Hello, and welcome to the Trainer Academy NASM vs. NSCA comparison article.

Today we’re going to introduce you to the personal trainer certifications offered by both by offering a contrasting view of what each brings to the table.

In this article, you’ll learn:

The similarities and differences in these two excellent certifications for personal training
Cost and quality of NASM and NSCA
Expectations of study time
Requirements for certification and recertification

These two certifying agencies are considered a gold standard in the fitness industry and have a legacy of great trainers and high esteem in the industry.

Following this article, you will be able to differentiate and choose the best option for you when looking at the NASM and NSCA CPT certs.

Let’s dive in and look at these two amazing personal training certification choices!

NASM vs NSCA: About the Certifications

Both the NASM Certified Personal Trainer and the NSCA Certified Personal Trainer certs are great, but what we want to do is provide some insight that will help you choose the right one for you.

To make this more accurate, we will be dealing with some official statistics as well as providing some anecdotal background into both. That way you can make more informed conclusions about NASM vs NSCA.

Both of these certification organizations rank up at the top of the list along with the likes of the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.

For these certifications, there will be casual prerequisites, such as a high school diploma.

Let’s go over some basic info before we decide which of these is the best personal trainer certificate.

NASM

NASM stands for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and is probably the most popular and well recognized of the main certifying institutions.

NASM has been around since 1987, offering cutting-edge sports science education aimed at improving physical performance.

The NASM certification program ranks as the most popular nationally recognized personal training certification, a statistic we will analyze later. They also have popular certifications focusing on corrective exercise and special populations.

Click here to access the complete NASM CPT Review.

Read next: The Best Nutrition Certifications

NSCA

The National Strength and Conditioning Association, or NSCA, is a legacy institution focused on a deep academic understanding of sports science.

They have been around since 1978, making them almost a decade older than NASM.

NSCA is a non-profit organization that focuses on professional development and research. They are more well-known for their specializations like the NSCA-CSCS, or the certified strength and conditioning specialist.

They may be less popular than NASM, but from an industry peer perspective, they are regarded as one of the pinnacles of excellence in the field of health and fitness. Their NSCA certification is quite a good value.

They are also well-known for their NSCA-CSCS certification, so it’s something to consider if the route you wish to take is toward college athletics and other strength and conditioning fields. This would make it the top personal training certification for someone wishing to receive strength training certifications.

Click here for more info about NSCA CPT.

Check this out: Exercise Science Careers

Accreditation

The first of the many checks and balances you should look at when deciding on certification is accreditation.

Accredited status is granted to only the best and most relevant certifying agencies.

This seal of approval is given to an institution by a commission of professional agencies and experts, thus authenticating it as academically competent.

Accreditation is granted based on the criteria of a certifying agency meeting two fundamental standards.

The first is the content of the curriculum, which is to say the stuff they teach.

The second is the method of delivery and administration, which means how it is taught and managed.

Meeting these two criteria is in the best interest of students and the market in which they will operate as fitness professionals.

There are two main accrediting bodies in the US: the NCCA, or National Commission for Certifying Agencies, and the DEAC, short for the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

Both NASM and NSCA are accredited by the NCCA, which is the most recognized seal of fitness approval.

This means that the personal training certificate comparison doesn’t get differentiated yet, since they both receive the same accreditation.

CertificationAccreditation
NASM Certified Personal TrainerNCCA
NSCA Certified Personal TrainerNCCA

Accreditation will also help you separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

That’s because many not-so-worthy courses and certifications floating around can easily trap you and your hard-earned dollars with brilliant marketing and sales strategies.

But at the end of the day, you are left with a qualification that doesn’t even register professionally and may be based on incorrect or outdated curriculum content.

It is, therefore, important to make accreditation the first thing you look out for.

Check out the links below for the current price, and more details.

An important read: How To Become A Personal Trainer

Cost of Study Materials

The personal trainer certification costs associated with each certification and its study resources is another huge factor that could potentially influence your decision.

When it comes to cost, the dollar value can easily shift your perspective when weighed up against the content quality.

So let’s look at what you can expect to pay for each cert.

Package TierCost (NSCA)Cost (NSCA) w/ membershipCost (NASM)
1Exam ($435)Exam ($300)Self Study ($799)
2Digital Package ($193)Digital Package ($144)Self Study Premium ($1099)
3Essential Package ($290.70)Essential Package ($240.30) Guided Study ($1124)
4Essential Plus ($511)Essential Plus ($455)All-Inclusive ($1539)

Overall, NSCA is the cheaper option, with the most expensive package and exam combination coming in at $946 in total.

NASM’s All-inclusive package is $1539, making it significantly pricier.

