The last I heard, there are over 100 different 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 acronyms out there ―and each organization tries to make itself out to be the best certification ―that it’s hard to decide. Further complicating the question of who to get certified by is the growing interest in online personal trainer certifications that have become popular over the past few years. Are online personal trainer certifications worth it? Is there a best online personal training certification? The goal of this review is not to say one cert is better than another, but rather to give you insights so you can make a more informed decision. So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at online personal trainer certifications and see if they are right for you.
Certificate vs. certification
When I searched for “online personal trainer certification” one thing I noticed is that not all courses are offered through the official certification organizations (like ACE, for example). In other words, some of the online courses prepare people to take an organization’s certification exam. Let’s take a look at a couple of such programs.
US Career Institute
For example, the US Career Institute is one such company that 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.
People 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). The US Career Institute pays for the NCSF test and all study materials for those who go through their program first (they say the NCSF cert costs about $300). The US Career institute program is $887 and includes all textbooks etc.
For those who are interested, here are the NCSF books and study materials on Amazon:
A certificate of completion (or diploma) is not the same as a personal trainer certification.
This is important! 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, the odds are, gyms will not 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. A certificate of completion or diploma however 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 to further your education.
As I was researching for this post, I noticed that the national Council on Strength and Fitness shows up as the certification program at more than one online school. For example, 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.
Action Personal Trainer Certification
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 people 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. For those who want a hard copy of the book, they charge $29.95. Here is the Action Personal Trainer book on Amazon for those who wish to compare prices.
From what I was able to gather from their website, there appears 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 charges a $60 testing fee.
While ACTION says that both certs 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 (ACTION, please correct me if I am wrong about this).
Based on what I see on the ACTION website, it appears to me that the online version of the ACTION trainer test is a certificate (not a certification). As such, those who want a certification in personal training though ACTION would still have to take a certification test at a PSI/LaserGrade testing center (which has a $60 testing fee).
Tip. Also see the post What to do if you fail a personal trainer certification test for more information.
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 variety of other certification programs including:
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 will learn the results of the test as soon as you complete the exam. Those who pass are mailed a personal training certification. For more info about this program see this area of the expert rating website.
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.
Tip. Also see How Long Does it Take to Be a Personal Trainer for more information.
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 the various quizzes. When you have completed the quizzes (there are 33 quizzes), 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 (how to do exercises the right way), multiple choice, and matching questions.
Section 2 of the test also contains 2 case studies (they give you a hypothetical client and you have to answer questions about that person) and 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. Since the ISSA test is open book, I do not think all the answers to the essay questions can be found in the book. Essay questions tend to be intricate and often require people to “put 2 and 2 together” to get the correct answer. I just wanted to mention this for those who think “open book tests are easy.” It’s been my experience that open-book tests tend to be harder. There is no video portion for the ISSA test.
When I checked, the ISSA personal trainer program cost $599 plus $25 for shipping of materials.
Note. These are not the only online personal trainer certifications out there. These are the organizations and institutions I quickly found when I was writing this review. I’m sure others exist. Feel free to share the certifications you find in the comment section below.
What if I buy an online program and change my mind?
I have heard stories from people who purchased online programs, but later changed their mind―and asked for a refund. I’ve been told that some organizations charge a “restocking fee” for online classes when people ask for a refund. (It’s an online course, so what is there to ‘restock?’) I was told that the NASM does this for online classes. 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.
Advantages and disadvantages of online certifications
- Good for people who live far from urban areas
- Good for people who are afraid of taking a traditional fitness test
- Good for people who are self-motivated to study on their own
- Many 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 that all online fitness certifications face. It’s because of this that I think some gyms may not accept online certifications. 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 arguments that say: Because a certification is taken at home, it automatically has to be easy to pass.
While there is some wisdom in making the test harder, having seen people asking for help with ISSA essay test questions at various fitness websites, I know this does not totally nullify the “cheat factor.”
What’s the best online personal training certification?
In the world of fitness and personal training, there is often a “my cert is better than your cert” mentality when it comes to gyms and which certification they accept. 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 a list of certs, check if the organizations you are interested in getting certified by are on that list. Are 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 they 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.
What do you think?