The 11 Best Personal Trainer Certification Programs for 2021
Men and women interested in becoming Certified Personal Trainers (CPTs) can acquire vital knowledge and develop their professional skills by working with organizations that specialize in this field.
This survey of 11 top personal training certification organizations can help you choose the right CPT program from among the dozens that are currently available.
International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
- ISSA is international in scope and trains individuals located all over the world
- Offers 20 advanced specialties for maximum career customization
- All study materials, coursework, and exams can be completed online
- Students can take both the ISSA Final Exam and the prestigious National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) Final Exam
- ISSA’s impressive package of study and exam preparation materials is rich and diverse and offers opportunities to network directly with instructors and other students
- Since all ISSA training is done online, aspiring personal trainers will have to find their own students to acquire hands-on experience in exercise instruction
- Students must be self-directed and self-motivated to successfully complete an intensive, fully online training program
- Entry-level CPT certification program may not provide competitive edge in active jobs market
The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) caters to online learners throughout the world, offering more than 20 advanced specialties to would-be personal trainers.
The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) maintains a strong international presence. They are accredited by both the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). ISSA has trained and certified more than 400,000 men and women in 174 countries and boasts a 98 percent job placement rate.
ISSA offers online training and certification in four special job categories: Personal Trainer (entry-level), Fitness Coach, Elite Trainer and Master Trainer. The final three categories allow students to add one or more specializations to their training regimens, from the 20 advanced specialties that ISSA makes available.
Students purchase a rich and diverse package of self-study materials. They are given six months from the time of official enrollment to take the ISSA final exam. But an intensive four-week Fast Track program guarantees much faster completion of the course.
Students who complete the ISSA final exam can also take the National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) Certifying Exam, which is highly regarded by employers everywhere.
National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
- Certification programs are accredited by the prestigious National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
- Purchasers of the Guided Study and All-Inclusive Packages have access to the largest database of training and educational materials available in the industry
- Students have up to one year to study and prepare to take their final exam
- Students can supplement their online preparation with 80 hours of hands-on instruction
- Offers guaranteed internships and specialized entrepreneurial training through its Business Acceleration Program
- Top NASM benefits are offered only through its All-Inclusive Package, which is one of the costliest training options in the industry
- Does not offer as many specialized training options as some companies
- Internships available only in NASM-sponsored facilities and don’t guarantee paid positions elsewhere
Through its groundbreaking Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) prepares trainers who can create a customized fitness plan for any client.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has developed one of the most respected certification programs in the world. An NASM graduate will enter the job market with an elite credential that can open doors to employment in any gym, fitness club, or exercise and sports facility.
NASM is known and acclaimed for its Optimum Performance Training (OPT) model. This scientifically grounded approach focuses on corrective exercise, which teaches proper exercise form that reduces muscular dysfunction and improves overall health and wellness.
Aspiring CPTs who study with NASM can choose from four career preparation packages: Self-Study (basic), Premium Study (intermediate), Guided Study (advanced) and All-Inclusive (comprehensive). Their programs feature an impressive array of online study materials plus access to personalized coaching. The All-Inclusive package also includes 80 hours of on-site, hands-on training provided by professional CPTs, and a jobs guarantee that grants internships to students at NASM-run fitness clubs.
NASM training programs qualify students for employment as Certified Personal Trainers, Health Coaches, Nutrition Coaches, Weight Loss Coaches or Strength and Conditioning Coaches. Enrollees have a full year to complete their coursework and take the final NASM certification exam.
Fitness Mentors (FM)
- Proprietary training model (FORM) provides newly minted personal trainers with a unique qualification in popular corrective exercise subfield
- Has an entrepreneurial focus that trains students to start their own businesses
- Pioneering a new trend by training virtual personal trainers and health coaches
- Carries dual NCCA and DEAC accreditation
- Extensive career information section helps educate students about fitness industry
- Has not been certifying personal trainers for long and therefore lacks established record in this area
- Limited number of advanced training specialties
- Focusing more on training virtual than in-person fitness instructors, based on speculation about where the industry is going that may prove inaccurate
With the assistance of its renowned FORM training model, Fitness Mentors (FM) has made a successful transition from a career advising platform to a skilled and respected educator of certified personal trainers.
From its original incarnation as a career and academic guidance platform for fitness professionals, Fitness Mentors (FM) has now branched out to offer its own personal trainer certification program. Fitness Mentors is leveraging its reputation for business acumen to attract students who are serious about making a living in a competitive field.
