If you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer, you might get the impression that one of the main qualifications is the ability to count to 10—as in counting your reps as you sweat through those biceps curls.

Then, after realizing you also can count to 10—and after spending so much time at the gym that you’re considering buying stock in the place—you may think to yourself: “I should become a personal trainer.”

I’ve you’ve seriously considered becoming a certified personal trainer—either for a career change, as a side gig, for personal development, or (for the sadists out there) the opportunity to inflict pain on others—welcome to the alphabet soup of the fitness industry: CPT. ACE. ACSM. NASM. NSCA. CSCS. EP-C. ETC.

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OK, that last one is just “et cetera,” to let you know there are a bunch of other certifications to keep in mind as you pursue that dream of becoming a personal trainer.

The CPT, of course, stands for Certified Personal Trainer, the entry-level certification and a bare minimum for you to get hired in many fitness facilities.

“Most gyms, whether a big-box gym or boutique gym, require certification,” says Mike Fantigrassi, Director of Product Development at the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). “It gives you instant credibility coming into a job.”

Becoming a Trainer: Certifying Bodies

Many organizations with long names certify personal trainers—hence the alphabet soup of acronyms.

Unlike becoming a Certified Financial Planner, which involves a single, nationwide exam administered by a single certifying body, becoming a Certified Personal Trainer involves first choosing the organization through which you’d like to earn your certification.

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The first weeding-out process for many people making that choice is to focus on the organizations accredited by the NCCA, the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. There are well over 100 CPT programs and sets of courses, but only about a dozen are certified by NCCA. Of those, some of the most common and respected programs are NASM, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

That accreditation is important, according to All Together Fitness owner Mike Lindsay, who is certified through NSCA. “You want to get a certification from an accredited organization,” Lindsay says. “They are more recognized and take more than a weekend to study. The certifications cost hundreds of dollars, but they require that you learn a lot of educational material, which is needed to train people properly. If you have adequate knowledge, you can help your clients tremendously. You are going to be much better off on the long run.”

Testing, Testing.

In addition to the ability to count to 10, you may face other prerequisites to take a CPT exam. Often, you have to be 18 years old, have a CPR and AED certification, and have a high school diploma or GED. While some higher-level certifications in the fitness field require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, the CPT does not.

Exams can cost between $350 and $600. Most organizations offer study materials, including printed and online resources and workshops, for an additional fee. Exam preparation time can average nine weeks to six months, depending on your prior knowledge of exercise. “It took three to four months to prepare for the test,” says Kenny Hollaway, co-owner of Pure Endure Fitness in Ft. Myers, FL. “The study materials were challenging and interesting. I never got bored with it.”

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Certifying organizations offer promotional bundles on study materials, workshops and exam fees to lower the cost of becoming a CPT.

Most CPT tests involve much more than just regurgitating facts.

“Our certification program is built on applied knowledge,” says Todd Galati, ACE’s Senior Director of Science and Research. “Our exams are built on the application and analysis levels, built on case studies that are continually asking the person taking the exam to take the knowledge they have gained and apply it to a particular client and situation to provide the most efficient and safe program for that person.”

While many organizations only require passing a multiple-choice test to be certified, the World Instructor Training Schools (WITS), another NCCA-accredited organization, requires both a written examination and a practical examination.

Regardless of which organization you work through, it’s important to supplement passing the test with guidance afterward to help you through the transition period between the test and officially working with clients. “Find a mentor who is knowledgeable and has done well in the field,” Lindsay recommends. “They can help to lead you in the right direction. And, you need to learn and understand sales and marketing and the business of personal training. That is what is going to help you get clients and make money in the business.”

Specialty Personal Training Certifications

For CPTs like Lindsay, the initial certification is just the launching point for more specialized training to serve specific types of clients. “The CPT certification is just the beginning,” Lindsay says. “Next you need to keep increasing your knowledge based on what you would like to specialize in such as older adults or weight loss.”

Galati agrees: “Specialist programs provide a robust, individual education on one specific area of training or one specific population of training so that you can apply all of your personal trainer qualifications and take that and specialize with advanced knowledge to work with unique populations.” ACE has 13 different specializations, including ones that focus on youth, older adults, and cancer patients, along with areas like behavior change and nutrition.

Additional specializations help CPTs to both serve existing clients and attract new ones, points out Francis Neric, ASCM’s National Director of Certification. “Personal trainers who wear multiple hats are going to be the most successful,” Neric says. “The wider your scope of practice, the better.”

Continuing Education

Each of the certifying organizations also requires between 20-60 continuing education credits (CECs) every 2-3 years, and recertification costs vary from $45 to $129. If you do not complete the CECs, you will need to retake the CPT exam to become recertified.

Becoming a CPT also gives you access to periodicals, liability insurance, networking opportunities, and online resources for the fitness professional.

“I get an email each week with an article that is educational and has CECs in it, and a monthly magazine with things that are trending,” Hollaway says. “We reference the online library often.”

The combination of additional specialties and continuing education is critical for a CPT’s continued success. “We view certification as a starting point,” says Fantigrassi, of NASM, which offers 11 areas of specialization. “If you don’t continue to learn and grow as a professional, people will pass you by.”

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