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What's the Gold Standard personal training certification | The big six personal training certifications

Oct 12, 2023





The big six personal

training certifications

The following is a breakdown of the big six personal training certifications. THESE ARE IN MY OPINION of which I have tested for the NSCA, ACSM, NASM and have helped people pass ACE and ISSA. The top tier help you get hired at elite gyms like Life Time Fitness, Equinox and/or collegiate / professional teams as a strength coach (CSCS.)


Tier 2 – NASM, ISSA, ACE – Help you get hired at smaller gyms like 24-hour fitness, LA Fitness, Orange Theory and F45

Show Up Fitness – SUF-CPT

The gold standard for personal training certifications, in my opinion is the Show Up Fitness Certified Personal Trainer (SUF-CPT). It's the only certification that has the participant take the exam by verbally answering questions and developing a program on the spot via Zoom. Its primary focus is in the skills that are needed the most for success: business, people, and trade skills. There are daily LIVE calls that are recorded for on-demand viewing where you get to ask fitness professionals questions and review programming case examples. With our board of education, we ensure we provide our students with up-to-date information. Textbook certifications can take years to update their information. Case in point: the current editions of some of these certifications still have the outdated opinions on Upper Crossed, Lower Crossed, and Pronation Distortion Syndromes which have been debunked time and time again (see the Prehab Guys, Adam Meakins, and Aaron Kubal for in-depth explanations with scientific citations).

Cost $100 per month. October 2023 SUF-CPT test $199 (by the end of 2023, it will be $299, and then projected to $599-999 within the next two years compared to market comparisons.)

No certification is perfect. After one year, you will still be training, I can't make that promise for self taught textbook certs. The two-month course allows anyone in the world to become a qualified certified personal trainer. You learn anatomy, programming, assessments, and how to build streams of revenue. The SUF-CPT is the only certification that is taken verbally, explaining competence in anatomy, movement patterns, and being able to design a program elite training gyms require; every other certification is a multiple-choice test. We have helped trainers get hired internationally and have strategic partnerships with over 210-gyms including: Equinox, Life Time Fitness (all 166-gyms), and Bay Club. We're in the process of NCCA accreditation (United States), it just takes time, money, and a lot of compliance policy. The first step that we completed in 2023 was having 100 people successfully become certified personal trainers with the SUF-CPT (August.) After the Level 1 CPT, we have mentorship options, nutritional coaching, and online coaching. The average trainer quits within 12-months because they're lost in the system, we're combating that by offering 12-months of continual learning in the hands of experts.

National Strength & Conditioning Association – NSCA-CPT

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is a non-profit organization. They have one of the top journals of science, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (JSCR). When you see the word “journal,” it's not what Becky and Sam are using to write down their thoughts. A journal is a monthly or quarterly publication intended to progress science with the newest studies. The NSCA has the Certified Personal Training (CPT) and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam. The CPT is a 155-question exam geared to work with athletes. You need to be 18 years of age and currently CPR/AED certified. The majority of the exam is based on assessments, programming, and proper exercise techniques. The price for the CPT is between $300-500 pending on if you're a member and materials.

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist – NSCA-CSCS

If you want to work with collegiate or professional athletes, you should ONLY consider the CSCS within the United States. There are better hands-on learning opportunitiesvia EXOS, Eric Cressey Performance, and Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioningbut as for certs, the CSCS is considered by many to be the Gold Standard because you need a college degree . It's a 4-hour, 200+ question exam with a scientific portion and video analysis. I was impressed with the scientific questions that were asked and the athlete profiling. You need to know what a good 40-time is, how to test and teach a vertical jump, how to teach and test a bench press, and how to teach and test squats for Division 1 male and female athletes. Two negatives to the CSCS are that the degree doesn't need to be science related until 2030, and you don't gain hands-on experience. Weird, right? The price for the CPT is between $300-500 pending on if you're a member and materials.