The FM Personal Training Certification has been accredited by both the NCCA and the DEAC. Fitness Mentor has developed its own specialized method of instruction. It is known as FORM, which stands for ‘form over resistance model.’ The focus for FORM-trained fitness instructors is on teaching corrective exercises that maximize efficiency and reduce injury risk.
FM’s training materials are available in four moderately priced (by industry standards) modules: the Personal Trainer (PT) Starter Package, the PT Plus Bundle, the PT PRO Bundle and the PT Ultimate Bundle. All feature access to an extensive collection of online learning materials including a comprehensive video library, access to coaching services and a Facebook support group.
In anticipation of the coming transition in the fitness training profession, Fitness Mentors is one of the first training organizations to offer customized certifications in Online Personal Training and Virtual Health Coaching. These and other specialties like Pain Management Specialist and Certified Nutrition Specialist are included in the organization’s comprehensive education and training bundles.
National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF)
- The NCSF was formed from a community fitness initiative and trains CPTs to meet community needs
- Online programs can be supplemented by in-person training workshops
- Seven distinct training packages give students diverse educational options
- NCSF Easy Learning System offers one of industry’s most advanced and user-friendly e-learning platforms
- Even most comprehensive packages are priced at below industry averages
- NCSF brand is not well known in the industry and won’t be recognized by all employers
- Does not offer specialized or proprietary instruction methodologies that separate company from competitors
- Does not provide wide range of specialized training
The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) evolved from a community initiative in South Florida to an international provider of rigorous personal trainer certification programs.
From its roots as a health and fitness initiative sponsored by Florida International University in the 1990s, the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) is now gaining recognition for its reasonably priced yet highly effective personal trainer certification programs.
The NCSF offers four basic options for aspiring CPTs. They are its Home Study and Workshop Programs, each offered with or without a physical textbook to complement an extensive menu of online study materials. Students can improve their resumes further by choosing a rigorous combination package that offers certification as both a Personal Trainer and either a Strength Coach or Sports Nutritionist.
The NCSF’s most comprehensive package is its Master Trainer program, which prepares students for more responsible positions. This is the council’s highest priced but most intensive offering.
NCSF’s packages of training materials are standard for the industry. But they give students access to these materials through their trademarked Easy Learning System. This is one of the more advanced and sophisticated e-learning platforms available in the industry. Not content to limit their instruction to the virtual environment, NCSF’s two Workshop Programs each include 16 hours of hands-on personal instruction from highly skilled and experienced personal trainers.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
- Along with NASM, ACE is one of the two most highly regarded training companies in the fitness industry
- Great preparation for CPTs who want to cater to newcomers and the general public
- Study packages feature a high level of personalized support and assistance from ACE fitness professionals
- Extraordinary low cost for all training packages
- ACE certification will open doors to job interviews everywhere
- Certification programs have narrow focus with few specialties
- Not suited for prospective personal trainers who want to work with elite athletes
- All study materials provided online, making it essential that students find a way to practice on their own
The superbly crafted certification programs offered by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) train students to work with people who are new to fitness or are returning to exercise after a long-term absence.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is one of the most esteemed names in personal trainer preparation and certification. They are fully accredited by the NCCA and feature a basic yet highly regarded package of educational materials.
At ACE, aspiring CPTs are trained to work with members of the general public who have a limited background in exercise and fitness. This is the largest potential customer pool for fitness clubs and gyms, so ACE certification coursework is finely tuned to the biggest needs in the industry.
ACE works its magic through its proprietary Integrated Fitness Training (IFT) model, which students learn to apply in the field. This training system is designed to produce steady and sustainable progress in clients of all fitness levels, while judiciously protecting them from strain and injury.
The two standard training packages offered by ACE are the Basic Study Program and Basic Study Plus. They are nearly identical, except the second provides students with a physical textbook in addition to the standard digital text. ACE’s Advantage Program is its top offering, and features access to study groups, webinars, one-on-one individualized coaching, and a personal ACE Advantage Representative to help with final exam preparation. The cost for ACE programs is surprisingly low given the Council’s popularity.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
- ACSM is America’s oldest personal trainer preparation organization, in operation since 1954
- In-person facet of CPT training is most extensive available in the industry
- Offers certifications customized for those interested in working in medical facilities
- Certification programs are reasonably priced and include optional purchases
- Has packages that include unique specialized training in exercise physiology and group exercise instruction
- Out-of-date approach that features minimal online study assistance or personalized instruction
- Students must supplement ACSM materials with privately purchased digital study materials in most instances
- Students pass ACSM final exam at lower rates than the industry average
The American College of Sports Medicine’s long-term expertise in fitness trainer certification has helped set industry standards and is almost single-handedly keeping the in-person CPT training sector alive.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is the oldest organization in the personal trainer certification field, having been active since 1954. Unlike many providers, their training programs feature a strong in-person, on-site emphasis. In contrast their virtual study materials are light on content, making ACSM training something of a throwback to an earlier era.
