Which Personal Trainer Certificate is Best?

Which Personal Trainer Certificate is Best?

So you’re ready to start training clients. Step one to becoming a personal trainer is achieving your very first coaching certificate, which will likely be the first of many as you pursue a lifetime of continuing education. 

Before we consider what the “best” certificate or course is, we should first ask why personal trainer certifications even exist and why there are so many to choose from? The answer is that the fitness industry is largely unregulated and lacks a unifying governing body. There is no one degree, certification or education path that is required to be a personal trainer. Consequently, a plethora of certifications by different fitness organizations exist. In this wild west of fitness education, it can be hard to know which personal trainer certification is the best to start your fitness career. 

When asking the question, “which personal trainer certification is best?” we need to come up with a definition of the outcome “best.” The goal of any fitness certification is not just to be handed a piece of paper to frame and hang on your wall–it’s to create a sustainable career as a qualified personal trainer or fitness coach. 

To determine the “best” course to become a personal trainer, ask yourself the following questions:


  1. What qualifies me to work as a personal trainer? (You need to get a job)
  2. What is the most flexible personal trainer course? (You need to make study fit your life)
  3. Which personal trainer certification will teach me how to get personal training clients? (You need to get clients)
  4. Which personal trainer certification will teach me how to keep personal training clients? (You need to retain those clients)
  5. Which personal trainer certification is most respected? (You need to establish credibility)
  6. Which personal trainer certification provides theoretical and practical coaching development? (You need to be able to implement your knowledge

1. What qualifications do I need to be a personal trainer?

The honest answer is that there is no industry-standard of what qualifies you to be a personal trainer (at least in the United States). Gyms typically have their own individual requirements, so if you know you want to be a personal trainer at a specific gym, whether that’s a Lifetime, Planet Fitness, Equinox or functional fitness studio, then we recommend inquiring about their specific requirements. 

What this lack of regulation means is that fitness enthusiasts can take an online course or two-day seminar and call themselves a coach or trainer. These trainers may technically be “qualified” to work in a gym, but are they qualified to be responsible for the health, fitness and nutrition of clients walking in the doors? Good intentions of these trainers aside, we would argue that this low barrier to entry needs to be raised and becoming a personal trainer should be a more rigorous process. 

So how long will it take to become a qualified coach, what is the testing process and how often is recertification? Below are some of the most popular and well respected personal training certifications that will take you more than a weekend to complete!

National Academy of Strength and Conditioning (NASM)

Average time: 3-4 months

Testing: 120 multiple choice questions 

Recertification: Every 2 years

International Sport Sciences Association (ISSA)

Average time: 10 weeks

Testing: Short answer and multiple choice questions

Recertification: Every 2 years

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

Average time: 3.5 months

Testing: 155 multiple choice questions

Recertification: Every 3 years

American Council on Exercise (ACE)

Average time: 4-5 months

Testing: 150 multiple choice questions

Recertification: Every 2 years

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

Average time: 5-6 months

Testing: 150 multiple choice questions 

Recertification: Every 3 years

OPEX Fitness

Average time: 6-12 months

Testing: 5 multiple choice quizzes and Final Project Case Studies 

Recertification: Never (once you’ve passed your Final Project we’re confident in your ability to coach for a lifetime)

2. What is the most flexible personal trainer course?

When considering the best personal training certification, make sure it’s one that fits your lifestyle.

The great thing about all the courses listed above is that they can work with a busy work and personal life. You can purchase the course materials read or watch them at your own leisure. 

However, if you’re a procrastinator this flexibility may be problematic, so you might like to seek out an option that offers accountability and guided learning. 

NASM offers a 9-week eTeach course. 

ISSA offers a study guide and online support. 

ACE offers an online Resource Center for questions. 

ASCM offers in-person workshops and online webinars.

OPEX provides mentoring through monthly mentor calls, daily forum participation and an in-person course. You follow a syllabus with a cohort to keep you motivated and on-track. 

3. Which personal trainer certification will teach me how to get personal training clients? 

What good is a certificate if it doesn’t teach you how to actually get clients to train? An important criterion for the “best” certifications is that they teach you how to make money! Sure, many fitness professionals join the industry because they are passionate about fitness and love to transform lives, but at some point you’ve got to make a buck if you’re going to follow your coaching dreams for the long-term. 

The unfortunate truth is that traditional personal trainer certificates fall short in this area. It’s probably a big part of the reason why 80% of personal trainers quit the industry within 2 years. New trainers entering a flooded market need to learn how to differentiate themselves from everyone else. 

When choosing a personal trainer course be sure to set yourself up for career success by choosing a course that will train you in fitness business principles. Look for advertising, marketing, sales, metrics and management topics that will set you up with a basic understanding of how to attract and onboard new clients. If you don’t learn this stuff on the front end, you will end up having to seek out and pay for extra business mentoring to grow your client base. (You can see how we teach business here.)

Many new personal trainers feel uncomfortable with the business side of coaching, but the reality is that you need to make money if you want to continue to help your clients. Remember, you’re offering a service that people want to pay you for! The best fitness courses will help you understand that. 

4. Which personal trainer certification will teach me how to keep personal training clients?

Getting personal training clients isn’t enough, you need to retain them! What retention comes down to is offering a superior service and being great at the relationship game. Above all, you need the skills to be able to create results for your clients, and do it for the long-term.

