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Interested in a career in helping others get fit? These are the best personal trainer certifications for 2024

We all have health and wellness goals, but the hardest part is often figuring out where to start. A certified personal trainer can help by guiding individuals of all levels—from beginners to competitive athletes—through their health and fitness journey.

For those who find it invigorating to help others live a better lifestyle, is a great route. But with there being so many organizations providing ways to become certified, inaugural ranking of the best personal trainer certifications for 2024 hopes we can guide you in making a decision that’s best for your career and future clients’ health.

Best personal trainer certifications for 2024

Best overall: National Council on Strength & Fitness (NCSF)

National Council on Strength and Fitness’ certified personal trainer program has partnerships with gyms like Equinox, Planet Fitness, and Gold’s Gym. Having been in operation for 25 years, the NCCA-accredited program has successfully educated more than 325,000 people. All certification exams can be taken online or at one of 8,000 testing centers. The program uses the NCSF Easy Learning System, which includes instructional videos, practice questions, and instructor support. It covers corrective exercises, ethics and professional practice, and working with special populations.


Most affordable: National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT)

The NFPT has been operating since 1988 and is family-owned and operated. It is also GI Bill-approved and Navy COOL-approved. The standard and premier packages include exam content outlines, exam attempts, digital workbooks, liability waivers, and screening forms. The premier package includes three practice tests, exercise animations, and on-call expert trainer support. Students can also add in-person workshops to their study program. 


Best for brand recognition: National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

NASM’s certified personal trainer program boasts of teaching individuals the necessary skills to become “highly respected fitness professionals.” The fully remote learning includes videos, biodigital 3D models, and practice exams. Its premium program also has a job guarantee scheme and unlimited access to NASM fitness experts. The organization has a large social media following, with over 250,000 followers on Instagram and over 685,000 likes on Facebook.


Best for career development: Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA)

AFAA’s certified personal trainer program is available with an interest-free payment plan, which includes a $25 down payment and four payments of $118.50. The program covers exercise physiology, injury prevention, weight management, and behavior modification. It includes 14 online videos, a study guide, sample exam questions, and a digital subscription to American Fitness Magazine. The company has been operating since 1983 and offers more than 20 specialization options after passing the exam, like group personal training and exercising with breast cancer. At the end of 2015, NASM acquired AFAA, but they operate as two separate certification entities. 


Best for diverse learning opportunities: International Sports Science Association (ISSA)

ISSA’s certified personal trainer program helps learners evolve their careers by teaching the necessary skills to deliver tangible results for future clients. The program has several tools available to learners, including an online student forum, an online workbook, and free professional website templates. After the program, alumni have unlimited access to adviser support. For qualified individuals, there is also a job guarantee through ISSA’s self-described 10,000 gym partners.


Best for military discounts: ACTION Certification

The ACTION-CPT program, which has been accredited by the NCCA since 2014, is designed to equip students with the skills to train, educate, and motivate clients. The platinum plan includes 28 online classes, 21 real-world simulations, over 400 practice exam questions, online CPR training, and free advanced nutrition certification, providing students with a comprehensive and immersive learning experience. The program is approved by both the Army’s and Coast Guard ‘s credentialing websites.

ACTION-CPT Certification

Price $99–$249
Program length Self-paced

Best for non-English speakers: National Strength and Conditions Association (NSCA)

The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s certified personal training exam emphasizes learning about how individualized approaches can be best applied toward assessing, educating, and training future clients. It offers purchasable study guides, quizzes, and textbook resources to prepare for the exam, as well as hosts an exam prep Facebook study group and online clinic. The exams are provided at authorized Pearson VUE test centers around the world, and are offered in English as well as Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish.


Best for on-the-go learning: American Council on Exercise (ACE)

ACE’s certified personal trainer program helps people learn the necessary skills to help others with their health and fitness goals and needs. The program is self-paced but also provides live question-and answer-sessions and facilitated study groups. Participants also get lifelong access to ACE’s career resources. With an updated website and app to access study materials anywhere, ACE offers the ability to learn the necessary personal trainer skills in a flexible manor. 


Best for synchronous learning: International Fitness Professional Association (IFPA)

The IFPA personal trainer certification seeks to train learners the ins-and-outs of assisting clients throughout their individualized fitness, health and athletic journeys. Students learn topics across over a dozen subject areas like energy metabolism, exercise testing, and documentation via online videos and quiz assessments. The premium program also offers practice exams, business coaching, and a dedicated success coach. It also notably includes a two-day live seminar. 


Longest-lasting certification: NESTA

The NESTA certified personal fitness trainer program walks learners through the best practices of evaluating clients, tailoring workouts, empowering success, and more. The 100% online certification is valid for four years. The “complete package” program also provides unlimited practice exams and ongoing access to training after graduating. 


Methodology for Fortune’s ranking of the best personal trainer certifications

With the proper training, fitness professionals can translate their passion for helping others into a lifelong career that’s worth it. In fact, estimates the total pay for personal trainers to be $78,000. While the salary numbers are lower—a median $46,000 for fitness trainers and instructors—it does predict a job outlook that is growing at a rate of 14%.

While it is a healthy industry (no pun intended), there is no clear pathway toward success. Since personal trainers work directly with clients seeking to improve their own health and wellness, having the proper training is key. That’s why Fortune sought to rank the best programs—not only to help guide you toward a program that may be best for your career goals but to ensure we recommend programs that will give you the proper training and benefit others’ lives.

