For those embarking upon a career as a fitness professional, it can seem as if they’re entering an unregulated wild west type industry. Because there is no singly defined certification, the choice of certification options can seem bewildering. 

Yet, not all fitness certifications are equal. 

If you are going to pour your money, time, and energy into earning a fitness certification, you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence to find out which organizations will provide you with the best career advancement opportunities and which ones offer the best learning opportunities. In this guide, we preview the 8 most highly regarded fitness certifications that are currently available.

Types of Fitness Certifications

Fitness certificates do not come in ‘one size fits all’ form. Rather, certificates are specific to career type. Here’s an overview of the 5 main types of certification …

Personal Training

A certified personal trainer certificate is required to work as a personal trainer or to operate your own fitness studio. The majority of the most recognized CPT organizations are accredited by the National Organization for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). A personal training course will generally cover the following topics …

  • Movement Coaching
  • Exercise physiology and biomechanics
  • Program Design
  • Lifestyle Interventions
  • Customer Profiles and Customer Service
  • Fitness Business and Marketing

Group Fitness

A Group Fitness certification will qualify you to lead group fitness classes. The most popular and widely accepted provider here is the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The ACE curriculum covers everything from exercise programming and motivation techniques to music selection. 

Clinical

For those intent on a clinical fitness career, where they will be working as a personal trainer with people with health complications, a clinical fitness certification is the way to go. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is the go-to provider here. They offer several clinical fitness certificates including the Health Fitness Specialist (FHS) and the more specific Clinical Exercise Physiologist (CEP) for those wanting to become an exercise physiologist. 

Human Performance

Human Performance certification will qualify you to train athletes at all levels, ranging from high school to professional. The most well-regarded certification in this category is the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certificate. The National Academy of Sports Medicine’s (NASM) Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) is also popular, with many of the NBA team’s trainers holding this qualification. 

Specialty

There is a wide range of specialty certifications being offered by training organizations to meet the target niche markets of fitness professionals. These include …

  • Youth Training
  • Working with Seniors
  • Weight Loss
  • Nutrition
  • Wellness Coaching

8 Fitness Certifications You Need

Having waded through the plethora of fitness professional certifying organizations out there, we’ve narrowed it down to the eight most reputable fitness certifications that you need to succeed as a wellness professional. All of the organizations below are accredited with one or more of the following accrediting organizations:

  • The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)
  • The National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE)
  • The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) 

American College of Sports Medicine

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) was founded in 1954 with the mission to ‘promote and integrate scientific research, education, and practical applications of sports medicine and exercise science to maintain and enhance physical performance, fitness, health, and quality of life.’ 

The ACSM is, therefore, far more than a training organization. It is committed to diagnosing, treating, and preventing sports related injuries. They have a dozen regional chapters spread throughout the United States, with members drawn from all over the world. They are, therefore, at the cutting edge when it comes to exercise and fitness research and development. 

Fitness graduates hail from more than 80 countries around the world. Their flagship personal trainer certification provides in-depth instruction on exercise physiology, anatomy, and science. The three most popular courses for PTs are …

  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • Certified Group Instructor
  • Certified Exercise Physiologist

National Strength & Conditioning Association

The National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a strength and conditioning focus. If you are wanting to focus on working with powerlifters, shot putters, weight lifters, and other strength athletes, this organization’s certifications will hold more weight than one from ACSM. 

A recent innovation is the introduction of NSCA TV on the official website, where you can watch educational videos on strength and conditioning content, clinics, conferences, and career videos.

More than 60,000 fitness professionals from all over the world have received their certification through the NSCA. The top three courses offered are:

  • Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist
  • Certified Performance & sport Specialist
  • Certified Personal Trainer

National Academy of Sports Medicine

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) is a highly respected organization within the fitness industry, They offer some excellent certification courses for fitness professionals wanting to work with the general public. 

The courses offered by NASM are broader than many competitors, including injury prevention and corrective exercise. This is a good first certificate for new PTs, who may then go on to follow it up with a more specialized course from another organization. However, NASM does offer a virtual training certification designed to equip you with the skills, tools, and strategies that you need to launch your own virtual training career or transition from in-person to online. 

