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Congratulations! You have weighed various career options and thought about what interests you and what will provide good employment. After sorting through this information, you have decided you want to become a personal trainer. You like that you will be helping people achieve their goals, and you enjoy learning about health, fitness and the human body, so the field seems like a natural fit for you.

Now what? Where do you start? How do you actually become a personal trainer?

If you want to be a personal trainer who is actually hired by paying customers, you must become certified. However, there are any number of personal trainer certification programs out there to choose from. How in the wild, wild world of the Internet do you know which one will teach you what you you need to know at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time frame?

To help you decide, here is a list of three of the most popular personal training certification programs available, including their features, benefits and more. The programs are the following:

1. American Council on Exercise (ACE)
2. National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
3. American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA)

Below is a comparison of each of the programs, along with our recommendation for the top program you should pursue to achieve your goal of becoming a personal trainer.

Requirements

Most programs require that you have several prerequisites before you actually begin the training. The most common requirements are that you must be 18 years old or older and completed hands-on CPR and AED (automatic external defibrillator) certification. If you have not done so, you can complete this through a community education program or the Red Cross.

ACE and NASM include these requirements.

AFPA only requires that you be 18 or older and have a high school diploma, GED or equivalent. They do, however, recommend that you would do well to have completed some education in the field of human anatomy. This will give you a good start to any personal training program. Some of AFPA’s more specialized personal trainer certifications require that you have a minimum of a 400 documented hours of one-on-one personal training experience, but this will be down the road for you.

Study Materials and Courses

ACE has a several resources that to meet your various needs. These include Master the Manual, the Personal Trainer Manual set and the Essentials of Exercise Science Flashcards. If you like online training better, they offer several online programs to prepare you for the personal training exam, including exam review and practice tests. You can also obtain personalized help from the ACE Resource Center. This includes access to Study Counselors for questions about a certain topic, study question review or even just general test stress. If you need accountability, you can even schedule weekly check-ins with them.

NASM also offers a combination of resources, including in-person, online and print preparation guides. Options include interactive discussion questions, 1-day live workshops, flash cards, a 9-week online course and study guides.

AFPA is much the same, with comprehensive curriculum offerings whenever the timing is best for you. Their personal training certification is both practical and current, and is based on exercise science, sports medicine and nutrition guidelines. With their Distance Learning programs, you get the convenience of self-paced learning, giving you time to study. A fully-staffed customer service team is also available to answer questions and help you on your journey.

Other learning materials include certification course textbooks and an exercise textbook and DVD (including descriptions and demonstrations of more than 70 exercises). Course study guidelines and a completion schedule help you stay on track, while practice quizzes test your progress. You can take the final exam whenever you like up until six months after enrollment. You also get unlimited student support, a weekly newsletter and member discount offers.

Recertification and Continuing Education

Every personal training certifying body requires you to keep your CPR and AED certification current, and they also require continuing education credits (CECs), although the amounts are different. This generally includes conference, online courses, in-person training, webinars and more. Recertification also requires a fee. Here’s how the three programs handle the process:

ACE’s recertification is every two years, with a $129 fee. You must complete 20 CECs through ACE’s online courses, in-person workshops and the ACE symposium, held every year for ACE personal trainers. This is great connection and education time. The ACE Resource Center is also available for you to ask the counselors any questions about the industry in general.

NASM is similar, with 20 hours required every two years and a $99 fee. You also have the option when you first become certified to pay $299 for lifetime recertification. This is a good deal if you plan on staying in the personal training industry for six years or more. NASM offers online courses and live workshops to get your CECs.

AFPA’s recertification fee is $85 every two years, with 16 hours of CECs required. This education must be new activity that you have not previously completed, and a variety of courses and options are available through them as well.

Additional Certifications

Each of these three groups also offers additional certifications in addition to personal training. These can advance your career by helping you gain new and valuable skills. Some of these are general, such as group exercise instructor certifications, while others are more specific as becoming a cancer exercise trainer or a tactical strength and conditioning facilitator.

ACE gives you several good options, including group fitness instructor, health coach and advanced health and fitness specialist. ACE’s specialty certifications include youth fitness, fitness nutrition, functional training and mind-body training.

NASM offers several options as well, including mixed martial arts conditioning, women’s fitness, youth exercise, golf fitness and fitness nutrition.