We reviewed 15 certification programs and have included 10 of our top choices.

While a variety of factors were used in considering each persona, these data points were used to overall judge the programs:

  • Price: 30%
  • Financing options: 10%
  • Lending partnerships: 10%
  • Military discounts and funding: 5%
  • CPR/AED certification requirement: 5%
  • Accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA): 18%
  • Job guarantee program: 12% 
  • Average annual search volume: 10%
    • We looked at the average number of times during a month that people search for each business school on Google, then converted it into a yearly metric to measure public perception of a school’s brand and reputation and how it affected what school they were interested in attending.

Our expert panel

We couldn’t analyze the personal trainer ecosystem alone, though. In conjunction with our research, Fortune sat down with two experts who have worked in the space for several years.

By asking questions about the importance of personal trainer education, different types of programs, and the skills needed to succeed, we hoped to better understand how to effectively guide those pursuing a career in the field. It’s noteworthy that neither expert was directly involved in ranking any programs.

What it takes to be a certified personal trainer

warns that the personal training industry—and the fitness industry as a whole—is largely unregulated, leading to client injuries and a negative perception of personal trainers. So, the answer to “what it takes” to break into the industry will vary widely depending on where you get certified, if at all. Our two experts warn that claiming to be an expert without credentials could be a disservice to your learning journey, your future clients, and your business. So, ultimately, certification is worthwhile.

As a trainer to Andy Cohen, the host of Bravo TV’s Watch What Happens Live, and a frequent contributor to People, Men’s Health, and Daily Mail, Kravchenko says owes his success to his credentials. 

“A certification shows hirers and gyms that you’re ready to work,” he tells Fortune. He earned the NASM-CPT in 2014 after he moved from Ukraine to America, saying that if you want to work at a well-known gym, “you must get a certification.”

He says that while some gyms might hire you first and then pay for your certification—it is far easier to get in the door and be hired with an accredited education.

However, he explains that credentials don’t always teach the soft skills you need to really understand your client. According to Kravchenko, to be a personal trainer, you must know a “little bit of psychology” and have a high emotional IQ.

That’s because personal trainers tend to see their clients as frequently as three to five times a week, for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. From his experience, in that time, you can learn a lot about a person—not just how much physical weight they can lift, but also how much emotional weight they carry on a daily basis. 

For many, a good workout is cathartic, and as such, “it is very easy to get things off your chest when doing physical activity,” he says. “You sort of see your clients more than your best friends and vice versa.”

He adds that to be the best, you have to learn from the best. For Kravchenko, the learning doesn’t stop. “I like to hire different trainers for myself to pick up on and learn their skills. For example, I am not a strength coach specialist, so I’ll purchase someone’s strength coach package to pick their brain and add to my own knowledge base. I think that’s big if you want to be successful.”

Both panelists agree that there are a handful of green flags to look for when choosing not just a certification program but aligning with an organization as a whole. These are their favorite benefits:

  • Invites to local or virtual workshops
  • Continuous support and membership benefits even after you have received the certification
  • Access to webinars hosted by industry experts
  • New software that can streamline your business processes
  • Newsletters that provide the latest research and skill development opportunities

Some organizations may charge an annual fee for these extra benefits, but they can be well worth the investment in your professional growth. 

Becoming a certified personal trainer to help curb misinformation

According to the CDC, the in the U.S. increased by more than 11% from 1999 to 2020. A National Library of Medicine study also found that from 1990 to 1997, the United States Emergency Departments saw an related to weight training—90% of them involving free weights.

Subsequently, because of the rise of social media and the explosion of the internet, the number of people trying to sell get-fit-quick schemes has also likely increased. However, Fata-Chan thinks a CPT’s goal is to sift through all the noise online and help their clients get stronger than ever before, educating them on how to make smart choices. 

“There is a lot of pseudoscience and misinformation right now,” he explains. “When someone creates [digital] content but does not show any evidence to substantiate their claims, it becomes very easy to spot misinformation online. However, in the certification world, many good programs and accreditation boards are connected to PhD researchers in some of the best labs and universities worldwide.”

Fata-Chan says that personal training certifications lay the groundwork for exposure to a broad range of specific topics. Becoming a CPT is like becoming a fitness generalist, learning the basic movements, like squats, hinges, push-pull, carry, and lunges. 

Understanding the foundational sciences, such as chemistry, physics, exercise, physiology, and anatomy, is crucial to a successful career in personal training. He says it’s tough to assist your clients effectively if you can’t substantiate your statements with facts or if you lack knowledge of those foundational sciences—which you would typically learn by getting certified. 

Frequently asked questions

What qualifications do I need to be a personal trainer?

While there are no across-the-board qualifications, in order to pursue a personal trainer certification you generally need to be at least 18 years old, have a high school degree or equivalent, and have a current CPR/AED certification. Having a passion for health and fitness—along with helping others map and achieve goals—are also benefits.

How long does it take to become a personal trainer?

Most personal trainer certifications take at least a month to complete, though many programs are self-paced and thus can be completed on a more expeditious or slower timeline. Some certifications may take up to six months to fully complete. It may also be a good idea to be in good physical health yourself, so depending on your current state, that can also add some time.

Which certification is best for gym trainers?

Ultimately, every certification is different, but most will provide you with the necessary skills to be able to work at a gym. Taking any of the certifications under Fortune’s ranking will likely enable this, but it is best to check with any potential employer first. National chains, like LA Fitness, for example, have lists of certifications that they recognize for job applicants.