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 readers of 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.
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 get this journal each month. This is a peer-reviewed publication, which 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.
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.
Tip. People 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.
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. So, 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!
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 do this and prove me wrong.
Another problem I have with NSCA is their 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.
Read my personal training marketing textbook. You'll be lightyears ahead of your competition
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.
That said, I have graded tests of NASM trainers who sit for the AAAI/ISMA personal trainer test. I hope NASM personal trainers will comment on what I'm about to say to help others better understand this organization.
Tip. 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.
Over the past few years, I've noticed something interesting. When NASM certified personal trainers attend AAAI/ISMA classes that 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 one of 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?
Maybe they have forgotten this stuff by the time they take AAAI/ISMA classes? I just don't know.
Let me be clear, I'm not bashing the NASM. Rather, I am pointing out something that I have personally have observed over the years. As you search for answers on which fitness organization is best, you have likely heard NASMs name mentioned many times. Be mentioning this fact, I hope to give you both sides of the story.
I think the answer to this question might be related to the main focus of NASM education which, if I understand it correctly, is heavily directed toward core stability and biomechanics.
There is nothing wrong with this and having knowledge of biomechanics is very valuable for personal trainers —and this is a strength of NASM also— but, from my own personal observations, NASM trainers seem to lack 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 have 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.
Here is my review of the NASM TV commercial.
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. Both NSCA books and NASM textbooks can be hard for beginners to understand (a lot of them tell me this too). 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 it's not rocket science —at least not for the most part.
And why are those books so darn expensive?
Tip. For what it's worth here's the CSCS book, the NSCA-CPT book and NASM book on Amazon, which may be a little cheaper. Also, My resources page has more books, tests, etc., on both of these organizations.
Also, how come none of those expensive textbooks discuss rhabdomyolysis?
So What's Better: NASM or NSCA?
Ultimately this is a decision that we each have to make for ourselves but personally, I don't think either is “better” than the other. My goal here was not to bash either NASM or NSCA but to try to be objective and give people an idea of what I have seen to help them make a choice for themselves.
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. So, even though I'm “NSCA certified” I consider myself more of a hybrid trainer than anything else.