What is a personal trainer?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘personal trainer’ many times, but if you’re struggling to define this job description, let us help: A personal trainer is an individual certified to safely and effectively lead his or her clients to their desired physical goals. This can be achieved through 1:1 training, group training, online coaching, in-person training, and if qualified, may even involve helping clients with their nutritional needs.
If you’re interested in becoming a certified personal trainer (CPT) and want to learn the steps necessary or find out which certifying body is best, you’ve come to the right place.
Steps to becoming a certified personal trainer
Step 1: Meet general requirements
While you typically don’t need a college degree to become a personal trainer, most certifying bodies (in other words, the organizations certifying you as a trainer) require you to be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED. If you don’t currently possess a high school diploma, your first step to becoming a personal trainer would need to be the completion of a GED, which most states offer for between $0 to $150 depending on which state you live in.
Step 2: Consider your dream clientele
Think about the field you’d like to work in – do you picture yourself training kids and adolescents? Pre- and postnatal women? Overweight and obese clients specifically, or the general population? Do you want to work with elderly clients or bodybuilders?
Initially, you’ll get certified to work with the general, apparently healthy population of adults, but the sooner you get clarity on which direction you want to take long-term, the better you can plan accordingly and take the right courses.
Step 3: Pick your certifying organization
We write some more about the available options of certifying bodies below so you can be confident with your pick! Contrary to what you might think, there are some significant differences between the courseload, price, and quality of available certifications.
Important: if you have the goal of being employed by a certain business or organization, make sure that you check which certifications they ask for so you’re best prepared and don’t encounter any surprises.
Step 4: Purchase your course and begin studying
Whether you’re doing your studying self-paced or following a pre-set schedule offered by the organization, make sure not to skimp on this. After all, you don’t just want to pass a test, but also be able to offer the best training on the block, and help your clients safely achieve their goals. For that, you need all the knowledge you can get. From personal experience, I would recommend setting realistic study goals on a weekly basis and reviewing previous modules repeatedly so you don’t forget anything as you progress through your course and prepare for your exam.
Step 5: Get your CPR/AED Certificate
As part of your personal training certification, you’ll have to take a CPR and AED class (CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and AED stands for automated external defibrillator). The accrediting bodies require that you be certified in this to be able to provide first aid to a client in case of an emergency or accident while waiting for medical professionals to arrive.
We’ve listed out some first aid certification options below, but always make sure to double-check which ones your certifying organization recognizes and accepts. Note that you need to have your CPR/AED certification BEFORE you take your personal training exam. You will be asked to show proof of the CPR/AED Cert. when you check-in (virtually or in a testing center) for your exam.
Step 6: Schedule and take your exam!
After completing all of the course material, reviewing it, and going through practice questions, it’s time to schedule your exam! Most organizations ask that you schedule your exam within 6 months of the purchase date. If you plan your time well and don’t procrastinate, you won’t need this much time to prepare.
Make sure not to wait too long after finishing your course content to take the exam so you don’t lose too much knowledge.
Your exam might be available to be taken online (fully proctored via your webcam and mic) or will need to be taken in person in a testing center. Either way, make sure you’re coming prepared and understand the rules for passing/failing, and potential retesting options.
Personal training certification options
If you’re quite sure you want to become a personal trainer but don’t know yet which organization you should go with to get your certification, read on for an overview of the top providers in the U.S. that are nationally accredited and highly regarded as some of the best options.
If you’re short on time, click here to jump to the conclusion to hear our quick thoughts on which personal training certifying organization is best.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
The American College of Sports Medicine goes far beyond just certifying personal training students. They represent over 70 occupations in the Sports Medicine field across 90 countries. As for their CPT program, they allow you to either purchase the exam directly for certification or purchase both their study program + the exam.
Modules include information on anatomy, biomechanics, principles of nutrition, health screenings, and exercise tests, as well as program design.
Being one of the major providers of personal training certifications, they are nationally accredited by the NCCA.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is among the most commonly accepted personal training certifications by gyms, and a leader in health and fitness nationally, making it a solid choice for certification. See a few more details below:
- ACE offers 3 Course Options to choose from:
- Basic, Plus, Advantage
- The options differ only in the number of available practice tests, textbook formats, and access to a supplemental course, and specialist access
- If you’re comfortable with the basic option, this is a very affordable way to get certified.
