Personal Trainer Certifications Which One to Choose?

People always ask me which certifications are the best if they want to become a personal trainer. First, I want to say that having a certification doesn’t make anyone a good personal trainer, but at least they did the minimum. Many trainers at the big box gyms like LA Fitness don’t even hold credible certificaitons, and if they do hold a minimal certification they are called Master Trainer. As a gym owner with over 12 years in the field I thought I would shed my opinion on this subject, based on experience. I ran a personal training department at a vocational college for a couple years and had to study the different certifications. Anyway, Here is a quick breakdown of the major personal training certifications. Now you may not see some here, but that is because there are way too many to count nowadays. I also haven’t reviewed any of the specialty certifications in this blog like Crossfit, RKC, FMS,StrongFirst and others. I may do so in the future.

Also, I state whether or not the certification is NCCA accredited.The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) was created in 1987 by ICE to help ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public through the accreditation of a variety of certification programs/organizations that assess professional competence. Certification programs that receive NCCA Accreditation demonstrate compliance with the NCCA’s Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, which were the first standards for professional certification programs developed by the industry. (Taken from

NSCA(National Strength and Conditioning Association):CPT

Pros: NSCA offers a CPT/Certified Personal Training Cert that has some of the best science content you will find. Everything from the smallest breakdown of muscle fibers to the cellular science behind muscle contraction. The NSCA does a great job putting forth a strong scientific background that ALL personal trainers should understand. It also has extensive information on strength programming and training athletes. They also offer great studying materials and resources. It is also NCCA Accredited.

Cons: The assessment section is completely out dated. They also fail to recognize or address modern day advances in training such as myofascial release, and movement screening of any kind beyond the sit an reach. Though the baseline science they preach is great, they refuse to get with the times because adequate research hasn’t been done yet, unfortunately their failure to move forward is dating them significantly. Though they really have positioned themselves in training athletes, most newbie personal trainers are rarely going to jump into training athletes. They are going to be training the 45-60 year old that complains of an achy back and trainers need to know how to look at the human body more effectively.

NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) Certified Personal Trainer Certification:

Pros: The NASM has made a huge push in the past decade. They have jumped on the corrective exercise and human movement train much more than the NSCA and others have. They also offer numerous continuing education opportunities in many different scopes so that their trainers have ample learning opportunities. Their information is great for those that want to train general populations with different postural and movement issues, especially with our aging population. The are NCCA Accredited.

Cons: Though they really focus on corrective exercise I really believe that what they offer is really the bare minimum entry level understanding.  My biggest annoyance the NASM is every single CEU course they offer is called a “specialist course”. So if you take their corrective exercise course you are now a CES, or Corrective Exercise Specialist. Put in hundreds or thousands of hours training clients with corrective exercise issues then call yourself a specialist. I really can’t take their Specialization Courses seriously since everything they offer makes you specialized.

ACE Fitness Personal Trainer Certification: American Counsel on Exercise

Pros: Ace was considered a real force in personal training in the 1990s or I should say in the 1900’s. Ace has made personal training accessible to 10’s of thousands of aerobics instructors world wide. It does a good job of breaking down risk stratification for general populations and elderly populations. You actually have to study for the test and put forth some effort in studying to get certified which is good. It is also NCCA accredited.

Cons: Ace is like ACSM with a little more flare, but really they are stuck in the world of exercising. Their propaganda is really geared towards an aerobic instructor or a novice. The lack of focus on strength training programming and developing programs for clients that actually matter is not there.   Their assessment section with the toe touch and other drills has been out dated for years.

AFAA: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America Certified Personal Trainer

Pros: Easy to obtain, and if you want your foot in the door quickly this is the route to go.

Cons: It is hands down a piece of paper to say you are certified. You are not going to learn lots of awesome information unless you want to be an Aerobics instructor. Sorry not much to say positively about this cert. It is not NCCA accredited either which isn’t the end of the world but it also shows that it may not be challenging and doesn’t really test according to any standardized guidelines..

