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5 Best Personal Trainer Certifications to Become an Industry-leading Personal Trainer

Article written in partnership with Jon Stojan

If you are ready to become a personal trainer, the first big step is completion of your personal training certification. Anyone can become a personal trainer, but depending on your career goals, you need to be specific about which certification you choose.

The fitness industry is awash with personal training certifications. If you are thinking of becoming a personal trainer, the sheer number of choices on the market may overwhelm you.  

To help out, we’ve curated a list of the top personal training certifications. Our list is based on our experience in the fitness industry. These training certification programs provide a foundation whether you want to work in a gym or other fitness center training clients.

We also consulted with Tyler Read, an expert on the best personal training certifications and a leading authority on becoming a successful personal trainer.

Tyler holds a BS in Kinesiology as well as the NASM CPT certification. Tyler is also the founder of PTPioneer.com, a website and brand that has guided thousands of personal trainers to become successful and dominate their fitness careers through its reviews of personal training certifications and guides to the fitness industry.

Between Tyler’s expertise and our extensive knowledge, we’ve dialed in our list of the very best CPT certification programs so you can guarantee yourself a successful, fulfilling, and lucrative career.

1. Trainer Academy (TA-CPT)

Trainer Academy is a personal trainer certification provider that offers a premium fitness certification package at an extremely competitive price point. It is among our top picks for best personal training programs.

While most trainer certification providers charge a substantial sum for both the exam and the study materials, Trainer Academy takes a different approach compared to ‌others.

The entire Trainer Academy textbook study material is‌ available for free directly through the Trainer Academy website, so you have the option to start studying the information for free at your own pace.

Students who opt for enrollment the Trainer Academy CPT study program receive additional assistance, materials and resources including a PDF textbook, audio study guides, practice quizzes, full access to the Trainer Academy learning management system, study guide, flashcards, practice exams and practice tests, and other materials perfect for students of all learning styles.

Trainer Academy lowers the financial and educational barriers for aspiring personal trainers, believing that the fitness career path should be available to any person motivated to learn the skills needed for success in the modern fitness industry. Their mission is to support the next generation of trainers towards success in the industry without charging outrageous prices.

The Trainer Academy CPT program is slated to receive NCCA accreditation in fall 2023, making it a gold standard fitness certification.

One of the other benefits of the program is that Trainer Academy Certified Trainers and anyone who becomes a Trainer Academy student receives access to the CoachesOnline app, which contains workout programs, technique videos, and a custom client-trainer interface perfect for becoming an online personal trainer and adapting the trends in the modern fitness industry.

If your training business marketing activities include social media and other technology, the Trainer Academy CPT is a no-brainer. If you want to train clients online, a personal training app is among the tools someone needs for success.

Eligibility and Prerequisites

Trainer Academy students must meet the following criteria:

  • CPR/AED certified
  • High school diploma or GED
  • 18 years of age

Each requirement must be completed before sitting for the exam.

Course Contents

The Trainer Academy curriculum covers many subjects and areas of exercise science including exercise physiology, anatomy, biomechanics, exercise techniques, and program design. They also include substantial sections on corrective exercise and training special populations.

Practical chapters include sections on flexibility, aerobics, plyometrics, strength and resistance training, speed, agility, and quickness training, and implement training such as TRX and kettlebell exercises.

Overall, the Trainer Academy coaching couse provides an exceptional personal training education for fitness trainers, and is a great base for a variety of additional specializations as well.

Trainer Academy CPT Test

The Trainer Academy CPT certification exam can be taken at an in-person test center as well as online through remote proctoring. The exam difficulty is fairly average, and most students who complete the learning management system curriculum and study prep will not have issues passing the exam.

Career Prospects & Continuing Education

The Trainer Academy CPT program is an excellent launch point for a successful career in fitness. Its accessible price point coupled with access to multiple instruction formats as well as the online training app make it one of the best fitness trainer certifications regarding cost versus value.

