This post was updated on December 1, 2022.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a full-time gym owner or a part-time personal trainer: certifications are an important part of your fitness business.
“Fitness certifications show the credibility of a trainer,” says Katie Kollath, CPT, a personal trainer in Golden, Colorado. While a certification shouldn't be the end of your education as a fitness professional, having one implies a baseline understanding of program design and injury prevention. Unqualified trainers can design less-than-efficient programs, which hamper health gains and motivation, and may tarnish the reputation of a fitness facility. Plus, lack of knowledge poses a safety risk: people can get hurt.
The physical fitness market is growing fast. There are more than 370,000 personal trainers and group exercise instructors across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the industry is expected to grow by 39 percent over the next eight years. Now, more than ever, you need to earn your clients’ trust, starting with the right certifications. (And that's whether you train clients in person or use the latest fitness software.)
What to look for in a personal training certification
The associations below are all recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), an independent, non-governmental agency that sets the standard for professional certifications. Any certification nationally accredited by the NCCA will typically fit the bill for training clients in gyms or virtually. These certifications imply that you’ve studied up on current training best practices and have a basic knowledge of anatomy, physiology and safety, but they differ in how deep they dive into kinesiology and how much continuing education you'll need. Some certifications are also tailored to special populations.
Each will require CPR and first aid certification. (Find a Red Cross-approved CPR class near you. You can complete one in half a day or less.) You typically need a high school diploma and must be at least 18 years or older to sit for any of these exams. Beyond that, you don’t need advanced education, but it can give you a leg up in the job market. Many employers allow those with college degrees in a related field (say, kinesiology or exercise science) to jump to the top of the potential-employee line. You may also make more money for your expertise.
As you’ll see below, most personal training certifications cost between $99 and $1,500, which covers your study materials and the test itself. Cost also depends on where you take the test. (For example, even the best online personal trainer certifications cost less than in person ones.) Regardless, the investment is real, so you’ll want to choose the best one for your needs.
The best personal training certifications and group fitness certifications
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
Best personal training certification for: personal training and group fitness
How to prepare: ACE is a strong choice for those seeking to extend their credentials. Their personal training certification offers a comprehensive guide that covers the essentials to start training clients and includes guidance about coaching strategies tailored to behavior modification. That means this is one of the best personal training certifications for those who want to support clients who are just easing into a fitness routine. (Beyond the personal training certification, ACE offers a group fitness certification add-on that overviews class sequencing, instruction and inclusivity. Read more about the group fitness option here. The details below focus on the personal trainer certification.)
To prepare, ACE offers a textbook—Exercise Professional’s Guide to Personal Training—which focuses on anatomy, exercises for each muscle group and how to perform assessments.
The test: Choose your own adventure. You can take the exam at home through a remote proctor, or make an appointment at a testing center. The test includes 150 questions, which you need to complete in three hours or less. You need 62.5 percent or higher to pass.
Pass rate: Approximately 70 percent of those who sit for the exam pass on their first try.
Price: The basic package is $509, which includes access to online study materials, the exam, one practice test, a study companion and digital version of the textbook. The full package, including additional study materials and support, costs $899. Retests are $249.
Continuing education: You’ll need to recertify every two years, which means you need 20 continuing education units (CEUs), equal to 20 hours of live or online courses or workshops. This costs up to $139.
Learn more at acefitness.org.
National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
Best personal training certification for: trainers across the globe
How to prepare: As one of the most well-known, respected and universal personal training certifications, NASM is recognized by all major gyms to set trainers up for career success and diversity. They’re also one of the best personal training certifications internationally: NASM partners with Premier Global to offer certifications in countries far and wide. The academy offers a self-study, premium self-study option and a guided study program (which includes a 10-week instructed course). A 700-page textbook will guide you through everything necessary for the exam—and a personal training career. Similar to ACE, you can add a group fitness certification separately. This is available through a separate body, however: the Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), which is also highly respected.
The test: Answer 120 computer questions within 2 hours. You’ll pass if you answer 70 percent or more correctly.
Pass rate: The 65 percent pass rate makes this one of the more challenging certifications.
Price: The $559 self-study package includes the online course, exam fee, digital textbook, learning videos and practice quizzes. For $769 to $1,559, the package also comes with bonus study materials, guided study courses, a 90-day job guarantee and the option to retest for free. Without that option, retests are $199.
Continuing education: Like ACE, NASM also requires 20 credits every two years, which costs $99. Or, for $299 up front, NASM will cover the biennial recertification cost forever.
Learn more at nasm.org.
National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)
Best personal training certification for: a budget-friendly investment
How to prepare: The NFPT is one of the newer certifications recognized by NCCA, but it’s growing in popularity for its diverse range of test prep options. The average person takes 60 to 90 days to get ready for the exam, although you have one year from the package purchase date to sit for the test. Like the other best personal training certification programs here, you can prepare completely at home, then book your exam at a proctor-monitored testing center. For additional support, NFPT offers two-day in-person workshops for hands-on practice.