AFPA has options as well, including twenty-four certifications such as Personal Fitness Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Nutrition, Weight Loss, Senior Fitness, Youth Fitness, Yoga Instructor and Pilates Instructor. These programs are offered both online and through distance education.

Accreditation

Accreditation can be confusing, but basically, a program must undergo review by an accrediting body which sets standards for certification programs. This gives both you and your clients assurance that the development, implementation, maintenance and governance of the program meets their high standards. If a program is accredited, you can feel good that it is a program worth you time, energy and funds.

ACE and NASM are both accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). NCCA’s accreditation is thought of as the best and highest standard for the personal training field. Groups accredited by the NCCA must submit to comprehensive evaluation over regular periods of time in order to keep this accreditation.

AFPA’s Personal Trainer Certification program is accredited by Vital Research, which means they have met 14 Accreditation Standards set forth by Vital Research. AFPA’s Personal Trainer Certification program is not accredited by NCCA because AFPA chooses not to submit their program for consideration. NCCA is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to grant accreditation, although NCCA is held in high regard throughout the personal training industry.

Investment

While becoming certified as a personal trainer will not break the bank, it does require an investment. Think of it as investment and not a fee – you are making a deposit into your future earnings based on personal training. Once you have landed a few clients and they are actually paying you, you will realize how valuable your initial investment really is.

All three organizations offer study materials in bundles that are affordable. You will also have to pay an exam fee when it is time for the final test.

At ACE, several study bundles are popular, ranging from $499 to $799. The $699 option is the best seller, but all are good and all include the fee for the final certification exam, which helps you calculate the final cost. On the most expensive plan, free financing is available, which means you may have an easier time paying for the course.

The ACE bundles look even better when you consider that the test fee is $399 if you pay it alone. You can buy the study materials separately, but the bundles do save money – you would pay $110 for the ACE manual alone and $169 for the online test review.

NASM’s 9-week online course costs $349 and you get a test pass guarantee. This means the company will return your money if you finish the class and do not pass the test. (Students who actually complete the course have a 95% pass rate according to the NASM website.)

NASM’s half-day certification test prep workshop is cheaper at $199, but does not include the test pass guarantee. A CT super bundle, including online flash cards and information on exercise techniques and program design, costs $79. The test costs $599, which is most expensive of our list, but the test pass guarantee and the 95% pass rate mean you most likely won’t have to worry about passing the test, which is your end goal. The online course and the test together will cost about $950.

The AFPA’s online test cost $415, with an extra $30 fee if you would rather take a paper, hard copy version of the test. This price gets you full manuals, video lessons and a proctored exam. It also includes a free ebook called “How to Start a Successful Online Personal Trainer Business” which will show you how to increase your income through online training.

With the online test, you submit your assignments and final exam online. You will get your results back immediately. The hard copy mail-in test covers you if you prefer an old-fashioned paper exam. Just mail the test booklet back when you are finished.

Our Top Recommendation

Now that you have had a chance to read through all of the information above, you may be overwhelmed. To help you simplify, we are ready to make a recommendation as to the best personal trainer certification program out of the three we just reviewed.

Our recommendation for the best personal trainer certification program is the The American Council on Exercise (ACE).

We make this recommendation first because of the amount of study materials and support you receive as you go through an ACE personal training certification program. Their training packages are simply and understandably priced (and they include the exam fee!). Combine this with online support and a resource center available over the phone for answers, encouragement and accountability whenever you need it, and you have a proven winner. Even graduates of the program can call the resource center for help when they are out in the real world.

ACE also offers a huge variety of extra certifications and specializations for participants in their programs. Certifications such as group fitness instructor, advanced health and fitness specialist, and health coach are all valuable. The more specialized certifications can also increase your appeal and value for potential employers.

We also like ACE because it is a non-profit organization. As such, it is committed to its role of training the best fitness professionals out there. ACE can focus on this mission instead of having to please investors as they chase an ever-increasing profit margin.

If you earn an ACE personal trainer certification, you will be well-trained, your job prospects will be bright and you will be ready for whatever you face. If you run across a situation you are not sure about, you can always call the trusty resource center for answers. Don’t underestimate this benefit – not every program offers such a great resource for you.

NASM and AFPA are quality programs as well. You won’t go wrong if you choose either of these options – we just think ACE is a step above. This is how you start a personal training career – with a well-respected education from a quality institution.

Now that you are armed with this information, go forth and train!

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