I want to be a personal trainer, someone said to me recently. “Whats the best personal training certification” they asked. This is probably one of the biggest questions people ask when they decide that they want to be a personal trainer. It makes sense because there are so many different organizations out there that your head would spin trying to figure them all out. For example, just a few fitness organizations include, AAAI/ISMA, ACE, ACSM, AFAA, ISSA, NSCA and NASM to name a few. Also, each organization has different certifications that have cool names like Health Fitness Instructor, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, or Exercise Specialist. Which is right for you? This is what I want to talk about. After you’re done here, do read my step-by-step guide on how to be a personal trainer.
What is the Best Certification?
People often ask what’s the best personal training certification? To that I often reply that there is no such thing as “the best cert”. Trust me on this. A certification only means you know the “minimum requirements” needed to be a personal trainer.
You should not believe anyone who says “this is the best fitness certification”. People who say this stuff are just repeating what they have heard others say.
For example, many people say that American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) as “the best” organization to be certified by, but if you attempt to get this cert, you will probably have to learn all sorts of metabolic calculations to pass the test. Believe me when I say that if you work in a gym or are self employed, you will NEVER have to do those types of calculations.
I’ve been told the ACSM still teaches body fat testing using skin fold calipers. Again, while that is good to know, most big chain health clubs never use this method because of the liability associated with people touching people. Gyms have been sued over trainers doing things perceived as inappropriate.
I hear a lot of people say ‘the NASM is the best”. It’s a fine cert and people who have this certification usually know a lot about joint angles and stuff like that. But I’ve noticed that when those people take the AAAI/ISMA test, they usually fail it!
I know this is true because I’ve graded their tests.
For more information on NASM see this post on how to pass the NASM Test
I’m telling you the fact that there is no “best” personal training certification because I don’t want you to get caught up in what I sometimes jokingly call the fitness industrial complex.
Fitness certifying organizations are businesses. They want to make money. There is nothing wrong with this (we all need to make money). The marketing of organizations however are often so good that they convince people that their cert is the “best,” which is simply not true. Trainers who are already certified by these organizations are often biased that their cert is the best also. Sometimes this is because their fitness organization is the only one that they have been exposed to.
For more about this see my review of the NASM TV commercial.
Always remember that Exercise is drug. Personal trainers prescribe exercise and the benefits of exercise are many. This is why fitness trainers need to know what they are doing so they can prescribe the right dosage of exercise.
Focus on knowledge – not just a fitness certification. Be holistic in your approach to fitness and don’t be dogmatic and think that “my cert is the best”. No fitness organization is the best.
Some people ask if personal trainers need a license? For more insights on this, read about the differences between a personal training license and certification.
How to Pick A Fitness Certification
Let me now give you some things to think about to help you pick which personal trainer certification might be best for you.
1. As a personal trainer, do you want to specialize in any particular group? In other words, do you see yourself working mostly with with athletes, seniors, kids, people with medical issues? Think about this and investigate what fitness organizations might make it easiest to help you to eventually get to that goal.
If you are just starting a career in fitness, you may not have any idea who you like to work with. This is ok. Eventually you will. Stick to a well rounded, recognized fitness organization rather than one that specializes in any particular area. See my guide on how to be a personal trainer for more info
2. If you want to work at a particular gym, go to the gym and ask them for a list of fitness training certifications they accept. All gyms have a list of personal training certifications they accept. The General Manager or Fitness Director of the gym usually has this list.
3. What about online personal trainer certifications? Do your homework first if you are considering an online personal trainer cert.
While they can be an advantage for some people, a downside of some is that some gyms will not accept online personal training certifications. This is why you need to do some homework before committing money.
Here’s my review of online certifications for more information.
4. Sometimes gyms will have their own “personal trainer certification”. The certs are sometimes taught by the gym staff. What I can say about these also is be careful. Someone once told me they paid a gym over a thousand dollars or their “cert” only to find out later that no other gyms accepted it.
For more on this read my review of fake personal trainer certs.
5. You need to have a CPR and AED certification in addition to your fitness certification. When you apply for a job, most gyms will ask you for this. Save yourself time and get it before you apply. Having this can also help you command more money from a gym. Gym owners want an educated staff just in case an emergency happens (and they do…). If you are certified in both AED and CPR, they want to keep you around. This gives you bargaining power when you negotiate your rate of pay and incentives.
6. Don’t fall for any organization that says you are a “Master Personal Trainer”. There are Master Personal Trainer certs out there but lets face it, nobody is a “Master”. Heck, I’m not a master – and I’ve written 6 books!
Nobody knows everything and we all can learn from each other.
For example, take this short test that I gave you in What is a Master Personal Trainer? Better yet, ask the “master personal trainers” you know these questions and see if they know the answers.
I wrote my personal training book to teach people what they really need to know to be a personal trainer – the science – and the real life info – that never makes it into textbooks. Here is my book on Amazon also.
7. Are you forced to take a lower level certification before you are allowed to take the personal trainer cert? Some organizations make you jump through hoops and make you obtain a certification before you are allowed to take a personal trainer certification. The organization may say its to “prepare” you for the higher end cert but I think it’s just to suck more money out of you.
This was the case a few years ago with the ACSM. I don’t know if they still do this but be sure to ask about this no matter what organization you settle on.
8. How hard is it to get re-certified? Once you have your cert, do you have to get recertified every year, every 2 years? Also, what do you have to do to get recertified? Ideally it should be pretty easy to get recertified as a personal trainer.
9. Ask your friends who they are certified by AND also ask them what they like and don’t like about their organization.
For example, if you ask me:
What I like about the NSCA, I’d say:
- Great text books and great publications
- Well respected organization
And, if you asked me:
What I do not like about the NSCA :
- I don’t like it that anybody with a ANY college degree can now take the CSCS exam. When I became a CSCS, you had to have a college degree in a health related field. Now, you can have a degree in accounting and obtain the CSCS certification. I understand many like this but in my opinion, this water-downs the quality of the cert.
- The NSCA says writing a book counts as the same number of continuing education units (CEUs) as writing a magazine article. Baloney! It takes me over 2 years to write a book and about 2 hours to write a magazine article. They are NOT the same. The NSCA also groups books and magazine articles in the same category. This makes it harder for me to get re-certified. Again, this is baloney!
- The NSCA has been getting very friendly with the supplement company EAS over the last few years. As someone who writes about dietary supplements, I find the association too cozy for my tastes and gives the impression to NSCA members that EAS supplements are “the best”.
Everybody always asks me how to get certified. Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me how to get qualified? A certified personal trainer is not a qualified personal trainer.
There is no best personal trainer certification. Get certified and strive to be qualified – and not just certified – and you will be OK. For a more insights on this issue, read my review of how to be a personal trainer.
What do you think?