Update 7/25/19. I see a lot of people online asking “what’s the best personal training license” and almost as many fitness experts blogging about “the best personal training license” too. Most of these people don't know what the heck they are talking about! Let me try to add my 2 cents to this question and hopefully get you on the right track. After you're done here, read my post on how to be a personal trainer for more information.
License or Certification?
In America, there no such thing as a personal training license. To be a personal trainer you need a certification. Certification is different than a license. The same thing is true about group fitness instructors, yoga instructors and anyone else who is in the fitness industry.
Differences: License vs. Cert
Here ‘s the main difference between a fitness license and fitness certification:
A license means a government entity oversees the education of fitness trainers. On the other hand, when it comes to certifications, it’s a fitness organization that’s responsible for ensuring that personal trainers know what they are doing. There are many fitness organizations in the US such as
And many others
If personal trainers needed a license, then all fitness organizations would come under the jurisdiction of the government and the “licensing” would be standardized. In other words, everybody would have to “do this” or “do that” first in order to be a personal trainer.
A government-mandated fitness license might also mean an end to fitness organizations altogether.
Why Fitness Licenses Are Not Needed
The information you need to know to become a personal trainer now is basically the same no matter which organization you are trying to obtain. All fitness certifications require you to have knowledge in
- exercise science
- muscle physiology
- exercise program design
- basic nutrition
The exams of each organization, however, will differ in the questions that show up and on the particular slant (bias) of that organization.
Also, read What's The Best Personal Training Certification.
For example, while I have never taken the NASM personal trainer test, I'm told it puts a lot of emphasis on joint angles and biomechanics. This is good information to know, however, some of the NASM trainers I've met seem to be lacking in knowledge about basic health issues like cholesterol and blood pressure and some aspects of periodization.
For more info see NSCA vs NASM: What's better?
The ACSM personal trainer test – often called the “best” certification – relies heavily on mathematic calculations that 99% of personal trainers will NEVER use. Again, it’s a fine fitness cert, but many trainers may find that what they studied for the test, never shows up in “the real world”.
Tip. If you want to learn personal training from a personal trainer, read my book Personal Fitness Training Beyond The Basics.
Certification organizations also might differ in what they require you to do before you take their exam. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for example, requires that people have a college degree before they can take the CSCS test.
Most fitness organizations do require you to have a CPR and AED cert before you take the test so be sure to get these. Getting these now will save you a big headache later.
Any Advantages To Fitness License?
Conversely, the licensing of personal trainers does have some advantages. It would weed out those out of the system who were not qualified.
On the downside, licensing of personal trainers would also probably mean that each trainer would be paying the government every year or so to maintain their license. That’s in addition to what they pay for fitness continuing education classes.
A fitness license would probably also be harder to obtain than a certification. For example, one proposal in New Jersey to license personal trainers would require fitness professionals to have 500 hours of classroom experience and 100 hours of in the gym, practical experience. They might also need a college degree.
This seems to have died and is not the case any longer.
Again, while that sounds good on the surface, it does mean that personal trainers would be spending a lot of money for that license. That means gyms will no longer be able to pay a personal trainer $6 per hour. They will have to pay them more – which might mean higher gym membership rates.
In a country like the US, where most people do not exercise, I wonder if it’s a good idea to raise gym rates. In other words, would higher health club rates make it harder for someone to work out?
So, Certification or License?
There are no easy answers about this issue. The idea of a personal training license is something that will be debated for a long time. Until that day happens – if it ever does – just remember that to be a personal trainer, you need a certification – not a license. Also, see my review of online personal trainer certs for more info.
I dont know many jobs where you get out of high school and that weekend take a low level cert and become “personal trainer”. Personal trainer is a name of the past, to me the name means nothing. So lets say exercise physiologist.
In any field or profession there needs to be standards and a governing body. Standards: every exercise physiologist should be licensed and have at least a BS in health related field to take a licensing exam. They should also hold a high level cert through ACSM, NSCA etc.
Government directed exercise professionals will finally be respected. Gyms would no longer take (steal) 50%-70% of ones income. Anyone who would spend thousands of dollars for a college degree to be a true professional would be happy to take a $300 cert, and even pay more for a license. Getting CEC’s by going to conferences only gives you further knowledge. And if “personal trainers” would be licensed then they would have the credibility for workplace to pay for conferences to acquire CEC’s.
In the “real world” ACSM professionals study these calculations as a base for their education. They may not use these calculations every day but it is the same as in any math course to evolve to a higher level.
Gym memberships would not go up, they make a ruthless killing on personal trainers as it is. Good trainers bring in more members to gyms, weekend cert trainers in the long run results in membership loss.
Licensed exercise specialist would possibly be able to get referrals from physicians and other areas of high level health professionals.