- You have six months from the purchase date to register for your exam
- Accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM for short) is one of the most highly-regarded certifying organizations in the U.S. It doesn’t only offer personal training courses but also countless courses for continuing education and specialization, ranging from Women’s Fitness Specialization to Nutrition Coach or Corrective Exercise Specialization. Their curriculum is based on the most up-to-date information in exercise science. Some highlights include:
- 4 Course options for the Personal Trainer Certification:
- Self-Study Program
- Premium Self-Study Program
- Guided Study Program
- All-Inclusive Program
- Accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
- Teaches its Optimal Performance Training structure (phase training) to be well-prepared to create training programs for clients
- Prepares you for employment or self-employment
- Includes nutrition training, anatomy, physiology, stabilization, strength, power, cardio training
- Easy-to-navigate online learning platform
- Very straightforward purchase process, everything you need is included in your package (no need to buy the exam, textbook, online access separately like with competitors)
International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) is one of the most popular choices for becoming personal training certified. They have a very good social presence, thousands of reviews, and a great support team, which helps them appear very positively online.
ISSA is very proud of its exam passing rate compared to other organizations (about 90% pass and retests are free). Their average review is a 4.8-star rating, most often highlighting their good customer support, satisfaction with the program, and quality of the training.
- ISSA is DETC Accredited, only a few of their courses are NCCA accredited (the CPT Exam is part of this, though)
- Includes free CPR/AED course
- They offer countless continuing education and specialization courses (Yoga instructor, group training instructor, or youth and senior specialization programs are just examples out of the large pool of available courses)
National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA)
The National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA) has been around for over 40 years and, like the above-mentioned competitors, offers both PT Certification and specialization training. Despite their relatively long presence in the industry, they are less commonly known and talked about. This doesn’t necessarily take away from the quality of their training (they are NCCA accredited, after all), but they haven’t done the best job at positioning themselves as a prime option to become a CPT.
- Nationally accredited via the NCCA
- 2 Program options:
- “Premier Plus”
- Study materials come at additional costs
- Contents include exercise science (anatomy, physiology, biomechanics), fitness assessments, programming, nutrition, effective communication
First aid certification options
As mentioned above, all certifying organizations require you to complete a CRP/AED course in order to ensure the safety of your future clients in cases of emergencies. These are relatively quick to complete, and an easy (albeit important!) requirement to meet. Traditionally, first aid (CPR/AED) courses meet in person for about 4 hours on one day, and you get certified this way. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many certifying organizations now allow online CPR/AED certifications.
Make sure to pick the method you learn best with (self-paced, online, and from home, or structured, in one sitting, with an in-person instructor), and confirm that your first aid certification of choice is accepted by the personal training certifying organization you decide to go ahead with. The contents of the different courses are very similar and not a differentiating factor. We’ve listed some of the best options below.
American Heart Association
The American Heart Association is equipped to cater to a very wide range of students, from the general public to first responders and health care professionals. You should be able to find an array of course options and locations near you via their website.
ASTI through NASM
While NASM accepts CRP/AED certifications from numerous providers, they recently started offering the ASTI course directly on their site. It is a 100% online course that currently (2021) fulfills the requirements for your CPT program. If you’re getting certified through NASM, we’d recommend keeping it simple and straightforward and adding the ASTI CPR/AED certification to your cart alongside your CPT Training, and getting this sorted in one go.
American Red Cross
Being one of the more traditional providers of CRP/AED/First Aid courses, most personal training certifying organizations will accept a CPR/AED certification from the American Red Cross. They offer countless course options, both online and in-person, and likely have classes in your city. While having lots of options to choose from can be awesome, it also takes away from how straightforward this process could be. I found it a bit difficult to gauge the differences between the price ranges and which course would be the best to take, so I decided against the American Red Cross and went with the below option.
ProTrainings is another CPR/AED certification option that certifies you via a fully online learning platform. The course is self-paced, well-structured, not boring, priced fairly (it’s quite affordable), and taught by a good instructor via pre-recorded videos. I (Vera) personally took this course to get my NASM Personal Training certification and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys taking courses online and on their own time.
Trying to decide which organization to work with to get certified as a personal trainer can feel daunting and can be a difficult task to navigate. Because we believe that it should be easy to not only get valuable information but also make a positive impact on people’s health and fitness, we listed out the main personal training certifications in this article to make it easier for you to reach a decision and feel confident with your choice.
Currently, 14 personal training programs are accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is the industry gold standard for accreditation. Because all of the 5 we focused on in our review above are, indeed, accredited by the NCCA, you can’t really go wrong with any of them. They are all nationally recognized as high-level programs that prepare you well for your career in personal training.
However, due to differences in their acceptance by employers, as well as some course quality differences, our top choices are, in order
- The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) for their high-level and professional training program,
- The American Council on Exercise (ACE), and
- The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
At the end of the day, make sure that you feel comfortable with the organization you choose and trust them to teach you the most up-to-date information, and check with your ideal future employers which certifications they accept to make your entry into the field more seamless. We wish you good luck on your journey to becoming certified! Let us know when you pass your exam!