Update 7/12/19. As I write these words, there are over 100 different fitness organizations that certify personal trainers. For many people wanting to get certified, choosing a personal trainer cert is as easy as saying “ACE” or “NASM” while for others, it's paralysis by analysis. There are so many letters (acronyms) out there ―and each organization tries as well as it can to make itself out to be the best certification ―that it's hard to decide. Further complicating all this is the growing interest in online personal trainer certifications. Are online personal trainer certifications worth it? Is there a best online personal training certification? My goal with this review is not to say one cert is better than another, but rather to give you insights – and questions to think about – so you can make a more informed decision about which might be right for you. Leave comments at the end if you have any questions or want me to address anything.
Fitness Certification Reviews
- AAAI/ISMA Review
- ACSM Review
- ACE Review
- NASM Review
- NASM vs. NSCA Review
- PTA Global Review
- WITS Review
- PTA Global Review
Certificate vs. Certification
When I searched for “online personal trainer certification” one thing I noticed is that not all programs are offered through the official certification organizations (like ACE, for example). In other words, some of the online courses offered through colleges prepare people to take an organization's certification exam.
The thing to remember is that a certificate of completion (or diploma) is not the same as a personal trainer certification. There is a difference between a personal trainer certification and:
- Certificates of completion
A Certificate of Completion only shows that you completed the program. The same is true for a diploma from an online school. While these are good if you have them, I don't think most gyms accept a certificate of completion (or a diploma) as evidence that a trainer is “certified.” This is why online programs often pay for graduates to take personal trainer certification exams.
Think about it, if the certificate was as good, why do these online schools also pay for the certification? It's because they are not the same thing.
On the plus side, a certificate of completion or diploma can add value to those who are already certified. It says to employers that you care about your career and are willing to invest time – and money – to further your education.
With that in mind, let's now take a look at a couple of such certificate-type programs.
US Career Institute
For example, the US Career Institute offers a self-paced personal training program. Basically, they send you all the study materials (including tests) and you complete the quizzes and tests at your own speed and send them back to the US Career Institute to be graded.
Those who go through the program and graduate are issued a certificate of completion by the US Career Institute. In addition, the Institute also pays for people to take the personal trainer certification offered by the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF).
Tip. The US Career Institute issues the certificate while the NCSF issues the certification (if you pass the NCSF test).
The US Career Institute pays for the NCSF test and all study materials for those who go through their program (On their website, they say the NCSF cert costs about $300). The US Career institute program is $887 and includes all textbooks etc.
Here are the NCSF books on Amazon for those who are interested and want to read reviews of others:
An advantage of going through a program like that offered by the US Career Institute and others is people are able to interact with instructors and have access to a greater depth of learning, than if they just read the books on their own. This can make the difference between passing – and not passing – a certification test.
As I was researching for this review, I noticed that the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) shows up as the certification program at several online schools. At Ashworth College, their certificate program was $955 when I called them.
Like the US Career Institute, this is also a certificate of completion program. Those who complete the course are provided with the study materials needed to take the NCSF test. People must still pass the test, however.
Action Personal Trainer Cert
The Action Personal Trainer Certification (formally the ACT Certification) bills itself as a completely free certification. According to their website, after people sign up for the certification, they can download the .pdf version of their manual and study to pass the exam. If you fail the test, there is a $35 retesting fee.
For those who want extra help such as live instruction and teacher support, the cost is $65. If you want a hard copy of the book, they charge $29.95.
Here is the Action Personal Trainer Book on Amazon
From what I was able to gather from their website, there appear to be two versions of the Action Personal Trainer cert. Those versions are:
- The online test
- Certification exam
The certification exam is taken at a PSI/LaserGrade testing center. To take this certification exam, the testing center has a $60 testing fee. So, at the very least, this free certification will still cost people at least $60.
While ACTION says that both certifications are the same, they also say:
“Many people will elect to use the online exam as a warm up for the full certification exam.”
Notice that they used different words (“online exam” and “full certification exam”) to describe both programs. That makes me wonder if the online test might not be a certification test (Hey ACTION, please correct me if I am wrong about this).
Based on what I see on the ACTION website, it appears to be the online version of the ACTION trainer test is a certificate (not a certification). As such, those who want a certification in personal training through ACTION would still have to take a certification test at a PSI/LaserGrade testing center (which has a $60 testing fee).
One thing I wondered about with ACTION is where are they located? Is there a physical building? If there was, I couldn't find it on their website. I couldn't even find a phone number for ACTION. They appear to prefer email for communication.