Hopefully one day things change.
Joe Cannon says
Nick, one day things may change. I dont think the term “exercise physiologist” is regulated so maybe anyone could use it. I do feel someone should have at least a MS degree in exercise science to call themselves an exercise physiologist.
The term Exercise Physiologist is a degreed profession, and you are right, it’s a MS level. They work mostly at cardiac and physical rehab centers
Joe Cannon says
Rick, thanks for the confirmation. Funny you should mention this. I just learned that ACSM has a cert called “Clinical Exercise Physiologist.” As I understand it, one does not need to have a MS degree to obtain this cert.
Sarah Vaughan says
I have a strong passion for health and fitness. I exercise regularly and have for the past ten years. Out of high school I attended Penn State University for Radiology. I am currently a Registered Radiologic Technologist working fulltime. Seven years into my career I am realizing my passion and desire for health and fitness. I want to purue a career in this field. With my student loan debt I plan to work full-time in my current field while I pursue a personal training certification/license.
Obviously my time is limited with my work schedule. Can you point me in the direction of where to begin? I would love a successful career in health and fitness. I dedicate my personal time outside of work to health and fitness. I have strangers, friends, and family compliment me all the time and ask what I do to stay so fit. I love FITNESS! I would love to train one on one and teach classes. I have a strong passion for yoga and kickboxing.
Sorry for the life story. Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you, Sarah
Joe Cannon says
Hi Sarah, no worries 🙂 I’m very familiar with the demands of being an RT. I have a friend who has his own x ray business. That said,
Take a look at this post I wrote
let me know if there are any other things you want to know about and I will try to help 🙂
Sarah Vaughan says
Thank you so much for the information. I appreciate you responding so soon. I am very excited and eager to get into the fitness industry 🙂
Joe Cannon says
Glad to help Sarah 🙂
What do you think about ISSA?…Is it enough to find a job if i have (CFT) or if i have an additional nutrition certification,i will get more money?
Joe Cannon says
Hi Mohamed, I personally don’t have a problem with ISSA but some gyms may not accept it because it is a test that is taken in the privacy of your own home. This opens the possibility of cheating. Ive heard the ISSA test is basically essays which are harder to cheat on but people can learn what they need to by doing research to answer the question as opposed to knowing the information from memory.
I’ve said before those Ive met with ISSA, Ive felt really knew their stuff. Gyms sometimes get weird about what certs they accept so what I suggest is if you are thinking about it, ask local gyms if they accept ISSA and see what they say. Having a nutrition cert can help make you more marketable. I say grab all the knowledge you can. Its only going to help you.
What ever do you do, I really suggest you get a website. Since you mentioned making money, a website is something that eventually can make you more money than personal training can if you do it right. Here is my guide to how I made my websites. Follow this and you’ll have a website in less than 1 hour.
Hi Joe. This website is exactly what I was looking for.
Which cpt cert do you recommend for someone with a boxing and martial arts background who is more interested in nutrition, cardio, and bodyweight exercise than weight lifting?
I have a satisfactory day job so I wont be looking to work in a gym. I am mainly looking for more knowledge (emphasis on nutrition) and possibly some extra money on the side. If I could eventually parlay into training athletes that would be great.
Joe Cannon says
Hi Alex, take a look at ACE and see if that meets your needs. Since you mentioned you like nutrition, check out these websites too:
Salvatore Caradonna says
I have about 30 years of training, reading, writing and some teaching in self defense. I noticed that some companies are putting together a MMA cert. Will this be accepted in the martial arts world? I think NASM is working on this, but can I walk into MMA camp and say here is my cert. do I get the job.
There is another one now called MMA certification, it seems well thought out.
Nesta is the parent company.
I am in my early 50’s and train six hours a week with weights, medicine ball swiss ball, treadmill, jump rope, heavy bag work, speed bag, cables, isometrics and some wind sprints. Am I too old for this, is there any money in this. A lot of trainers I have known are broke and on steroids.
I have tried to teach self defense at one time, and did ok with it, but this economy is terrible. many gym owners are scared of martial arts in general.
Can a trainer make good money, it is about getting paid. Should I make a deal with a fitness center and pay rent? I tried this at one place but got no calls, I mean, I named my self defense CLEAR COMBAT FIGHTING SYSTEM, but I am not a well known fighter or have a brand that is out there being used. I had about 10 younger students at one time but the place lost its lease so all that work went downhill. Help!
