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Types of Personal Training Certifications Online

By, Justin Harper EdD, MA, CPT, PES, Bryan University Program Director for the Fitness and Exercise Science Department

If you have a passion for fitness like I do and are looking for ways to begin a career as a certified personal trainer, you’ve come to the right place. Online certified personal trainer programs are more accessible than ever and combined with the right skills and knowledge, you can turn your passion for fitness into a full-time career.

There are many types of personal training certification programs online, including those offered by NASM, ACSM, NSCA, ACE, and ISSA. These organizations offer online certification training directly or through universities and colleges as part of degree and non-degree programs.  However, not all programs offer online exams.  

personal trainer with client on exercise bike

Selecting the personal trainer certification program that’s right for you depends on your goals.

  • Do you want to work in a gym?
  • Do you hope to have a corporate fitness career or start your own business?
  • Do you want to earn a degree and work in fitness education?
  • Would you prefer working with individuals one-on-one or with groups?
  • Would you prefer working with athletes?

To get you on the right path, let’s start with some things you need to know.

Which Online Certified Personal Training Programs are Available

Some popular certified personal trainer and fitness certification programs available online are offered by:

  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
  • The American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  • International Sports Science Association (ISSA)

Let’s explore each one:

National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)

The National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer program can be done completely online, either from their site or through a more comprehensive program offered by a college or educational institution like Bryan University. Bryan’s degree and non-degree programs include this training, and preparation for the certification is included in the curriculum of the Personal Trainer Undergraduate Certificate program. One exam attempt is paid for by the university on behalf of students.

The NASM-CPT has an Optimum Performance Training™ (OPT™) component that allows trainers to easily customize their training programs to suit the needs of different clients.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

The American College of Sports Medicine offers Personal Trainer, Group Exercise Instructor, and Exercise Physiologist (EP) certifications. ACSM-EPs require a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. Those who are rigorously pursuing higher educational opportunities can also aspire to be ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist®, which requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree to qualify. ACSM offers an online prep course for the certification exam.

Students who choose an Associate degree in Applied Exercise and Fitness (AFIT) at Bryan University can prepare to take the exam for either an ACSM or NASM Group Exercise Certification as part of their program. One exam attempt for either certification is paid for by the university on behalf of students.

National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

The National Strength and Conditioning Association also offers an online fitness certification program package. In addition to CPT training, the NSCA offers Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) and Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator® (TSAC-F®) certifications. The CSCS® certification program is focused on athletes and requires a bachelor’s degree from an approved college or university. Graduates of Bryan University’s Bachelor of Science Degree in Professional Fitness Training and Exercise Science can take the CSCS® certification exam.

If you are looking to work with only the general population, a CPT may be all that you need, but if you are considering working with athletes or with adults who compete in marathons and other team and individual competitions, these additional certifications and education are needed.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE)

The American Council on Exercise, ACE, offers several certifications, including Personal Trainer, Group Fitness, Health Coach, Medical Exercise Specialist. As with other programs, they offer online programs and exams and have their own proprietary program, called the ACE Integrated Fitness® Model.

International Sports Science Association (ISSA)

The International Sports Science Association offers personal trainer certifications and several specializations, such as bodybuilding and powerlifting. The ISSA is accredited by DEAC, The Distance Education Accreditation Commission.

What Skills an Online Certified Personal Trainer Program Covers

Online Certified Personal Training (CPT) Programs differ by provider, but as an example, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM-CPT) program includes the following concepts:

  • Professional responsibility
  • Managing your client relationships
  • Sciences and nutrition
  • Properly assessing a client’s fitness level
  • Helping clients with behavior changes
  • How to train your clients in proper exercise technique
  • How to customize a program for your clients
Exercise clients on spinning bikes at a gym

A CPT is not a doctor, so there are limitations to what you can and should do as a trainer. A solid CPT program can teach you how to properly conduct a fitness assessment within specified guidelines. This helps you determine the areas that the client needs to work on to achieve the level of fitness they are striving for within reasonable expectations. A CPT program will also help you learn techniques to help your clients change behaviors that stand in the way of their success.

The NASM CPT program also provides information on how to train a client for a specific purpose, such as flexibility, balance, speed, or agility. You will also learn concepts for cardiovascular fitness and resistance training. Often, CPT programs include information about how to approach your career in personal fitness, which can be helpful to you in the long run.

Online Certified Personal Trainer Program Accreditation – Know Before You Buy

If you’re interested in a career as a personal trainer, you will want to choose an accredited program, meaning that an oversight organization has checked out the content of the program to ensure that it’s based on sound principles and covers relevant topics.