ACTION Trainer Cert Contact Info
Update: Thanks to Modesto Talavera for looking into this and leaving a comment below, here is the ACTION trainer cert contact info:
David Williams: 340 S Lemon Ave. #4620 Walnut CA, 91718
Phone number: 213-290-0993
The address on South Lemon street is the same as Virtual Post Mail (VirtualPostMail.com). This is a company that scans mail and adds it to a virtual post office box in the cloud.
Even when getting re-certified, ACTION wants trainers to submit re-certification documents (along with a $65 recertification fee) via a link they provide on a pdf documented available at their website.
Modesto also says there are no refunds once a purchase is made.
Expert Rating offers a completely online personal trainer certification for $69.95. While some might think of Expert Rating as only a personal trainer certification organization, the company actually offers a BUNCH of other fitness-related certification programs including but not limited to:
- Sports Nutrition Certification
- Weight Loss Certification
- Life Coach Certification
- Senior Fitness Certification
- Youth Fitness Certification
With the personal training cert, the process described on the website looks like this:
2. Log into the expert rating website with your password/username and go through the coursework (they say this may take 1 – 4 weeks depending on how hard you work through the material).
3. Take the certification exam at your leisure. You have 1 year from signing up to take the test.
You learn the results of the test as soon as you complete the test. Those who pass the test are mailed a personal training certification.
The American Fitness Institute
According to the American Fitness Institute (AFI) website “you can become an AFI certified personal trainers in as little as 8 weeks.” The website states that once you sign up “You can study the course at your own pace, ask us any questions you have along the way and then take the test when you’re ready—whether that’s in 2 weeks or 6 months. (Most trainers take the course within 28 days).”
One thing I noticed was on the “About AFI” page of the website, they don’t tell anything about the company. I was curious about which gyms accepted AFI, how many people were certified by AFI and how old the organization was. Unfortunately, I could not find that information.
The AFI website was registered in 2005 so I'd guess the organization dates back to at least then. There is a video on the About AFI page and that’s where I learned that the founder of the company is Evan Chacker. The Evan Chacker Linkedin profile notes that he has degrees in business and computer science.
The AFI personal trainer program is totally online and costs $499 and includes a CPR an AED certification (some gyms may not accept online CPR/AED certs).
You have 180 days (6 months) from the time you purchase the AFI program, to take the exam. If you fail the exam, the cost of the program includes 2 retests for free.
I could not find a contact phone number. On the contact Help Center page, people to submit their questions via email. For me, I did not like this.
International Sports Science Association
The International Sports Science Association (ISSA) is probably one of the best known self-paced/online personal trainer certifications out there. The entire program can be completed online. You have 8 months to complete the program after you sign up for the ISSA test. They say it takes the average person about 10 weeks to complete their program.
When you sign up for the ISSA program, you gain instant access to all the course work, and ISSA also ships you hard copies of the books, etc.
Here is the ISSA personal trainer book on Amazon.
You work at your own pace through several quizzes. After you have completed the quizzes (there are a total of 33 quizzes in the program), you are allowed to take the final exam. All 33 quizzes must be completed before the final exam can be taken.
According to the ISSA website, the personal trainer exam has 2 sections:
Section 1 is 100 questions: 50 questions are multiple-choice and 50 questions are true/false.
Section 2 consists of 60 practical questions (this refers to how to do exercises the right way), multiple-choice, and matching questions.
Section 2 of the test also contains 2 case studies. In these types of questions, they give you a hypothetical client and you have to answer questions about how you would train that person safely and effectively. Section 2 also contains 6 long essay questions. The final exam can be taken online or at home and mailed back to ISSA to be graded.
The ISSA test is not timed and is open book.
Tip. Don't assume because ISSA is an open book exam, the test will be easy. Essay questions tend to be complex and often require you to “put 2 and 2 together” to get the correct answer. The answers are not always in the book. It's my experience open-book tests are usually harder. When I looked into this program, there was no video portion (so you don't have to video yourself doing exercises, etc).
Read my interview with Martin McLoughlin for more on the ISSA test.
When I checked, the ISSA personal trainer program cost $599 plus $25 for shipping the materials to you.
AFAA Online Cert
The Aerobic and Fitness Association of America – AFAA – also has an online personal training cert. This program is composed of 14 interactive videos that comprise the AFAA personal trainer textbook which is sold separately. The online course is $499.
There are both written and practical portions to the AFAA online test. People have 1 year to complete the test after registering, although if you want to postpone the date, they can do so for a fee of $40.
AFAA also requires those who take any of their certifications to also hold CPR and AED certifications. AFAA does not accept online or home-based CPR /AED certs
Update. AFAA is now owned by the same company which owns NASM. They now call themselves AFAA/NASM.
NASM Online Cert
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) offers a CPT Online Classroom program that is $999. The program includes the test, practice test, NASM textbook as well as an online exercise library and much more.