The Trainer Academy CPT exam requires 20 hours of continuing education ever 2 years, equating to 2.0 CEU credits. Students will earn 0.1 of these credits from their cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification renewal, and can earn the rest of their credits through other approved CEC providers.

2. International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA-CPT)

As the name suggests, ‌ISSA is an internationally-recognized certification provider that has been around since 1988 and was a major pioneer in developing the modern fitness industry. The ISSA CPT certificate offers an exceptional entry point for people who want to work in a range of employment opportunities, including gyms, health clubs, and more. In the mind of many, ISSA is a tough contender for the best CPT certifications. This is evidenced by many job board offerings listing ISSA as a targeted certification.

ISSA has grown in popularity in many countries over the years, offering many types of certification to cater to multiple career needs in the industry.

In addition, ISSA offers many specializations for continuing education credits including nutrition coaching, strength coaching, and other specialist training certifications and courses.

The ISSA personal trainer equips students with the fundamental skills to start their fitness career, while providing many additional career paths within the fitness industry landscape.

The ISSA offers an NCCA accredited version of the exam, which is harder but more respected. The standard ISSA course is accredited by the DEAC. It is an easier exam but carries less weight than the NCCA version.

Eligibility

ISSA CPT candidates must meet the following criteria to be eligible to take the training certification program:

  • CPR/AED certified
  • High school diploma or GED
  • 18 years of age

Course Contents

The ISSA covers much of the same material as the other courses through their online learning system. The Learning Management System for ISSA is not as good as Trainer Academy. However, it still gets the job done.

The ISSA has a fair but of content on training various special populations. While this topic is covered in other certifications as well, ISSA definitely places a heavier emphasis on this topic.

The exercise technique section is somewhat less comprehensive than Trainer Academy, ACE, or NASM, but still sufficient to train all the body parts and develop workouts for the muscles needed for fitness.

Finally, the ISSA does an exceptional job covering the business skills needed for success in the industry. This is a topic often glossed over by other certifications despite its vital importance to success in the industry.

ISSA CPT Test

As mentioned, the ISSA CPT offers two versions of the exam. The first version is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commision (DEAC). The DEAC ISSA exam is open book and has a roughly 90 percent pass rate. While it does ultimately give you the ISSA CPT credential, it’s less respected professionally.

The NCCA accredited version of the exam requires an in-person testing center or online proctored exam. It is not open book and is more difficult, with a closer to 70 percent pass rate.

THe NCCA exam is a better choice if you need the credibility for a job opportunity that requires an NCCA fitness certification. That being said, if you acquire the knowledge and do not require the weight of an NCCA certification, the extra difficulty may be unnecessary.

Career Prospects & Continuing Education

According to ZipRecruiter data, ISSA trainers earn an average of $65,555 per year, which puts ISSA on the higher end of personal trainer salaries. Ultimately, specializations, employment setups, and the type of clientele you train has a bigger impact on your earning potential compared to which specific certification you get.

ISSA offers a ton of great specializations for continuing education, so it is a great base if you want to become a nutrition coach or bodybuilding coach, to name two examples.

3. National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM-CPT)

The National Academy of Sports Medicine is a well-respected leader and provider of quality fitness certifications. Their flagship NASM CPT program and world-renowned Optimimum Performance Training Model (NASM OPT) makes NASM a household name in the fitness industry.

Although NASM is primarily aimed at United States-based personal trainers, the principles taught in the curriculum are universal and provide an excellent skillset for fitness experts.

NASM also provides a job guarantee with their top packages, solid webinars, and excellent customer service. NASM is among the credentials sought-after by employers and organizations for group fitness instructor jobs and individual trainers alike.

They also offer excellent payment plans to save money upfront and offset the higher prices for their credentials, on top of giving a great discount. Individuals without a background in fitness training can become competent fitness professionals.