Joe Cannon says
Salvatore, I have a few ideas on this
I think the MMA certs are cropping up because MMA is hot and people are trying to “cash in.” That’s not to say some of those certs wont be credible but since you have such a strong background in this stuff, I would hold off paying anybody for a “cert” since you already have the experience. Most people care about the experience more than a cert. I think we have to wait for the dust to clear before any MMA cert stands out as “the best”
Have you considered re-branding your combat away from MMMA types to the general population? Id’ think men and women would love to learn what you know, just to defend themselves in this post 9/11 world. I would not worry about not being a well known fighter. Its not always about who is the best or smartest, but rather who can brand themselves as “the expert.”
One thing I would do is get yourself a website. I’m actually writing a free ebook right now that will show you how to do it cheaply. I hope to have it up on this website in the near future.
Have you thought of connecting with one of these organizations to see if you can write their book for them? That way all their students would learn about you (and website) as they studies your book.
One thing you might want to do in the future is write your own ebook on MMA or self defense and then you can sell it on your website.
Samuel Bocock says
Thank you for all the helpful information.
Joe Cannon says
Glad to help Samuel 🙂
Zach W. says
hey im a young kid im only 19 and Im very interested in the field of personal training which certification should i shoot for i hear that the NASM is really good and most of my friends have it and train people at Golds Gym. but im looking for something that studies the health side and also the fitness side of personal training which certification/license is the best?
Joe Cannon says
Zach, First off I’m going to recommend you read the book I wrote called Personal Fitness Training Beyond The Basics. Most exercise cert books are hard to understand esp if your just starting out (I think NASM is especially hard to understand). In my book I talk to you, just like I am now and I tell you why you need to know this or that AND I tell you the very things that I have needed to know as a trainer. I hold nothing back. If I need to know it, you will do. Amazon has my book (just so you know, I make hardly any money from Amazon when my books are sold there). Also, my book will put you light-years ahead of most trainers – even NASM trainers. Just trust me.
I hear a lot of people say NASM is “the best” but there is no “best cert”. I’m certified by an organization that is often more highly regarded than NASM (the NSCA) and I’ll be the first to tell you that they aren’t the “best” either. Focus on knowledge not the cert.
Golds gym probably has a list of certs they accept. Find a cert that fits in your budget and get that cert. That, at least, gets your foot in the door as a trainer. Then, study, study, study -and study more. Since most people care about whether you can help them – and not who your certified by – it’s the knowledge that will help you the most.
If you are looking for a more well rounded cert than I’d recommend either the ACE personal trainer cert or the NSCA-CPT cert. Both are well regarded and both will give you a good background in health and fitness. Both also have magazines that you can subscribe to (even if your not certified). You might want to contact each organization and ask them for free back copies of their journals so you can look them over and see what you like best. That might also give you an idea of what cert might be best for you. Both ACE and NSCA also have Facebook pages. Check them out and see the types of info that they are talking about on their FB pages and ask them question on their FB pages too and see what others say, how much they are willing to help you etc.
Let me know which one you decide on and if you have any other questions, feel free to ask and I’ll try to help 🙂
If obtaining a personal training “license” became anything like obtaining a counseling license, it would be bad news. Many licenses are not transferable from one state to the next. That means when you get to another state, you have to meet the educational requirements for that state’s license. To me, this is ridiculous and just a way for the states to gouge money out of people. After all, it is the UNITED STATES of America. I have to pay my student loans back to the government, therefore, I think my education should be valid in every state of that government. I think this whole different requirement business is a gigantic RIP OFF! For example, I come from Michigan. I have a Master of Arts degree with 96 credit hours. I came to Maryland where the requirement is only about 60 credit hours and they don’t want to give me a license because they say I need to take 10 additional classes for three credits a piece to equal their requirements. This is a load of hooey. I already have 36 credits more than they even deem necessary. Whatever. Counselor’s loss is Personal Trainings gain. I decided to start my own business as a LifeCoach/Personal Trainer. So I am ecstatic that there is no license requirement. That alleviates the massive load of you-know-what. And makes it easier for me to use my education in a creative way. I’m calling my business “LifeSpan Coaching and Fitness- A Transformational Journey.” My clients will get the best of both world’s. My motto is “Inspire Some Body!”
Also, I don’t think the practical requirements would be bad but I think one would need to be paid somehow during this time. Like in Cosmetology School. You can see a senior student and this person gets paid a lesser fee because they are a student. That way we could be sure the person has certain standardized knowledge. But that’s as far as I’d go with it. A license brings all kind of unnecessary drama into the picture.
P.S. I’ll try to keep my next comment more brief:)
Joe Cannon says
Christallin, feel free to write as much as you like. I read everything 🙂
Lyn Reebenaker says
This is great info, Joe. It can be pretty competitive out there. I appreciate all your talk about certifications, and getting real world experience. I wondered, would you talk to us about putting together a resume best represented for our field?
Joe Cannon says
Lyn thanks for the great idea! I will post something about fitness resumes in the near future 🙂