NASM offers some of the most competitively priced certification courses in the industry, often running discounts of up to 30% off the standard course price. 

International Sports Sciences Association

The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) was formed in 1988 by a team of sports and fitness professionals and athletes, led by the legendary Fred ‘Dr. Squat’ Hatfield. The organization has grown to become one of the most prestigious distance learning organizations for fitness professionals.

The ISSA does a superb job of catering to its online learning community, with the provision of electronic textbooks, an online training lab, videos, quizzes, and practice for the final exam. New courses are constantly being added to keep place with the changing fitness landscape. 

The three top courses offered by the ISSA are …

  • Certified Personal Trainer
  • Specialist in Group Fitness & Guided Study
  • Strength & Conditioning Certification

Once you complete six ISSA certifications, you will receive a master trainer certification. More than 300,000 students have graduated from ISSA courses. The ISSA is an affiliate of the National Board of Fitness Examiners. 

American Council on Exercise Certification

The American Council on Exercise Certification (ACE) is one of the oldest and largest training organizations for fitness professionals in the United States. It is accredited by the NCCA and offers a range of specialist programs beyond the entry personal trainer certification.

It is recommended to begin with the PT certification from ACe and then add additional certifications as you build your career. ACE provides certification courses under the following categories

  • Personal Trainer
  • Group Fitness Instructor
  • Health Coach
  • Medical Exercise Specialist

American Professional Fitness and Associates

While certification from the American Professional Fitness and Associates (APFA) is not as prestigious as those from organizations like NASM and ACM, they are still well respected within the industry. APFA provides entry-level as well as more advanced level programs, including the Master Personal Trainer Certificate. 

The APFA has been in operation for 27 years. Within that time, they have certified 130,000 people. Their student satisfaction rate is 98.9 percent. 

The APFA has more than 30 courses to choose from, offering them both in-person and online. The three most popular APFA courses are …

  • Personal Trainer Certification
  • Master Personal Trainer Certification
  • Strength & Conditioning Certification

National Federation of Professional Trainers

The National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) is unique among the top-rated fitness certification organizations in that it requires all graduates to accumulate continuing education credits in order to keep the accreditation current. 

The continuing credit requirement ensures that trainers are keeping up with current knowledge, research, and innovations within the fitness industry. This is a great selling point when you are applying for a position. Depending on the course, graduates will be required to do between 20 and 45 hours of training every two years to keep their certification current.

The three most popular NFPT courses are …

  • Personal Trainer Certification
  • Master Trainer Certificate
  • Fitness Nutrition Specialist

Yoga Alliance Teacher Training

Yoga training is a specialized field that not many certification organizations offer. If your goal is to become a certified yoga instructor, you cannot do better than going through the Yoga Alliance. To become certified with the Yoga Alliance you will have to put in between 200 and 500 hours of class teaching hours.

As well as general all-encompassing yoga certifications, specialized courses are available in Vinyasa, Hatha, Ashtanga, and other forms of yoga.

FAQs

What is the most recognized fitness certification?

The NASM Personal Trainer certificate is the most popular and recognized, with around 22,000 people taking the course each year. 

Is ISSA or NASM better?

These are both high regarded fitness qualifications. It is impossible to say that one is objectively better than the other. Both are nationally accredited, with the ISSA being accredited by DETC, while the NASM is accredited through the NCCA. Different employees may have different accrediting agency preferences. 

What is a CPT certification?

A CPT certification is a certified personal trainer qualification. It is required to work as a personal fitness trainer. The eight organizations listed in this article provide courses to become certified.

Is ACE or NASM certification better?

Each has their strengths. People who want more of a focus on coaching clients should go with NASM. However, if you want more emphasis on the mechanics of exercise and constructing training programs, ACE is the better choice.

Wrap Up

When you enter the fitness professional landscape, newly acquired ratification in hand, you’ll be competing with a lot of people for a limited number of positions. Ensuring that you’re holding a highway respected certification will put you ahead of the pack. By choosing any of the accrediting organizations described above, you’ll be one step ahead of the competition.

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