The day has arrived, your package from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is in your hands and you can’t wait to see what’s inside and get started on your new and exciting career!
You open it up and start to look through it and almost immediately have that same feeling that a mountain climber has at the foot of Mt Everest…… a feeling of being completely intimidated and totally overwhelmed!
Ah yes, I remember it well when, at 47 years old, I first started preparing for the ACE exam. It had been a dream of mine for years to become a personal trainer and I finally decided to “take the plunge” and make that dream a reality. After doing much research I decided that ACE was the best fit for me and it was a decision I’ve never regretted!
This article will be an overview of the things I found helpful in my quest for certification. Also see this other ACE review for more insights.
However, no single article can adequately give you all the information you would need to help guide you through this process – you would need a small book in the least. In addition, everyone’s experience will surely yield different points of view as to what worked for them.
I’ll do my best to share some insights that have not only worked for me personally but for many other people I’ve given guidance to over the past couple of years as they went through their exam prep process for the ACE Personal Trainer Certification exam.
How long should you prepare for the ACE test?
There is no one correct answer to this question. ACE provides 12 and 20 week study coach programs which are sent via email with the purpose of guiding you through the material in a structured way. While you aren’t bound by those time frames, people often start to stress out as they feel themselves slipping behind schedule. This can cause them to quickly lose confidence in themselves from the very beginning of this process!
When I was preparing for the exam in 2007 I was already pretty busy between my work and family. It had been over 25 years since I took a meaningful exam since graduating from College in 1981. I also had no formal education in exercise science.
I knew there was no WAY I was going to get this done even in 20 weeks, and certainly not to the level of quality I expected from myself.
I decided to be generous and gave myself the window of roughly a year (give or take) as my goal to complete the certification process.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “A YEAR, I don’t have that kind of time!!!!”
Don’t worry, just because I took the scenic route rather than the expressway definitely does not mean it would be the right route for you.
The time frame you’ll need really just depends on :
- your schedule
- previous educational background and
- how quickly you can learn and integrate new material
I’m just sharing what worked for my specific situation.
A year ended up being a good choice for me and it flew by surprisingly fast. I also felt completely prepared on exam day and scored almost 200 points more than I needed to pass so it definitely worth it!
Beyond just passing the exam, having that amount of time to study enabled me to really acquire a level of mastery of the material inside and out. This was as important a goal to me as passing the exam. I wanted to give myself the proper foundation to continue to build from!
Whatever time frame you decide, I feel you need to be compassionate with yourself throughout this process. If you try doing more than you can realistically handle it will be a very frustrating and exhausting experience! There will also be times that the best thing you can do is back off for a day or two and begin again fresh.
What should I focus on for the ACE test?
Ah yes, the million dollar question and one that is very tough to answer!
There is an exam content outline in the ACE manual which covers the various domains you are expected to have skill in. That is a great place to start in terms of getting an overview of what will be contained in the exam.
However, I have noticed over the years, that many folks are looking for “quick and easy” information on what they need to learn specifically “for the exam”. In other words, they want to know what material they “must” know and which stuff they can sort of gloss over or ignore completely.
My advice is always that one should first concentrate on studying and obtaining a level of mastery of the overall material first and foremost. If you do that, then the exam will usually take care of itself. There’s really no shortcut to take nor should there be!
Being a personal trainer is a HUGE responsibility and making a mistake based on ignorance or carelessness can result in serious consequences. Clients put their trust in Certified Personal Trainers as fitness PROFESSIONALS. They should expect to hire a trainer who has passion for their profession, who always strives for excellence, and who has a ceaseless thirst for knowledge.
What most people surely don’t want is to end up with a trainer who did the bare minimum required for the sole purpose of scraping by a certification exam.
Gyms are full of trainers who just want to “get by.” For example, don’t make the basic mistake this trainer made.
Let’s put it this way “What type of trainer would you want to send your most cherished loved ones to?” Well, I believe THAT’S the trainer one should strive to be!
Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now…
Not Getting Bogged Down
There is no doubt that the material dealing with exercise science is often a particularly HUGE roadblock for most people (especially those without a previous academic background in this area).
There is a real danger in getting bogged down in this material to the point where you may feel like you can’t move beyond it. However, you don’t need to have a complete mastery of exercise science to progress onward through the materials. That being said, you should still make some time to continue to review on a regular basis until it starts to sink in.
With the new 4th edition of the ACE materials, you don’t need to master the separate “Essentials of Exercise Science” book as a prerequisite to start
Also it’s important to be aware that the Exercise Science book is very thorough and covers many things of which you don’t need to memorize verbatim.