See their online cert page for more information
The NASM has a 30 minute TV commercial for its online cert. See my review of the infomercial for more information.
See how to pass the NASM test for more insights (read the comments too).
NCCPT Online Cert
The National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) has a Certified Online Delux package for $495 which includes:
- Online access to the NCCPT personal training manual
- Online access to CPT videos
- Online access to a sample CPT test
And several other items. One thing that was not clear to me when I looked at this program was whether people could take the certification test online or at home? I believe both are possible so but make sure before you purchase if this is important to you. People need a valid CPR and AED cert prior to taking the exam. The exam must be taken within 6 months of purchasing the program.
Here's the NCCPT Book on Amazon
There is an additional fee for those who need to retake the test. Only 2 attempts to retake the test are can be purchased within 1 year of enrolling. Enrollment in the online course expires 1 year after purchasing it (so people have 1 year to study and take the test).
The NCCPT also gives you the option of just taking the test for $299.
Groupon also has deals for NCCPT which may be less expensive.
Here is a review of the NCCPT test for those who want more information.
AFPA Online Cert
The American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA) organization offers, for $395 an “online testing option.” Clicking this link takes you to the page of their website that discusses what option entails.
They also have a “Shared Program Plan” where 2 people can share the costs of the AFPA cert. Each person shares the course materials and each person gets a different test. The test is mailed back to AFPA to be graded. This option was $695 when I checked.
NESTA Online Cert
The National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), through Wexford University, offers an online personal trainer cert for $675. There are several payment options available.
NSCA Online Cert
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) does not have an “online cert.” Rather, you study on own and travel to an assessment center to take the test on a computer. As such, this is not really an “online” certification. I wanted to mention this in case anyone was confused about it. For more on the NSCA read these:
NAFC Online Cert
According to the website (nafctrainer.com), the National Association for Fitness Certification (NAFC) was created in 1992 to “to provide scientifically-based, standards-focused education and training for Group Fitness Instructors, Personal Trainers, and Wellness Consultants.”
From what I could determine, the website was registered by whose LinkedIn profile states is the Executive Director of the NAFC. Michael Leboss is also the owner of ME Fitness Center in Oregon (update: no longer in business). I called NAFC and they told me there are about 10,000 people certified by NAFC.
The NAFC personal trainer certification has 2 options:
1. There is a cert that is 100% taken online and costs $399.
2. There is also the option to take a 3-day class that includes hands-on, practical information and that option is $599.
The locations of the 3-day workshops are available on the NAFC website or you can call them to find out.
There are 4 textbooks that people need to study prior to taking the test. They are:
- Weight training (227 pages)
- Lifestyle Consultant (250 pages)
- Practical Application (36pages)
- Fitness Assessment (158 pages)
All textbooks are ebooks that people download after you pay for the course. You can also bundle the personal trainer cert with the NAFC nutrition cert. The cost of this bundle is $699.
The NAFC website states 95% of people pass the NAFC test. That does not necessarily mean the test is super easy.
When I called the NAFC, I was told you should study 2-3 months before they take the test. I was also told you should expect to spend 20-30 hours studying each manual.
The personal trainer test actually comprises 4 different tests. There is a test for each of the 4 NAFC textbooks. Each test is 100 questions and has a 90-minute time limit. The format of the test is multiple-choice and true/false.
You must have a computer with a webcam and you must also submit a copy of your photo ID to NAFC. This is to ensure that people do not cheat on the test and to make certain that the person who signs up, is the person who actually takes the exams.
If you don’t pass, you only have to pay $25 to retest. You can do this as much as you like until you pass, although if you do not pass the practical portion in 2 attempts, the NAFC will recommended you sign up for an actual class that has a hands-on component.
The personal trainer cert is good for 2 years (24 months) from the date at which the cert is issued. Personal trainers who want to recertify need to accumulate 2.7 CEUs (continuing education units) before their cert expires. For the nutrition cert, its 1.8 CEUs.
You can take other NAFC courses to recertify. NAFC also accepts courses from other organizations like ACE and AFAA as well.
To contact the NAFC call 800-324-8315. I found their customer support very helpful.
ISTA Online Certification
ISTA stands for the International Strength Training Association. The ISTA website does not give an address of where they are physically located but from what I was able to determine, it is in Texas.
The website was registered (and presumably created) in 2013, by Matthew McDonald who is the Founder and CEO of ISTA. He holds an MA in Health Sciences and a BS in Social Sciences.
When I looked at the ISTA website (istacertified.org), they offered 2 different certifications:
- Personal trainer cert for $299
- Fitness nutrition specialist for $249
There was also a package where you could purchase both online certs for $499.