Certified fitness professionals who learn through the ACSM will be well prepared to accept positions in medical facilities including clinics, hospitals and rehabilitation centers. ASCM training plans are grounded in corrective exercise and are ideal for clients recovering from various medical issues.
ACSM offers three training options. Students can study to become a Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Exercise Physiologist or Certified Group Exercise Instructor. Their study and training materials are sold in separate mini-packages that are optional to purchase and include only limited digital study aids.
Their primary form of training assistance is offered through in-person workshops and seminars that feature many hours of hands-on instruction and practice. Trainer Academy is a private organization that sells virtual preparation packages for the ACSM Final Exam, and those who purchase their materials generally perform better on that test.
National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA)
- Long 40-year-plus track record of success in the strength and conditioning sector
- Superior certification services for performance- and strength-and-conditioning-oriented candidates
- Unique and versatile training options fill niches in CPT marketplace that other organizations neglect
- Training programs are generally inexpensive and include some optional purchases
- Live clinics in major cities add hands-on element to training procedures
- No digital textbook or online interactions with educators made available
- Mixes virtual and live training in a combination that doesn’t include an abundance of either
- Preparation packages strictly for those interested in performance or strength and conditioning training
As the first organization to be accredited by the NCCA, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has been granting coveted certificates to aspiring personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches for decades.
Since opening its doors in 1978, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA) has accumulated a long and impressive record of training highly skilled certified personal trainers and strength and conditioning specialists.
The NCSA training menu has a dual focus. They help people interested in becoming strength and conditioning coaches. They also offer specialized training to prospective personal trainers interested in working with high-quality athletes or fitness enthusiasts looking to reach their peak potential as performers.
The organization offers four modestly priced training packages in the following categories: Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified Special Population Specialist, and Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator. The latter two categories work in medical facilities and with the military, police, firefighters and others with physically demanding jobs, respectively.
Surprisingly, NCSA packages do not come with a digital textbook, nor with any interactive online platforms that let students consult with fitness experts. They do feature live training clinics in several cities, providing more hands-on instruction than some other training organizations.
American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA)
- AFPA certification menu includes 23 specialties along with three CPT training courses
- Online learning resources and study packages are thorough and comprehensive and among the industry’s best
- Students can obtain multiple certifications to improve career prospects dramatically
- Each training package carries a low to modest price tag
- Students can take final certification exams at any time they’re ready, with no deadlines
- All instruction is online and self-guided, which requires a high level of self-motivation and discipline
- Bundles that offer multiple certifications can become quite expensive
- Specialized certifications probably won’t lead to employment unless combined with one or more Personal Training courses
The American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA) menu of specialized options for those interested in becoming Certified Personal Trainers is extensive and allows students to create highly personalized career training tracks.
No organization offers as many interesting options for aspiring personal trainers as American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA). Their catalogue features an unprecedented variety of specialized options, which can be pursued exclusively or in combination with personal trainer certification courses.
AFPA’s personal certification track includes three separate courses, each offering more in-depth instruction and preparation. This includes their entry-level Personal Trainer Certification Course, their Advanced Personal Trainer Course, and their Master Personal Trainer Certification Course. As their most intensive option, the latter features specific training in sports conditioning and nutrition and wellness, in addition to broad-based education in personal training.
What sets AFPA apart is their long list of 23 specialized training courses, which are available in four categories: Personal Training, Fitness, Nutritional Counseling and Health Coaching. Each course prepares trainers to work with youth, the elderly, patients in healthcare facilities, elite athletes and others with specific fitness needs. These options can be purchased individually or in customized bundles.
AFPA lets their students complete all their training and preparation online. The virtual study and learning packages they sell are among the most comprehensive available anywhere in the industry and include strong student support and helpful interactive services.
National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)
- Top training regimen includes healthy mixture of online study materials and in-person, on-site instruction
- Comprehensive preparation and training obtainable for a low cost
- Offers well-rounded curriculum that includes quality fitness training, business advice and information about kinesiology and exercise science
- Programs fully accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
- Cost of final exam included in study packages
- Neither online materials nor in-person training is as comprehensive as it could be
- Only basic personal training certification offered, with no specialty options
- Less inclusive packages probably only suitable for those who already work in fitness industry but lack certification
Becoming a certified personal trainer through enrollment with the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) ensures a good grounding in basic fitness training skills, plus a solid understanding of the science behind effective workout plan preparation.