On the cheaper end of the scale, NSCA wins again with the exam only coming in at $300 and the optional Digital package for an additional $144, bringing the total to $444.

This actually makes it one of the cheapest personal training certifications you can get in the whole industry.

In contrast, NASM’s self-study option goes for $799.

NSCA has an interesting caveat of pricing being based on your membership status.

Membership is an annual fee that unlocks discounts like the ones indicated and well a host of other features, resources, and opportunities within the NSCA academic ecosystem.

The membership tiers are Student, Professional, and CPI, going for $65, $120, and $349 per year respectively.

In our opinion, membership is well worth it when you consider the numerous benefits.

At face value, NSCA seems like a better deal, but the cost of something is only justified by the quality and value it brings, so let’s take a look at that.

Check out the current price of each certification by clicking the links below.

An informative piece: The Best Personal Trainer Certifications

Quality of Study Materials

Your ability to adequately and appropriately prepare for your final exam is the ultimate goal with any certification.

That all hinges on your diligence and dedication to learning, but at the same time, the resources you have access to will be a major determining factor.

We will take a look at the study options for NASM vs. NSCA and see which one has the best quality in terms of study materials.

For this to be more clear, each will be scored out of 10, so let’s take a look shall we:

NASM Study Material Breakdown

Self-studySelf-study premiumGuided-studyAll-inclusive
100% Online Course100% Online Course100% Online Course100% Online Course
NCCA Accredited Exam NCCA Accredited Exam NCCA Accredited Exam NCCA Accredited Exam
NASM-CPT Digital TextbookNASM-CPT Digital TextbookNASM-CPT Digital TextbookNASM-CPT Digital Textbook
Content Learning VideosContent Learning VideosContent Learning VideosContent Learning Videos
Exercise Video LibraryExercise Video LibraryExercise Video LibraryExercise Video Library
Practice Exams & QuizzesPractice Exams & QuizzesPractice Exams & QuizzesPractice Exams & Quizzes
Exercise Coaching DemonstrationsExercise Coaching DemonstrationsExercise Coaching Demonstrations
Job Guarantee Job Guarantee Job Guarantee
One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus
10-Week, Instructor-Led Course (Optional/Flexible) 10-Week, Instructor-Led Course (Optional/Flexible)
Certification Exam RetestCertification Exam Retest
NASM-CPT Hardcopy TextbookNASM-CPT Hardcopy Textbook
Access to Fitness Experts Access to Fitness Experts
Business Accelerator Business Accelerator
NASM EDGE CPT Exam Prep
NASM EDGE CPT Exam Prep
Recertify for Life

NSCA Study Material Breakdown

Exam OnlyDigital PackageEssential PackageEssential Plus Package
NSCA ExamNSCA ExamNSCA ExamNSCA Exam
Content Description E-BookContent Description E-BookContent Description E-Book
200+ Practice Questions200+ Practice Questions200+ Practice Questions
Essentials of Personal Training, 2edEssentials of Personal Training, 2ed
Exercise Technique Manual, 3ed

From this, we can already tell that the NASM certified personal trainer course offers way more options in terms of study resources.

Both do have four available packages to choose from, but NASM has a wider variety of prep material.

For that reason, we will give NASM an 8/10 rating while NSCA comes in with a 6.5/10 rating.

It’s also important to mention that NSCA’s study materials come separate from the purchase of the exam, while NASM includes exam registration in all their packages.

NSCA also has a membership structure that affects the pricing of its packages, which we’ll get into next.

To ensure you get value from your choice of either NASM or NSCA, Trainer Academy is offering its premium MVP study packages, which have become a major gamechanger for lots of personal trainers.

Using the MVP study Packages gives you a 50% reduction in study time due to the use of study techniques like Spaced repetition flashcards, Cheat-sheet, Muscle coloring books, Mnemonics, etc. to not only assimilate but retain information.

Not also forgetting our exclusive 100% money-back guarantee offer if you didn’t ace the final exams in flying colors.

You can opt for the NASM MVP Study Package or the NSCA MVP Study Package today; the choice is yours.

Read more: The Best Group Fitness Certifications

Exam Layout and Passing Grade

Once you’ve decided on the cert you want and the study package that will get you certified, the next important thing is to analyze the exam and figure out its structure, layout, and expectations.

To do that insightfully, we will be looking at the question count, section, by section weighting, and the pass mark required for success.

Let’s take a look at the weighting of each section first. Each exam has an uneven distribution of what areas of the curriculum it focuses on, with some having more significance than others in the exam.

Knowing this will help you form a more precise study strategy. Let’s look at these personal trainer certification exams and personal trainer testing differences that may exist between these two.

NASM

NASM has six sections, referred to as domains in the exam and course content.