Eligibility & Prequisites

NASM CPT candidates must meet the following criteria to be eligible to take the training certification program:

  • CPR/AED certified
  • High school diploma or GED
  • 18 years of age

Course Contents

The NASM CPT course contents begin with a solid overview of the fitness industry and employment landscape, which is a great intro for people completely unfamiliar with the fitness industry.

NASM covers anatomy and exercise physiology and kinesiology before diving into the nuts and bolts of exercise program design with the OPT model. The physiology is not as in depth as Trainer Academy but much more than ISSA.

The OPT model is the strongest aspect of the NASM CPT program. The OPT model gives trainers without much experience a framework for progressing clients from beginner or sedentary levels to relatively advanced fitness levels through stabilization, hypertrophy, strength, and power training.

Special-populations wise, NASM does an okay job, although it is not NASM’s strongest point.

NASM could do a better job of covering business skills for personal trainers. However, most NASM trainers can end up working at a position in gyms, health clubs, or fitness studios, which typically provide this sales and administration training separately.

Overall, a NASM-certified trainer can be trusted to safely and efficiently progress fitness beginners to reasonably solid athleticism, health, and fitness through a focus on the fundamentals of the OPT Model.

NASM CPT Test

The NASM CPT exam has a reputation as being one of the harder CPT exams in the fitness industry. The NASM pass rate sits below 70 percent, so the exam should not be taken lightly.

Even trainers with previous experience will need to study since the OPT model has specific phases that you would not pick up from general exercise program design knowledge from non-NASM sources.

Career Prospects & Continuing Education

NASM trainers average anywhere from $35,662 to $55,246 depending on employment arrangements. However, these numbers are probably a lowball estimate given NASM’s credibility in the industry.

NASM requires 20 continuing education credits every 2 years, which includes the CPR/AED recertification.

Continuing Education courses from NASM include the famed NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist (NASM CES), which helps clients deal with injuries, and the NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist (NASM PES). Both of these are great add-ons to the CPT program, and are one of the best paths towards higher salary and career growth.

4. American Council on Exercise (ACE-CPT)

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is a non-profit fitness provider originally focused on aerobic training during the ‘aerobics craze’ in the 1980s with a mission to get human bodies moving towards improved fitness.

Ultimately, the ACE certification evolved with the times and added a substantial amount of knowledge related to resistance training and exercise progressions.

To keep up with the NASM OPT, ACE developed the Integrated Fitness Trianing Model (ACE IFT). This is similar in concept to NASM’s OPT model but is a bit more simplified.

As a non-profit organization, ACE also funds and conducts a fair amount of research studies on how to improve public health outcomes and individual fitness levels through practical science based approaches for the general public, as well as other things that advance the level of resources and improvements to their training programs..

Eligibility

ACE CPT candidates must meet the following criteria to be eligible to take the training certification program:

  • CPR/AED certified
  • High school diploma or GED
  • 18 years of age

Course Contents

The ACE coursework is structured somewhat differently from other certifications in that they intersperse the anatomy throughout the curriculum as opposed to having a dedicated section. This has some pros and cons. Contextually, this can help learners by associating the anatomy knowledge, such as muscle locations and biomechanics directly with resistance training.

However, if you prefer to get the anatomy out of the way before the more fun topics of technique and program design, this structure may not be optimal.

The ACE IFT model is the standout component of the entire curriculum. The program integrates directly with the exercise library, so you can plug exercises directly into the IFT programs from the library and also get the technique shown via video.

The exercise library is included with the standard package, so you do come out equipped with basically everything you need to train clients immediately.

ACE CPT Test

The ACE exam is very easy for an NCCA accredited certification. In fact, it’s probably the best choice if you need a very easy NCCA fitness certification. The test is a scaled 550/800, with 150 multiple choice questions, of which 125 are scored.

Career Prospects & Continuing Education

ACE CPT average salaries in the United States are roughly $54,000 per year on a full-time schedule, although this depends more on the other factors previously discussed.

