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Certificate vs. Certification: Which Do You Need to Become a Personal Trainer?

You’ve always been the one that your friends and family go to when they want to lose five pounds or start a new exercise routine. You’ve decided to take your passion and funnel it into a future career as a personal trainer. You’ve heard terms like certificates and certifications as you’ve researched your education options. Is there a difference between the two?

There is indeed a difference between a personal training certificate and certification. A certificate refers to an accredited undergraduate or graduate personal training, exercise, or nutrition credential. Certifications are a third-party asynchronous non-accredited badge of sorts that proves course completion.

You may still have questions about what a certificate versus a certification is and which one(s) you need to get on the track to a rewarding career as a personal trainer. Ahead, we’ll talk about just those topics, so keep reading.

Personal Training Certificate/Degree vs. Certification – How They Differ

Understanding the differences between a personal training certificate versus certification will influence the next steps you take in your college career. Without further ado then, let’s dive right in.

What Is a Personal Training Accredited Certificate?

A personal training accredited undergraduate certificate is similar to an accredited personal training degree but generally shorter in length. Undergraduate certificates are typically a couple of semesters in length, whereas a degree such as an associate degree is six or more semesters. You’d enroll at a university on an undergraduate level and obtain an accredited credential such as a certificate, associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree.

It usually takes between two and five years to obtain an undergraduate bachelor’s degree and up to two additional years for a graduate degree such as a master’s degree, but that depends on which college you enroll in.

Online colleges such as Bryan University can fast-track your college education so you can enter the working world faster.

Bryan U’s Associate Degree in Applied Exercise and Fitness or AFIT program is ideal for those who want to become self-employed personal trainers or work in rehabilitation centers, corporate fitness centers, and fitness facilities or gyms.

You’ll sharpen communication skills, writing, presenting, and speaking skills so you can be an effective communicator with your fitness clients.

This program also teaches you how to manage fitness finances and develop a functional fitness business from the ground up.

Through the AFIT program at Bryan University, you’ll graduate with knowledge in gym operations, personal training programs for specialty populations, cardio-respiratory programming, nutrition and diet (including weight management), and group exercise instruction.

Some students even obtain a Bachelor of Science Degree in Exercise Science, Fitness, and Nutrition Management after completing the Bryan U AFIT program.

What Is a Personal Training Certification?

Next, let’s examine what a personal training certification is.

A certification is offered as an asynchronous course by a third party. Upon earning your certification–usually by passing an exam–you can add it to your resume, as having a cert proves that you’re an expert in that area.

Certifications are non-accredited, and they are not degrees. That said, you can usually obtain third-party certification when enrolled in a personal training school and earning your undergraduate or graduate degree since employers value certifications.

Personal training certifications don’t last forever, with the average lifespan of a cert being two years. From there, you can always decide to recertify to keep your certification(s) current. This is something we’ll discuss more later in this post.

Should You Pursue a Personal Training Certificate or Certification?

While your educational choices are your own, we recommend an accredited personal training certificate and degree. When you enroll in an online personal training school such as Bryan University, you can work your way towards earning certifications while obtaining your degree.

Even better is that you can save money while you do this. The Bryan U AFIT program includes the cost to pursue your National Academy of Sports Medicine or NASM certification in your program tuition.

Should you enroll in our AFIT program while holding a NASM cert, then the costs that would have covered obtaining the certification go towards course credit instead. Further, your program tuition includes courseware, technology such as a webcam for interacting with instructors, and books.

Here’s another reason to pursue your personal training certificate first. Most organizations that offer personal training certifications require that those applying be at least 18 years old. Bryan University welcomes students as young as 17.

While you wait the year to start racking up personal training certifications, you won’t be idly spending your time. Instead, you’ll be actively working towards making your personal trainer career dreams a reality!

NASM vs. ACSM vs. ACE vs. ISSA – Which Personal Trainer Certifications Do You Need?

NASM is but one of many acronyms you’ll come across as you begin researching personal trainer certifications. This section will go one by one and review what each cert is so you can decide which ones to add to your resume.


For more than 30 years, NASM has been a leading name in fitness and personal training certifications. You won’t find a more popular academy of its type than this one, so if there’s one cert to prioritize, it should be NASM.

NASM’s personal trainer certification requires a six-part instruction and then a final exam. The exam includes 120 questions. Of the 120, up to 20 questions are considered research questions that have no bearing on your final grade.

To pass the two-hour exam, you must earn a score of at least 70.

According to NASM, it takes about four weeks to obtain a certification. Once you have a NASM cert, it’s only good for two years. Then you’ll have to recertify, which entails spending 20 contact hours on NASM-certified educational units or CEUs.

Some online colleges, such as Bryan University, include the cost of this certification exam and preparation for the exam included as part of the Personal Training Accredited Undergraduate Certificate program.


The American College of Sports Medicine or ACSM offers personal trainer certifications as well. The ACSM certifies clinical exercise psychologists, exercise physiologists, and group exercise instructors as well.

As was the case with NASM, ACSM requires you to take an exam and score a passing grade to become certified. The exams are graded as low as 200 and as high as 800 with a required score of at least 550 to pass.

According to ACSM’s website, the first-time passing rating of 1,892 personal training candidates tested in 2020 was 69 percent. The year prior, the first-time pass rate for 3,282 candidates was 64 percent.

The ACSM certification lasts for three years compared to NASM’s two. ACSM does require recertification. You can opt to take a certificate exam again as one way to recertify.


The American Council on Exercise or ACE certification is accredited through the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or NCCA but is still not a certificate or a degree.

The exam you must take to earn your personal trainer cert through ACE includes 125 questions and then 25 experimental questions that don’t influence your overall score.

You have three hours to take the exam. If you receive a passing grade, then you’ll earn your certification, which lasts for two years. By obtaining 20 hours of CEUs as approved by ACE as well as passing a live skill check and maintaining a CPR/AED certificate, you can recertify.


The International Sports Sciences Association or ISSA is yet a fourth option for a personal trainer certification.

ISSA allows you to resubmit parts of the exam you failed at no extra cost to you. Should you need to resubmit parts of the test for a third time (or more) though, you would incur a fee.

The ISSA personal training certification lasts for two years. With continuing education credits, you can recertify.

How to Get an Online Personal Training Certification or Accredited Certificate/Degree

Are you ready to take the next steps and get your personal training goals underway? Bryan University’s accredited certificate and degree programs will set you on the path to success. They allow you to earn both accredited certificates and degrees, plus you’ll earn several third-party certifications along the way.

Our accelerated programs slash the time it usually takes to earn personal training certifications or certificates. With our tuition lock guarantee, your tuition rate never increases. In fact, it decreases as you spend more time in the program. Graduates of Bryan U also receive our job search assistance services that can help you sharpen your resume, network with potential job leads, and find opportunities to work as a personal trainer or fitness professional

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