The test: Field 120 computer questions within two hours to complete the exam. To pass, answer 70 percent or more correctly. Exam questions fall into these categories: human anatomy, human physiology, fitness components, training program development, implementation and modification, and communication skills.
Pass rate: About 72 percent of exam-takers pass on the first try.
Price: Online exam prep ranges from $199 to $349. In-person weekend workshop training is $329 to $778. This includes the cost to take the exam, two practice tests, CPR certification and a digital copy of the trainer manual. The pricier packages come with practice tests, exercise videos and one-on-one test prep support from NFPT trainer experts. Retests are available for $119.
Continuing education: You’ll need to renew every year. One of the big things that makes this best personal training certification stand out? CEU courses are free. (FYI: You’ll need 2.0 CEUs annually.)
Learn more at nfpt.com.
National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Best personal training certification for: training already-fit clients
How to prepare: The NSCA offers certified personal trainer exams, plus Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) to train athletes, Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitators (TASC-F) to train military and first-responders, Certified Special Population Specialists (CSPS) to work with individuals with special needs, and Certified Performance and Sport Scientist (CPSS) to train athletic teams. Here, we’ll focus on the certified personal trainer certification, but you can learn more about the other options on the NSCA website.
This certified personal trainer certification is more focused on active and healthy individuals, but will help you train clients of all skills and abilities. Many of the study products are published by Human Kinetics, the leading publisher of textbooks in subjects relating to exercise science. These reference books will come in handy throughout your personal training career. Attend a live in-person exam preparation clinic or study on your own. Either way, depending on your education level and experience, the NSCA suggests dedicating three weeks to nine months to studying.
The test: Complete 155 questions within three hours. You’ll pass by answering 70 percent or more correctly.
Pass rate: The most recent data suggests 72 percent of exam-takers pass their first attempt.
Price: Including the $300 to $435 exam fee, as well as study materials, the all-in investment ranges from about $500 to $900, depending on if you’re a NSCA member and how many study prep materials you choose to purchase. The in-person exam clinics are $155 to $395; this varies based on student status and time of sign up (save by booking early).
Continuing education: Brush up with 20 hours of continuing education every two years to stay certified. Enroll in online courses or webinars or attend approved clinics, conferences and symposiums. The web-based continuing education classes from Human Kinetics (courses cover exercise science, athletic training, physical education and more) also work for CEUs.
Learn more at nsca.com.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
Best personal training certification for: trainers who want to work in clinical settings or in the medical field
How to prepare: Recognized as the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization worldwide, ACSM is recognized by the NCCA and all major gym brands. It’s also the preferred certification for personal trainers employed at major hospitals and wellness centers. In addition to studying online, you can attend a two-day in-person workshop or a six-session (nine hours total) online webinar for study assistance. Many free study prep resources are available online, including an exam outline and private Facebook study group.
The test: Answer 120 computer questions in two hours. Rack up 550 points from the possible 800 points to average 68.75 percent correct (or more) to pass. New in 2020: Remote proctors can now monitor exam-takers via webcam.
Pass rate: The first-time pass rate for the ACSM certification is 69 percent.
Continuing education: You'll need 45 CEUs every three years. One hour of continuing education counts as one CEU. Choose from in-person conferences, online workshops or seminars, or roll over CEUs from other approved health and fitness courses. The recertification fee is $45 every three years.
Learn more at acsm.org.
National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)
Best personal training certification for: trainers who plan to work virtually
How to prepare: You can access all study materials, content and testing online. NESTA also stands out for their training technology integrations, including overviews on heart-rate tracking and digital exercise logging. Plus, a NESTA certification comes with a post-exam kit that includes a business guide to implement once you’re certified; ideal for entrepreneurs. Test questions cover kinesiology and anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, client assessments, exercise programming, injuries and safety, psychology and behavior, and professional responsibilities. You have 90 days to pass the exam once you’ve purchased a package.
The test: Answer 125 computer questions in two hours. To pass, you’ll need to answer 69 percent or more correctly.
Pass rate: About 71 percent of test-takers pass their first NESTA certification exam.
Price: The NESTA PFT certification program, including training materials, costs $477. The exam only is $349 and the exam with a digital manual for test prep is $399. Retests are $199 and require a 30-day waiting period between tries.
Continuing education: Pay $149 and complete 40 hours of CEUs every four years to stay certified. CEU courses cover a range of topics, like mind-body fitness, green living, online coaching and core conditioning.
Learn more at nestacertified.com.
The bottom line on the best personal training certifications
You can’t make a bad choice, as long as you choose at least one and continue learning throughout your career. “Experience will make you the best trainer you can be,” Kollath says, “and there are always new skills and techniques you can learn.”