We’ve ordered them from least to most focused.

Weight in ExamSection
10%Professional Development and Responsibility
12% Client Relations and Behavioral Coaching
17%   Basic and Applied Sciences and Nutritional Concepts
18% Assessment
21%Program Design
22% Exercise Technique and Training Instruction

You can tell from this chart that Assessment, programming, and technique, and instruction are the highest scored domains.

These are also the most practical aspects of personal training.

Focusing on these during your studies is not only essential for exam success but is the basis for a successful career.

To get familiar with the exam layout and structure, the free NASM Study guide and NASM practice test come highly recommended.

NSCA

NSCA CPT has four sections in the exam, with the main focus being on the practical aspects of fitness instruction.

This is a common and welcome trend in CPT certifications.

The weighting of program design and exercise technique eclipses the other two sections, so it’s great to primarily focus on these areas.

Weight in ExamSection
11%Organization and Administration
18%Testing and Evaluation
35%Program Design
36%Exercise Technique

NASM’s exam has 120 questions, which you will need to complete in 2 hours. NSCA consists of 125 multiple-choice questions to be completed in 2 and a half hours.

Both exams can be taken at physical venues or via live remote proctor as an online test.

One glaring difference is how the overall exam is scored. For NASM, you simply work through all the 120 questions until you’ve completed the test or time runs out.

The same thing goes for NSCA, except you will be scored based on your success in the two exam segments. Each segment is basically a mini-exam in that you have to pass both separately for overall success.

Doing really well in one and failing the other is an automatic fail.

On the same token, failing one section means you will only have to redo that section.

Both NASM and NSCA require a minimum grade of 70% to pass the exam.

A value-loaded piece: The Best Fitness Certifications

Exam Difficulty and Pass Rate

Knowing your way around the exam content of either cert is important, but added to that is understanding the degree of challenge.

Both NASM and NSCA are known to give candidates a run for their money, but not in a prohibitive way.

All it takes is a reasonable amount of planning and focus when it comes to exam prep, and you should be fine on the personal trainer exams.

We’ve gathered data on the current pass rate statistics of each to give you a better understanding of the difficulty.

CertificationPass Rate
NASM65%
NSCA72%

We can see that NASM has the most difficult exam based on pass rate stats. NSCA is much more lenient to candidates, while still providing a great certification and academic experience.

Some would argue that a higher pass rate is indicative of lower quality since the challenge aspect and success barrier of a difficult exam is considered a quality control.

It depends on how you look at it.

Become part of those to achieve a 99% pass rate by using the MVP Study packages especially, if you do not have much time to study tonnes of textbooks.

Click on the links below to get started.

Retake Fee

If success is not achieved during your first run-through, you will have the option of a retake.

Retakes are normally conducted upon failure by submitting a request and then sometimes waiting for a cool-down period to lapse.

We will often also be required to pay a retake fee as an administrative cost.

Let’s look at what each cert requires:

CertificationRetake Fee
NASM Certified Personal Trainer$250 (member) $385 (non-member)
NSCA Certified Personal Trainer $340 (member) $475 (non-member)

As mentioned, the NSCA exam is based on your success in two separate sections. Passing both sections individually is necessary for overall success.

So when it comes to doing a retake, you’ll find that you might only have to redo one section.

We also see how the membership benefits affect the retake fee for NSCA. 

Overall, the NSCA retake policy is more taxing than NASM’s, which only asks for $250 to redo the test.

Learn more: The Best Health Coach Certifications

Certification Popularity and Recognition

While this isn’t necessarily a popularity contest, the level of interest and appeal a cert has within the fitness community, and the industry as a whole is a safe indicator of quality.

It also provides insight into the potential for your career to start and grow since popularity and recognition show us two important things.

They show us that it is highly recommended by trainers, your peers in the industry, and it also shows that it is preferred by the market and prospective employers.

To capture the popularity and recognition in a quantifiable way, we’ve chosen two statistics: Google search data and enrollment figures.

CertificationEnrollment FiguresSearch Data
NASM22,3041600
NSCA1,529 50

From the figures, we can see that NASM is miles ahead in terms of popularity.

It is THE most popular certification of the main ones featured in the world of fitness.

NASM has the highest enrollment and search queries between these two personal training courses and even when compared to all other qualifications in the same category.

This broad appeal has a lot to do with the marketing strategies NASM employs as well as the fundamental quality of its services.

NSCA is a non-profit organization, and its focus is more towards elevating the academic and scientific standards in sports science as opposed to generating candidate leads.

Ultimately, both of these certifications exude quality and prestige, but the NASM name has a more familiar ring to it, which will provide more opportunity overall.

