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Which is the best Personal Trainer Certification? ACE or NASM?

One of the most common questions asked by aspiring fitness professionals is, “Which certification provider is the best?” With so many certification organizations out there, choosing one can be overwhelming. Our goal is to point out some key differences so that you feel more confident choosing the one that best meets your needs.

Let’s start by comparing two of the most well-known certification providers in the fitness industry: American Council on Exercise (ACE) and National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).


Company Info

Both organizations are well-established, with ACE being founded in 1985 and NASM in 1987. The most important factor for any organization is accreditation of its certifications by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which both have. ACE offers four NCCA-accredited certifications including Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, ACE Health Coach, and Certified Medical Exercise Specialist, with 65,000 fitness professionals currently certified by ACE. As a non-profit, ACE is guided by a larger mission of helping people live their most fit lives by providing safe and effective exercise guidance, and protecting against unsound and ineffective fitness products, programs and trends. It contributes to that mission by setting certification and continuing education standards for fitness professionals. NASM offers one NCCA-accredited certification – personal training – while its other specialty certifications are not NCCA-accredited.


Exam Info

In order to become a certified fitness professional from ACE or NASM, you must pass an exam that tests more than your knowledge of health and fitness-related material. Both exams require you to apply your knowledge to real-life scenarios by selecting the best assessment, developing the most appropriate exercise program and progression options for a variety of clients with different levels of health, fitness and performance. To be eligible to sit for both the ACE and NASM exams, candidates must be at least 18 years old and hold a current CPR/AED Certification. ACE requires a high school diploma or equivalent; NASM does not hold this requirement. Both exams are proctored by a third party, with ACE’s 150-question, multiple-choice exam starting at $399 and NASM’s 120-question exam starting at $599. The time allowed to take ACE’s exam is 3 hours, while candidates have 2 hours to take NASM’s exam.


Study Tools

Because NCCA-accredited certification exams are so rigorous, top certification organizations offer study tools and assistance to help you prepare. ACE provides comprehensive study material packages ranging from $599-$799, while NASM’s study packages range from $699-$1,999. Both provide an option to include your exam voucher, which expires 6 months after purchase. Both ACE and NASM also publish textbooks used by colleges and universities nationwide. ACE currently has over 400 college and university partners, and NASM has more than 200.


Study Assistance

While ACE and NASM’s study models are considered “self-study,” both offer online content and interactive guides to help candidates get the most out of their materials. Included in ACE’s Premium and Premium Plus study programs is ACE Academy Elite, an interactive, video-led guide that provides a structured approach to studying complete with custom progress tracking, lesson quizzes, practice tests and case studies. The case studies bring posture, movement, and fitness assessments and interpretations to life through exercise programming based on assessment results and key strategies for promoting program adherence. In addition, ACE study materials include two DVDs: one focused on applied kinesiology and the other focused on teaching techniques, exercise form, spotting and effective form corrections for coaching clients. NASM offers narrated electronic presentations, quizzes, case studies, practice tests, interactive learning activities and a program design module with its study programs. Both organizations have a dedicated student resource staff to help answer questions you may have on the study material or exam-taking process. Fitness experts in the ACE Resource Center, a tool heavily utilized by aspiring personal trainers, are available by phone and email to answer any exam-related content. NASM offers a live web chat, which connects you to a NASM Education team member.

ACE also utilizes social media to further assist candidates via the ACE Study Center Facebook page, which allows aspiring professionals to connect with other students, get study tips and ask questions as they prepare for the exam. ACE also hosts an Exam Prep blog updated weekly with useful study information and answers to frequently asked questions. NASM does not currently have any social media pages or blogs that focus on exam preparation.


Career and Salary

Many aspiring and recently certified fitness professionals wonder what they can expect when it comes to salary. In 2013, ACE conducted a survey administered by an independent third-party research firm to gather this salary information, and nearly 3,000 fitness professionals participated. The survey found the average salary of a full-time ACE-certified personal trainer is $52,537. According to information on their website, NASM Certified Personal Trainers earn an average salary of $44,000.


Continuing Education

Fitness professionals are required to renew their certification every two years through continuing education. Both ACE and NASM offer opportunities to earn continuing education credits through webinars, online courses and live workshops, with ACE offering hundreds of credit options at any given time.

Once you‘ve decided which fitness professional certification is most in line with your personal and professional goals, the next step is to evaluate the importance of the exam format and cost, study material content and cost, and study assistance and resources provided. Once you weigh the importance of each of these factors, this ACE vs. NASM comparison will be a great tool to help you more effectively choose the best certification provider for you.