ACE requires 20 credit hours (2.0 CECs) every 2 years to stay current on your CPT certificate. You do have a massive range of courses from both ACE itself and third-party providers, so you can take your career in any direction.

Popular ACE courses include the ACE Health Coach and Fitness Nutrition Specialist (ACE FNS), although these are just two examples out of hundreds of continuing education options.

5. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CPT)

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is North America’s premier organization dedicated to advancing the field of athletic and tactical strength and conditioning, although tey do offer a standard personal training certification as part of their offerings.

The NSCA is a non-profit founded in 1978 with a heavy focus on sport science and strength and conditioning professions. In line with this focus, the NSCA offers the Certified Strength and Conditioning Certification (NSCA CSCS) and the NSCA Tactical Strength and Conditioning certification (TSAC-F), with a focus on sports performance and tactical performance, respectively.

The NSCA CPT is appropriate for any personal trainer, however the focus does lean more on the performance aspects of improving personal fitness compared to othe certifications which focus more specifically on health outcomes independent of performance improvements.

Additionally, universities are more likely to accept NSCA certified trainers, especially if you want to train athletes.

Eligibility

NSCA CPT candidates must meet the following criteria to be eligible to take the training certification program:

  • CPR/AED certified
  • High school diploma or GED
  • 18 years of age

Course Contents

The NSCA CPT is a no-fluff course that covers deeper exercise science and exercise physiology than every other certification in the game.

The program design section is similarly in depth from a science perspective, equipping trainers with a deep knowledge of how to program for different goals.

One downside of the NSCA CPT coursework is the lack of a unified framework for progressing clients from fitness beginners to advanced. Trainers will have to individually design programs for each goal based on their assessments of the client’s baseline fitness.

With that said, in the long run, this is a better format because the OPT and IFT models both become less applicable when you start training a range of clients with different abilities and goals who do not fit the cookie cutter workout templates.

For trainers with a serious dedication to the latest and greatest scientific research and a willingness to go the extra mile to get down and dirty with program design, the NSCA CPT is an excellent choice.

NSCA CPT Test

The NSCA CPT exam is fairly challenging, even for NCCA accredited certifications.

The 2022 pass rate was 66 percent, placing it well below the average 70-80 percent pass rate of other certifications.

Career Prospects & Continuing Education

NSCA CPT trainers are ‌prepared for a wide range of careers. Generally speaking, the career track for an NSCA-certified trainer will be more focused on performance enhancement. However, this is not a set-in-stone rule.

The NSCA continuing education requirements are steeper than all other NCCA certification renewal requirements. While you have a 3-year period to recertify, you need to complete CEU credits from multiple different categories, including in-person or online live events.


This requires more coordination than other CEU requirements that allow you to take coursework completely remotely and do not‌ track how long you spend on each CEU course. However, because you will be at seminars and workshops with experts and other NSCA-certified trainers, the knowledge and network you build when getting your CEUs and recertifying with the NSCA leads to much greater benefits in the long run.

Runners Up for Best Personal Trainer Programs

Although the following certifications did not quite make the top 5 list, they deserve a mention as other solid alternative options for becoming a certified personal trainer.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM CPT)

National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF CPT)

National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA)

National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)

National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)

Fitness Mentors (FM CPT)

Conclusion

Regardless of which certification you choose, your success in the industry depends on a wide range of factors that go well-beyond the certifying organization. Specialization, continuing education, and a commitment to professionalism and delivering exceptional service in every training session is the ultimate recipe

With that said, this list encompasses the current best personal trainer certifications in the industry.

Additional Expert References

  1. Men’s Journal “5 Best Personal Trainer Certifications: The Indisputable Expert’s Guide to the Best
  2. HuffPost: “Personal Trainer Certification: Here Are The Best Programs In America
  3. Muscle & Fitness: “5 BEST PERSONAL TRAINER CERTIFICATIONS (TRAINER ACADEMY TAKES #1 SPOT)
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