Have you ever wondered what's better, the NSCA or the NASM certification? Odds are, more than one person thinking about how to be a personal trainer has pondered this because both NASM and NSCA are heavy hitters in the personal trainer certification game. I started thinking about this question after I got an email from Dylan, one of the visitors to my website. I wrote to Dylan privately but I thought I would review both NSCA and NASM certifications in a little more detail here, to help you decide which cert might be best for you. When you're finished here, also read, How to pass the CSCS exam.
The NSCA is the organization I am certified by. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has been around since the early 1980s and has 3 different certifications :
- NSCA Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT)
- Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
- Certified Special Population Specialist (CSPS).
The CSPS certification was added to the list, as a way to better prepare fitness trainers to work with clients having special needs such as arthritis, diabetes etc. People have to be either CSCS or NSCA-CPT certified before they can take the CSPS test.
What I like About NSCA
One thing I like about the NSCA is that they publish a scientific journal devoted to strength training called the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. All members of the NSCA have access to this journal each month. This is a peer-reviewed publication. This means that the research is first reviewed by other competent scientists (the peers) to check for errors before it was published in the journal.
Aside from the ACSM, I am not aware of another fitness organization that publishes original scientific research on exercise and health.
The NSCA also published the Strength and Conditioning Journal which is also peer-reviewed and contains good review articles on a variety of exercise and health and wellness issues. All NSCA members get this publication also each month.
My Thoughts On The CSCS Certification
The CSCS certification, since its creation in the 1980s, has long been held as one of the best fitness credentials to have if you want to work with athletes —especially at the college level.
When I took the CSCS cert, in the 1990s, you had to have at least a BS degree in a health-related field in order to take the CSCS test.
Unfortunately, the NSCA has watered down this requirement so that now a college degree in ANY field would qualify people to be CSCS certified. Still, it's a hard test and lasts 4 hours consisting of 400 questions.
After years of allowing anyone to be a CSCS, the organization has reversed their thinking. After 2030, you will once again need a health-related college degree. But, why so long? Why not mandate this now?
You do not need to have a college degree to take the NSCA-certified personal trainer exam. The NSCA-CPT test is a two-hour test and has 200 questions. When I took this exam, I found that it and the textbook were very good at focusing on the knowledge and issued personal trainers working in a gym would face. If you want to be a fitness trainer and are on the fence – CSCS or NSCA-CPT, I'd go with the CPT certification. It's more well rounded.
My Problems With The NSCA
I contend the NSCA makes it difficult for people to get re-certified. People holding the NSCA certifications must get re-certified every 2 years. There are several different categories in which people can get continuing education units (CEUs) to be re-certified.
But, the thing that drives me crazy is the NSCA counts :
- writing magazine articles and writing books in the SAME CEU category.
NSCA professionals need credits (CEUs – continuing education units) in more than one category.
For me, that's a problem because I've written 8 books, so I max out the writing category very fast. The NSCA makes me work harder to keep my NSCA certifications.
Hey NSCA, I can write a magazine article in an hour. It takes me about 2 years to write a book! They are NOT the same thing!
Once, I've posted my problem with this on the NSCA Facebook page —and they deleted my comment. Not cool NSCA! When I called the NSCA to ask them:
1. How many NSCA members have written a magazine article?
2. How many NSCA members have written a book?
I was told they did not know. I'm not sure if I buy that or not but if it's really true, this is easy to find out. Just survey NSCA members. I'm confident there are fewer NSCA members who have written/published books. Hey NSCA: I challenge you to provide statistics and prove me wrong.
The NSCA textbooks do not cover much about fitness marketing or even getting a job in fitness. What good is all that science knowledge if you can't get a job? That's why I wrote an entire book on fitness marketing. All the knowledge in the world won't help you if you don't know how to get clients —or get hired by a gym.
Read my personal training marketing textbook. You'll be lightyears ahead of your competition.
The NSCA has acquiesced its dominance in the fitness industry to NASM. Three I said it. Through very good marketing the NASM is what most people think of first when they consider getting certified. Why have they allowed this to happen?
