Personal training is an unregulated industry. This means that your 90-year-old grandmother can be a trainer. So can the guy beside you, or even someone who just started training. All they have to do is convince someone to pay them for their services.
You want to be a trainer, but you don't want to be one of those trainers. So what's the answer? A certification, of course! After all, most gyms won't hire you without one. If you're independent, many insurance companies won't cover you without one. It's your foot in the door.
But is a certification really worth your time and money? I would argue that it is—as long as you know both what you're getting and why. You need to go in with your eyes wide open, not just your wallet.
Below, you can see a complete table of all the personal trainer certifications in the US for you to compare. But before you check them out, absorb the following truths to make sure you get the most out of whatever certification you earn.
Truth 1 Your Clients Don't Really Care About Certs
Sure, a client might nod their head when you extol the benefits of your certification, but in most cases they've got nothing to base their opinion on. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as people who will come to you specifically because you've been certified in specific styles of, say, yoga, kettlebell training, or powerlifting. But even in these cases, clients care more about the results you can get them.
Don't forget that. No matter how good you are at sales and marketing, your success or failure is ultimately dependent on the results you help your clients achieve. The best personal trainers are those who have the combination of knowledge and passion to provide high-quality service. A piece of paper doesn't give you either of these.
Truth 2 Certification Doesn't Equal Qualification
Trainer and author Dave Parise made a great case in his book "Certified Vs. Qualified" that those two terms are far from equal. Let's be frank: A certification won't prepare you for training clients. In order to do a great job—not just an adequate job—you have to accumulate tons of practical and varied experience.
That may sound daunting on the front end, but in reality it's no different than any other profession. An accountant isn't ready to take on a wide variety of cases right away. Upon graduating and getting a job, he or she ideally goes to work at a firm under the supervision of an experienced mentor.
The difference is that personal trainers are usually thrown into the fire immediately when they start. There is little chance that a new trainer will be ready to train a 15-year-old guy wanting beach muscles and a 70-year-old woman with arthritic fingers and a torn ACL back-to-back on day one.
I'm not dismissing your years of experience working out and reading fitness websites and magazines. They're important. But their value is also very narrow. Up until now, your research has likely been focused upon making your workouts better and healing from your injuries. Unless you're going to be training people exactly like yourself—which isn't likely—you'll need to work to learn new methods.
In addition, you're likely so far removed from being a beginner that you've forgetten how it feels to be uncomfortable and unconfident in the gym. This point is so important it took up the entire first chapter of my book, "Ignite the Fire: The Secrets to Building a Successful Personal Training Career."
So let's be clear: More important than choosing the "best" certification is finding a place to work that has the best opportunity for growth. This means two things:
- There's a manager or mentor who supports you and allows you to ask questions.
- You get the opportunity to get your hands dirty and work with a variety of different clients.
That's a great place to start. Just remember that it's always OK to say you don't know something, as long as you follow it up with, " ... but I'm sure as hell going to find out."
Truth 3 Your Passion Must Dictate Your Education
Remember what I said above about personal training being unregulated? That doesn't just mean that anyone can be a trainer. It also means that anybody and their dog can create a certification for fitness professionals. You don't need to be a trainer for long to happen across certs that have little of value to offer.
It's perfectly normal to become skeptical; in fact, I recommend it. In many cases, the best choice is to avoid expensive certifications and put your money toward books, workshops, conferences, mentorships, and internships. Some of these come with certifications, but many don't.
Seek out the best resources on whatever topic you're interested in, and don't be cheap when it comes to your education. If you're really planning on doing this as a career, it's OK to invest heavily in your education. Just don't worry about whether or not it has a certification tag attached to it.
Truth 4 Ceus Are Opportunities, Not Just Obligations
CEUs or CECs are continuing education credits. As you'll see in the chart below, most certs require them for renewal. A major source of income for certifying bodies comes from providing training courses and materials that are preapproved for CEUs. Some of these materials are worthwhile, but many aren't, so don't get sold on the preapproved CEU tag alone.
Here's what you might not know: Almost every cert allows you to petition for CEUs from outside or unsanctioned events. This means that any event you attend or any course you take can count toward your renewal quota. All you need is a certificate of completion with the number of contact hours. You then fill out a form from your certification body.
Attend a seminar because the topic is something that you want to learn about, and because you think it will help your clients. If it really will, then it's worth your time and money.
Truth 5 Access To Experts Is A Real Benefit Of A Certification
When I called a cert a "foot in the door," it may have sounded like I was saying the content of the certification itself is more or less useless. Not so!
When you register for a certification, recognize that an expert has taken the time to consider the methodology, gather all appropriate research, and combine it together into a system for learning. All of this saves you time, which is your most valuable asset.
You don't need to agree with that person or their organization's stance on everything—no one does. Simply going through the process of learning their system, and being able to pass a test proving as much, gives you a foothold in an industry that is suffering from information overload.
It's often hard to figure out what to do with what we learn. Consider this your place to start. Where you go next is up to you.