Gyms and fitness centers want to hire qualified people who understand how to properly train individuals of different fitness levels and ages. Individuals who are certified can help prevent injuries caused by improper techniques or lack of ability. Not everyone has the level of fitness to complete specific exercises.

There are multiple accrediting bodies, but one of the most well-known is the NCCA. Check the NCCA directory to see if the certified personal training program you are interested in is NCCA-accredited. For example, you can select “Fitness and Wellness” to show accredited CPT certification programs.

Qualifications and Time Commitment for an Online CPT Program

To qualify to take a CPT exam, you must have a high school diploma or GED, a CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) certification, and an AED certification. Some fitness certifications that go beyond a CPT designation require a degree, and employers generally prefer those with higher levels of skills and credentials. This is food for thought as you are deciding whether to do a standalone program or one that is part of a college or university program.

Most online CPT programs can be completed in just a few months. In fact, some require that you complete the program and exam within a specified timeframe. For example, at Bryan University, we offer a Personal Trainer Undergraduate Certificate (PTUC). This comprises the first 30 credits of an associate degree while preparing you for the NASM-CPT. Once you complete the PTUC certificate and CPT certification, you become qualified to pursue an employment position.

Costs – Knowing What to Expect

Stand-alone CPT programs can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars. Some programs include exam costs, while others charge a separate fee. College and university programs are part of a larger educational investment.

Look carefully at the program you select to make sure you understand what fees will be charged beyond the course and study materials. It is also wise to think of the long-term costs of re-certification. For example, programs vary in the length of time between re-certifications (often 2 or 3 years) and the number of continuing education credits required for re-certification. Get a clear understanding of these facts before you decide.

Who Hires Certified Personal Trainers

There are many workplace opportunities for CPTs, but among the most common are gyms and fitness centers, including corporate fitness centers. Some careers that are popular among CPTs are gym staff members, nutrition store associates, and fitness and wellness coordinators.

Students who choose to further their education to an associate or bachelor’s degree in addition to their CPT certification often have additional career paths available to them such as management roles, strength and conditioning coaching positions, and rehab or mental health center roles. Alternatively, you may decide to have your own business.

Taking a Certified Personal Trainer Course Online through a College or University

In some online college programs, the CPT is included. For example, Bryan University offers a Personal Trainer Undergraduate Certificate (PTUC). This 30-credit program is broader than just CPT and comprises the first year of an associate degree. The Bryan U program integrates NASM principles through an online program with weekly live virtual interaction from highly qualified and certified instructors. This program prepares you well for the NASM exam and includes the cost of the exam. It also forms the foundation of an associate degree if you choose to proceed further.

Also keep in mind that taking an online program through a college or university can be a great choice if you prefer interaction with other students and want experienced instructors who can answer your questions, offer more structure, and provide personalized mentoring to your experience.

Fitness Certification Options Available with a College Degree

Earning an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree from a college or university will open up additional certification opportunities. For example, Bryan University offers an Associate Degree in Applied Exercise and Fitness (AFIT). It includes a NASM-based CPT Certification Course and the cost of the exam, plus a Group Exercise Certification from NASM or ACSM. The cost of either NASM or ACSM certification is paid for by the university. If you choose the AFIT program, your courses will cover all the skills in the Personal Trainer Undergraduate Certificate program, including body sciences, nutrition, how to design fitness programs, behavioral techniques, and sales skills. In addition, you’ll cover:

  • Group exercise
  • Weight management
  • Training for Flexibility
  • Gym operations
  • Business concepts for fitness
  • Communications
Group fitness instruction

If you want to take it a step further, Bryan University also offers a Bachelor of Science in Professional Fitness Training and Exercise Science, which incorporates the NASM-CPT credential, Group Exercise Certification from ACSM or NASM, and the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). The bachelor’s program also incorporates coursework in communications and business, which can be very helpful to those hoping to move into management roles. Both the associate and bachelor’s programs include job search assistance from our career services team.

Though many CPT programs can be completed without a degree, it is helpful to consider what a degree might do for your future career opportunities. If you hope to move into corporate or leadership positions related to fitness, a degree can really make the difference to hiring managers. A bachelor’s degree can also impact your ability to pursue higher-level certifications and give you the confidence and skills you need for planning a solo career.

The are many online Certified Personal Trainer programs to choose from, but it’s important to choose the path that aligns with your career goals. At Bryan University, we pride ourselves in assisting students to identify the educational and certification pathway that best meets their needs and goals. As you explore your options, we invite you to consider the personal training, fitness, and exercise science program options available at Bryan U.

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