The NCCA-accredited National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) offers a rigorous career preparation program for prospective personal trainers seeking initial certification. They also have fewer comprehensive options that let people already working in the fitness industry add a CPT designation to their resumes.
The NFPT favors neither virtual nor on-site preparation. Their Premier CPT training package grants students access to numerous online study aids, learning materials and professional support, plus the opportunity to attend a two-day, 16-hour workshop that provides direct instruction in personal training skills. The latter also includes advice and instruction on how to run a successful fitness business, plus education in the areas of exercise science and kinesiology.
For those who already have experience in the personal training sector, the NFPT offers a Standard Package that includes a training manual and study guide, and an Exam-Only Package that simply prepares the student to take and pass the NFPT Final Exam.
All NFPT training packages carry a low price tag in comparison to industry standards. While the focus at the NFPT is on basic personal trainer preparation, the cost of that initial certification is reasonable enough to allow most students to budget for specialized training elsewhere if they want it.
National Endurance and Sports Training Association (NESTA)
- NESTA puts wise use of health and fitness-related technology at the forefront of their approach to training
- Long list of specialized learning tracks available for precise career preparation
- Business organization and management skills taught in all certification programs
- Virtual study and learning packages are deep in materials and impressive in scope
- Costs are low for various learning modules, making bundling a cost-efficient option
- 100 percent online, offering no hands-on instruction or practice
- Many specialties fill small niches and may not lead to employment without additional training
- After purchasing packages, students have just 90 days to complete their study and take their final certification exams
At the National Endurance and Sports Training Association (NESTA), would-be fitness trainers can create a multilevel specialized learning regimen that shows them how to smartly incorporate technology in the teaching and business management processes.
The National Endurance and Sports Training Association (NESTA) is a true innovator in the certified personal trainer education space. They have made a concerted effort to include exercise technology in their instructional programs, including electronic heart rate monitors. Among other initiatives, they train their students to make good use of management software to keep track of their clients’ workout regimens and progress.
NESTA successfully markets itself as a specialized training provider. They feature training plans that cover six fitness-related categories and include 23 niche certification options. The six categories where students can seek certification include Personal and Group Training, Nutrition and Behavioral Coaching, HIIT Conditioning and Training, Mixed Martial Arts Training and Coaching, Health and Wellness Coaching, and Specialty Training and Coaching.
In the Personal and Group Training category, the core offerings are the NESTA Personal Fitness Trainer and Master Personal Trainer Certification programs. The latter includes six specialty certifications in addition to a conventional CPT instructional component.
All NESTA certification tracks are priced competitively, which makes bundling both possible and a wise choice, given that many specialty niches aren’t necessarily career-oriented. Their online learning materials are extensive, although the organization does not offer any hands-on instruction.
International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA)
- Offer 44 distinct specialized courses in addition to fundamental CPT packages
- Certified personal training packages come with sliding costs and material purchase requirements, allowing students to buy only what they need
- NCCA-accredited and highly-experienced organization with over 300,000 fitness professionals certified
- Customized packages allow students to control costs while still getting multilevel training
- Professionals always on standby and available to answer fitness or medical-related questions
- High-end packages are more expensive than the industry average
- Highly specialized certifications aren’t likely to lead to employment if not taken along with other courses
- All studying done online with no options for on-site training
Aspiring personal trainers who choose to purchase courses from the International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA) can find a dizzying array of options, available for individualized study or bundling.
The Florida-based International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA) is one of the most prolific providers of specialized training in the health and fitness industry. They’ve taught and certified more than 300,000 professional trainers over the course of their existence. Their courses are offered entirely online and include a prodigious menu of virtual study aids, learning materials and interactive features that let students ask any questions they’d like of fitness experts.
Men and women who seek personal training certification through the IFPA can choose from an astounding 44 specialized training options. These courses prepare students to work with particular demographic groups or provide specialized types of fitness instruction. Many have limited scope and work best bundled with other courses.
IFPA’s Certified Personal Trainer course options are customized to meet the needs of both new fitness professionals and those who have some previous experience. They sell four Personal Trainer Certification packages, at levels classified as Exam Only, Silver, Gold and Platinum, with the quantity of educational materials provided increasing as students move up the scale. Their deluxe offering is their Master Trainer Certification Track, which includes all materials from lesser CPT packages plus the contents of a Sports Nutritionist Specialist course.
While prices for most IFPA certification courses are modest, their most inclusive bundles (like the Platinum CPT and Master Trainer packages) are pricier than many similar offerings available from other organizations.