So What Is The Best Cert For Trainers?
Here's where I give you the answer to the question that's been on your mind since you started this article. Unfortunately, the answer is that there is no "best" certification.
I've yet to come across any cert that truly stands out. Having spent $10,000-$15,000 on my education each year when I actively trained clients, my best recommendation is to views certs as stepping-stones for knowledge acquisition.
Below is a chart comparing the major certifying bodies. Let me be clear at the outset that I have no affiliation with any certification. I run the Personal Trainer Development Center, an independent blog dedicated to the improvement of the fitness industry—as well as its perception in society at large—and the success of the passionate trainers.
I share information about personal training because I love this industry. The only way to offset the scary rise in obesity and health care spending is preventative care, and there's no better preventative care than exercise. Make it your life, educate yourself, and make a difference!
|Full Name||American Council on Exercise||National Strength and Conditioning Association||National Academy of Sports Medicine||American College of Sports Medicine||National Federation of Personal Trainers|
|Is there a required membership?||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Membership Cost||NA||Student: $65 Professional: $120||NA||Student: $10 Professional: $230||NA|
|Length of the Training||6 Months (exam voucher purchased with study materials expires in 6 months)||NA - study materials do not include exam voucher and have no expiration date||180 days (exam purchase expires after this time)||NA - self-study, though workshops and webinars are available||1 year (exam must be taken within 1 year of program purchase)|
|Program Cost||Exam Only: $399||Exam Only: Members: $285 Nonmembers: $420||Exam Only: $599||Exam Only: Members $219 Nonmembers: $279||Exam Only: $329|
|Material Cost||Standard: $599 Premium: $699 Premium Plus: $799; all include exam||$20-$449; does not include exam||Study Packages range from $699 to $2399||Study Guides from $46 to $143.48||$479-$569, including the exam|
|Prerequisites||18 Years Old, Valid ID, CPR/AED||18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED||18 Years Old, Valid ID, CPR/AED||18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED||18 Years Old, HS/GED, 2 or more years personal fitness experience|
|Test Procedure||3 hour exam; 150 questions||3 hour exam; 150 questions||2 hour exam; 120 questions||2.5 hours; 120 questions (+30 unscored)||2 hours, 120 questions|
|Exam Location||Computer-based; over 500 US and Canadian test sites||Computer-based; over 160 assessment locations in the US; limited paper-based testing in US||Computer-based; scheduled through 3rd party for US & Canada||Computer-based; over 5000 locations||Computer-based; over 350 locations|
|Retest Cost||$299.00||Members: $235 Nonmembers: $370||$199.00||$150.00||$119.00|
|Approximate Time to Complete||6 Months (exam voucher purchased with study materials expires in 6 months)||NA - study materials do not include exam voucher and have no expiration date||Online prep options last 9 weeks, but program can be completed at own pace up to 180 days||NA - self-study, though workshops and webinars are available||1 year (exam must be taken within 1 year of program purchase)|
|Recertification requirements (how often and what's needed)||Every 2 years; 20 hours CECs†||2 years; retake exam or up to 6 CEUs‡ (which equals 60 contact hours)||2 years; 20 hours of continuing education||3 years; 45 CECs||Annual, 2 CECs per year|
|Recertification Cost||$49-$139||Up to $50||$99 for two years or $299 for lifetime certification (must still submit CEUs every 2 years)||$30.00||$85 per year|
‡ CEU: Continued education unit
U.S. Certifications (continued)
|Full Name||National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association||International Sports Sciences Association||National Exercise Trainers Association||National Council on Strength & Fitness||National Council for Certified Personal Trainers|
|Is there a required membership?||No||No||No||No||No|
|Length of the Training||90 days (exam must be taken within 90 days of exam or program purchase)||8 months (exam must be taken within 8 months, but most students complete it within 10 weeks)||NA - self-study, though 14-hour weekend workshops are available||NA - self-study, though workshops are available||6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with weekend workshops available|
|Program Cost||Exam Only: $249||$499, including exam||Exam Only: $349||Exam Only: $249||Exam & minimal materials: $299|
|Material Cost||$449, including the exam||$499, including exam||$79 for study materials; $399 early bird fee for workshop programs (includes exam fees)||Home study starting from $485; workshops starting from $485 (both include exam fee)||Standard study package: $399 Online Deluxe package: $495 Workshop package: $598|
|Prerequisites||18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED||CPR/AED||CPR/AED||18 Years Old, HS/GED||18 Years Old, CPR/AED|
|Test Procedure||2 hours, 125 questions||160 multiple choice; 2 case studies; 6 essays||2 hours, 120 questions||3 hours; 150 questions||2 hours; 140 questions|
