So you want to become a personal trainer? The first thing you’ll need to do is get certified. But navigating the menu of options can feel a bit like wading through alphabet soup. ACE, NACM, ACSM, TRX, AFAA: what does it all mean? We’re here to help by walking you through three courses you should take to become a personal trainer.
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Before you can work as a personal trainer, you need to get certified. Between non-profit and for-profit certifying bodies, there are plenty of options to choose from, but four of the most common certifications are from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Strength and Conditioning Association, and American Council on Exercise (ACE).
If there’s a specific gym or studio where you want to work, call the fitness director or check the company’s website to see if it requires a specific certification. If any certification will do, you may want to take the fees and continuing education criteria into account.
- ACSM is the oldest certification. It costs $349 to sit for the exam, and $175 to retake the exam if you don’t pass on the first try. To maintain your certification, you’ll need to complete 45 hours of continuing education credits and pay a $45 renewal fee every three years.
- ACE is one of the most popular personal trainer certifications. It costs $399 to sit for the exam, and $199 to retake the exam if you don’t pass. To maintain your certification, you’ll need to complete 20 hours of continuing education and pay a $129 renewal fee every two years.
- NASM, a for-profit certifying body, is the most expensive certification on this list. The initial test costs $599 and you can re-test for $199. You must complete 20 hours of continuing education and pay a $99 renewal fee every two years.
- NSCA charges $435 per test, whether you’re testing for the first time or retaking the exam. To maintain your certification, you must complete 60 hours of continuing education and pay a $75 renewal fee every three years.
Which one is right for you? Should you maintain multiple certifications? It all comes down to personal preference.
Elizabeth Andrews, a Seattle-based personal trainer and TRX Senior Instructor with more than 30 years’ experience, maintains ACSM, ACE, and Evidence Based Fitness Academy (EBFA) general trainer certifications, along with specialized certifications in Functional Range Conditioning (FRC), yoga, TRX, BOSU, and more.
“AFAA [the Athletics and Fitness Association of America] was my very first one because it had a practical piece which I thought was important at the time as an aerobics instructor,” Andrews said. “As I began to dig into more education, I was intrigued with ACSM. That's the route I went because it was more regarded in the movement world. That's how I've always rolled: I seek out the highest level education because I really want to be a master in my craft.”
Brandon Wagner, a fitness educator and TRX Senior Master Instructor in Tucson, Ariz., said he just maintains his basic NASM certification, despite holding multiple certifications in the past. “It didn't seem like I needed to have that many. I just stuck with the one that I had from the start, the one that I knew that I could maintain the longest.”
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CPR and AED
Personal trainer education isn’t solely focused on the movement world. Whether required by an accrediting organization or a liability insurer, personal trainers also need cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) training. While First Aid may not be specifically required for your certification, it’s always a good idea and often comes as part of your CPR/AED training. A CPR/AED certification is valid for two years from the date it’s issued.
The TRX Suspension Trainer Course (STC) forms the basis of all Suspension Trainer education. Given that the TRX Suspension Trainer is one of the most versatile and popular fitness tools on the market, you’ll probably end up using a Suspension Trainer in either one-on-one client sessions or a group fitness class. STC will give you the information and skills you need coach on the Suspension Trainer with confidence.
Wagner said his experience with TRX has helped him stand out in the fitness field, and he recommends STC to every trainer so they can understand the options they have within the exercise library, as well as how to progress, regress, and queue movements. In describing his own client sessions, Wagner said, “Every single training has a TRX exercise in it somewhere along the way. It's a staple... From a business standpoint, I think it's been the one thing that separated me from everybody else, especially early in my career.”
Plus, once you’ve completed STC, you’ll be invited to join TRX Core, a digital platform for TRX-qualified trainers that can help you build workouts, find new job opportunities, and connect with other TRX pros.
Regardless of which certification you choose, the most important thing you can bring to the table is experience. “You can know everything in a book, but that's not going to translate always into a great coach or trainer,” Andrews explained. As a fitness industry veteran, she said she tells up-and-coming trainers to get a basic certification like ACE or NASM that most gyms would recognize, and then focus on a niche. “Find your passion and what movement you love, and hone those skills. Start digging in and going into specialty courses around that. That's my philosophy. Be really great at one or two things instead of just mediocre at a bunch.”