program.
How many hours will you need to complete it?
Is this realistic with your schedule, and can you fit the program into your schedule?
Most certifications give you six months to study before you have to take the final exam.
And this should be plenty of time if you’re consistent about a study schedule.
What Kind of Support Do They Offer Once You’re Certified?
Do you want reassurance for when you pass the exam?
Certification programs have stepped up their game when it comes to providing you with post-exam support.
Many offer job resources on their websites while some will offer a job placement guarantee.
What Are the Best Personal Trainer Certification Programs?
With all of that said, I’m going to give you a checklist of the five nationally accredited personal training certifications that I recommend.
Each one of these is nationally recognized, so you don’t need to search for all those fancy letters after the names.
I’ll also cover the foundational costs associated with each including the textbook and exam as well as any additional courses that could be helpful.
Keep in mind that these organizations could be having a sale at different times during the year. These prices are current as of 2022, but it can’t hurt to call the directly and ask for a discount. It’s worked for me numerous times with my recertification programs.
1. ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
A clinically focused certification, I’d say that the American College of Sports Medicine is the gold standard when it comes to personal training certifications.
In fact, a lot of the trainers who get certified with ACSM already have a Bachelor of Science degree.
Most importantly, many of these trainers plan on working within the medical field (e.g., physical therapist).
- Exam only: $349.00
- Textbook: $79.99
- Exercise Testing and Prescription Resource: $87.99
- CPT Prep course: $270.00
Timeline: 4 exam attempts in 12 months (if you fail 4 times, you must wait a full year before trying again)
Support: ACSM Career Center
2. NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) certification is another top-notch certification that I’d highly recommend.
Instead of the medical field, the NSCA is serious about helping athletes through the latest exercise science studies.
If you see yourself working with athletes, I’d recommend the NSCA.
- Exam: $340 / $435 (member / non-member)
- Textbook and study guide: $242.10 / $297.90
- Essential Plus Package (textbook, online study course, technical manual, study guide): $454.50 / $513
Timeline: 6 months
Support: NSCA Career Center
3. NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine)
Famous for its Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model that’s uses in many commercial gyms, the National Academy of Sports Medicine is what I’d consider the Goldilocks certification for most people.
Not too clinical, not too casual. Not too cheap but not too expensive.
NASM bases the science in its textbooks and study materials off the research conducted by the ACSM, but it’s far easier to read.
I’m certified through NASM. And most of the trainers I know are also certified by NASM.
And NASM is usually the certification I recommend for new trainers who want to confidently enter the fitness industry but aren’t sure whether they will still with being a trainer in the long run.
- Exam: $599.00
- Textbook: $156.00
- Self-Study Program (exam, textbook, online course, study guide, practice exam): $599.00
Timeline: 6 months
Support: NASM Career Center & 90-Day Job Placement Guarantee
4. ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)
The International Sports Sciences Association certification provides the basics of everything you’ll need to know without delving into a niche or specialty.
I’m actually impressed with how far ISSA has come given it’s in competition with NASM and ACSM.
One thing I really like about ISSA is the Personal Trainer Boot Camp program and personal trainer business website, which are included with their CPT packages.
Speaking of which, ISSA only sells its exam and study material in package form, starting at $69 per month for one year. While this is more pricey than other certifications, you get a lot for your money, including guaranteed job placement.
- Basic CPT package (textbook, study materials, job placement): $828.00
Timeline: 6 months
Support: ISSA Career Center and Guaranteed Job Placement
5. ACE (American Council on Exercise)
The American Council on Exercise is another certification that has left me pleasantly surprised.
Years ago, my personal training manager wouldn’t hire anyone certified with ACE, and now they’re in the top 5 best personal trainer certifications in the US.
ACE is another solid option for trainers who want to learn the fundamentals without committing one way or another to a certain niche or specialty.
I think this is smart because it’ll be through your client experience that you’ll figure out which direction you want to lean (e.g., nutrition vs. rehab).
ACE offers study packages that begin at $509. I’d recommend the middle tier option because it includes a hard copy of the textbook, and if you’re like me, you can do studying on an e-reader.
- Exam: $399.00
- Textbook: $149.95
- Basic Study Package: (digital textbook, exam, practice exam, study companion): $509.00
Timeline: 6 months
Support: ACE Career Center
What Personal Trainer Certificate is Most Respected?
There are many different types of certifications out there, but only a handful stand out as being worth your time and money.
If you want to succeed in this field and advance your career, consider one of the certifications above, but be sure to match it to your long-term goals.
As I mentioned above, I believe that ACSM is the most respected with NSCA coming in at a close second.
Overall, I think NASM would work the best for most trainers, especially if you have no interest in becoming a physical therapist or going into the medical field.