ACSM: American College of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer Certification

Pros: It really set the standard of risk stratification in the Personal training world. All major certifications use the ACSM risk stratificaiton model. It is still looked upon as a very solid certification and the test does take some serious studying. It is also very clinically based. If you want to work in a hospital fitness center this would be a solid certification. Talks a lot about the roles of fitness in those that are health compromised. NCCA accedited.

Cons: It really couldn’t make fitness more boring . It really could be the driest certification on the planet. The lack of real strength programming and old research is out of this world. It also doesn’t have much leading edge information in strength training programming. And yes I believe as a trainer, getting your clients stronger is of paramount importance.

ISSA: International Sports Science Association

Pros: Founded by Dr. Fred Hatfield aka Dr. Squat. The book they use is incredible informational and solid. Though it isn’t NCCA accredited it does hold another accreditation  DETC that it supposed to have some benefits to it. It is also available online.

Cons: ISSA is very sales oriented. Visiting their website can be frustrating to read through tons of obnoxious ad copy especially on their ISSA online site. When you talk to their people to ask questions about taking the exam, you are immediately put into a sales pitch and trying to be closed on registering for the certification, and they won’t stop calling you either. It feels like walked into LA Fitness or Bally’s and they will do what it takes to close a deal. Also, the fact that it is offered online does make it a bit questionable in terms of legitimacy.

CSCS: Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (Part of the NSCA)

Pros: All those that sit for this exam must have a Bachelors Degree. This is the only certification in the field that has this prerequisite. Most college and professional strength coaches must hold this certifications. The exam is deep in program design, muscle physiology, strength training, and training athletes.

Cons: The assessment section is poor. There are no solid tools on how to screen athletes for risk of injury or check imbalances.  Though it is a solid exam based on solid material it still doesn’t guarantee that the individual can fully design a solid training program or know how to be a good coach. Also, understand that this isn’t a personal training certification, it is a strength coach certification so it really doesn’t test on risk stratification for general populations. If someone did show up with this certification alone I would not require them to also have a CPT cert as well. It really is a great certification that is challenging to achieve.


There are numerous other Personal Trainer certifications out there. Some are NCCA accredited others are not. On the list of accredited personal trainer certifications are:

  • NCSF: National Council of Strenght and Fitness
  • NFPT: National Federation of Personal Trainer
  • IFPA: Interational Fitness Professionals Association

I don’t have time to get into all of them. The fact that they are NCCA accredited means that the tests do meet a minimum level of competency in the field.  On another note, just because something is not NCCA accredited doesn’t mean it is awful either. I am sure the ISSA exam is challenging and tests on some great information, but the fact that it is offered online doesn’t allow it to be NCCA accredited.

So which certifications to choose?

The certifications I usually guide people to are either NSCA or NASM certifications. NASM is great for those that really want to learn the fundamentals of being a trainer and the screening protocols they offer are hands down better than any of the other certifications right now. Though I am not in 100% agreement with all the protocols, for a beginning trainer they do offer a great beginners tool box. For someone that really wants to get involved in Strength Training as well the NSCA book and certification is a wealth of knowledge. Though not NCCA accredited I have extensively reviewed the ISSA certification material and it too is a great wealth of knowledge.

Having said all of this, you can learn all you want from a certification test and the real world applications wont really start till you get years of experience in the field. Honestly some of the worst trainers I have met have college degrees and big certifications, and some of the best trainers I have met never took a college class and hold a certification that I would never recommend someone to get. The difference is the ongoing pursuit of knowledge and continually learning. One must understand that the above personal training certifications are just the beginning to get the foot in the door. There are numerous other learning programs and specializations that one can achieve after being certified. On average I spend $3-$4000 per year on continuing education and my trainers also spend significant amounts of money per year as well to travel around the country learning from the best in the field. Sometimes it is in the form of a continuing education workshop, a specialization certification, or instruction from another professional in the field to learn a new skill set. Don’t think your certification will do anything for you, it just says I can start working, the rest comes together with experience, good mentorship, and seeking out new learning opportunities.


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