Over the years, NSCA has been so focused on strength and power and “tactical strength” issues and they have neglected the needs of today's personal trainers. The organization needs to stop focusing so much on football and powerlifting and put equal emphasis on special populations and the needs of the average person who needs help.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). First off, I want to be upfront and say that I have not taken the NASM test and I have only read a little of the NASM textbook. As such, my information is limited to what I have observed and heard from others.
Heather Dziczek has written a very good overview of how she passed the NASM test so check that out if you are looking to be NASM certified.
From what I know, the NASM certification is heavily focused on biomechanics —how the muscles work together, muscle imbalances, and correct exercise.
My Thoughts On NASM
Over the years, I've noticed when NASM certified personal trainers attend AAAI/ISMA classes I teach and attempt to take the AAAI/ISMA personal training test, they often fail it or pass by the skin of their teeth. Sometimes they fail the AAAI/ISMA test miserably!
How could this be?
If you're like me, you often hear gym managers, personal trainers —and people online —saying that NASM is the best personal trainer certifications out there. In fact, they usually say NASM is “better” than AAAI/ISMA.
So, how come NASM personal trainers can't pass the AAAI/ISMA test? I don't know. Let me be clear, I'm not bashing the NASM. I am pointing out something that I have personally observed.
I think one answer may be related to the focus of NASM education which, if I understand it correctly, is heavily directed toward core stability and biomechanics.
Knowledge of biomechanics is very valuable for personal trainers —and this is a strength of NASM. But there's more to know than this. What about knowledge in areas of health and wellness like blood pressure, cholesterol, cardiovascular disease risk factors —and even periodization?
Since America is a country that is “growing older” and a LOT of people who join fitness centers will have various clinical and sub-clinical conditions, personal trainers need to be equipped to deal with these issues.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that AAAI/ISMA is “better” than NASM. I'm also not saying that the NASM is bad either. Rather, I am saying that the scope of information learned by students seems to be different. I am pretty sure that AAAI/ISMA certified personal trainers would have a very hard time with the NASM test also. Heck, I'm pretty sure I would have a hard time with the NASM test myself!
One thing that rubs me the wrong way about the NASM is all their marketing. They do so much marketing of themselves that they have become the squeaky wheel of fitness. They even once had a 30 minute TV infomercial! I know why they do this. They do it because if you only hear “NASM” you'll get the impression that they are the best.
One thing that I don't like about either NASM and NSCA is that they both make the science of fitness MUCH more complicated than it has to be. To be fair, most fitness organizations do this too.
Both NSCA books and NASM textbooks can be hard for beginners to understand. When I read some of these books, I wonder “who are they trying to impress with all those big words?” Yes, there is a science to exercise, but doesnt have to be rocket science —at least not for the most part.
Also, how come neither of their expensive textbooks discusses rhabdomyolysis?
Why is NASM so expensive? The NASM exam alone is $599. This does NOT include the cost of textbooks or learning support. If you decide to do their self-study program, it will cost you $799. If you want everything – textbooks, support, etc – you'll pay $2199. For the person who will be working part-time in a gym making $20 per personal training client, this is crazy-expensive.
My resources page has books, tests, etc., for both of these organizations.
So What's Better: NASM or NSCA?
You need to know a secret. It doesnt matter who you are certified by. Your clients don't know the difference between NASM, NSCA, ACE, or any other organization. All your clients care about is:
- Can you help them
- Are you professional
Ultimately the decision of what's best is something we each have to make for ourselves. I don't think either cert is “better” than the other. My goal here was not to bash either NASM or NSCA but to try to be objective and give you an idea of what I have seen so you can make a good choice for yourself.
As I've said before, there is no best personal trainer certification. Different organizations have different specialties. For me, I prefer to take what I can use from different organizations and make it my own. The stuff that doesn’t apply to me and what I do, I toss aside. If you remember that education trumps certification, you should be ok in the long run.