|Exam Location||Computer-based; scheduled through 3rd party for US & Canada||Online testing; paper & pencil available||Computer-based; 3rd party proctored||Computer-based||Computer-based; 3rd party proctored|
|Retest Cost||$149.00||1st online retake free; $50 thereafter||$99 within one year||$99.00||$139.00|
|Approximate Time to Complete||90 days (exam must be taken within 90 days of exam or program purchase)||8 months (exam must be taken within 8 months, but most students complete it within 10 weeks)||NA - self-study, though 14-hour weekend workshops are available||NA - self-study, though workshops are available||6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with weekend workshops available|
|Recertification requirements (how often and what's needed)||Every 4 years; 4 CEUs||Every 2 years; 20 CEUs||Every 2 years; 20 CEUs||Every 2 years; 10 CEUs||Every 2 years, 2 CEUs|
U.S. Certifications (continued 2)
|Full Name||International Fitness Professionals Association||The Cooper Institute||Aerobics & Fitness Association of America||Academy of Applied Personal Training Education||National Personal Training Institute|
|Is there a required membership?||No||No||No||No||No|
|Length of the Training||6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with limited workshops available||NA - self-study, though live classes are available||3-day live workshop or online study||Onsite course includes 12 3-4 hour lectures, plus required intensive anatomy course if needed||6 months on-site training ends in diploma award; certification exam through an outside agency is student's responsibility|
|Program Cost||Exam Only: $349||Exam Only: $289||$499 for workshop, $297 for online study, includes exam||Exam Only: $295||Tuition varies based on campus location|
|Material Cost||Study guide packages, include exam, range from $399 to $999||Live course: $595 Online Course: $695 (neither includes exam) OR Online Course with Exam: $899||Additional optional materials start at $20||Manual: $95 Onsite Personal Trainer Course: $975||Tuition varies based on campus location|
|Prerequisites||18 Years Old, HS/GED, CPR/AED||18 Years Old, CPR/AED||18 Years Old, CPR/AED||18 Years Old; Valid ID; Human Anatomy coursework; CPR/AED||18 Years Old; HS/GED; $75 plus application|
|Test Procedure||1 hour 40 minutes; 105 questions||2 hours; 100 questions||2 hours, 120 questions, plus practical portion||Multiple choice||Prepares student for NASM-CPT exam; student can opt to take any certification exam|
|Exam Location||Candidate sets up proctoring (test is mailed to you and must be proctored by an approved proctor)||Computer-based; 3rd party proctored||Online testing monitored by 3rd party; requires microphone and webcam||Onsite at Hofstra University||NA|
|Approximate Time to Complete||6 months (exam voucher expires after 6 months); self-study with limited workshops available||NA - self-study, though live classes are available||3-day workshop or online study; recommended 1-3 months of prep time; exam eligibility expires in 1 year||Onsite course includes 12 3-4 hour lectures, plus required intensive anatomy course if needed||500 hours|
|Recertification requirements (how often and what's needed)||Every 2 years, 24 CEUs||Every 3 years; 30 CEUs||Every 2 years; 15 CEUs||Every 2 years; 15 CEUs||NA|
|Recertification Cost||Varies based on cost of CEUs; up to 6 can come from outside IFPA||$55.00||$75.00||$85.00||NA|
|Full Name||Canadian Fitness Education Services||Canadian Fitness Professionals||Certified Personal Trainers Network||Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology|
|Is there a required membership?||No||Yes||Yes||No|
|Length of the Training||40+ classroom hours, 20 practicum hours||2 days (on-site); online only available (4-6 weeks prep recommended)||4-day workshops; self-study||6 months to 1 year|
|Program Cost||Application Fee $126||Exam Only: Members $184 Nonmembers $273||Exam Only: Members $204.75 Nonmembers $262.50||Exam Only: $155; requries additional app fee of $35+taxes|
|Material Cost||Classroom course fees vary by location; $300-$500 on average. Manual cost $85.00||Full Package $484 members; Online package $310 members||Manual $55 for members; Live workshops start at $497||Workshops & practical exam fees range from $250-$600|
|Prerequisites||Weight Training certification; CPR/AED||18 years old; CPR/AED||18 Years Old; CPR/AED; 20 Hrs Experience or Degree||2 years college with specific courses completed; CPR-A; first aid|
|Test Procedure||Classroom course (40 hrs), practicum (20 hrs), national exam, skills assessment||3 hours; 100 questions; additional 60-minute practical exam||3 hours; 120 questions; additional practicum required after exam||60 minutes; 100 questions; additional practicum required|
|Exam Location||CFES recognizes BCRPA; AFLCA; SPRA; MFC; OFC; FNB; NSFA; IFC; YMCA and CALA equivalency||Across Canada||Online||Computer-based, across Canada|
|Approximate Time to Complete||40+ classroom hours, 20 practicum hours||2 days (on-site); online only available (4-6 weeks prep recommended)||4-day workshops; self-study||6 months to 1 year|
|Recertification requirements (how often and what's needed)||Annual; 8 hours of seminars/workshops, 12 personal trainer client verification hours||4 CECs per year||Annual or biannual; 7 CECs annually or 14 CECs biannually||Every 2 years; 30 professional dev credits|
|Recertification Cost||$73.50||$69.00||$91 annually or $161 biannually||$210.00|