Finding the Best Certification Programs for Your Future as a Personal Trainer
If you’re truly ready to pursue a career as a Certified Personal Trainer, you can’t go wrong with any of these high-quality organizations. But some certification organizations or specific certification programs will inevitably be more suitable for you than others.
Your assessment of the options will be guided largely by your professional and personal preferences. To help you sort through the alternatives, we will present a list of the most frequently asked questions about personal trainer certification programs. The answers to these questions should be quite useful in helping you evaluate your potential choices:
I want to get my certification from an organization that is held in high regard. Which organizations have the best reputations in the industry?
Within industry circles, the American Council on Exercise and the National Academy of Sports Medicine are considered the most prestigious organizations. Carrying one of their certifications will at least get you an interview anywhere you’d like to work.
Which organizations will offer me the most specialized career options to choose from?
There are four organizations on this list that offer a high number of specialized certifications for aspiring personal trainers who want to fill particular niches in the field.
Leading the way is the International Fitness Professionals Association, with an amazing 44 specialties within multiple fitness-related categories. Next are the American Fitness Professionals and Associates and the National Endurance and Sports Training Association, with 23 categories of certification each. The International Sports Sciences Association also offers 20 advanced specialties in addition to their traditional personal trainer preparation plans.
I want to study exclusively online. Which organizations offer the most comprehensive and user-friendly packages of online educational materials?
The National Endurance and Sports Training Association offers a quality menu of informative, interactive and well-designed online learning materials. The National Council on Strength and Fitness is another organization that gets high marks for its virtual study assistance packages, which are available on their trademarked Easy Learning System e-learning platform. The National Academy of Sports Medicine probably has the largest online database of training and educational materials, which can be immensely helpful in preparing students to pass their final certification exams.
I would prefer to receive at least some hands-on training. Which organizations offer such opportunities?
The American College of Sports Medicine provides the bulk of its training at hands-on workshops and in-person seminars. The National Academy of Sports Medicine offers an industry-best 80 hours of in-person instruction to students who take its online certification courses. The National Federation of Professional Trainers and the National Council on Strength and Fitness offer hybrid certification plans that feature two-day, one-hour on-site workshops in addition to online training. As a training supplement, the National Strength and Conditioning Association encourages students to attend live clinics held in various cities.
I would like to become a master trainer. Where can I find such a certification program?
Out of the 11 organizations reviewed, five will enroll students in Master Trainer Certification tracks. They are the International Sports Sciences Association, the National Endurance and Sports Training Association, the International Fitness Professionals Association, American Fitness Professionals and Associates, and the National Council on Strength and Fitness.
These comprehensive programs will develop your skills and knowledge in multiple important specialties, as well as in personal training in general. Gaining this level of expertise can boost your career prospects substantially.
Are there any organizations that offer good advice on how to start a personal training business?
The National Federation of Professional Trainers provides students with extensive instruction on how to start and run a successful business. Fitness Mentors has a strong entrepreneurial focus and strives to put their students on track to find success in the competitive fitness field. The National Academy of Sports Medicine features a Business Acceleration Program that helps their students plan for a bright future in their chosen fitness-related profession.
Where can I find a certification program that will train me to work with members of the general public?
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) offers personal trainer certification programs that prepare trainers to work with people who’ve been inactive for a long time or have never worked out regularly before. Two other organizations, Fitness Mentors and the National Academy of Sports Medicine, emphasize the teaching of corrective exercises, which are easily adjustable for people of all fitness levels.
Can I study to be an online or virtual trainer?
Most CPT organizations provide some instruction in virtual personal training. But only one has made this a specialty. Fitness Mentor is the first NCCA-accredited organization to shift their focus to teaching students how to function exclusively as Online Personal Trainers or Health Coaches. They see this as the major trend in the industry, and they have adjusted their teaching approach accordingly.
I would like to work in a healthcare or rehabilitative facility. Where can I find a training program that will prepare me for such a position?
The American College of Sports Medicine designs its certification programs specifically to prepare personal trainers to work in hospitals, clinics, wellness centers or other locations that offer recovery or rehabilitative services. Meanwhile, the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the International Fitness Professionals Association both award certifications to Special Population Specialists, who are trained to work with medical patients and others who need assistance to restore their health.
Where can I find a certification program that will allow me to work with elite athletes and high-level fitness enthusiasts?
This is the specialty of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Their personal trainer certification plans prepare students to work in a high-performance context, helping clients reach their peak sports and fitness goals. Three other organizations—American Fitness Professionals and Associates, the National Endurance and Sports Training Association, and the International Fitness Professionals Association—offer specialized certifications that train students to work with athletes and high-level fitness aficionados.