For example you don’t need to memorize every nerve, artery or vein in the body. You also don’t need to know every obscure muscle in the hand or foot that is covered in the “Musculoskeletal Anatomy Book”.
Additionally, there are some long and complex formulas you will run into during the course of your studies that will most likely make your head spin when you first see them! You should work through these formulas so you have experience with them but you don’t have to memorize them. If you need them later on in your work as a trainer you can always refer back to the texts as needed.
As a side note, I highly recommend not selling your ACE materials once you pass the exam, they are invaluable sources of ongoing reference and not just “exam prep” materials.
Some Things You Should Know About The ACE Test
- You should have a general idea of the overall function of the nervous system (and neurological principles such as the myotatic stretch reflex (via muscle spindle activation), reciprocal and autogenic inhibition.
- You should know the basics regarding the cardiorespiratory system as well as how training can enhance cardiac output and VO2 Max as well as resting heart rate.
- You absolutely should learn about the primary muscles in the body that contribute to movement and stabilization. You should understand about agonists, antagonists and synergists and the various types of muscle contractions (concentric, isometric and eccentric).
- You don’t “need” to know the origin and insertion of every muscle but you should know the basic “functions” of the primary muscles (for ex. the Glutes primarily extends the hip and also contributes to external rotation, it also can assist in hip adduction though that is not a primary function).
I do want to add that although you probably won’t end up seeing any origin and insertion questions on the exam, I do recommend trying to continue to become more and more familiar with them because it really does help to understand how the muscles function. For example, knowing this can help you understand why the teres minor contributes to external rotation and the teres major to internal rotation (among its other functions).
Other things you’ll need to know are
- the basic nutritional material
- how the kinetic chain works
- various assessments
- body fat percentages and body mass index (BMI)
- program design
- considerations for special populations
- behavioral concepts
- basic legal information regarding scope of practice and…
- ACE Code of ethics among others
Certainly you'll want to really understand the IFT materials and their application if you're studying the 4th edition materials and the specifics related to Functional Movement and Resistance Training and the Cardiorespiratory training (including the ventilatory thresholds) .
As I mentioned in the beginning, an article like this can barely scratch the surface and there is bound to be much important information left out. I do want to stress that a sure recipe for disaster is try to selectively “guess” what may be on the test and what won’t be, you really should try to learn the overall course material to the best of your ability.
Different people definitely have preferential ways of learning. For example, some learn better visually and some aurally or various combinations. Some people need a lot of repetition and those rare few are blessed with photographic memories and can remember everything they read.
But even if one has a photographic memory, it’s more important to really integrate the material in a way that is meaningful in terms of how it would be applied in actual practice. This is important both for actual real world training as well as for the exam. You have to understand how to implement the information in a given context.
As you learn the information, always try to see if you can put it in a “real world” training context.
I found using a combination of techniques helped me. My approach was to learn in layers. For example,
- I’d read a certain amount of material.
- Then I’d read it again and underline the key points.
- Then I’d highlight the text the third time through I read through the material.
- After that I would make flashcards which I then recorded to audio so I could listen to them in my car or when I was too tired to read but still wanted to study.
I eventually also did extensive summaries for most of the chapters as well. The process of doing this helped me continue to refine the material and made it easier to review.
Now, you may find only one or two of those tips necessary, but I wanted to share my process in order to give you some tools that might help.
Organization Is Key
I found it was helpful to rotate among the various materials that came with my package. A way to organize this systematically was to make up an index card with a list of all the things I wanted to study. I would then move a little “post it” sticker down through the list each day when I completed each item on the list. This way I was able to accomplish little mini-goals throughout the day. This gave me a structured approach to my daily studying. Otherwise it would have seemed impossible to try and figure out how to fit it all in.
If I didn’t get through the whole list on a given day, I would just pick up where I left off the following day and just continue cycling through the materials.
I called ACE pretty regularly when I was studying. I first tried to make sure I gave a really strong effort on my own but if I “hit a wall” and really needed help, they were very accessible and extremely helpful! In fact, ACE gives excellent support after you are certified as well! You are really treated as part of the ACE family from the very beginning.
Tip. ACE also has a very active Facebook Page too.
How To Learn The Names Of The Muscles
This is a common topic of difficulty for most exam candidates so I wanted to share some thoughts on this.
What helped me the most in this particular area of study was working with the Fitness professional's Guide To Musculoskeletal Anatomy and Human Movement, both the book and also doing the Quizzes on the CD ROM to help reinforce the material. Here is a somewhat detailed explanation that I found really useful.
