Fitness Certifications 101: Part 1

Fitness Certifications 101: Part 1

Becoming a personal trainer can be financially, mentally, and emotionally rewarding. However, most fitness and wellness jobs at gyms, schools, or non-profits require that personal trainers be certified by a nationally recognized and respected credentialing agency.

While the fitness certification industry is still very fragmented, it is becoming clearer which companies are more reputable and will provide a better return on your investment. There are a lot of factors that impact the value of a credential.

These include:

  • The cost
  • The reputation of the company
  • The time, effort, and commitment required to attain the certification
  • The amount that you actually learn throughout the process of studying for the certification
  • The type of income that you can receive once you become certified

Some certifications are relatively inexpensive and do not require much time or effort. But they are offered by companies that are not reputable and are therefore not going to lead to a very good income. Even if a certification is cheap and easy, it’s not a good investment if you are relying on it to get a job as a strength coach or exercise specialist.

In contrast, some credentials are very expensive and require a great deal of time, effort, and education in order to achieve. While you would be getting an extremely reputable credential, it may be overkill for you if you simply want to earn a credential in your spare time to train your friends. In this case, a great credential is not a good investment. The following credentials are some of the more popular ones, but by no means is this list exhaustive.

The ratings that we use on the “Company Reputation,” “Effort/Time,” and “Return” categories are on a 1 – 10 scale, 1 being the worst and 10 being the best. We also included a “Cost” category that specifies how much the certification costs assuming that you are not a member of the company’s professional organization.

Lastly, we included a “Who Should Get It?” category in order to help add some context to the credential and avoid the under-value vs. overkill situation outlined above. This week we are only going to profile two of the most popular certifications from perhaps the most popular certification company, however, tune in next week to learn about two more credentials and to see how they stack up to this week’s.

National Strength and Conditioning Association

There are some really good companies out there, but most experts consider the NSCA the gold standard for strength and conditioning credentialing.  Although they are more known for their athletic-based research publication and certifications, the NSCA has a very strong personal trainer certification as well.


Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)

Company ReputationEffort/TimeCostReturnWho Should Get It?
1010$43510Strength Coaches

The CSCS is arguably the most difficult training credential to earn, and it isn’t cheap either. However, the return on investment of a CSCS can be enormous. In fact, in order to work as an NCAA collegiate strength coach trainers are required to hold the CSCS credential and it, along with networking and gaining experience can lead to some really cool opportunities in that field.

I personally earned a CSCS in 2013, and it was one of the most difficult tests that I’ve ever taken. In fact, even after I finished my master’s degree in exercise science it still took me two tries to pass it. But in the end, I think it was worth it, as it helps boost my credibility in the gym and in my writing.

In order to take the CSCS, you have to have a college degree or be a senior in college with plans to graduate soon after you take it. Even though a potential CSCS candidate does not necessarily have to major in exercise science or a related field, most candidates would major in one of these subjects, further adding to the credibility of the credential.  The CSCS consists of a great deal of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, and a practical exercise coaching section. However, it is 100% computer based with no in-person training or testing, which may very well be the only knock on it. This is an excellent credential for anyone who is interested in working with athletes on any level.

Additionally, physical therapists, athletic coaches, personal trainers, and gym owners could all benefit from this credential. However, because this credential requires an incredible amount of time and effort to achieve, it may be more than many potential trainers ever really need. In a nutshell, there is a ton of upside to this credential, but you’re going to have to work for it if you want to achieve it.

Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT)

Company ReputationEffort/TimeCostReturnWho Should Get It?
108$4358Personal Trainers

The NSCA-CPT credential is a highly regarded personal training certificate. Here, like the CSCS, the NSCA-CPT earns a solid 10 for it’s company’s reputation, however, only an 8 for the effort/time as this credential does not require the completion or near completion of a college degree.

The Cost of the CPT is the same for the CSCS (though both are less expensive with an NSCA membership) and the potential return is a solid 8. If you are a college student looking to earn a really high-quality certificate, this is a very good option. However, if you are a college graduate looking to earn the best certificate that you can, you should opt for the CSCS rather than this.

The rationale is that there are a few things that you can do with the CSCS that you cannot do with this certificate, but there is really nothing that you can do with the CPT that you cannot do with a CSCS. However, if you know for sure that you don’t want to work with athletes but want to earn one of the best credentials that you can, this is a really good option.

Stay tuned for Trainer Tips: Fitness Certifications 101: Part 2

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Matthew Johnson is a fitness writer, personal trainer, strength coach, as well as a former gym owner. Matthew holds an MBA from The University of Memphis and a Master’s in Exercise Science from Middle Tennessee State University. Matthew has also earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential from the NSCA. Matthew recently published his first book, 300 30 Minute Workouts for Busy People, and lives in Memphis, TN with his wife, Anna, and their dog Henderson, and cat, Sox.

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