You can help a new client with little fitness experience lose weight or get stronger by having them do just about anything for the first few months. You can get away with the simple recommendation of “eat less, train more,” and come up with workouts on the fly, but the results from an unplanned and constantly varied approach are always short-lived. (Trust us, we’ve made that mistake and it’s why we teach what we teach today.)

A good personal trainer certificate will teach you the following skills so that you can help your clients crush their goals for a lifetime: 

Assessment

You need to know where your clients are starting so you can meet them where they are at and nudge them towards their goals. You need to know how to assess movement patterns and motor control, screen for muscle weakness and asymmetries and understand structural balance. This will let you design workouts that keep your clients safe and help them get stronger. You also need to assess work capacity, so you can improve their aerobic and anaerobic systems, and assess their body composition so you can provide appropriate nutrition recommendations and track fat loss and lean mass gain. Collecting data is key to designing programs and lets you know if your clients are actually making progress. It takes the guesswork out of training clients. 

Program Design

As a personal trainer your workouts are your bread and butter, so a good personal trainer certification needs to teach you solid principles of resistance training and energy systems training. You need to learn basic principles of training, including overload, specificity, adaptation, progression and individuality. You also need to learn how to put together a training cycle and design training days within that cycle, how to achieve the correct workout stimulus, and how to plan and periodize for long-term progression.

Nutrition and Lifestyle Coaching

You may only spend 30 minutes to an hour in the gym with your clients a couple of times per week, but your positive impact on their life can extend so far beyond this if you have a good grasp of nutrition and lifestyle principles. As the saying goes, abs are made in the kitchen, so if you want to help your clients get results you had better be helping them develop healthy daily habits. 

Consultation Skills

Personal training is about relationships. If you don’t love connecting with people and helping them through life’s ups and downs, you’re in the wrong industry. A keen understanding of human behavior and the ability to ask questions that peel back the layers and get to the heart of why they are in the gym and what fitness means to them is essential to client retention.

A Clear System to Deliver

Fitness and nutrition principles are not enough–make sure your personal training education teaches you how to actually put them into practice with a clear system of implementation. This includes understanding how to collect intake forms and nutrition logs, hold an initial consultation, conduct assessments based on the client’s goals, turn that data into program design, and when and how to reassess to ensure they are making progress. 

5. Which personal trainer certification is most respected? 

This is a tricky one because it varies depending on what fitness space you are in. For example, the OPEX CCP is the most comprehensive and well-respected coaching course in functional fitness gyms around the world. We’re incredibly proud of that, but we also know that in a high-school weight room, a course like the NSCA CSCS holds more credibility. So we’ll answer this question with the ambiguous “it depends,” and let you do your own research based on who you want to train and where you want to do it.

At the end of the day, the truth is that your clients will rarely care, or even notice, where you got your certification from. What they will care about is the service that you offer them, your relationship with them and their results. Make sure you pick an option that gives you systems that allow you to differentiate yourself in the market. 

6. Which personal trainer certification provides theoretical and practical coaching development?

Of the six popular fitness certificates we listed above, NASM, ISSA, NSCA, ACE, ACSM and OPEX, we are proud to say that the OPEX CCP is the only course that requires you to show your practical coaching skills to pass. 

Our Final Project, that is, a series of Case Studies that coaches are required to complete and submit, is an integral part of the OPEX CCP education. This requires you to write reflections on your business plans and goals, and then take your clients through consultations, assess their movement, work capacity and body composition, write a training program for them, design personalized lifestyle and nutrition recommendations, and observe and reflect on the process. Each Final Project is marked personally by our Founder James Fitzgerald, who provides feedback and works with you to help you make any upgrades required to pass. Coaches are encouraged to be active participants in the course, rather than studying in a bubble, and ask questions in the OPEX CCP Forums, participate in monthly calls and even come for a live Immersion course. 

Why is this so important to us? Too many coaches finish not just personal training certifications, but also university degrees, with a head full of knowledge but no practical skills to implement it with real life human beings! We you to have to opportunity to practice coaching, make mistakes and learn from them, so that when you show up for your first day on the job at a new gym, you are prepared for the dynamic role that is working with people. 

This serious deficit in the coaching education world is why OPEX CCP came to be, it is our mission to give personal trainers like yourself the tools to grow into serious coaching professionals. 

So which personal training certification is the best one for you?

Start by answering the questions above and you’ll come upon your answer. 

Whichever option you choose, know that a certificate is only your starting point. As a fitness professional, you have a lifetime of learning ahead of you, and nothing compares to day after day of experience in the gym.

If you’re looking for advice on what path to take, please don’t hesitate to schedule a call with one of our Education Advisors. They are coaches too, and will get to know you and help you decide if OPEX CCP, or even another course, is right for you. As a selective mentorship program, it’s highly important to us that we enroll the right trainers into our course, so trust that they will be honest with you!

What makes you a good fit? Heart, a commitment to learning, curiosity and questioning, and a relentless drive to help others live a larger life through fitness!

New call-to-action
Professional Coaching Blueprint Cycle

FREE COURSE - THE PROFESSIONAL COACHING BLUEPRINT

GET STARTED