First memorize the bony attachments (Chapter 2, take a page, study it and then immediately do the CD Rom Quiz on it to reinforce it). If you learn these that will help you remember the muscles in a more meaningful way.
For example “Coracobrachialis” is a muscle that originates on the Coracoid process (Coraco) and inserts on the Humerus (Brachialis refers to “Arm”).
Another example would be Anterior Tibialis, a muscle located in the front (anterior) of the Tibia (tibialis).
- Some muscles have other descriptions which help to learn them as well such as “Biceps” which of course refers to a two headed muscle.
- The Biceps Femoris is a two headed muscle (Bi) that acts on the femur (Femoris) as opposed to the Biceps Brachii which is a two headed muscle (Bi) that acts on the arm (Brachii).
- Some use the shape of the muscle such as Quadratus Lumborum or Rhomboids.
- Some describe function and have words such as extensor, pronator etc. in the name.
So rather than just “memorizing” the muscles you will actually understand them better and it will make kinesiology come alive.
Knowing this material won't just help you “pass” the exam but will deepen your knowledge in a way that is more meaningful and often functional.
ACE Practice Exams
To me, there are really two distinct phases of ACE exam prep. The first, and longest, is actually learning the curriculum contained in the various materials. But after that, serious emphasis needs to be placed on ACE practice tests.
You can get the ACE practice test's from ACE and there are ACE tests on Amazon too.
There is definitely a degree of “test taking skill” that can be a difference maker on the exam.
Getting used to the way the questions are formatted can really help with one’s comfort level on exam day. The ACE practice tests are also important as they can help to expose any areas of weaknesses you may have.
To illustrate my point:
I really started to get serious with the ACE practice exams once I felt that I had a pretty high level of mastery of the course materials. However, when I first started doing practice tests I made a LOT of dumb mistakes. My mistakes were rarely because of a lack of understanding of the material but just lack of test taking technique.
I would miss the subtle things in the questions that would ultimately change which answer was correct. There are usually two answers that could be right and so you really need to know the material intimately as well as analyze the questions very carefully so that you don’t miss anything.
Also many of the exam questions contains words like BEST, MOST, LEAST etc. that can make things confusing if you are not extremely careful. I found that by practicing daily with the tests and really dissecting the questions that my test taking skills improved exponentially and it was an absolute KEY to my success on exam day!
Tips for the ACE test on exam day
So you have done all the studying and practice exams and there’s nothing more you can do to prepare for the exam. Congratulations, that in and of itself is a huge accomplishment!
The following are tips for exam day that I’ve shared with many people. Overall, those who have implemented these simple suggestions said they really helped them so I wanted to share them in this article.
- Get a good night's sleep rather than burning yourself out studying too much the night before the exam. At this point you either know the material or you don’t. It is a VERY long and difficult exam so you want to go in as fresh as possible.
- Bring some food to eat right before you walk in to take the exam, it's a long haul and you'll want to make sure you won't get hungry and have an energy “crash” in the middle of it. Also bring a bottle of water. Some places let you bring it in, some don't but you may as well have it and ask if it’s okay to have it with you.
- Try closing your eyes and taking a deep breath between each question to refocus and re-energize. This sounds “corny” but it made a huge difference for me and helped the questions not get all “jumbled together” in my brain.
- “Mark” the questions that you're not sure of (you'll have that option) and always choose an answer before you hit “submit”, never leave it blank (or it's considered incorrect).
- Remember in the simulation part of the ACE test, once you choose something you can't “un-choose” it. During the first part of the exam you CAN change your answer before you move on to part two (simulation). Also, once you move to the simulation you can't go back to part 1.
- If you find yourself confused in the beginning of the exam don't let this throw you, as you settle in and it gets more familiar it should get easier (the first 5 questions REALLY threw me but soon after that things started to look more familiar and I started to get used to the exam itself).
Be confident in yourself, If you've really given yourself the proper amount of time to prepare, you should do really well!
A Final Statement
I want to wish you the best success in your studies to become an ACE Certified Personal Trainer. I also want to remind you that passing the test is only the beginning of the process. You will learn a lot more after you get certified. Being a Certified Personal trainer requires an ongoing commitment to constant education and the dedication and desire to give your clients the highest quality experience possible every time they work with you!
Scott Fishkind is an ACE certified personal trainer in Franklin, TN. Scott has also been a private teacher since 1981.
Also see my Resource Page for ACE materials.
What do you think?