Know more on: The Best Strength and Conditioning Certifications

Expected Study Time

The amount of time it typically takes to study and take an exam will vary from person to person.

We all have unique commitments in life, and the amount of time we get to distribute across all those will vary.

For some looking into a career as a professional fitness instructor, getting certified might be the first consideration straight out of high school with no other serious responsibilities.

For others, getting certified might coincide with a pre-existing job or academic career, meaning there’s less time to give.

Family and social commitments also come into play along with one’s general ability to manage time.

Each certification allows its candidates a certain time limit in which to study and take the exam.

This is known as the enrollment period and is often a generous amount of time in which one can complete their prep under normal circumstances.

CertificationEnrollment Period
NASM 6 months
NSCA 4 months

NSCA has the narrowest enrollment window of the two, coming in at just four months. NASM is more lenient and falls in line with the more common enrollment of six months.

The average amount of time the typical certification candidate would need for a reasonable amount of prep is between 10 – 12 weeks. 

Both certs allow for that to happen, but the more flexible six-month period NASM offers wins out.

Click here to access these study materials and save cost and time.

Average Income

It’s super important to know what your income will look like as a certified trainer, or with any career for that matter.

That’s why we’re going to take you through some facts and figures and provide some insight into the earning potential each cert brings.

We will look at the average annual income and try and provide some nuance behind the figures presented.

  

NSCA edges out NASM as the top earner for certified trainers.

This stat surprised us if we’re honest. So far, NASM has presented as the more attractive option in a majority of categories.

It’s also the more popular of the two certifications, so why is it a lower income earner.

We estimate that it all depends on the level of trainer experience.

NASM is popular with the newbies, fledgling trainers just starting and dipping their toes in the game.

These trainers are typically in the lower-income bracket, working as gym employees or start-up fitness entrepreneurs.

The popularity of NASM’s cert means it is saturated with lower-income trainers.

NSCA, on the other hand, is an institution popular in the fitness fraternity with seasoned veterans.

Expert trainers and sports scientists all hold NSCA in high esteem. It may not be popular by numbers, but the few who do recognize and prefer NSCA tend to be professionals with some skin in the game.

This translates to trainers and coaches in higher employment positions or more established businesses. Looking at it that way, it makes sense that NSCA nets a higher average income.

Similar read: Personal Trainer Salary

Primary Focus of Certification

Understanding the direction a certifying agency takes with its curriculum and course content will help you choose the best one for your individual career aspirations.

In the case of NASM and NSCA, we see two institutions with very similar areas of focus.

NASM, and its proprietary OPT model, focus on strength and conditioning for performance enhancement that improves general function and corrects dysfunction.

NSCA is a strength and conditioning-centric organization and even has it in its name.

Both of these offer a similar path in that regard.

If you are interested in a specialized field of personal training programs, NASM has niches carved out to suit your career choices.

Check them out in the links below:

CEU Requirements

Very few certifications are lifetime qualifications.

You will often need to renew your certification once every few years.

To be eligible for this process, you will need to submit CEUs or continuing education units, also known as continuing education credits.

These units are time-based credits earned by engaging in supplementary academic activities, enrolling and passing different certifications, or attending relevant workshops, all of which are offered by providers approved by the certifying agency in question.

Aside from providing the required amount of credits, you may also need to pay a recertification fee; let’s take a quick look:

Certification CEU RequirementsRecertification Period
NASM20 hours2 years
NSCA60 hours3 years

NSCA has the most stringent recertification policy overall because even though you have a whole year extra to recertify in comparison, you also need 3 times the amount of CEUs as NASM.

The recertification fees for NSCA are between $60-$90 for non-members, and between $35 – $65 for non-members.

NASM recertification costs $99, making it the more expensive option.

Certification Takeaway

CertificationAccreditationLowest CostPass RateBase Retake feeAverage SalaryCEU RequirementsRecertification Period
NASMNCCAExam only ($435)65%$250$44,61920 hours2 years
NSCANCCASelf Study ($799)72%$340 $45,50960 hours3 years

Whether you choose NASM or NSCA, both are undeniably great as certifying agencies. The legacy and heritage of NSCA and the attention to progressive professionalism of NASM all have something to offer the modern PT.

Objectively speaking, we would be more inclined to encourage trainers towards the NASM option, simply because it is a more welcoming approach when starting your personal training business.

NSCA is one we would recommend if you are already an experienced trainer, looking to add another top-tier credential to your title.

The debate will rage on as we compare the PES from NASM vs CSCS from NSCA. but that’s for a different article.

Remember to click on the links to get more info from the following Vs articles.

Once more, a click on our detailed reviews below will keep you well informed on the personal training industry.

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