American College of Sports Medicine – ACSM

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is a non-profit organization. The exam is 115 questions long. You need to be 18 years of age and currently, CPR/AED certified. The questions are pretty evenly distributed across the board in client assessments, programming, legal, business, and advertising. The big emphasis is around Coronary Artery Disease Risk Stratificationsi.e. how many risks does a client have if they have a blood pressure of 135/88 mm Hg, BMI of 31, exercises three times a week for 30 minutes for the previous 2 months, and their mother had a heart attack at age 62? You will need to be able to explain their risk stratification. The ACSM is for individuals who want to work in a clinic with exercise physiologists addressing disease. In my opinion, I felt like this was the most challenging exam. The price for the CPT is between $300-500 pending on if you're a member and materials.

The ACSM & NSCA are an 8.4/10 due to the academic journals and science-based information. The information is elite, but the lack of hands-on learning only sets up the aspiring trainer to be as good as the next internship that they get into.

National Academy of Sports Medicine – NASM

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) is a for-profit organization owned by Ascend Learning who was acquired by Blackstone Group, one of the largest alternative investment firms in the world. In my opinion, NASM uses fear-mongering science from Dr. Vladimir Janda and tries to blame pain on poor posture while identifying overactive and underactive muscles. The exam has 120 questions, and you need to be 18 years of age and currently CPR/AED certified to take it. Their ubiquitousness is the beauty of a free market and the ability to pay for exposure. NASM has numerous certs i.e., CES, PES, FNS, WLS (these each cost between $300 and $500). These exams are taken at home, with an open book and then you'll attain the title of a “Specialist.” The CPT is biased towards the Optimal Performance Training (OPT) Model, which was developed by a Physical TherapistDPT's receive very little, if any, Strength & Conditioning classes or information on how to program for the general population. When I took this exam, I felt they focused more on their fancy language rather than the scientific principles like anatomy or the foundation of movement (they don't have Henneman's Size Principle or the mechanisms of hypertrophy in the 7th edition textbook). Contrary to popular belief, I encourage people to take the NASM-CPT if you need a certification in under 30-days because they have great payment options, and the exam is extremely easy if you focus on the main topics. I don't think there's any reason to study the textbook cover to cover (or any CPT textbook for that manner). The cost for the NASM-CPT ranges from $899 (self-study), $1,399 (self-study premium), $1,899 (all inclusive), $3,499 (elite trainer bundle).


The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) & American Counsel on Exercise (ACE) are institutions that are, recognized internationally. These two are the old-school certs; I call them the “Grandfather certs.” Typically, you'll find folk who started lifting in the 80s and 90s with these certifications. The cost is between $500-$800 with 12 month payment options.

The over emphasis on posture, Upper Crossed, Lower Crossed, and Pronation Distortion Syndrome are concerning as the science does not specify poor posture leads to pain. They lack development for the much-needed business and people skills. They do not put much emphasis on anatomy or sales, and the final test is multiple choice. As a professional trainer, you'll never have a client give you multiple choice scenarios. You need to be ready with an answer and be able to think on the spot. Most certifications do not prepare you for this.

What's the best PERSONAL TRAINING certification for YOU?

The question really should be what's the BEST certification for where YOU want to work? If you want to work for a collegiate sports team, they require the CSCS, so you need the CSCS. If you want to work at Show Up Fitness, you need to have your SUF-CPT. A lot of small group facilities like Orange Theory Fitness (OTF) and F45 gyms prefer NASM, so get your NASM. If the gym you are currently at will pay you more per hour to get more certifications, then get the easiest certification that will allow for a bump in pay. The way the market is shaping up as of 2023, if you want to work at elite gymsLifetime Fitness, Bay, Club, Equinox, etceteraor become a Strength Coach, NSCA, SUF, and ACSM will give you the best chances of getting hired. As for gyms like 24-Hour, Crunch, F45, OTF, Planet Fitness, and Golds Gym, your best bet is NASM, ACE, or ISSA.

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