ISTA also states there is the option of a 2 day workshop. The website gave no details on the cost other than to say what was covered (which appears to be a lot) and that the workshops require a minimum of 10 people and only currently occur in the Houston TX area.
For those who can't afford the cost, ISTA does say they can stretch the payments out for 4-6 months without interest if necessary. After people purchase a course, within 2 business days they are emailed a link that contains the study materials and exams.
The ISTA personal trainer test has 100 questions consisting of multiple choice and true/false. You have 90 minutes to complete the exam. Upon successful completion of the ISTA test, the personal trainer certification is emailed to you as a pdf document. My opinion. For $300, they should at least mail you an actual cert.
On the ISTA homepage, I saw the motto “Convenient, Affordable. Recognized.” On the “Industry Recognition” page of the website, they list that they are recognized by the NBFE.
NBFE is the National Board of Fitness Examiners. The NBFE is basically an organization that “certifies” that the other fitness organizations are teaching quality information. That said, I have no evidence that NBFE “accepted” organizations are better than others who don’t have the NBFE stamp of approval. As such, I personally pay no attention to the NBFE.
ISTA says they are “recognized” but as I point out in my review of how to be a personal trainer, the best way to see if a cert is recognized is to ask your local gyms if they accept it or not. Just being recognized by NBFE does not mean your local gyms will recognize it.
Trainers do not need a CPR/AED cert before taking the test although ISTA does say it is ‘highly recommended”.
I agree with this and go farther and say I feel CPR/AED should be a pre-requisite before taking a cert.
Read the review of gym emergency procedures for much more info on this.
ISTA certs are good for 2 years. They also state for those just starting out that it may take 1-2 months to prepare for the ISTA cert as well as gain hands-on experience. They don’t tell people how to get hands-on experience and I personally feel 1-2 months is not enough for those just starting out.
Before I took the NSCA-CSCS cert, I studied for 4-6 months -and that was already having a BS degree in chemistry and biology. People looking for a cert with a hands-on component may want to look at the WITS certification. That cert includes an internship.
Refund policy. Currently, the ISTA does not refund the money paid to them for certs. All purchases are non-refundable.
For more information email ISTA via its website istacertified.org.
Online Certs Refund
I have heard stories from people who purchased online certifications, but later changed their minds―and asked for a refund. They never took the test. They have told me some organizations charge a “restocking fee” for online classes when people ask for refunds.
Restocking fee? What are they restocking if it's an online course?
I was told the NASM does this for online classes (see the comments in that post). It's possible other programs charge a restocking fee as well. Be sure to ask about this before you purchase any online class or online program. I don't like restocking fees. It's a way companies try to suck money from you. My recommendation. Avoid any organization which has restocking fees for online courses.
Advantages of Online Certs
- Good for people who live in remote areas (or are in prison)
- Good for people who are afraid of taking a traditional fitness test
- Good for people who are self-motivated to study on their own
Disadvantages of Online Certs
- Some gyms may not accept them
- High-end health clubs may not accept them
- Some online programs can be more expensive than the actual certification exam
- Usually easy to cheat on the test
This last point ―being easy to cheat on the test ―is one of the big challenges many online fitness certifications face. It's because of this I think some gyms may not accept online certs.
One way to try to get around this is to do what I believe ISSA is doing: adding essays to their exam in an effort to increase difficulty. Having a very difficult test can compensate, to a degree, for those who say that: Because the certification is taken at home, it automatically has to be easy to pass.
While there is some wisdom in adding essays to make the test harder, I have seen people online seeking help with ISSA essay test questions. On the plus side, the people who cheat, probably will not be in the industry very long after they are only cheating themselves and discover that getting certified was the easy part. Getting clients – and keeping them – is the hard part.
What's The Best Online Fitness Certification?
In the world of fitness and personal training, there is often a “my cert is better than your cert” mentality. Trainers often feel whichever organization they are certified is the best. This is short-sighted because it often gives into word of mouth. The organization which is better at marketing is often seen as best. For example, at one time NASM had 30 minute TV infomercial extolling the virtues of their organization.
As I pointed out in my guide on how to be a personal trainer, I think the best first step is to ask local gyms for a list of certifications that they accept. Once you have that, see if any online certs listed? If they are, great. If not, then check if online personal trainer certs are accepted at any other local gyms.
From there, decide which cert offers the most for the money―and fits within your budget. No matter whether you get an online certification or a more traditional cert, remember that the key is to be qualified ―not just certified. The only way to do be a qualified personal trainer is to keep studying after you get certified. If you do that, then you will be fine and it doesn't matter if you have an online personal trainer cert or not.